Month: February 2017

Neil deGrasse Tyson Doesn’t Like The Idea Of Superheroes… And Neither Should Your Organization

The other day I listened to a great discussion on a podcast from The Forward, with host Lance Armstrong.  The guest was Neil deGrasse Tyson, popular astrophysicist, (6.74M Twitter followers for an astrophysicist? wow!) Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, and host of The Cosmos. (Lance refers to him as a “rock-star” astrophysicist)  Neil commented on a variety of topics, from cosmic perspective, to the future of NASA, to science in schools, to what drives innovation, to the influence of his parents, and on how there are a higher number of microbes in one linear centimeter of your colon than the number of total human beings ever born.

I found his take on these and other topics to be humorous, logical, warm and inviting, and grounded in a long-term vision vs. knee-jerk short term reactions.  Science in schools?  He didn’t want to prohibit a state like Texas from teaching creationism if they chose to do so, he just wanted to make sure that state’s choice didn’t automatically proliferate throughout the rest of the country without it being their choice as well, and to make those responsible aware of the potential long-term economic impact that choice may have.

One discussion caught my ear from a Lean standpoint.  At 40:00 in, Neil has been discussing his father and family upbringing, how his parents nurtured their children’s interests, and then Lance asks “was he your hero?”  Neil responds “I tried not to have heroes, because a hero – what is a hero… I like what Carl Sagan said about superheroes one day – he didn’t like the idea of superheroes, because they make the rest of us complacent – oh, there are problems in the world, the superhero will take care of it, i’ll sit back and watch that happen…. a superhero allows people to not have to take responsibility over their fate.

This next statement may be an over-generalization, but I’ve seen it discussed enough I feel it is broadly applicable:  Employees in larger organizations have historically been rewarded for being the superhero.  They come through in the clutch, they bring knowledge and experience no one else has, they get results.  Oh, we have a difficult quality problem?  Bring in the specialist.  She’ll help us solve it.  Oh, that machine isn’t working right?  Call in Jim, he’s the only one trained on how to get it back up and running, he’ll know what to do and help us save our production numbers this shift.  These organizational superheros get the praise and recognition, get the most high-exposure assignments, and tend to get the highest performance ratings and promotions.  So… what’s wrong with this model?  Why wouldn’t I want to assign the most important projects to the people that tend to get the best results?  Why wouldn’t I want to reward my high performers so they want to stick around my organization, continuing to drive great results?

There isn’t technically anything wrong with that concept.  Many organizations have done (and still do) just fine with that model.  Wrong isn’t the right word to use.  A more complete description would be that it is your current state, but that the organization could evolve to be more efficient overall, could realize a higher potential utilizing all of its resources to their maximum capabilities, and be built to deliver and sustain results over time.  In an organization where superheros can thrive, it is as Carl Sagan (possibly) said – the rest of us can become complacent.  We may see a problem, and just say oh, Robert will be able to solve that for us, let’s just wait until he has some time free up.  We wait.  And while we wait, the waste caused by that problem continues.  Perhaps it grows. Perhaps it festers.  The benefit you would gain from improving the problem has been delayed.  And perhaps specialists like Robert get tired of operating in a crisis or high-pressure mode all the time and leave for another company environment.  What do you do then?

What’s the alternative?  An organization where everyone solves problems.  A community of scientists, a community of problem solvers, an organization where everyone drives improvement, from the shop floor to the executive office.  Instead of waiting for Robert, anyone can take on the problem, or the team can work on it together. No need to call in a specialist – let’s improve the situation now.  What does it take to build this type of an organization?

  • Balancing rewards equally between building capability in team members and achieving results
  • Rewarding solving problems to root cause vs. quick temporary countermeasures that make you feel good in the short term
  • Setting the expectation that everyone will learn to solve problems – and following it up with leadership modeling those behaviors
  • Asking questions rather than providing solutions or instructions, which empowers the team to think rather than simply to execute

So Neil’s comment about superheroes should really ring true with those who are in the midst of lean transformation.  And by all accounts, Neil is a pretty smart guy.  It isn’t about creating Lean Superheroes.  It is about studying your current organizational superheroes – what skills and knowledge do they have that enables them to consistently deliver results?  What about those capabilities can we extract from them and move from tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge that anyone can use?  How can I build those capabilities into the rest of the organization?  And most importantly, how can I enable my team to evolve into a community of scientists?  What obstacles are holding us back?

Take the time and reflect – do you have an organization that looks to its superheroes to solve problems?  If you do… is it possible this part of your culture is a reason your transformation is being held back?


To Strive For Perfection Or Not To Strive For Perfection… That Is The Question…

Mornings at my house aren’t chaotic, per se, but they are quite busy.  Our two little school age kids still need a lot of help getting dressed, fed, and ready.  Waffles are their preferred choice of breakfast food.  Everyday.  With butter, syrup, and whipped cream of course.  And we all like our sleep, so we get up with only the minimum amount of time necessary to get everything done before we head out the door to school and work.

So it is not unheard of for a mistake to be made, between preparing breakfasts, packing lunches, making sure outfits match, getting on the snow pants, making sure the right earrings are in, making sure the library books are packed (oh, and we didn’t read it in the past week?  By all means, let’s read it right now)…. you get the idea.

One of my duties is to make sure both kids have water bottles filled and packed.  Not a difficult task.  But for some reason, sometimes it is hard to remember to get it done, catching it at the last minute before we get in the car.  99 times out of 100, they have their water bottle. But I missed one morning, completely forgot.  Before you scold me too much, of course they have drinking fountains and cups available at school… they survived.  But I still felt bad.

So I began wondering… how can I prevent this from ever happening again?  What system can I create, what checks can I put in place?  A dry erase task list on the door to the garage?  A reminder that pops up on my phone?  Ask my wife to do a double-check?   Five sets of water bottles, with a circle labeled M-T-W-R-F under them so it is clear if today’s bottles have been utilized?  Ask the kids to learn to take responsibility themselves? (You’re right… silly thought…)

Nothing I was brainstorming appeared to be simple and also immune to human fallacy.  With all my ideas, there was still a chance I would forget, walk by the reminder without noticing because my brain was focused on the big meeting I had that day, still a chance a defect would get through.  And I don’t think my budget request would be approved for RFID chips in backpacks and water level sensors in water bottles and a connection to the car that wouldn’t let it start unless full water bottles were detected to be in the vehicle…  (I tested that hypothesis… it was correct… budget request denied)

Then I began thinking about an important question…. did it matter?  If a mistake was made and I missed the water bottles every once in a great while, should I care?  The kids weren’t unhappy… the teachers didn’t send any nasty grams home… I didn’t get yelled at… much… it might only happen two or three time a school year.  Really, the only thing driving me to attempt to improve here was my standard desire to eliminate defects and strive for perfection in anything and everything.  So I chose to let it go.  This time.

Why do lean transformations fail?  Why are they abandoned, sometimes after several years, even with wins and excitement early on?  Of course there are many, many factors, endlessly debated in books and blogs and conferences and online forums, and every situation is different.  But I think a key one is in the title of this post.  Are you as a company, as an organization, committed to striving for perfection?  Whatever your version of perfection is?

As your organization becomes more competent in identifying waste, identifying problems in your processes, the amount of opportunities you could work on begins to outweigh your capacity for actually working on them.  And as the water is lowered, and more systemic, complex, and multi-functional problems and opportunities are surfaced, developing simple solutions that are easily implemented gets harder.  People begin to ask – do we really need to spend time on that?  I’m busy – can it wait?  That seems hard… I’m not sure we will see the immediate benefits of this effort for a while – I’d rather focus on bringing in the quarterly numbers.

Selecting the right things to work on and improve is not always easy for large organizations, and lies somewhere between having an onerous improvement idea/initiative prioritization process that stifles the very spirit of making problems visible in the first place, and simply choosing to work on whatever problem we see today and never solving things through to root cause.  What are the one or two most important things you must accomplish to achieve your business plans?  Improve those processes that will help you deliver them.  Kaizen those obstacles that sit in your path.

If you have developed a clear understanding of what perfection is for your organization, and if you are committed to achieving it, then those questions should become easy to answer.  Does improving this process help you along the path towards your goal?  Or said another way, are the problems you see preventing you from achieving those goals?  If so – the answer is yes, you should spend the time and energy to improve.  If you don’t have that vision of perfection, or if you aren’t committed to it, then the questions and debate will continue to swirl.  Less-committed team members will see lack of clarity and commitment and begin to drift back to their old methods and ways of doing work.  Highly-committed team members will continue to want to improve what they believe makes sense, but will become frustrated when other team members, leaders, and functions are not coming along with them.

Vision – Commitment – Alignment – Discipline.  These are keys to continued progress towards your goals of perfection.

If you’re wondering, yes, it did happen again, several months later.  And the kids survived, and nothing bad happened, and heck, the boy seems to prefer having no water bottle… but for a moment I still wondered what I could have put in place three months ago to have prevented the miss.  The moment passed, and then I made another waffle.