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  • Writer's pictureHillel Glazer

Tail to Trunk

We’ve all seen photos of elephants walking along holding the tails of the elephant ahead with their trunks. There’s some debate as to whether that happens naturally or just in captivity. But for the sake of discussion—or at least for the sake of this metaphor—let’s assume it happens naturally and look at it from a leadership perspective and how it relates to how and why “Time Matters.”

If instead of elephants, we linked people together so that they made progress together, at the rate of the slowest person in the chain, what would that mean for that slowest person as well as for the others in the group?

First, the slowest person might not be at the end. They could be at the beginning or somewhere in the middle. Another point, that slowest person might not be the newest, least experienced, or least effective. In fact, that person might be (and probably is) the hardest working person on the team.

Think about it: the slowest person is slow by comparison to everyone else. They’re going as fast as they can. Others slow down, and are therefore not working as hard as they have the capacity to.

Now imagine that the slowest person on the team is the leader. The most experienced, longest tenured, and most efficient person on the chain gang, but still the slowest?


Easy. Imagine that the work of the rest

of the team doesn’t get delivered until it’s

reviewed and approved by the team’s leader.

Regardless of how efficient the team is, if the

leader is overloaded, the work isn’t done and

delivered until the leader does their thing.

It’s pretty easy to imagine an overloaded

leader. But what about the rest of the team?

What causes team members to be overloaded

-- assuming training, qualifications, and

competence (those are obvious) are not

issues? How do organizations contribute to

their own overloaded states?

For that matter, how can we tell when the

reason things are going slowly is because the

operation is overloaded?

What to look for

Our people and everything they use to do their work is a system. When systems are overloaded they often exhibit similar behaviors such as break downs, errors and defects, incomplete work, and completion rates creeping (or shooting) up.

Many of the causes of these behaviors are discussed in prior entries in this column. If you want to find where your operation is overloaded, just look for these behaviors and you’ll find batches that are too big, too much work is piling up, or response rates are lagging behind the cadence needed to keep things moving forward.

What if that’s too hard?

Some organizations find it difficult to find specific overloaded culprits. Or they are as likely to find that there are too many suspects to know where to begin. When this plays out, the place to look, then, is at the organization itself. Is the organization structured to be effective?

Answering this question requires that we answer three other questions:

  1. Are the right people in the right jobs? Do they have what it takes to do the job? How much of the job can they do independently?

  2. Can everyone communicate with all the people with whom their work interacts? How is this communication facilitated? How often can they communicate? What barriers are there to effective communication?

  3. Are staff and leadership mutually accountable to each other? Do staff-level employees have everything they need from their leader to do the jobs they’re being held accountable for doing? Are leaders holding staff accountable for things consistently with items 1 and 2 above? How are leaders held accountable such that they ensure staff can do their jobs? Are leaders themselves in the right jobs and able to communicate and hold each other accountable?

These three sets of questions lead to some very interesting conversations and reflection. When sufficiently answered, many of the other behaviors tend to fix themselves. People in the right positions know what they need to get the job done. Effective communication will lead to problems surfacing and resolving quickly and efficiently. Teams with the resources they need to do the job are given the leeway to do the job in the best way they can devise while also ensuring leadership is as in-the-know as needed to keep things moving.

We will take on each of these three questions over the next entries in this column. We will look at how they affect innovation and competitiveness, growth and profit, and job and customer satisfaction.

Just because there’s an element of “chicken and egg” to the problems and the solutions doesn’t mean there’s no solving them. Just like the team, just like the elephants, they’re all linked together and make progress together.


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