How to extend your leadership legacy

The size of your funeral will be determined by the weather.

For many of us, this realization is both disheartening and sobering. Our natural tendency is to think we matter, which explains why the words why, meaning and legacy have become an important part of the vocabulary of business leaders in the past decade. Often, when leaders leave, their signature DNA leaves the organization as well. Think of Allied Signal, which quickly lost its execution prowess when legendary CEO Larry Bossidy retired from the company. How can leaders ensure that their legacy in an organization remains when they are gone? For this, we need to turn to the concept of poka yoke.

Poka yoke

A poka yoke is a Japanese term that refers to any mechanism that helps avoid mistakes. Its purpose is to eliminate deviations by preventing, correcting, or drawing attention to human errors as they occur. For example, the key to my car can be removed only when its transmission is fixed in park (P). This poka yoke mechanism ensures that the distracted me never forgets to put the car in park before taking out the keys.

Is it possible to apply the poka yoke principle to modern leadership as well? I think it is, especially in the field of execution power. According to the Harvard Business Reviewarticle “Why Strategy Execution Unravels” (March 2015), a recent survey of more than 400 global CEOs found that executional excellence was the number one challenge facing corporate leaders in Asia, Europe, and the United States, heading a list of some 80 issues, including innovation, geopolitical instability, and top-line growth. Strategy execution matters and I predict it will matter even more in the future. The approach of poka yoke might come to the rescue, giving a simple framework to massively boost your execution power.

Two key elements of a poka yoke device are simplicity and standardization. Think of an electricity plug: It is a simple device (two or more metal prongs that need to go in the same amount of holes) and has an identical design (same plugs and same size, depending on geographical area). What if we could design an execution-power poka yoke based on the same two characteristics: simplicity and standardization?

Simplicity: One goal to rule them all

In Tolkien’s epic story The Lord of The Rings, there were nineteen rings of power in the fantasy world of Middle Earth. Yet there was only One Ring and it was designed to rule them all. Organizations that have a lot of strategic goals generally create a lot of noise and run the risk of watering down their execution power. One of my clients got stuck trying to improve safety performance. Whenever an incident occurred, it was investigated and invariably resulted in adding additional safety rules. This became a ritual, full of sound of fury, yet signifying nothing. In time, its safety rulebook grew until it reached a point where only specialists could make sense of the patchwork of rules. And yet, the safety performance of my client did not improve. Courageously, he and his team decided to do something different: They identified ten critical, life-saving rules and explained, coached and enforced these rules with vigor. These rules became their one and only goal and it happened to be the breakthrough to decrease noise and really improve safety performance. Which one goal, if you would have achieved it right here, right now, would have the biggest impact on your business? For leaders, simplicity often means to focus on this one goal, and make every other goal support this major objective.

Identical design: The Columbus fallacy

In hindsight, when Columbus set sail to explore the New World, he did not know where he was going. Once he arrived in the Americas, he didn’t know where he was and when he returned to Spain, he didn’t know where he had been. The story of Columbus is a fitting metaphor for the way many organizations drift through life. They have vague ideas of where they want to go. They are confused of where they are. And they are clueless about what happened to them in the past. This quagmire is called the Columbus fallacy. In my work with high-performing organizations I have noticed that clarity about cross-functional goals is essential to improve execution power. If you are unclear in this area, things can go horribly wrong.

Recently, the purchasing department of a big corporate client of mine decided to improve cash flow by extending payment terms to its suppliers. An edict was sent to all suppliers with the message that as of now, the new payment terms would be enforced. Little did they realize that many of their suppliers were also clients for other parts of the business. To their dismay they found out that these clients promptly returned the favor by adopting the same unfavorable payment terms in their business as well. This is a typical case of cross-functional myopia caused by lack of identical goal design.

To ensure an identical cross-functional design of corporate goals, a leader has to realize that you will not see how to do it until you see yourself doing it. In other words, a corporate goal becomes meaningful only when it is connected to behaviors. For example, a key behavior to grow the top line of any company is to ensure that every single executive brings in business. By connecting a corporate goal (top-line growth) to a specific identical behavior that applies to all executives (every single executive is accountable to see prospects and clients), cross-functional alignment is ensured and execution power is significantly improved.

Your legacy

The principles of poka yoke gives us a chance to consistently focus on simplicity and identical design to massively improve execution power in our organization. While we cannot influence the weather at our funeral, we can create a legacy and influence our organization by building the mindset of poka yoke. This will help us to extend our reach and influence, not only deep into the organization, but far into the future as well.

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