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Leadership on the Sidewalk

March 15, 2017 - Some time ago I attended a Lean Six Sigma conference in Florida, where many of the presentations were about the importance of senior management commitment (the subject of at least 30% of all six sigma conference presentations, or so it seems).

When walking across the hotel grounds, I noticed a dead lizard on the sidewalk. The lizard was about 5 inches long from head to tail. As I looked closer, I noticed that the lizard was moving, and considered that maybe it was only mostly dead? But upon closer inspection, I could see that a large number of really small ants were attempting to carry the lizard away to make a year’s worth of lizard stew and lizard sausage back at the colony. Amazingly, the ants were actually moving the lizard.

There was just one problem: all of the various parts of the lizard were not moving in the same direction. It looked more like an uncoordinated line-dance – lots of movement, but no actual progress. The sidewalk action was a nice illustration Taiichi Ohno's teaching: "activity does not necessarily equal work". The ants were obviously well-trained at lizard-lifting. They knew their jobs, and they were highly motivated. They were even working together. But they lacked leadership, direction, and structure in the face of a large task that required a coordinated effort.

I suspect that they could have quickly carried off a small bug, but the job of moving an entire lizard exceeded the capabilities that are hard-wired into their little proto-brains.

The analogy to management of a process improvement initiative was pretty direct. The larger and more complex the task, the greater the need for leadership, direction, and a structure that facilitates problem-solving. Otherwise you end up with activity without work: training without projects, or projects that don't really matter, or projects that don't get done. Leadership is paramount! Something to consider the next time you engage in a heavy-lizard-moving exercise - like a Lean Six Sigma deployment.

P.S. If you are thinking that you wish you had seen the lizard drama play out in person, here's an example of some ants with better leadership.

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