All entries for January 2009

January 24, 2009

What does your business stand for?

I was reading an HBR article on "change management" and in it the authors uses an example of a military equipment manufacturing company to illustrate the idea of "tinkering" or small scale changes. Something he said triggered what I want to say in this entry.

"The company developed a new production strategy, which it called the Barbie doll. It built a base helicopter that could be dressed up with a set of accessories- guns, bombs, avionics - for customers in the military to play with. The strategy allowed the company to reap the benefits of both mass production and mass customization"(Abrahamson, July-August (2000), Harvard Business Review)

You are probably wondering what the hell I am on about. Well, as I read this passage, I was amazed by how the tone and attitude adopted by the author is so innocent and naive, using words like "play" , "Barbie". Especially in the last sentence, I just wanted to add another word "mass destruction".

Considering that these product are going to be used for only one purpose-- extermination of human lives, I can't help wondering how, and what can the purpose of vision of the company be? As the leader of the company, how can he argue what his company is doing is in fact beneficial to the human race?

The same argument probably could go the same way with tobacco companies. How do they justify to themselve and their employees what they are doing is ethical or even moral? Satisfy people's needs? There are demands out there, we just supply the product for that demand? I suppose, at the end of the day, this comes down one's moral propensity of whether the end result (i.e. loss of human lives) should be a consideration of the people who did not directly cause it (i.e. manufacturers).

This is something I really like to get some ideas from you guys, all inputs are appreciated.

Six Sigma and Success Factor

Today team 3 presented our findings from our research as well as ideas about making change which we elicited from members of the group. We thought we captured the idea that Graeme had us to do but somehow we still came out a bit confused about the project/initiative level change effort. The only team that did capture that differentiation was Apinya, Lila, and Mennu's presentation.

When Graeme popped the question about this fine difference to me and Luis, I was a bit taken aback by it. I never thought about change on an project or a personal level. I guessed I have assumed that change takes place in the higher level through the vision, strategy and personal influence of the leaders. But come to think of it, changing the attitudes and behaviors of individuals may require a different approach from one that is directed at  a large group of people.And that seem to need a deeper understanding of the change curve of every individual. As different people may be going through different stages of change (i.e. denial, acceptance, realisation), what is required to change people may differ from person to person. And that would mean different style of leadership should be directed in different situations. What would be interesting is some of the techniques, or motivational tools that are useful for this purpose.

This idea of of people on various stage of change nicely linked with what Graeme suggested about the four dimensions of followers. They were stars, cynical terriost, fan , walking dead. Stars are obviously most desirable. Whereas cynical terrorists are mos difficult to deal with, but they should be respected. But Fans and walking dead I am thinking are probablt not much good if what they lack of interest. Usually I'd rather work with people who may not disagree but still show the passion to care about a particular subject.

A few people including meself, mannu, and alan were a bit sceptical about what Graeme called "appreciative enquiry" which is you tell people to improve but do it in a very non-direct way. By first telling them about their strength (what they are doing right) followed by what they are not doing so well (weaknesses or areas of improvement). Hmm.. what should I say about this. It's a nice idea and probably the more desirable and more easily accepted way. But it really is hard to do in practice. Mainly I think everybody wants to hear other people talk god things about themselves (I would be the first to admit!). But it takes a truly reflective person to see his own weaknesses and for the others it would be difficult when it's not pointed out directly. Well, I guess this just vary from person to person.

January 22, 2009

Six Sigma for business transformation

Follow-up to Six Sigma and Profound Knowledge from Kang's blog

The presentation we had in PIUS was quite interesting. Most groups (except for Amanda,Ahbi,Smiley's group) end up coming to similar conclusions, that is

Six Sigma is somewhat lacking the psychological aspects of business management

Although it has a set of strong process improvement tools, it's relative weak emphasis on "people" issues such as acceptance, commitment to six sigma, making the changes 'stick', overcome complacency, granting exceptions means that it will likely encounter problems before the implementation begins. Preparing the people for this change is therefore crucial to Six Sigma success. And this will be the central topic in tomorrow's presentation.

The second important conclusion which we didn't quite capture in our presentation is that

Six Sigma, as a process tool improves business effciencies yet it is weak on providing effective solutions

Graeme gave the example of floppy disk, CD-ROM. A more touching example for my digital savvy classmates would be "Why continue making ever better CD-Players if you've got an IPOD?". The constantly changing environment such as digital business industry highlights the weakness of six sigma as a total improvement solution.

January 21, 2009

Six Sigma and Profound Knowledge

In the past couple days I have been researching Six Sigma in relation to Deming's system of Profound Knowledge (SoPK). Initially, this was a difficult task because I was not familiar with the Six Sigma methodologies. And for SoPK, although we have studied it before during CBE, I never looked at it from from the angle of process improvement. So quite naturally, I focused on the technical but obvious features shared between the two including

  1. Variation as Normal Distribution versus Variation on a control chart
  2. PDCA versus DMAIC- comparable or quite different?
  3. Variation as common/special cause versus Defect per Million Opportunities (DPMO)
  4. Continous improvement versus Conformance to specification
  5. Even tried to understand the drifting of the distribution and the whole Taguchi loss function, 1.5 sigma drift etc .. but it just lost me...

Even though this has all been rather confusing at first, I did manage to get a better idea of what exactly six sigma is and try to achieve. This has helped me tremendously with PIUS mini project one. I was able to distinguish between the technical (project) level relationships from theorectical (conceptual) level relationships much better.

I resist from the temptation to draw any conclusions prematurely. This will best be left for the presentation tomorrow. I will look forward to it.

January 14, 2009

Leadership is a function

Today I learnt about leadership is a function in which to satisfy three levels of needs (Fig.1).

  1. Task need
  2. Group need
  3. Individual need


Fig1. John Adair's three circles of need. (Source: Sterling)

Some of the leadership theories I read such as trait theory, behaviorist theory, and contingency theory and so on, and the sort of research studies done by Hersey & Blanchard, Fiedler e.t.c, although it helps to see the different leader styles (i.e. task versus people oriented) , it's no so clear what is it that leaders should do. I mean, for example, with Fiedler's theory, is it true that in alls situations with the characteristics of 1) poor  leader-follower relationship 2) high task structure, always mean a soft management approach will be effective? See (Fig 2). How can be sure that a task-oriented appraoch wouldnt work? Maybe this is what his empirical evidences tell us, that there is a certain style for different situation, but I think this kind of conclusion is hard to accept.


Fig.2 Fiedler's Contingency Model. Situation I, II, VII, VIII are suitable for Task-oriented leadership style. Situation III, IV, V, VI are suitable for People oriented leadership style. Source: MBE Leadership and Excellence homepage.

In contrast, I find John Adair's three circles of need much more practical and easy to understand. For starter, he describes leadership as a function to fulfil certain needs which he identifies as the need of the group task, the need of the group, and the need of the individuals. Essentially, he argues, the success of any one need is dependent on how well other needs are satisfied (that's why three circles are overlapping each other). For example, to be successful at a task assigned to a group, is dependent on how well the group is maintained (whether people get along), and how competent/motivated each individual are. Equally speaking,  if task is successfully accomplished, it wil lead to better team maintenance (morale is high), and higher self esteem. Thus forming a virtuous reinforcing cycle, or a destructive cycle- if any one of the circle is severely compromised or missing, then the group can easily disintegrate.

So what is the role of the leader? Adair argues that "leadership resides in the functions not a person"- that is leaders fulfil certain functions that leads to the gratification of these three different needs. Therefore, anyone who perform these functions is potentially a leader. Although he does not explicitly states what functions needs to be performed (my guess is that if he does, the leadership function would be too restrictive), he does lay out the general principles. In terms of the three circles of needs, leaders need to

  1. Have awareness of the content of group discussion as well as (more importantly so) the underlying behaviors or reasons for those behaviors.
  2. Need to understand what those reasons or behaviors mean, and know what need to be done.
  3. Have skills to carry out supportive/corrective actions sucessfully. This can be judged by observing whether group respond to leader's intervention.

An example he gives in the book that shed light on leadership functions is in a group discussion, whoever provides the key functions such as intiatiate, clarify, and summarise the discussion is essentially carrying out the leadership function. But does that mean anyone who provide such function is the leader? Not necessarily, he argues, if the group reject for example, the summary being provided, then the supposed leader is not providing leadership. In this sense then, the approval or recognition by the group is essential for leadership.

John also gives some key characteristics which differentiate leader from group member. Firstly the leader is responsible for the success of the task. Therefore if the task failed, the leader will step down from his responsibility. Secondly, leaders should keep distance from the group members because by being to friendly with the group , the ability to make unwelcoming decisions is compromised. Popularity is not his top concern (this coincide with George W Bush's  leadership view- see my previous blog). Therefore, the leader is often a loner and must satisfy his social need through interacting with other leader at his level.

The last two remarks are particularly interesting because of their practical/pragmatic slant. But whether they are true I am not sure. Is it not possible for a leader to be someone that is highly empathetic and "nice" ? (I am reminded of Ahbi's blog "can leader be nice?" at this point). And second, instead of stepping down, shouldn't leader's get a second chance, as long as he know what went wrong and improve on it?

On the whole, I like John Adair's explanation of leadership as a function to fulfils three levels of needs. To me it seems more useful and provide a better idea what leaders should do to be effective.

January 13, 2009

Bush's farewell

Here is a sneak peek of Bush's farewell press conference. It's not hard detect the tone of regrets and disapointments for events that happened over the past 8 years. Nevertheless being the kind of cheerful person he is, the conference was quite light hearted as he joked with reporters on some very serious and contentious issues such as the foreign policy and financial crisis.

One thing he said strike me as an example of leadership is that he said "popularity" is not really his top concern, what he would be more concerned about is in face of hard decisions, and then being criticised for making it, he would not stand down on what he believes in, and he must do what he thinks is right. 

Bush also highlighted some of the difficulties and dilemma faced by the leaders. as a leader he must make the decisions given the information available at the time. However, how well these decisions turn out to be may not be as good as hoped but it's just the way it is.

What he said I feel set the scene for the president elect Barack Obama, so far the discussions has been centred on his charismatic personality, visionary leadership. But all that will soon be put to test as he moves into the White House. All the eyes of political pundits, american citizen and indeed the whole world will be focused on him, to see whether he has lived up his expectations. The pressure is on.

Sneak peek for the video conference from the Reuters

[media align=center] [/media]

The entire video press conference from the White House

January 03, 2009

Trait theory and Behavioural theory of leadership

I spent some time today reading about leadership theories and find that the subject to be really facinating to study. During the in module work, we touched on some leadership theories but never really got into the details. Talking with Paul today suggest he deliberately leave this part out of the in module work for the PMA. I think Paul made a good call on this. As he said, it would probably be very boring to listen to a lecture on different school of leadership thinking. Reading about it in our own time allow us to think about it in more depth and relate theories to our experience.

Today I did only two theories on trait theory and behaviour theory. They are probably the first two ideas to be studied in leadership research and are probably the easiest to understand given that they are the basis for the leader "'made/born" debate.

Trait theory

When first talking about leadership, we're usually talking about the trait theory, although we often do not think about it in these terms. It's main idea is that leaders have certain traits that makes them leaders. For example Churchill is a 'persistent' leader when fighting against the Nazis or Mandela is 'visionary' leader about the black civil rights. So the raitionale goes that leadership can be identified or even defined if individuals exhibits these so called leadership traits. However, the problem is after extensive research by Stogdill in 1948, he reached the conclusion that there is no single set of universal traits that is predictative of leadership (cited in Northouse 2004). In another word, we couldnt possibly predict if anyone is going to grow up to become a leader by testing if he has got all the leadership traits (presumably through psychological assessment) because there is nothing to benchmark him against. The second important conclusion is that leadership arise from a need for it (situation) and it invovles interaction with other people. All these suggests trait theory cannot be the only way to study leadership. Fortunately, after a period where it was almost discarded , recent research have shown traits theory is important for understanding effective leadership (Northhouse 2004). There are still a set of traits that are consistently found in leaders such as intelligence, determination, integrity, sociability, and self confidence (Northouse 2004). Nevertheless, when we think about leadership in more depth, we would realise when we think about leadership we think about things such as what leaders do, what they say, how they influence people and these are the behavioural things that have little association with individual traits. Not surprisingly, one major limit of trait theory is that it is impossible to see how traits such as intelligence and determination can bring about influence in other people's motivation and performance (Maurik 2001).

Behavioural theory

Logically, behavioural theory complements the flaws in trait theory because putting together what leader are naturally and what they do seem to pretty much encompass every dimensions of leadership. One important appeal of behavioural theory is that if we know what leaders do, then it is possible to teach people leadership. So in theory everyone is capable of become a leader if they learn leadership properly. Now, to discuss about what leaders do is quite a dauting task. Most of the books and journals we read on organisational learning, effective management which talks about listening, empowering, and inspiring people are on this subject. They are all by in large styllistically prescriptive while ignoring the situational aspect of leadership (Maurik 2001). the leadership style that works in one situation may not work at all in another situation. Churchill's great leadership during WWII didnt carry his premiership afloat after the war ended (Maurik 2001). However, despite being limited in this way, behavioural theory can still shed light on how we understand leadership. If you wish to read up more about it, there are two seminal research studies on this subject (Bake and Mouton 1964; Tannenbaum and Schmidt 1958 cited in Maurik 2001). One is by Bake and Mouton in 1964 who defined leadership behaviours in task-relationship oriented dichotomy (cited in Maurik 2001). This is looking at management approaches which are "focused on finishing assigned tasks with little concern for follower's human needs" on the one hand (Task) and "creating a friendly atmosphere of work but fail to deliver on output" on the other (Relationship). Their key findings are that the task/relationship oriented leadership in practice is not a case of either/or scenario. In fact, effective leaders utilise both approaches by fitting to the management needs of given people situation (cited in Maurik 2001). What I find interesting about this is the 'middle of the road' approach which invovles a 'balanced need for task accomplishment and maintaining healthy relationships' style of leadership is depite being "politically expedient" (Maurik 2001 pp12) (in another word makes everyone happy) but is unlikely to initiate changes in the status quo (Maurik 2001).

Maurik, J. v. (2001). Writers on Leadership. London: Penguin.

Northouse, P. G. (2004). Leadership: Theory and practice (3rd ed.). London: Sage.

January 2009

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