Interview with Karen Gaudet: Steady Work

How do you create standard work in a seemingly nonstandard environment, while delighting customers and leading a business through a crisis?

Karen Gaudet knows from personal experience and has offered her story to us in the accessible and illuminating book Steady Work.

A month into the global pandemic I sat down with Karen Gaudet’s book Steady Work and was immediately drawn into her real-life story of learning to lead through an earlier global challenging (a recession) and local crisis. In Steady Work, Karen offers not only practical tips about applying lean principles across a larger operating environment  by using a flexible operating system, but — more importantly — about leading from the heart to create a team where everyone is engaged in problem solving and creating an excellent customer experience.

Win your own personal copy of Steady Work by Karen Gaudet!

The book giveaway has now closed. Congratulations to the 3 winners of the Steady Work by Karen Gaudet book giveaway.

Some background to how I know Karen

Karen and I first me at the Lean Coaching Summit in the summer of 2016. I just moved back to the United States from Japan a few weeks earlier and was there to present a breakout session with my client and friend, Michelle, about using the personal A3 as a coaching framework to support personal improvement (you can read more about our presentation and the Personal Improvement A3 in a series of blog posts that start here). It was at this conference too that I met Skip Steward, who was the featured author for another interview on this blog.

Karen, new in her role at the Lean Enterprise Institute, asked me to develop a workshop about coaching and developing people, I have subsequently offered at later Lean Summit and other venues.

Karen and I have spent many conversations talking about leadership, problem solving, and our shared passion for developing people, but I didn’t know the details of her experience until I heard her on stage at the 2019 Lean Summit in Houston, and then diving into her book Steady Work earlier this year. I am thrilled to offer you this interview with Karen to dive in more to her experiences and to offer you a chance to win your own copy of Steady Work.

Interview with Karen Gaudet: Steady Work

Without further ado, read on to hear my discussion with Karen about her book Steady Work, what it means to be a leader during challenging times, how to improve the work — and ourselves!

Q1: In “Steady Work” you describe your experience of how Starbucks as a company– and yours as a leader – responded to the recession over a decade ago. What lessons are you taking forward today as you help other leaders move through our current crisis of the global pandemic into a new future?

Karen: Several important lessons are relevant to the current crisis caused by the pandemic.

First, you have to recognize that how customers define value during a crisis may differ from your team members’ definition. You must understand that re-connecting with the value-driven purpose of the organization is demonstrated through the actions of frontline team members.

Then you must ask if that work is done in a way that enables team members to deliver value to the customer. As a leader, you add value when you serve team members and customers. So, you must understand how your decisions impact those doing the work.

And you must involve them in developing sustainable solutions to problems such as removing wasted motion, over processing, etc.

Q2: In Steady Work, you talk about how when the immediate crisis passed, people fell out of the discipline of following standard work and improvements that had been made. What are your suggestions for leaders to retain discipline after an immediate crisis?

Karen: When developing a system of standardized work, make sure those who do the work are involved in solving the problems in their work.  Also, ensure that there is a well-defined yet flexible management system to consistently audit and monitor through key performance indicators the quality of work processes.  When problems are exposed, question your assumptions about why the problems exist. Don’t reach for the next new thing. It is much harder and more rewarding and sustainable to stay the course and go deeper on problem solving versus applying a quick fix.

Q3: Your experience of the challenge of how to spread improvement ideas (“yokoten” in Japanese) across different sites and regions remindeded me of my years supporting lean efforts at several large healthcare organizations.  We constantly asked ourselves, “what should be standard practice and what should be localized?” As organizations attempt to share improvement ideas in response to COVID-19 across companies, regions, industries, what are some of your recommendations?

Karen: Having ready-made solutions to critical problems is very attractive. I would urge leaders to be open to the solution or best practice — and this is the big difference — interrogate the problem you are looking to solve. Ensure you clearly understand the problem and how the proposed solution will work. There are often fine details inside problems that make them all different.

This does not short cut the need to engage those who are doing the work in understanding their unique situation and the details. They also must understand what is fixed and what is flexible so that the problem will be improved by the applied practice or pre-determined solution.

Q4: What have your experiences as a fly-fisherman and rock-climber taught you about leadership?

Karen: It taught me three things: details, practice, and problem solving. To do anything well you need to become intimate with the details and practice solving the problems that reside in them. You cannot delegate this practice; it is yours to own. As a leader, your work is the people and working through people to achieve the value-driven purpose of the organization and improve business performance. To do this well, we need to understand the details of the work done by the people we lead and practice developing their ability to solve the finer details of the problems that get in the way of achieving the results.

Fly fishing is about presenting the right dry fly at the right time to catch a fish. You must be able to watch what the fish are feeding on and replicate that in the fly you tie or choose to fish with. That means solving the finer details of how to present the fly to the fish as naturally as you can without too much ripple.

In rock climbing, it is understanding the fine details of balance, tension, and mental agility. You must study the finer details of the rock and how your body moves in alignment with it. It’s important to consistently solve the problems of becoming more technically attuned and able through solving the problems you encounter.

Q5: What is something that you were surprised to learn – about yourself or your past experiences – through the process writing of this book?

Karen: It was scary to reveal my thinking and experiences to the broader public. I put myself in a vulnerable position, but I also realized that it was a great demonstration of courage.  Through the process of writing this book, I was able to reflect on the key turning points of my learning journey, how I was helpful to my team, and the times I likely would now approach differently.

I have also become very clearly aware that I am passionate about helping others become their best through developing their best thinking, not an improved version of me and my thinking. The team members involved in the story the book tells deserve the greatest recognition of their tremendous work and how grateful I am for having had been a part of it. It shaped who I am today.

Q6: What is one thing that you are personally working on in your quest to become a better coach or leader?

Karen: I am working deliberately to build my understanding and capability with pull system thinking. I have been realizing how much we push work and information on other people or team members. I have found that I inadvertently do this. I would like to develop an understanding so that each team member can develop to an even greater degree.  I see this as a tremendous opportunity to learn from and help other leaders develop.

Q7: What is a question that you haven’t been asked about Steady Work that you would like to answer? (And what is your answer?)

Karen: One of the big learnings or conscious awakenings was that it is often easier to see and have opinions about all the things others should do to improve.  Learning and practicing lean thinking, amplifies this behavior. It is a true behavior shift and re-association to how we define success for ourselves.

The ability for a leader — or anyone for that matter — to look in the mirror and think about what is it that I need to do differently to improve this situation, or solve the problem, or enable a team member to better understand, is paramount. It cannot be delegated, and it does not discriminate. No one person or piece of work can be left untouched. Businesses are interdependent systems, and it requires each person to self-identify what they need to do differently to enable the transformation to succeed. One person’s work is not in isolation to others, though some of us operate as if it were.

So, if you find yourself mentally pointing your finger at others and saying, “If they would only do …” Ask yourself, “What can I do that will improve or help enable improvement?”

Don’t forget to register to win!

As a special bonus, we are giving away three copies of Karen’s book Steady Work! Register here!

This giveaway is open globally and three winners will receive a physical copy of Steady Work. Giveaway is open until November 25, 2020.

Leading to Learn Masterclass

Want to become a more effective leader or coach? Limited spaces are still available for the 90-minute live workshop I’m teaching on December 3rd — plus get an exclusive invitation to a bonus session with Isao Yoshino. In the workshop, you will learn practices to help you align your purpose and your actions in the service of creating an organization where everyone is aligned and engaged in solving problems. In the workshop you will:

  • Be introduced to the leadership framework (set direction, provide support, develop yourself) and the  continuum leaders and coaches must navigate to support the development of others
  • Learn three practices for more intentional leadership
  • Identify an opportunity for personal improvement
  • Get started with a framework for reflection and daily intention

Register for the Leading to Learn Masterclass here.

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