Passing the Baton

Posted on October 28, 2011

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There is an abundance of symbolism in the phrase “passing the baton”.

Taiichi Ohno used the analogy of passing the baton to explain the cooperation that should exist between employees, as in a relay race, each gauging the other’s need and self-adjusting to accommodate a smooth passing of the baton.  The baton in this case could be material, information or even equipment.   Anyone who has run a leg of a relay understands that the race is won or lost in the handoff, in the instant that both team members share the baton.

On another level, the baton is the symbol of leadership, as in the baton held by the drum major.   A different kind of baton symbolizes the leadership of the symphony conductor.  Team members, musicians in this case, trust that the wielder of the baton will create the right pace and direction, a trust that must be earned by the drum major or the conductor.   Great teams, be they orchestra, hospitals, offices or factories, need a great leader.

Passing the baton, in the case of leaders, connotes a change in leadership. Just as in the relay race, a fumble in this passing may trigger the demise of a great organization or the turnaround of a faltering one.  When Bill Ford passed the baton to Alan Mulally, for example, succession of leadership established a new era for Ford Motor Company.  The baton was passed cooperatively from incumbent to successor in an instant of shared leadership that itself instilled confidence.  More often, unfortunately, the baton is wrested away from the incumbent, as in the scene from Animal House (right).

Continuity is lost and change for changes sake rules.  Employees become accustomed to calamitous successions, and are justifiably skeptical.

In a still larger sense, the baton exchange connotes the passing forward of a legacy or tradition. In sports the legacy may relate to bringing home a trophy, in religion to sustaining a belief system from generation to generation.  The theme of the 2011 Northeast Shingo Conference, “Made Lean in America’, advocated that America maintain its legacy of productive and economic leadership through adoption of Lean philosophy and practice.    Our generation is the caretaker of a quality of living that should be passed to the next generation in good working order.

A final baton analogy is the peer to peer sharing that must be present for long-term lean transformation:  sharing between employees and departments, between management and employees, between customer and supplier, across industries and through communities.   Native Americans facilitated this sharing by means of a “talking stick,” a baton passed between tribe members to enable each to speak with the full attention of others.  This sharing, like every baton pass, requires a two-part cooperation: willingness to give and willingness to receive.  When I ask clients, “What is your biggest problem?” the most frequent answer by far is “Communication.”  The 2012 Northeast Shingo Prize Conference theme, “Learning to Share” will stress the need for this kind of sharing,  and showcase means to achieving a broad network of sharing Lean thinking and practice.  Register now  for big conference savings.  Hope to see you September 25-26, 2012 in Worcester, Massachusetts.

O.L.D.

 

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Posted in: Old Lean Dude