Deep Excellence is a book about people, human nature, humanity and preparing for the future. Written in a thoughtful, unpretentious, and empathetic style, the authors usher the reader through a story of learning, challenging current mental models, provoking new ways of thinking and acting with purpose.
As I page through the book, I am enthused by the Ubunti spirit intertwining the chapters. Ubuntu is a word of African origin meaning I am because we are and humanity towards others. Ubuntu embraces the idea that we can only be human, together. That what we do as individuals affects the greater good. That the behaviours we live influence and affect those around us. This is an important theme I believe we should all reflect on and propagate as we orient tribes through turbulent times toward a sustainable future.
We live and lead in exciting times. Leaders have always had to face disruption, volatility, uncertainty, and complexity but impending challenges bring unknown problems, calling for solutions not thought of before. Tugging on a growth mindset and transcending current learning thresholds. This is a call to action for a fresh kind of leadership delivering a new kind of value. With various forces at play and in constant flux, leader development is vital as customers, competitors, employees, investors, communities and law makers toss organisations new balls to catch and juggle. But what does great in a leader look like?
The emergent leader, focused on solving issues of our time, values and develops people and is not compelled to lead by spreadsheets alone. This leader is willing to learn, adapt, empathise and openly confess they cannot possibly hold all the answers. These leaders are bold, courageous and live the behaviours they wish to see in others. They have cool minds yet warm hearts. These leaders understand that all hearts, heads and hands need to be on deck to solve those problems not identified before. For instance, as mitigation and adaption to climate change, protection of ecological boundaries and development of stronger social foundations move into strategic pole position, building leadership resilience is exactly what a sustainable future relies on. Self-reflection, self-correction, self-leadership, self-empowerment, self-education—rewriting internal monologues, as the authors suggest, offering optimism and new pathways for success. These characteristics differentiate leaders of the future while loading them with personal, competitive advantages that bring employability rewards too.
In my 27 years of studying lean and over the last decade, sustainability, I’ve come to appreciate the enormous task of linking strategy with what people are accomplishing daily at the gemba. As the authors advocate, performance is won or lost at the frontline, and this is where the vision (or lack thereof) manifests. This is where we witness strategy connecting with on-the-ground action, or not. And building people who solve problems, every day, that matter, is the golden access key. This is also the power of thinking lean—a way to unite the tribe, strengthened by diversity, to accomplish big things together. Ubuntu.
In the book you will find a clear banding of this big picture with what can be tried and tested on the ground, animated through the authors’ choice of words, personal stories and guiding principles. Stories such as the farrier who cares for his horse’s hooves while also connecting with his subject on a deeper level. Principles that foster a line of sight from what we set out to do to the behaviours that enable work to be accomplished in a better way. Themes to help the leader shift from a zone of comfort to a zone of learning and growth.
Experiences captured in the book draw from the consulting stage and serve not as a verbatim roadmap to follow heedlessly, but as inspiration for what is possible and what questions to ask. Toyota is not threatened when visitors and competitors walk their gemba in search of answers, because the answers to transformation do not lie only in what is visible but, in the underlying philosophy, principles and within the spirit of a company. The spirit of kaizen in Toyota is noticeable in their resilience to weather storms, augmented through their chosen behaviours. They openly share insights and learnings (as do the authors) which does not relinquish competitive intellectual property but makes it available to those willing to do the work and prepared to develop a deeper understanding. Every leader must walk their own path discovering the behaviours that will bring the right results, setting a new bar, by learning from those who have been there before.
We are reminded that tools, projects, technical knowledge are not enough to satisfy customers and catapult organisations to new levels of performance. Recognising the hard-wire our minds have suffered throughout our brain’s history we can now challenge dated beliefs and assumptions in search of a new way of thinking. Couple this with sincere commitment to people, and you have winning ingredients for excellence.
Deep Excellence appeals to leaders to lift themselves out of the detail of the functional silo into the world of systems and common vision, offering a prime view of the impact that can be accomplished when examined from these heights. Seeing the whole and scientifically seeking out root causes and leveraging system change. Aligning efforts from a systems perspective, considering interrelationships, challenging underlying assumptions while injecting a healthy dose of reality from the gemba. In this way the work at a deeper level is more focused and effective.
It’s time to recognise that organisations and their connected systems are plagued more with process failures than people failures. Helping people remove barriers, problem by problem, setting up an environment for growth, success and innovation is far more productive than pointing fingers at guilty parties. Building such an environment that is stable and safer to work in, demonstrates respect for people and earns trust. A key tenet of thinking lean.
Leaders striving for excellence are urged to go deep, liberating themselves from comfort zones and stepping into optimal anxiety zones of learning and growth. This is an exciting time to stand out and make a real difference through people.