Tag: Leadership

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.

Hard-Wired for Lean?

Ever take part in a team-building event where you and your co-workers take a personality test to find out more about what makes each other tick?  I know that I’ve taken several over the years, and have seen a few used in our company that I haven’t taken.  Usually you get some kind of a “scorecard” that you can post on your door or your desk to show others what type, score, or color you were rated at.

myersbriggstypeI’m actually a big fan of personality tests from a personal reflection standpoint, ever since I took my first Myers-Briggs in college.  I’ve usually been amazed at how accurately they seem to describe me after only answering multiple choice questions, without any face to face discussion or direct observation of my behaviors.  Some test result descriptions speak in generalities, while others seem to have been sitting in the room with you over the past month!

Many of the tests you take at work as part of a business team event are meant to identify strengths and weaknesses, better methods of how to communicate with each other, and when used properly are supposed to turn you into a more effective team.  My experience has been that managers and team members rarely know how to “use” the results to actually improve and realize the full potential of the information you just learned.  But you nearly always learn new things about your co-workers, which can lead to increased communication, therefore meeting success criteria for a teambuilding event.

dilbert relocation

This past week I switched offices at work.  I won’t go into all the waste I observed while only moving to another location 30 yards away.  But moving tendsinsights-discovery-wheel to be a great time for cleaning out all those old files, papers, and accumulated “stuff” that you forgot you still had.  (Yes, I know, I should have a better 5S system!)  While leafing through some of these documents, I found a personality test my group took in 2010, and decided to take a few minutes to read through it.  It reminded me that when I originally read through the report, I thought it to be an accurate assessment that described me to a T.  (“Color/Insights Wheel” from Gatehouse Alliance)

Several statements in the personality assessment really stood out to me that I can connect to Lean thinking:

  • Usually weighs up all relevant factors before reaching decisions – I like to evaluate multiple alternatives, I want to know how a decision in one area affects work in another area, negatively or positively (how it affects the overall value stream), and want to make sure root cause has been identified and verified before implementing solutions.
  • Can look for flaws and errors in almost everything – This can go both ways, because if you focus on nothing but problems and don’t celebrate any progress or accomplishments, it can be very demotivating.  On the positConCive side though, if you are of the mindset that everything can be improved in pursuit of the ideal, then this is a great skill to have vs. just saying everything is fine, let’s keep things how they are today.
  • Sees the world…as in which he can develop a series of procedures and regulations that will take care of the situation in hand – Process-oriented thinking, I see that there is a lot of opportunity to eliminate waste and defects by operating with the current least waste practice (and improving it!), and that I focus on the process and not the people.
  • May tend to believe that the success of the team and its individuals are a measure of his own success – I think the correct concept here is “servant leadership”.  Typically leaders are not the ones who create value in an organization, the team members are.  I believe the purpose of a leader in a lean environment is to develop the next generation of leaders by ensuring they have the opportunity to build capability, to remove obstacles from their work and their mindsets, and to ensure the team is working on projects aligned with the organization’s needs.
  • Ideal environment is one in which unity and cohesion prevail, theories and ideas have been tried and tested, clear rules and procedures exist – Here I see respect for people through respect for standard work and testing hypotheses, the organization is set up and connected in order to be highly efficient at creating value, and pathways for products and services are simple and direct.

Reading through these statements, I got to thinking about lean transformation.  There is no question; adopting and building a lean culture is difficult for most companies, and it takes time.  There are about as many recommendations out there for how to begin to transform as there are lean practitioners.  One common option is to choose a test area, try to apply the thinking and tools, generate, celebrate, share the good results and use the story to generate traction in other areas.  But how do you choose the right area?  Who are the right people to choose to lead the transformation?  Who are the right people to choose to do the work and learn the thinking first?  What kind of skills should you look for?

By most measures, I’d be considered an “early-adopter” in our culture change.  Lean thinking simply connected with the way I thought, or wanted to think.  Was there a chance I heatmapwas “hard-wired” for lean even before I learned what it was all about?

The bigger question is, can a tool like a personality test be used to identify key traits of potential early adopters and get them involved at the outset?  Or perhaps, could a widely distributed test give you an output that could be used like an organizational “heatmap” showing where higher densities of “hard-wired lean thinkers” exist, to help you choose your starting point?  Would there be value in knowing where you might find the path of least resistance and where you might encounter tougher than expected obstacles?

Just like any subjective test, data like this should be used as one of many decision criteria, not the only criteria.  The test is only as effective and accurate as the effort and information that people feed into it.  And I think for an effective lean transformation there need to be people who learn and apply the thinking and tools well, but there must also be individuals who are skilled in promoting and selling the change story to your organization, and these two skillsets may not always overlap.

Inspirational Quotes and Reflection

Tom SelleckI watch the show Blue Bloods, with Tom Selleck as the police commissioner of New York City.  He is portrayed as a very deep and wise thinker who does a lot of hansei, or reflection.  During a recent episode, he and several members of his family all seemed to know a particular Teddy Roosevelt quote, and it was one I didn’t know but as I heard them say the words I decided it would be one that I would look up and keep for future reference.  The particular quote was:

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Teddy Roosevelt

I suppose many people could infer many different things from this quote.  One reflection I took away from it was to push for excellence, push for greatness, push for improvement.  Many times during a lean transformation people discuss things in terms of “sounds nice, but we’ve never done it that way” or “wow, that would really help a lot, but when would we find the time?” or, “ok, let’s move forward but in small steps so we aren’t too disruptive.”  The kicker is, many of the “visions” people shy away from implementing or transforming into are countermeasures to the very reasons they hesitate: It is a new way, but it would be better; this would help free up time for improvement activities, the time you say you don’t have;  the move would be disruptive but would prevent disruption in the future.

The gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat” To me that is just an analogy for maintaining the status quo, for continuing along the same path you are already on, too hesitant to get your shoes dirty, step off the sidewalk, and walk through the field to try out the welcoming trail you see.  The bottom line is, if you see an improved future state, you should be moving towards it with purpose and vigor rather than hoping to eventually get there.  Sometimes you need to cut a new path through the weeds in order to reach that other trail across the field.

As I searched for the Roosevelt quote, I ended up looking through several other quotes from various sources.  I came across one I liked as well, one that I thought connected well with themes from a great book I am reading from and teaching from this year, “The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership” by Jeff Liker.  The quote was:

“As kids, we’re not taught how to deal with success; we’re taught how to deal with failure.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  If at first you succeed… then what?”

The theme I thought it connected well with was around reflection and self-development.  Whether you have just reached the end of a very successful project that made a lot of money and improved the quality of your product or service, or whether you just had a major quality issue arise that threatens your market share and reputation, you would approach each of these situations in the same way: deep reflection to understand how you could improve.

In so many cases we do not study and learn from our successes, we only do an autopsy when there is a failure.  Studying and learning from successes can be just as, if not more, powerful and valuable.  When we succeed we must ask why we were successful.  What really worked well?  What, even though we succeeded, could still be improved the next time we do this?  We must take these learnings and lock them in for the future, be disciplined to them, adopt them as the new best-known way to do things, share them with others… and continue to improve upon them.  Do what makes you successful, do it often, and then do it better.
Charlie Sheen

So I loved that quote, and then I was surprised at first when I looked down at the author.  Who other than the venerable Charlie Sheen.  Wisdom coming from a place I might least expect it, as least in recent months.  Thanks Charlie!