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Pat O'Toole's Dos and Don'ts of Process Improvement: DO (or is it Dont?) Lead by Example

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Successful organizations share a common commitment to clearly define and implement organizational improvement. Learn the importance of senior management's commitment to both documenting and following the processes that ensure an organization's improvement.
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#13: DO (or is it Don't?) Lead by Example

In fifth grade you learned that "heteronyms" are words that are spelled the same but are pronounced differently and have different meanings. A couple of examples cleverly housed in a single sentence are:

  • The wind whipped the flag and made it wind around the flagpole.

  • The bow-legged man made an awkward bow as the king passed.

  • My wife and I had a very nice time during our vacation in Nice.

Now, re-read the title of this article and mentally determine the current state of your senior management's support. Does senior management carry the banner and lead the troops, or, like a lead sinker, does it drag down the effort with its glacial decision-making and financial inertia?

Most process improvement consultants will tell you that senior management must sponsor the software process improvement effort or it is going to fail. I contend that if all your senior management does is sponsor the effort, it's probably doomed anyway! I believe that senior management must lead the charge by exhibiting the same process-disciplined behavior that they expect the troops to adopt.

When engaging with a new client that is just starting on their process improvement journey, I strongly advise the senior management team to document one or more of their processes as a visible demonstration of leadership. Lacking a better alternative, I encourage them to start with the Customer Commitment Process by posing, "What steps are, or should be, taken between first customer contact, and ultimately committing to do the work on behalf of a customer?" (The way I figure it, as long as senior management is going to go through this exercise, they might as well pick something that's going to help the troops by eliminating "golf course commitments.")

But as every SEPG member knows, documenting the process is only a small portion of the work to be done. Aligning behavior with the documented process, and having the discipline to follow the process in good times and bad is the real trick. Senior management must be willing and able to change their own behavior if they are to sell the adoption of process to the troops with credibility and integrity.

In my opinion, sponsorship is a necessary, but insufficient prerequisite to success. Unless management is willing to align their own behavior with the direction they are trying to establish, it is simply another case of "do what I say, not what I do." The commitment of senior management to establish a process-disciplined organization is reflected much more clearly by their own behavior than it is in a policy statement lifted from the pages of the CMM.

To conclude today's lecture on heteronyms, please consider which of the following examples most closely reflects the state of your organization:

  • Senior management's decision to conduct itself as a process-disciplined team set a good example for the conduct of the engineering staff.

  • After briefly reflecting on the lack of senior management leadership, the SEPG leader decided to resume writing her resume.

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