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Executive Leadership – Embracing the Dualism of Production AND Innovation

Mike HobanEarlier this month the Wall Street Journal published an article about GE’s decision to re-engineer its vaunted and long-established performance review process. That move is an acknowledgement of the need for organizations and their senior executives to embrace both the “art” and the “science” of running an enterprise.

both right brain and left brainArt, in this case, refers to the often chaotic, unpredictable, trial-and-error, creative, innovative, fast-failure-within-limits-is-OK approach to developing and bringing to market new products and services. The science part of the equation refers to the aspirational focus on producing defect-free products, services and transactions. Six Sigma; black belt practices; the quest for flawless and predictable execution; taking variability out of processes; standardization—these are the hallmarks of the scientific approach to operations.

While at first blush there might seem to be a dramatic dichotomy of assumptions and operating principles with this “art” and “science” (novelist C.P. Snow published a widely discussed and debated essay on “the two cultures” in the late 1950s) the relationship between them is more accurately viewed as more like yin and yang. That is, they should be thought of as complimentary instead of being in opposition to each other. They form a duality for success for organizations and the leaders who are able to simultaneously understand and navigate both world views.

The practical nature of the distinction

This might all sound a bit mystical or transcendental—it is not. Toyota is another example of successfully executing on this duality. The Toyota Production System (TPS) aims at perfection in the manufacturing side of the business (science) and the Prius, launched in 1997, is the result of the creative, innovative risk-taking process (art). Toyota has been able to do both. According to the article about GE, the company wants to remake itself into a faster, more nimble, more agile company with regards to new product development. That requires more risk taking, more prototyping. It’s about being okay with not getting it right the first time or maybe even the second time. That’s the element of art. This from a company that has been a leader in embracing Six Sigma quality, the element of science.

The Six Sigma approach, of course, means improving processes (especially in manufacturing) to aim at producing no more than 3.4 defects per million occurrences (99.99966% error free). That requires seeking the “one best way” to producing a widget through taking variability out of the process, thereby eliminating potential sources of error. It focuses on efficiency, preciseness and predictability, whether the producer is a machine or a human. It was no accident that industrial engineering was called “scientific management” by Fredrick Taylor when he produced his seminal book by that name in 1911.

And focusing on defect-free products is a most worthy goal. We all want to buy a car made with Six Sigma precision, right? We want no problems, no recalls. But what if that perfectly made car is ugly or truly boring or has features we don’t want or is too pricey? A product that no one desires and that no one buys cannot be considered a success even if it’s perfectly made. Who wants to buy a Six Sigma pet rock? A Six Sigma buggy whip? A Six Sigma pair of M.C. Hammer pants?

When art meets science

So the yin of “science” in production does not alone bring success. That’s where the yang of “art” comes in. Imagineering (as Disney likes to call it). Encouraging and harvesting “What if?” wild and crazy ideas. Experimenting. Failing fast and learning from what does not work. It’s messy and is fraught with variability and even serendipity. It’s the antithesis of the orderly scientific way of production. Yet, like in the Tao, the two seemingly opposites complement each other to create wholeness.

Interesting, perhaps, but so what?

Here’s the so what...Organizations that recognize the need to cultivate both sides of the dualism—however you want to frame it as yin/yang; art/science; left-brain/right-brain—to produce products and services that are both in demand and which are well-crafted need senior leaders who are nimble enough to be competent and confident in both worlds.

While the scientific approach serves the production side of the business and the art approach serves the new product development, sales and marketing sides of the business, at some point near the top of the organizational house those very different approaches and operating principles come together at the same table. The need for a strategic and enterprise view rather than dissonant and disparate voices representing art and science chimneys requires leaders who can understand, engage and add value to both the yin and the yang of the business.

Implications at the executive level

An executive monthly or quarterly review meeting might include items on the agenda covering both production and quality metrics/initiatives and new product development updates. The questions and the conversations will be very different: one is about probability thinking and the other about possibility thinking. However, both reviews will likely focus on milestones, mobilizing resources, customer requirements, issues of cost and budget. Rigor of thought and of leadership will be required for both, despite the difference of frameworks.

Many years ago, quality guru Joe Juran suggested that managers need to be multi-lingual: conversant in the languages of the shop floor, of production and of money. Similarly, today’s senior executives need to be conversant in the language of art and also of science. Companies like GE recognize the need to ensure systems and processes (like the performance review system) support this dualism. But it also requires individual leaders to think differently about the enterprise and it will not likely come easy for many who are highly invested in the scientific (production) approach as being the only legitimate approach.

Mike Hoban is a U.S.-based senior consultant for DDI. He’s just back from Asia where he led DDI’s Hong Kong/South China consulting team for a year and a half.

Posted: 22 Jun, 2016,
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