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Creating a 'Line of Sight'

When employees have a line of sight, they can see the connection between their everyday work, and something larger.

It was 1990. Bill Leighty had just been named deputy commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, and had begun doing what had worked for him in previous jobs: MBWA, or manage by wandering around. He visited most of the units in the building, asking staff about their missions, roles and customers. Overall, the visits were uniformly helpful, every visit but one.

In one office, he found two supervisors' desks facing a sea of workers sitting in neat rows. It reminded Leighty of a grade school class. There was little communication going on. People were working, but there wasn't any energy. The two supervisors' faces were down, as they went through a series of forms that the staff put on their desks.

Leighty introduced himself and explained why he had come. He asked the staff what they did. Their reply: "We process Form 47."

He asked how this fit into the overall office mission. They didn't know. He asked about their customers. They weren't sure who their customers were. He asked them to explain Form 47. They couldn't.

Leighty asked one more question: "How do you know when you're successful?" They told him no one bothered them if they kept the backlog of forms under six weeks. Leighty left.

Some time later Leighty was talking with a member of the state police, and told the man about this work group. The trooper got excited: "They don't know what Form 47 is all about? They don't realize how important this is? This form gets filled out when a driver is caught driving under the influence for the third time. Three DUIs and that allows us to get dangerous people off the road! We can't do our work without that form, it's critical to law enforcement!" Leighty asked if the trooper would be willing to meet with the unit and explain how their work impacts the police and safety on the roads. The trooper quickly said yes, and soon met the staff (without Leighty).

Several weeks later Leighty met a woman who headed up the Virginia chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. He told her the story about this unit and what it did. Her eyes got teary. She described numerous examples of habitual offenders who'd had more than three DUIs but were still on the road, and of the people she knew personally who'd been killed by them. She was astonished that the staff didn't know the importance of their work. Leighty asked her if she would meet with the unit. She agreed, and soon was talking with them about her own personal story (again, without Leighty).

A few months later Leighty came back to visit the unit. He reminded them of his initial visit, and asked them how they now viewed their job. The staff no longer said: "We process Form 47." Instead, one of them looked him right in the eye and said, "We're in the business of saving people's lives."

And that's not all. They had taken it upon themselves to do more than was asked. They developed charts and graphs on productivity; they created a "10 Worst Offenders" list for each state jurisdiction; and they started automating their processes to reduce cycle time, even though that was a threat to the job security of some employees. They had been transformed from mindlessly filling out forms to passionately pursuing a noble mission

. There are many ways to understand this story. To me, it's a great example of creating a "line of sight" for employees. When employees have a line of sight, they can see the connection between their everyday work, and something larger: a satisfied customer, a safer community and a cleaner environment. In our huge bureaucracies, it's difficult if not impossible for many employees to connect their work to the ultimate mission. They're too busy and too far from the individual or community to see how their work actually adds value.

Creating a line of sight is one of the most powerful leadership tools we have. How do we do it?

There are several ways. Here are a few:

  • Put a human face on the mission. Leighty did this when he arranged the visits from the trooper and MADD leader.
  • Offer short-term rotations. When employees work in other units that interact with their own unit, it helps them connect the dots.
  • Experience the organization as a customer. Doing so gives us a different and critical perspective.
  • Ensure that training sessions include people from multiple units. Inevitably, people leave such programs aware that they share many of the same issues that others have. As we all know, some of the best training moments occur outside the formal sessions, when individuals learn whom to contact in other units for various needs.
  • Flow chart important work processes. This should be done with people from every unit that works on the process. It highlights redundancies, delays and opportunities for improvement. Flow charting helps staff see their unit's connection to the larger picture.
  • "Get up on the balcony." The term is from the wonderful book, Leadership on the Line by Martin Lensky and Ronald A. Heifetz, who suggest that we sometimes need to remove ourselves from the "dance floor," where daily operations take place, and get up on the balcony to see how the pieces fit together, or don't. "Balcony" moments can include a staff retreat, meetings with senior managers to learn their perspectives, interviews with customers or trips to other organizations to learn their processes.
This is simply a starter list. There are many other ways to develop a line of sight. What's most important is that managers appreciate the power of this line of sight. Just remember Bill Leighty and the Form 47 unit. Leighty brought in two passionate users of the unit's output. Once they told their story, the unit caught fire. They didn't need incentives or ongoing management feedback or new performance measures. They needed to see the connection between their work and a vital outcome. Once they saw that, the staff was transformed.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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