Education or Application?

authentic leadership authority earning leadership experience expert influence leadership management poor leadership poor leadership leading to organizational failures productivity profitability results return on investment supervision Jan 25, 2023
poor leadership leading to organizational failures

In March of 2000, as a 23 year old 250 ton stamping press operator (and carpenter on the side), I applied for and was somehow offered a position implementing the latest and greatest Lean manufacturing initiative the company I was working for was pushing down from the corporate office. I had been working in some capacity for nearly ten years at that point and took more than a fair amount of pride in being willing to outwork most everyone around me. I had done fairly well through high school, in spite of refusing to study or do homework after the first semester of my freshman year, and I had only (lightly) hit college with a stick. Like a ton of really awesome folks I’ve seen over the years, that work ethic played a significant role in me being offered that new position. The challenge was that I had almost no preparation for what I would be expected to do once I accepted - and that was just the first challenge!

In addition to being far less than prepared with whatever requisite skills the interview panel believed I actually had, my primary responsibility in that new position would be getting my coworkers to change the way they had been doing their work for years. Not only did many of them have more years of experience in doing that work than I had being on the planet, my position carried ZERO authority and the process I was working to implement garnered very little support for the facility’s supervisors and managers!

To say I was in over my head would be putting it very mildly… No big deal, it was only a job. Did I mention that my actual first day on that job was my first day back at work after our honeymoon? Yeah, that didn’t add any pressure at all!

All said, I was still expected to produce results. Not just results in how things looked, those results needed to show up through increased productivity and overall profitability. That forced me to devour every resource I could get my hands on that would help me communicate more effectively, earn influence with those folks I needed buy-in from, and eventually lead that particular initiative in a way that achieved positive results. And that really set the tone for the next two decades of my career. In that time, Cindy and I have invested a fortune (literally) into the tools and mentorship we’ve needed to learn to lead effectively - a large part of that investment being at times when we had very little left after paying the mortgage. But just like I had to in my first training position, we always made sure we got a solid return on our investment.

Earlier I mentioned that the guy who was dead last in his medical school’s graduating class is still called DOCTOR. While that’s an accurate statement, I’m guessing you’d be no more excited about seeing him than I would. Our concerns would likely be based on whether or not he could provide us with the results we need… Does he have the ability and/or experience to deliver those results? If we want to have any real hope of identifying and addressing the issues that are killing our business’s profitability, we’ll do well to ask those same questions! Are the individuals or resources we’re depending on capable of producing measurable results? Do they have a proven track record of yielding a measurable return on investment? Or do they just have a certificate on their wall saying they’re allowed to talk about something they’ve never really applied?

Had I not been able to deliver measurable results in the last 15 years I worked in manufacturing, I wouldn’t have had a job in manufacturing! I had no choice but to develop a very clear understanding of the difference between education and application, and that difference is what I’ve seen drive measurable results in areas that far too many people write off as intangible or touchy-feely. But before we begin working through some incredibly specific steps we can each take to capture lost profitability in key areas of our businesses, we need to have a clear understanding of what that application looks like so that’s exactly what we’ll do next!