Thursday, February 05, 2009

Problem-Finding and McDonald's Remarkable Success

Dev Patnaik and Peter Mortensen have an interesting article at Forbes.com about McDonald's resurgence under CEO Jim Skinner. The article is an excerpt from their book Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy. In the article, they argued:

"How did he (Skinner) know what to do? He had experienced it all himself. After all, he began his career on the grill line at a McDonald's before working his way to the very top of the organization. In all that time, he had made sure to eat at a McDonald's every day. Not only because he genuinely likes Quarter Pounders, but also because it has allowed him to make two kinds of observations critical to the success of his company. First, he knows as well as anyone whether the food and service are good or need improvement. Second, he gets to engage directly with McDonald's diners. He doesn't need to commission a big research report. He can just talk to the guy at the next table. It's an easy, everyday way to stay connected and see the business the way the rest of the world does."

Skinner's actions resonated with me, because they are consistent with some of my latest research findings about effective leadership. In my recent work, I describe how leaders at all levels must hone their skills as problem-finders. They must seek out the small problems in their organizations before they mushroom into large-scale failures. They must recognize that bad news often won't come to them; they have to go find it. How can leaders become effective problem-finders? One thing that they can do is circumvent the filters that typically funnel information to them. Leaders have to venture out to the front lines and interact directly with customers, employees, and suppliers. They must seek out the raw data. Moreover, leaders must behave like an anthropologist who observes groups of people in natural settings. They cannot simply ask people questions; they must watch how they behave. After all, people often say one thing and do another. Watching how the organization actually functions can be a very powerful and illuminating learning experience – and a far more accurate one. Firsthand observation and experience must become part of every leader’s toolkit.