Differentiation: It's More than Skin Deep
In the quest to stand out in the marketplace, great companies are moving beyond differentiators to embrace the philosophy of lean leadership.
If it’s true that art imitates life, then Lady Gaga would be a good indication of the challenges facing businesses today in their effort to stand out from their competitors in a jam-packed marketplace. If only it were as easy as dressing the marketing team in meat couture or carrying the chief executive officer (CEO) into the office each morning in an egg. For all companies, the quest for market share begins with delivery of a service that offers quality and value. But good companies realise quality is not enough if one is to retain and win new business. Enter the differentiator. Businesses today have a tendency to spend much time and money figuring out what sets them apart from their competitors. It’s usually at this point that the marketers step in and communicate these differentiators, top-down, to employees and customers.
It’s a well-worn strategy, and one that is wearing a bit thin. In crowded marketplaces, and in the age of social marketing and instant information, employees and customers are looking for more than skin-deep differentiators; they want meaning and responsiveness.
The most successful companies in the world, like Toyota and Apple, understand this and operate beyond differentiators. They use an approach that is far more dynamic and penetrates from the bottom up: a philosophy that creates thinking employees who drive innovation and problem solving, whether it’s a mop they wield or a million-rand budget. These companies embody the qualities of lean leadership says Fortune Gamanya, who directs the programme on that topic at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. “Lean leadership creates customer value through empowered people. It is deeply rooted in the philosophy of the Toyota Way and the Toyota Production System. Both strongly advocate respect for the inherent human intelligence of their people – trusting them, and giving them carte blanche to manage their area of function in a way that effectively takes the business forward,” she says.
Lean leadership fosters an environment that allows organisations to remain in constant flux, able to pre-empt and respond fluidly and continuously to clients’ changing needs, lifestyles and the way they prefer to communicate. In fact, successful organisations, says Gamanya, view with suspicion anything that stays unchanged for too long inside their businesses. It never takes weeks or months for a game-changing idea to make it from the factory floor to a manager’s ears. They have for many years been preoccupied with maintaining a constantly thinking, moving, changing, bottom-up culture. “The Lean Leadership approach is successful precisely because it taps into the fundamentals of human behaviour – cooperation and teamwork, creativity, validation and adaptability. It is a philosophical mind-set that, when understood and practised correctly, helps others be their best and keeps an organisation strong and competitive,” says Gamanya.
“Ultimate success and sustainability of any internal concept or endeavour are dependent on employee buy-in. Lean leadership, done right, is a lot of fun. People learn new things, improve processes and achieve results they never thought possible. And never has this been more important than in today’s economic landscape.” Improving products, processes, services, and technologies and implementing ideas happen constantly in the most successful companies, but it is impossible for management to achieve this alone. The competition among companies is no longer solely about how much market share they can achieve, but how dynamic they are in adapting to change. To be this, every pair of hands within an organisation, every brain, needs to be engaged in problem solving and innovation.
Director of the Lean Institute Africa, Norman Faull, says: “Lean leadership allows for the fastest response to a problem. It relies on the continuous improvement of processes, paired with respect for people, no matter what their position within the organisation. This leads to a nonhierarchical decision-making landscape where employees are empowered to solve problems quickly.” Employees who find their own solutions are far more likely to practise self-motivation and feel a greater sense of ownership and responsibility at a time when few companies can afford the sort of time and resources needed to constantly motivate, inspire and retain talent.According to companies like Apple and Toyota, it is an organisation’s ability to do just this, and deliver products and services that offer continuous improvement and innovation, that will have staff, customers and stakeholders singing their praises from the rooftops. No need then to radically alter the corporate dress code, and CEOs will continue to enter their offices in the usual dignified way.