Improving a business is hard work. Sometimes we are happy where we are and don’t want to get better. Or maybe we cannot find a way to get better. As I sit and write this, I am looking at the former location for Border’s Books in Anchorage. About 200 yards away you can still see the sign for Sports Authority, a failed sporting goods retailer. A half mile down the road, a number of stores occupy the former CompUSA outlet. Schlotsky’s Deli occupies a building that used to house one of 2 Popeye’s franchises in Anchorage. And a recently burned down building on Dimond Boulevard at one time held a Skippers Restaurant. Businesses large and small fail on a regular basis. Why?
Angel Duckworth is an amazing intellect. As a scholar, she has been researching a quality she refers to as “Grit,” which is the title of her bestselling book. In her Ted Talk, a very brief talk filled with wisdom, she defined Grit as including “stamina,” “Sticking to your future,” and “working hard.” She said to life life like it’s a marathon.
In her book, among many other pearls of wisdom, she quotes William James from his paper titled “Energies of Men.”
“Compared with where we ought to be, we are only half awake.”
William James (1907)
In a Lean world, I feel this is also true. I am not innately gifted. But I understand hard work. Culturally, I was exposed to hard work as a blue collar concept. But I was not introduced to the same concept as an intellectual pursuit. I did not realize that hard work leads to achievement through study and time spent on task. I was introduced to the concept of 10,000 hours of effort as a requirement to become world class in an area of interest. Malcom Gladwell popularized Dr. Anders Ericsson’s research in his book, “The Tipping Point.” I read other books that expanded on the theory and bought into it gradually. I have 3 passions (other than my 3 children, who have always come first in my life after their births). They include coaching pitchers, Lean Management and restoring health after childhood trauma. I have spent thousands of hours asking questions and reading, writing and researching each topic. And I feel like I am only scratching the surface.
Lean Management became a passion when I realized that addressing issues of childhood trauma could only be achieved if we had resources available to fund programs. And with most organizations I encounter, they are generally on the brink of failure. Finding a pathway to success meant freeing up valuable resources that could be reallocated to restoring health lives.
My early experiences with business were with leaders raised in a command and control environment. I remember working in a process one time, set up by the CEO, and having difficulty making it work. I was basically told to get the task done or it was my job. The CEO had set up a difficult task and make me responsible for it, without any input into the process. I felt like a robot hired to follow orders. At the same time, there was incredible favoritism shown to other employees in the organization. It was not the kind of workplace I wanted to work in and predictably, I didn’t stay very long.
I learned early on that hard work doesn’t necessarily earn you credit for that work. In a one day job while during summer break from college, I was drilling a wire through a 2 inch plank to seal the end from splitting. The after I drilled though 12 inches of wood, I used pliers and a hammer to bend the wire and embed it into the wood. The planks were used in scaffolding. I was shown how to do the job and left alone. I made good progress. Before starting the day, I was told we were 3 days behind schedule for a project. By the end of the day, we were almost caught up. I recall standing up from the drilling work for a breather, and having the foreman ask what I was doing. When I told him, he ordered me back to drilling. He was standing and talking non business to another employee he appeared friendly with. Another hard lesson learned. Despite my productivity, I was not invited back.
A workplace is very complex. In larger workplaces, the top executives rarely visited where the work was done, and if they did, they were treated like royalty. None of the bosses I have worked for or with have much insight into how to improve the work they are responsible for. They are Derivative Thinkers, and I see the results. In our healthcare system, I have seen CEO’s buy into Baldrige, Balanced Scorecard, Six Sigma, Studer and a host of consultant led improvement. I have been interested in seeing the state of Alaska hold onto services during budget cutting through Lean Management, and again, see a lot of Derivative Thinking. Even adopting of Lean can be a Derivative Thinking event.
What I am learning from Dr. Duckworth is that we seldom become all we can. As William James stated over a century ago, we underperform as humans. We don’t wake up to the possibilities. Dr. Duckworth mentioned the work done by Dr. Carol Dweck at UCLA on mindset. Our ability to learn is not fixed, and if we pursue learning with stamina and determination, we will grow. What can limit our growth is a mindset established by being labeled talented, or superior, or smart. Then, according to Dr. Dweck’s research, we con’t challenge ourselves enough. Basically, we don’t allow ourselves to fail and learn from the failures.
In Alaska, I have encountered huge barriers to adoption of Lean done the right way. And just what is the right way? I believe the right way is as a culture inn which every employee is motivated to be wide awake, taught the skills of continuous improvement and let loose to get better, over time, with persistence and stamina. Employee mindset is critical to improvement, and most CEO’s don’t get it.
I have been looking at the possible existence of 2 pathways CEO’s follow. The first is creating true value through introduction of a Lean Management culture, or Innovative Thinking, requiring substantial study, hands on learning and direct observation. The second is a political approach, that is, keeping interested groups happy. CEO’s cater to boards of directors and foster friendships. This type of interaction makes it more difficult to hold the CEO accountable, and in many cases blinds you to defects. If there are, most CEO’s have ready explanations for less than good results. The economy is bad. We can’t hire the right employees. Our competitors are cheating. We need more capital resources. We don’t have enough employees. Our previous management team is to blame because they acquired the wrong businesses. It’s the fault of one of our employees and their team. The list is endless. Politics mean fostering relationships and keeping those who control your future happy, even it if means destroying value in the organization. That’s how I felt as an employee in the two organizations I mentioned in this post. Huge value was lost in both organizations, without consequence because of political relationships.
I have come to a belief that we create value by giving voice to employees working within an organization, while training and coaching them continuously on how to improve what we do. Taiichi Ohno understood the psychology of improvement. In Workplace Management, his book on the lessons he learned in his career, the following quote strikes me as most relevant.
“Why not make the work easier and more interesting so that people do not have to sweat?
The Toyota style is not to create results by working hard. It is a system that says there is no limit to people’s creativity. People don’t go to Toyota to ‘work’ they go there to ‘think.’”
We can guide our employees to the hard path of continuous improvement by welcoming them to participate in guiding the work. We have no right to tell them what to do as CEO’s, but we can establish a culture that lets them make their work easier and more interesting. We can teach them to use their brain to be innovative. Show them the direction to go and let them loose, with data, tools for their use, and motivation for getting better.
One more Ohno story before I end. Here is a [LINK] to the story.
“Give Everyone a Hard Time
Wakamatsu shared the following story of Taiichi Ohno in 1965 regarding the Toyota Corolla:
“Produce 5000 engines with less than 100 workers, ” Ohno ordered.
The production manager reported back to Ohno a few months later and said, “We are now able to produce 5000 engines with only 80 workers.
But the sale of the Corolla continued to rise requiring production to be increased. To this fact, Taiichi Ohno asked a question:
How many workers are needed to produce 10,000 engines?
The production manager responded quickly and said:
160 workers would be sufficient.
Wakamatsu then shared this response from Taiichi Ohno:
This answer infuriated Taiichi Ohno. “I learned how to figure out 8 x 2 = 16 in elementary school. I had never thought I would learn that again from you when I am this old. Do not treat me like a fool”
Ohno then added,
You are so accustomed to a notion that any form of increase in sales, labor, and equipment is considered favorable. But, how do you ensure that our profit keeps on increasing? That is the most critical factor.
According to Wakamatsu, Taiichi Ohno called the above logic “Management by Ninja Art“, in other words, even though demand increases, use your creativity to do more with much less and not rely on basic management arithmetic to solve the problem.”