As the Operations Manager for Kellogg’s Querétaro Plant in Mexico, Alejandro Arenas watched his teams win a global Kellogg’s award in recognition of a kaizen exercise that saw sales volumes of Kellogg’s Special K rise by 30%. He spoke of the exponential returns and positive reinforcement that go hand in hand with continuous improvement and the cross-pollination of functions that comes from appointing multidisciplinary teams. “When leaders help their people to be better leaders, it becomes a chain reaction where more and more people are able to support other people and processes.” Alejandro discusses five leadership takeaways that he learnt from this team exercise.
At the outset of the kaizen exercise, a paradigm shift was necessary within the departments. Employees felt that as they already knew everything about their specific job role and were working to maximum capability, they could not see the benefit of meeting with one another to discuss problems.
As a manager, Alejandro stepped back and chose not to be a part of the kaizen team. Instead, he appointed one of the team members to be the project team leader, as he felt it was important that team members could relate to the project leader. Two weeks into the kaizen exercise, the plant was surpassing their volume targets and winning awards for their innovation, inspiring team members to live the company’s K-Values. Sales of the product had also increased by 30%.
As leaders, we are able to help change behaviour and influence people in a positive way.
– Alejandro Arenas
But the team members were not the only ones who broke down paradigms and learned a lot from the exercise. Alejandro explains what he, as a member of management, learned from the process: “When I initially had the idea to start the kaizen, I really only had the expectation of delivering on our production volume commitments. I could never have imagined the knock-on benefits. I learned about the full potential of a leadership role. As leaders, we are able to help change behaviour and influence people in a positive way.”
At the US TRACC Conference, Alejandro shared his top five management takeaways that he learnt from the team’s kaizen exercise:
Takeaway 1: Everything has a human element.
“You can talk about processing lines, packing lines and financial targets, but as a leader you need to remember that everything is operated and maintained by people.”
Takeaway 2: Focus on people, not results.
“Focus your efforts on guiding the people, and try not to focus too much on the results. By guiding and empowering the team well, they will be inspired and motivated to achieve results. Motivated teams will begin to think beyond the scope of the current effort — they’ll start thinking bigger and bigger.”
When leaders help their people to be better leaders, it becomes a chain reaction where more and more people are able to support other people and processes.
– Alejandro Arenas
Takeaway 3: Give them the right resources.
“Once you have the right team on board, guide and coach them, but let them prioritise and decide the best way forward for themselves. Once teams are empowered, your job as a leader is to ensure that they have the right resources so that they are able to translate their thoughts into actions.”
Takeaway 4: Give them room for errors.
“For sure they will make mistakes. It is my experience that in these types of Continuous Improvement (CI) projects that are tracked by a performance chart which maps improvement over time, you’ll always see in the first few days or weeks that there will be a fall. Don’t panic — let them fall and then support the team to find a better solution so that they do not fear making mistakes. This is how they learn problem-solving.”
Takeaway 5: Communicate your expectations clearly.
“As a leader, it’s important to always let your people know exactly what you expect from them. Have a session with them where you describe very specifically what your expectations are. You’ll be amazed at what people can do when they understand their roles and responsibilities.”
This is an excerpt from a letter that Alejandro received from the kaizen project leader: “… Thank you for your coaching, for believing in me, for all your trust in me and for the great challenges you encouraged me to undertake. Today’s result is that we received a great acknowledgement from the company — the K-Values Global Award. To a large extent, we achieved this through your assistance in using this kaizen to achieve the production and reduce the start-up curve.”
Alejandro goes on to explain the exponential returns that are felt when a leader empowers teams: “The journey that I went on with this team is incredible and I’ve learned so much from them. As a leader, I have learned that to coach, encourage and empower teams, yields extraordinary results. Not just financial gains, but the results that I saw in the individuals behind the process. When leaders help their people to be better leaders, it becomes a chain reaction where more and more people are able to support other people and processes.”
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