I grew up during the era of Japanese manufacturing supremacy. A Made in Japan sticker indicated the highest quality automobile, camera, or consumer electronics device available. Newspaper editorials warned of an unstoppable Japan taking over the world, while my school added Japanese language classes so we could communicate with what was assumed to be the dominant global player for decades to come.

Due to a variety of factors this vision of the future never came to pass, and interestingly, even the unassailable dominance of Japanese manufacturing has come into question. A recent Wall Street Journal article discussed string of scandals has hit the companies that brought us kaizen, or continuous improvement, with companies like Nissan, Subaru, Takata, and Mitsubishi Materials reporting faked quality certifications, destroyed documents, and unqualified inspectors.

The article suggested that in large part, these manufacturing lapses were due to what amounted to absentee leadership that demanded all the trappings of quality: meeting key metrics, completing the proper records, and updating the right systems–without actually getting involved in the operational decisions and processes, and not hiring employees who were vested in the right outcomes.

Why metrics don’t always tell the story

While Japanese manufacturing lapses may not seem immediately relevant to IT leaders, manufacturing and IT management have multiple parallels. It’s just as easy to count how many cars come off an assembly line as it is to count closed help desk tickets, or network uptime, just as there’s a similar obsession with data and reporting. Walk the halls of your average IT shop and you’ll see just as many charts, dashboards, and metrics as the average manufacturing facility, implying that there’s a rigorous process in place to ensure the right objectives are delivered, and the measurement systems will immediately notify leadership of any signs to the contrary.

However, measurement doesn’t always ensure success. The classic IT example is the helpdesk that’s measured on how fast they “resolve” issues, where six tickets are opened and closed to resolve a simple issue, gaming the metrics while leaving dissatisfied users. A more complex version of this same challenge is an obsession with project delivery “on time and on budget,” where difficult challenges like design, change management, training, and testing are given the short shrift, resulting in “successful” delivery of a system that no one uses since it’s too complex or doesn’t meet their needs.

SEE: IT leader’s guide to achieving digital transformation (Tech Pro Research)

Creating a culture where success means more than meeting metrics

Many of the executives interviewed in the aforementioned article about failures in Japanese manufacturing suggested they were unaware of the quality issues, and expressed surprise when they discovered everything from unsanctioned training programs, to part-time quality inspectors who, in an effort to keep their job, would happily check boxes versus rocking the boat. As a leader, if you emphasize little more than meeting a set of metrics, and then leave everyone to their own devices, you might be surprised to find compromises being made in the effort to meet those metrics that bring a raft of unintended negative consequences.

To avoid this issue, create a culture that allows your team to make the right decisions about how to meet their metrics, rather than emphasizing the metrics above all else. Identify the handful of key traits for which you want your IT shop to be known. Is it exceptional service to internal customers? Is it high-quality delivery of the right systems at the right time? Or perhaps it’s being an excellent steward of scarce company resources. Whatever the case, there should be some metrics that are obvious, as well as some less obvious cultural traits.

Read about any recent scandal, and there’s a surprisingly consistent theme of people meeting their metrics, but failing to operate within an appropriate cultural framework. Culture isn’t some mercurial entity that will spread through osmosis, but something that you as a leader must actively talk about and promote at every opportunity.

SEE: How to succeed as a new IT manager (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Use storytelling techniques

One of the most effective techniques for creating and maintaining culture is storytelling. If you’re trying to create a culture of customer service, you should tell stories about the behaviors you want to espouse, and remind employees that resolving issues is about more than checking a box. If you want to create a culture of delivering tools that the company actually uses, tell stories about IT employees who went to extreme efforts to understand their end user needs, and wouldn’t rest until they were designed into the system. Realize that in the absence of these cultural stories, your employees will create their own, and they might involve respected peers being fired for not checking the right boxes, or absentee leadership that doesn’t care whether employees act in a certain manner.

Take time to walk the floor and speak with employees and customers

One of the best tools for minding your shop is taking the time to “walk the floor.” In some cases, this might mean going to a physical location and talking with employees. Or, it could be calling your customers and hearing their experiences, without getting defensive or trying to respond immediately to any negative criticism. Speak with new hires after they’ve been with the company for a month or two, and see if they’re picking up the cultural value you’re trying to instill, or if their peer network has educated them in an unofficial culture that’s anathema to what you’re trying to create.

Reports, dashboards, and metrics are great, but they’re still a second-hand representation of what’s actually occurring where the proverbial rubber meets the road. As a leader its incumbent that you use your company’s products, speak with customers and front-line employees, and get out to the factories and field locations that are critical to your success. As the challenges with Japanese manufacturing show, what looked good on paper: cost reductions, flawless quality reports, flexible staff, etc., ultimately were destroying a decades-old reputation for quality.

Publishing a list of key metrics to your immediate subordinates, sitting in your office, and then watching the PowerPoints with green traffic lights roll in is almost a sure sign that something is amiss in your shop, and an indicator that it’s time to get your own eyes on the situation on the ground.

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