John Bernard is a consultant, advisor, author and podcaster on Results-Driven State Government Operations. His book, Business at the Speed of Now, was a NY Times bestselling and Inc. Magazine top five rated book.
John’s book, Business at the Speed of Now, masterfully blends an approach that includes not only process improvement but a wider discussion on how to manage and engage to meet today’s economic realities.
Here’s what you will learn in this interview with John Bernard –
- What’s the most critical process to improve?
- Why is it so important for leaders to look at the work they do as a process?
- Why do lean and other initiatives often lack staying power and how do we fix it?
- Where should you focus your efforts if you want to improve performance?
- What do you really need to do to innovate at a much higher rate of speed?
- What’s really standing in the way of making improvements?
What is your best process improvement strategy or tactic that has worked really well for you or your clients?
John: The most critical process of all is the process of managing the enterprise. My experience has been that until leaders understand that, the world of process improvement is foreign to them. If you get leaders to begin to look at the work they do as a process that drives a different frame of thinking, then ultimately management is the mother of all processes.
If you get leaders to begin to look at the work they do as a process that drives a different frame of thinking.
It really sets the framework for all of an organization’s processes, because if management has its process working well, then it connects that to all of the organization’s processes, through measures and a common language. I think ultimately, Bill, what really works well is when you apply the theory of constraints to your management system, to identify the business processes that are least capable or most constraining to what you’re trying to accomplish with your business.
A good management system and process will help you identify, isolate, and prioritize all the constraints in the business, so you can drive your process improvements right at where the primary constraints of the business are. Any business leader will get turned on by that, because that’s where the leverage is.
Bill: I think that’s the big idea I got out of your book, John. In my experience, organizations approach process improvement at a lower level and ignore the enterprise management process itself. While I’ve learned that it’s important to drive process improvement based on achieving results and solving problems that are important to the business, more often than not it’s ignored or loosely coupled. I can see how this focus would provide a more cohesive approach that ties this all together from top to bottom. It provides the driving force and cohesion necessary for sustained success.
John: You know, we’ve seen that again and again where enterprises launch lean initiatives, and about two years in they tend to start to fade out. By about the third year they’re pretty much gone. Largely because there are antibodies in the organization, and the organization goes, “This is strange, why are we doing this? Let’s get rid of it, it looks dangerous.”
There are usually a handful of advocates who were pushing it, and it gets some results. But turn that around and focus those efforts dead on the primary constraints of the business, drive improvement, then all of a sudden LEAN is the coolest thing you ever had, because it’s applied directly to the business.
Any business person—it doesn’t matter whether he likes processes or not—can go, “I like this.”
Bill: I also like how you tied it together with other ideas about doing business in the NOW and the Millennium concepts that speak to the need to empower people to make decisions NOW, keep clients happy, and take the fear away so people don’t need to worry about politics or losing their job. Keeping customers happy is much more important now than it was in the past.
John: I think all of this is increasingly relevant in a mass customization world. The basis of competition is really agility and speed. You can’t have agility and speed unless people who are on the front line have the authority to make decisions, take action, decide and do it without consultation. It changes everything, the whole basis under which we run enterprises.
Bill: It’s really interesting because we’ve all been talking about the need to change to this way of doing business for so long, but few organizations do it. Now we are in a new era and the economic imperative requires it. We’re rewarded if we do it now and keep the client satisfied, but we’re likely going to go out of business if we don’t because there’s someone else who is willing and can.
Be a Leader of Tomorrow ⏤ Today
Get my weekly newsletter designed to bring exciting new insights and strategies that help executives, leaders, and change agents shake up their understanding of what’s possible. You will discover new pathways, make better decisions, and be the forward thinking leader in the room.
How does an organization get started with a Business at the Speed of Now approach? Does it need to start at the top?
John: Unless the leader of the organization is committed, you can only make a certain amount of progress. If you’re a department manager or running a division, or the closer you are to a general management role, or the closer the issue is to the general management of the business, the more you have to align with the most senior executive.
Who is responsible for the selection and operation of the management system but the leaders? Now, most leaders don’t even use that language or think about it that way. One of their primary responsibilities is to design and execute a system for running the enterprise, so it actually sets goals and achieves them.
I think it’s a big stretch for a lot of leaders to begin to reframe what their work is. It has to be driven at the top, ultimately, because there’s no way for someone down in the organization to decide this is how they are going to run the business.
Why should we spend more time thinking about employee engagement?
Bill: There were a lot of good thoughts and concepts in the book that I highlighted. One of the quotes from the book is, “If you want to improve performance, you should spend more time thinking about employee engagement.” While I get the connection, I’ve never heard those two ideas tied so closely together. Can you talk a little bit about that idea?
John: The people who know the most about any given process are the people who work in it. The key to being able to be agile and to be able to innovate at a much higher rate of speed is to have the people who do the work actually improve the work. That’s certainly a fundamental tenet of any process improvement work, but it ought to be that the people who do the work know it best and are the ones who should drive the improvements.
That said, the employee, to engage and to take responsibility for that process, has to have quite a number of things in place, which I talk about in the book. They’re sort of the inverse of the seven deadly management sins. They have to know where the business is going. They have to know how what they do connects to that.
They have to know what they’re accountable for. They have to know how to solve problems. They have to have the authority to solve problems. There’s just a set of things they need to be able to do their work. That’s how it ends up redefining management. If you want people to be engaged, if you want them to drive improvement, management has a whole lot of work it’s got to do before the employees are able to do that.
That’s the basic redefinition of management I talk about in the book. It used to be management’s job was to make decisions.
Now management’s job is to make sure everything is in place so their employees make the right decisions.
Is the best thing you can do to engage your people as a manager is to listen to their ideas and help them implement them?
Bill: That’s a great thought, John. Any final thoughts you’d like to leave with the readers?
John: I think the essential nature of improving businesses is the implementation of a lot of ideas. I hear that said all the time—I ask this question— “Is the best thing you can do to engage your people as a manager is to listen to their ideas and help them implement them?”
Everybody always says yes, and my response back to that is therein lies the problem. You as managers don’t have time to do all that. You have to get out of their way. You have to set everything up so they can actually implement their own ideas. If you do that, then you can start to have employees implement five ideas a year, ten ideas a year, or 20 ideas a year.
Toyota implements 70 ideas per employee per year. Those innovations cannot be done through your manager. The innovations have to be implemented by the people who do the work itself.
Bill: Those statistics really hit me hard when I read them in the book. You’re right. Everyone talks about it, but it’s rarely done. I think the whole fundamental idea there is management needs to get out of people’s way and empower them to implement those ideas. That seems to be the real sticking point for so many organizations.
John: Yes, and they don’t know what that means. It’s not a naïve empowerment. It’s not abdication. You can’t just say, “Hey, I’ll get out of your way, go make something cool happen,” and people will go do it. Management has a lot of work to do. I think therein is the problem, is that it is easy to be lazy as a manager.
It’s easy to be lazy in anything and not want to do the hard work. But it is hard work to be an effective manager, especially hard work to run an enterprise. You have to be willing to put your head into the details of how a system works and communicate expectations you have of people.
A lot of managers don’t want to do that.
Bill: I agree, John. I think you have presented some very powerful ideas today and in your book that could have a profound impact on the way we conduct business. Thank you for sharing your time and ideas with us today.
John: I’m glad you enjoyed the book, Bill, because the ideas in it, I think, go well beyond just ideas. I think they’re essential to our economy, they’re essential to our way of doing business. We’re applying the concepts of the book in government very heavily, which is quite a surprise to me!
(Editor’s Note: This interview was initially published for the 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success interview series in 2012.)
© Bill Fox and FORWARD THINKING WORKPLACES, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bill Fox and FORWARD THINKING WORKPLACES with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.