Learning Systems Design from Dead Poets

“Why do I stand up here?  I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.  You see the world looks very different up here … Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way.  Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try.” – Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society (1989)

Getting teams to look at processes in a different way can be both one of the biggest challenges and fruitful exercises a leader can undertake.  Merely enabling people to see their job from a fresh perspective can lead to new insights and generate a rush of improvement ideas.  Taichii Ohno (founder of the Toyota Production System) was famous for requiring leaders to spend hours standing in a circle on the shop floor and observing a process until the waste “revealed itself.”  The problem with getting people to look at their process and see the opportunities for improvement is that our brains are hardwired to see the world the way we want to see it rather than the way it is.  So in order to get teams to see their process differently, you often need to force a change in scenery.

That being said, the following are two simple techniques we use when redesigning systems that challenge teams to look at their process from a new perspective and expose problems in real time:

Break the work – “artificially” breaking up the work can be very effective way to increase collaboration by adding immediate feedback loops.  As teams redistribute work and struggle to meet their goals, the increased interactions generate insightful questions regarding individual behaviors, standard work requirements, and single points of failure in the system.

Rotate the work – frequently rotating the work can be helpful in two ways.  First, changing roles in a process allows the team to systematically and frequently “bring in a fresh set of eyes.”  Second, forcing the team to break down the job into its simplest elements and cross train helps drive innovation as they must question every detail and look for ways to translate and train the work more effectively.

Finally, in addition to designing systems which expose new opportunities, remember the power of setting a goal for ideas.  Paul Cook once noted that “To be an innovative organization, you have to ask for innovation.  You assemble a group of talented people who are eager to do new things and put them in an environment where innovation is expected.  It’s that simple…”  When Robin Williams challenges his students to think differently, he does not merely suggest everyone stand on the desk and look at the world from a different perspective…he makes everyone get out of their seat and physically stand on his desk.  The same is true for innovation.  Don’t beat around the bush with your goal for getting new ideas.  Contrary to what some leaders believe, setting challenging expectations for the number of new ideas generated and implemented can lead to increased motivation, fresh insights and improved business results.

 

Seeing What Makes Processes Tick

Daniel Weil is a partner of Pentagram and a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art.  Daniel has been working as an architect and designer since 1977 and his projects have included products, packaging, interiors and art direction for such companies as Swatch, Lego, and United Airlines.  Recently, Daniel was privately commissioned to create a gift for an architect.  The result was a one-of-a-kind clock that is both simple and complex and reflects his interest in investigating not only how objects look, but how they work.

“Objects like clocks are both prosaic and profound,” says Weil.  “Prosiac because of their ubiquity in everyday life, profound because of the mysterious nature of time itself. Time can be reduced to hours, minutes and seconds, just as a clock can be reduced to its component parts. This doesn’t explain time, but in a way simply exposes its mysterious essence.”

In addition to being a functional work of art, the clock represents a great example of the role visual management should play in process improvement.  While good visual systems don’t explain every detail of a process, they should allow a team see how a process works in real time and help “expose its mysterious essence.”  Further, by designing visual management systems which allow the team to see and easily interact with the inner workings of a process, it becomes easier to maintain, repair and improve the process as needed.

Like Weil’s clock, visuals should help explain, very simply, and elegantly, what make’s the process tick.  When done well, the blend of visual displays, visual controls and systems design give the team the opportunity to easily see the nuts and bolts of a process as they work the process.  Armed with the ability to “see” the process and its problems, teams are better able to both understand what impedes productivity as well as suggest ideas for improvement.

Contrary to the old saying, when it comes to visually management, I don’t just want to know what time it is…I want to know how to build the watch.

Redesigning an Industry Icon

Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally was a runaway winner of the 2010 MarketWatch CEO of the year, easily beating out Steve Jobs, Vikram Pandit, Jeff Bezos and Reed Hastings.  Since the hiring of Mulally in 2006, Ford has been on a roll.  While Ford continued to post financial losses through 2008, the company turned the corner in 2009 and started to reap the benefits of Mulally’s turnaround strategy.  Sales and profits are up, the stock quadrupled in 2009 and doubled again in 2010 and the company has gained market share in back-to-back years for the first time since 1993.  The company even posted its best third quarter profit ($1.7 billion) in over 20 years.

So how did an old aerospace guy with no automotive experience turnaround a struggling industrial icon?  Let’s look at six elements of Mulally’s strategy that have enabled Ford to transform their financial and cultural picture in four short years:

Create a Simple and Compelling Message – By defining a simple, but powerful mission to build higher quality, more fuel efficient, safer cars, Mulally gave Ford’s employees something they craved: a message they could rally around and a vision of a company in which they could believe.  “The more each of us knows what we’re really contributing to, the more motivated and excited and inspired we are.”

Make it About the Long Term – Second, Mulally invested in a long-range plan to create a global design language he called “One Ford.”  The One Ford strategy meant selling off higher profile brands (Land Rover, Jaguar, Aston Marton and Volvo), bringing back a completely redesigned Taurus, and designing cars on a global platform.

Exude Contagious Optimism – Mullally understands that his positive energy is contagious.  He exudes an optimism that is both inspiring and credible.  He has an unwavering belief in his team’s plan, balanced by relentless realism about current market conditions, and a willingness to make adjustments along the way.

Develop a Truth Telling Culture – Mulally has created a culture in which telling the truth is paramount and gets rewarded.  As an example, Mulally presides over a weekly “Business Plan Review” where the heads of Ford’s four profit centers and its 12 functional heads report on progress relative to their targets, share problems and collaborate on ideas for improvement.

Be Profitable on Lower Volumes – Under Mulally’s leadership Ford has reduced structural costs by more than $10 billion and will have reduced its production capacity by 40% by the end of next year.  In a drive to be right-sized, Ford now has fewer factories, each producing more vehicles, which has allowed the company to be profitable at near-record-low sales levels.

Create Intimate Customer Relationships – Led by Scott Monty and his talented social media team, Ford has created an extensive online presence committed to creating transparency during the turnaround.  In addition, Monty launched “The Ford Story,” a social media hub which builds intimate customer relationships through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other online communities.

Regardless of your size, industry or business goals, Mulally’s vision and values are equally relevant to every leader responsible for aligning people and driving change.  If you want to dramatically increase your effectiveness and post unprecedented results, “stand for something beyond profit…rally your employees around a shared mission…practice realistic optimism…and tell the truth without fear.”

Visual Problem Solving

Tom Wujec is a Fellow at Autodesk, the world’s leader in 2D & 3D design software.  He has brought several software applications to market, including SketchBook Pro, PortfolioWall, and Maya which won an Academy Award for its contribution to the film industry.  Given Tom’s expertise with technology and software, some might find it surprising to learn that he is also a pioneer in the use of simple, interactive visuals to help teams solve problems.  Using images, sketches, and animations, Tom and his team make complex ideas understandable by making them visible and tangible.

So why should Tom’s work at Autodesk be of interest to you?  As I have written before, neuroscientists have discovered that we don’t actually “see the world as it is.”  Rather, our brain filters the information it receives based on past experiences to create the view of the world we have around us.  As Tom describes it, our brains conduct a “visual interrogation” of everything we see by asking a series of questions and creating a mental model based upon the answers.  The depth and variety of questions our brains ask (where, how, location, number, why, color, when, shape, size, what) is dictated by the richness of the images it encounters.  The richer and more diverse the images, the more of the brain’s three primary regions are utilized in processing the image to create meaning.

Since one of our goals as leaders is to improve the effectiveness of our organizational problem solving, Tom’s work provides us with a couple of interesting lessons:

First, make problem solving more visual.  Rather than merely using data points and words to describe, analyze and solve problems, use images.  Images help the brain clarify ideas, identify underlying patterns of logic, and create meaning.  As opposed to numbers and words, a good visual invites the eyes to dart around and engage the entire brain to create a visual logic and make sense of the information to which it is being exposed.  The more fully the brain is engaged in the act of analyzing and creating meaning, the richer the outcome of the problem solving activities will be.

Second, make your problem solving more interactive.  The act of creating a visual narrative of the problem solving process is critical to the team’s ownership of the problem as well as their engagement in finding a solution.  The more the team creates the visual logic used to tell the story of the problem and what caused it, the more vested they will be in the outcome.

Creating a culture of continuous improvement requires both engaging people in the process of identifying and solving problems as well as providing them with the tools to do so.  Most traditional approaches to problem solving fail to inspire people and generate creative solutions.  They lack both a visual component to kick the entire brain into action as well as a sufficient level of interactivity to create ownership between the team and the problem.  By challenging teams to use images to identify underlying patterns and create meaning, you just might be surprised at the improvement in both the quality of thought as well as improvement ideas.

Show Up and Start Anywhere

“If they had to wait for inspiration or a good idea, few scenes would ever begin.  Players step onto the stage because that is where things are happening.  They just show up.  Then the magic begins.” – Patricia Ryan Madson

We make change too complicated.  We seem to find endless reasons to talk more and do less; waiting for the perfect answer rather than experimenting to develop the right answer.  The secret to great results is focusing on a compelling vision, adapting to changing situations, and above all, taking action.  80% of the battle is just showing up and putting yourself in a position to succeed.

Improv actors understand this principle.  They live in a world of real time creation and creativity, where success depends on taking risk, being present and accepting all offers.  As opposed to most leaders, improv actors spend more time working on adapting to a fluid environment than trying to control their environment through better scripts.  They understand that in order to discover new lands you must be willing to loose site of the shore and embrace the unknown.  In the process however, improv actors also experience the joy of discovery and create unique works of art each time they step on stage.

So how can we apply the principles of improvisational theatre to our change process?

First, don’t wait for million dollar ideas.  There aren’t many million dollar ideas out there to be found and you will pass up millions of dollars in good ideas while you search in vain for the big one.  Second, don’t overanalyze the obvious.  Far too often we give ourselves analysis paralysis by making more out of the situation than is warranted.  Improving a process is not that complicated, so don’t make it more difficult than it needs to be.  “Sometimes a duck is just a duck.”  Finally, don’t worry too much about where to start .  When faced with the task of creating a culture of continuous improvement, trying to find the “right starting point” only wastes time.  Begin with the most obvious need and focus your energy on where you can take action now.  Once you take action and get your first improvements underway, you will have a more realistic perspective of both the problems and the possible solutions.

Above all, rather than worry about what might be, concentrate on what is and liberate yourself from the fear of the unknown.  Focus on developing your current ideas into great ideas through experimentation, rather than waiting to think of “great ideas.”  Once you take action and engage people through active participation, the path to creating the culture you want will begin to reveal itself.

Cracking the Code on Engagement

“An experienced code breaker will tell you that in order to figure out what the symbols in a code mean, it is essential to be able to play with them…to rearrange them at will.” – Gero Miesenboeck

The Rosslyn Chapel was founded by William Sinclair in Roslin, Midlothian, Scotland in the mid-15th century.  The chapel stands on fourteen pillars, which form an arcade of twelve pointed arches on three sides of the nave and its architecture is considered to be some of the finest architecture in Scotland.  Among Rosslyn’s intricate carvings are a sequence of 213 cubes protruding from the pillars and arches with geometric patterns on them.  While no interpretation of the patterns has proven conclusive, Tommy and Stuart Mitchell believe the symbols represent pitches and tones which reveal a melodic and harmonic progression.  Thomas Mitchell combined the code breaking skills he learned during the Korean War with a lifetime knowledge of classical music to unlock a piece of music hidden in the chapel’s arches.  After 27 years of study and research using cymatics (a musical system in which patterns are formed by sound waves at specific pitches), the father and son team produced a tone which Stuart calls the Rosslyn Motet.

Mitchell’s success required dedication, careful analysis, and a bit of luck.  Most of all, it required Mitchell and his son to experiment with sand, sound, pitch and patterns.  We too must be prepared to play with a variety of tools and techniques if we are to discover the secrets of motivating people to participate in change.  Like all code breakers, our goal is to identify a “pattern of right behaviors” which will enable leaders to consistently inspire and engage those they lead.  In our attempt to identify the right behaviors, there are three additional skills we need to successfully crack the engagement code.

First, you need patience and perseverance.  Recognizing the pattern of right behaviors takes time and can often feel as if you are making little progress as your brain wrestles with seemingly contradictory information and attempts to rearrange the inputs to identify the pattern.  You may also need to retrace your steps and/or start over when one line of investigation ends with little to no results.

Second, you must have a strong familiarity with the language in which the code is written, so be prepared to become a student of human behavior and spend time in the trenches working with teams implementing change.

Finally, as you begin to learn the language of human behavior, you need to understand its inherent rules.  All languages (including human behavior) contain redundant qualities and patterns of frequency.  Learning how to read these patterns and recognize redundant behavioral trends can help you understand the messages being conveyed and the reasons behind them.

Code breakers approach complex problems with a mix of experience, ingenuity and curiosity.  Blending their knowledge of the code’s language with a structured approach to experimentation, code breakers identify the underlying pattern to crack the code.   By using a similar approach to the problem of engagement, we may finally be able to “crack the code” of motivating people to change their behavior.

Managing Rapid Change on a Large Scale

For Starbucks, the world’s leading retailer, roaster, and brand of speciality coffee, 2008 was a tough year.  Amid a struggling economy and increased competition from cheaper rivals, the company’s net income during the first three months of the year fell 28 percent compared to the same period in 2007. Starbucks’ founder Howard Schultz announced that the company had “lost its way,” becoming too standard and corporate, and less entrepreneurial—less like a local coffee shop.  Shultz resumed the role of CEO and president, and for the first time the company closed stores on a broad scale.

Fast forward a year.  Starbucks posts a 4-percent growth in total sales, comparable store sales are up 4 percent (driven by increases in store traffic and average ticket price), and the company’s margins are up 8.5 percent.  As a result, the company’s earnings jump to $241.5 million in the final quarter of 2009, more than three times the $64.3 million seen a year earlier.  Even more impressive is that Starbucks’ consumer research shows higher satisfaction in every major indicator, such as value perception and experience, compared with 2008.

So why should you care about Starbucks’ turnaround?

Aside from the obvious financial success, the methodology behind the transformation reveals important lessons about driving rapid change on a large-scale.  Although many analysts would argue that the turnaround was due to store closures, aggressive cost cutting, and price increases, Shultz would take offense at this “financially focused” view of the transformation.  Starbucks did shore up key financial metrics, but Shultz’s vision for the company’s turnaround was to reconnect with its past: build upon the legacy of innovation and provide customers with a distinctive “Starbucks experience.”

In the July/August 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review, Shultz discussed his views of the four key elements to the dramatic turnaround at Starbucks:

Own the issues.  The first step of the turnaround was to challenge the leadership team to accept responsibility for the self-induced mistakes.  This started with Shultz.  As chairman of the board, Shultz acknowledged to the entire company that he was just as much to blame for the current situation as operational leaders.  An often overlooked step in the process, leaders “owning reality” is critical to expediting change.  Without the willingness to take responsibility, leaders spend their time justifying past decisions and protecting sacred cows, rather than learning from mistakes and making immediate course corrections.

Engage leadership in the process.  It was critical to Shultz that all managers and leaders own the relationship between each barista and customer.  “One cup of coffee, one customer, one barista at a time.”  To help ensure this, Shultz created a very public expression of this commitment to be accountable and responsible for each and every customer experience.  In the midst of financial woes, the company spent $30 million and took all 10,000 store managers to New Orleans for a company conference.  Prior to the start of the conference, every manager participated in five hours of community service (50,000 hours in total).  Using their hands, heads, legs, and backs, the team kicked off their renewed commitment to customer service by doing service.

Raise revenue and cut cost. After getting buy-in from company leaders, the team initiated a number of improvements aimed at quickly changing the financial condition of the company.  During the course of the first year, the company cut $581 million in costs, of which 99 percent were permanent and not customer-facing.  The company also made a number of changes in the stores to better align product and service offerings, including reintroducing Pike’s Place blend, selling healthier snacks, and launching a new loyalty card.  Finally, Starbucks ignored conventional advice and launched its highly popular VIA instant coffee.  With $100 million in annual sales during its first year, VIA provided a much needed shot in the arm as well as opened more than 30,000 new points of distribution for the company.

Focus on the customer experience.  As Shultz stated, Starbucks brand is based on quality coffee, but more important, on the relationship each customer has with a barista.  In a society where good service is rare and basic decency is often absent, Shultz decided the company would take a stand and demonstrate civility, respect, and trust in each customer interaction.  In addition, much to the dismay of Wall Street, Shultz got rid of reporting monthly metrics at the store level to move the pressure from producing good numbers to producing a good experience.  Finally, Starbucks launched www.mystarbucksidea.com as part of a new social networking strategy to connect the company with its customers in real time.  My Starbucks Idea is a portal that allows customers to suggest improvements to the store, products, and pricing, and for other customers to vote and identify the most popular ideas.  Actual Starbucks employees engage with the customers each week, respond to the ideas, and when an idea is selected, provide timetables and commentary on the implementation.  The portal generated more than 75,000 ideas in its first year alone.

At its core, “Starbucks represents something beyond a cup of coffee,” says Shultz.  While targeted revenue and cost improvements are one of the four primary elements of Starbucks’ transformation, Shultz emphatically states that it was the focus on the leadership engagement and creating a unique customer experience that were the secret to the success.

Like Starbucks, if we want to create an environment where passion drives our people and people drive our profits, we need to view change as something beyond the tools and techniques of continuous improvement.  Developing a lean culture is not the byproduct of achieving financial results through targeted kaizen events and Six Sigma projects.  In our desire to drive business results, we often let data, metrics, and financial impacts take precedence over crafting an inspiring vision and creating an emotional connection between our people and a larger purpose.

To accelerate your results, spend less time defining the what and how of continuous improvement, and more time defining who and why.  Engage people with an inspiring vision and connect their activities through aligned management systems.  By pointing the organization toward a customer-centric future state and giving people the autonomy to change products, services, and processes to achieve their goals, the organization can exponentially increase its success.