Product Innovation vs Operational Excellence (or, Magic vs. Might?)


Warrior vs Sorcerer

Warrior vs Sorcerer by Pydracor on

There is so much written about innovation these days, it’s mind numbing.  Most of what you read, however, is all about product innovation – and there is very, very little written about process innovation.

Product innovation is something that is discussed as almost ethereal.  It is something that comes about through a little bit of magic & wizardry.  It’s romantic, intellectual, and fun.  It is the thing that enables companies like Apple & Google to push to the forefront of their industries and become the giga-bucks companies other people write books about.  It is the Holy Grail of major corporations and startups alike – both are encouraged to go on a quest for the magical, mystical powers of innovation.

Product innovation appears to be the realm of the unexplainable – that the way to go about that business is to assume a muse, or some divine spark is, ultimately, going to descend upon the workers bees and imbue them with the powers of insight and creativity.  You have to create innovation space, and adopt managerial styles and practices, that allow creativity to flourish.

Process innovation, on the other hand, is seen as something a little more grungy and foul-smelling.  It is the world of brute force and awkwardness, no matter how elegant it tries to become.  Process innovation tends to be something that people feel can be learned.  All you need to do is study Toyota, or Southwest Airlines, or General Electric and Motorola – and you will soon understand the simplicity of process innovation and be able to apply it easily, right?


The world is littered with great product ideas that could not be produced, as well as with companies that couldn’t sustain their operations long enough to even see the next wave of competitors, much less contend with them.    It doesn’t really matter if you have a great idea, but can’t operate the company, and especially not in the long run.

Even Google, which would seem to be a company based on Magic over Might, understands the need for a strong Operational focus in order to achieve the much-sought-after essence of Innovation.  Consider this passage from their recruitment site (emphasis added by me):

How we hire

We’re looking for our next Noogler – someone who’s good for the role, good for Google and good at lots of things.

Things move quickly around here. At Internet speed. That means we have to be nimble, both in how we work and how we hire. We look for people who are great at lots of things, love big challenges and welcome big changes. We can’t have too many specialists in just one particular area. We’re looking for people who are good for Google—and not just for right now, but for the long term.

This is the core of how we hire. Our process is pretty basic; the path to getting hired usually involves a first conversation with a recruiter, a phone interview and an onsite interview at one of our offices. But there are a few things we’ve baked in along the way that make getting hired at Google a little different.

How we interview

We’re looking for smart, team-oriented people who can get things done. When you interview at Google, you’ll likely interview with four or five Googlers. They’re looking for four things:


We’ll want to know how you’ve flexed different muscles in different situations in order to mobilize a team. This might be by asserting a leadership role at work or with an organization, or by helping a team succeed when you weren’t officially appointed as the leader.

Role-Related Knowledge

We’re looking for people who have a variety of strengths and passions, not just isolated skill sets. We also want to make sure that you have the experience and the background that will set you up for success in your role. For engineering candidates in particular, we’ll be looking to check out your coding skills and technical areas of expertise.

How You Think

We’re less concerned about grades and transcripts and more interested in how you think. We’re likely to ask you some role-related questions that provide insight into how you solve problems. Show us how you would tackle the problem presented–don’t get hung up on nailing the “right” answer.


We want to get a feel for what makes you, well, you. We also want to make sure this is a place you’ll thrive, so we’ll be looking for signs around your comfort with ambiguity, your bias to action and your collaborative nature.

How we decide

There are also a few other things we do to make sure we’re always hiring the right candidate for the right role and for Google.

We collect feedback from multiple Googlers

At Google, you work on tons of projects with different groups of Googlers, across many teams and time zones. To give you a sense of what working here is really like, some of your interviewers could be potential teammates, but some interviewers will be with other teams. This helps us see how you might collaborate and fit in at Google overall.

Independent committees of Googlers help us ensure we’re hiring for the long term

An independent committee of Googlers review feedback from all of the interviewers. This committee is responsible for ensuring our hiring process is fair and that we’re holding true to our “good for Google” standards as we grow.

We believe that if you hire great people and involve them intensively in the hiring process, you’ll get more great people. Over the past couple of years, we’ve spent a lot of time making our hiring process as efficient as possible – reducing time-to-hire and increasing our communications to candidates. While involving Googlers in our process does take longer, we believe it’s worth it. Our early Googlers identified these principles more than ten years ago, and it’s what allows us to hold true to who we are as we grow.

These core principles are true across Google, but when it comes to specifics, there are some pieces of our process that look a little different across teams. Our recruiters can help you navigate through these as the time comes.

At Google, we don’t just accept difference – we celebrate it, we support it, and we thrive on it for the benefit of our employees, our products and our community. Google is proud to be an equal opportunity workplace and is an affirmative action employer.


So……these wizards of innovation have a clearly operational focus – collaboration, trust, responsibility, a focus on the long-term, and all of those things emphasized right from the beginning – in the hiring process – to make sure the company is populated with people who allow the organization to sustain its operational focus.

That is the strength of the organization – not it’s magical ability to develop innovative products & solutions, but it’s powerful, day-to-day, operational focus and wherewithal to sustain it.  No matter the industry, any organization without a sense of its self and dedication to the every day operational activities of the company, will fail in its quest.  Others will out-innovate and pass you by, talent will leave the organization and, at best, you will find yourself an also-ran in the market desperately clinging to a plummeting reputation as you pursue weaker and weaker opportunities until, eventually, the light goes out.

Raising awareness of ROWE and Lean, redux


Upon_Reflection_by_Cynnalia on

It has been some time since I’ve written about ROWE and Lean, thanks to some personal ups and downs and the need to sit back and reflect a little on what I learned after bringing the ROWE and Lean communities together.  So, I thought it time to re-visit the situation and report on what I’ve learned so far.

In my investigation of ROWE and Lean, I initiated the process with the belief that ROWE could help Lean.  My conlcusion is a firm and definite…..maybe.

ROWE has shortcomings.  They are well explained here, via a blog by Scott Rutherford.  ROWE, if left alone and perceived as the end goal, leads only to suboptimization.  The approach is incomplete.  It might help get Lean off the ground, but that realization only solidifes ROWE’s role as a launchpad, not as an overall management philosophy, which Lean is.

In his comments on a recent post to his site, Dan Markovitz stated “Respect without tools leads to feel-good mediocrity.”  Which serves as a warning that ROWE, without an overarching framework for continuous improvement, does not have the ooomph! to prevent or rescue failing organiztions.  ROWE is incomplete.

That’s not to say it is without its merits.  ROWE can create engagement, but there’s a lot of care needed to make sure that engagement is for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.  Taking the day off due to burnout is good.  Taking the day off because I’m sick and tired of dealing with bullshit is not.  Fixing the problem, or learning how to influence the problem, or experimenting with methods for identifying problems,  is a much better result  for everyone than disappearing for the afternoon because there’s “nothing to do.”

Where ROWE is cool, and I mean really, really cool – is when it acknowledges the people side of things – that there are concerns outside of work that might keep me from being in the office, and if you let me take care of those things when I need to, I will pay you back with interest.  THAT is a good thing.  But when the people that do the work are left entirely on their own to organize themselves, without anyone to oversee the process, that is not good management – that is the acceptance of bad management as some kind of innate, inevitable truth.  Yes, we need to be much more centered on allowing people the freedom to perform without paternalistic, demeaning oversight.  Even the best of flocks need shepherds to guide and direct the herd, though.  When the humanistic approach gets elevated, everyone wins.  When it gets glorified, everyone loses.

Look at this post called Go the F**k home, courtesy of Tim McMahon’s blog.  I don’t want people who get fed up and go home.  I want people who are so fed up they begin to investigate the means of identifying mura and muri, and the countermeasures for reducing and eliminating waste, to the point that no one ever is so overburdened that they NEED to work late, or want to just to keep up appearances.

Yes, everyone would like to work where they want, when they want, to be known as a responsible agent capable of determining their own impact on the organization and entrusted with the responsibility for doing what is right or needs to be done.  Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-well-known reality of problem solving that a person has to exist outside of the process that created the problem in order to truly see where the errors occur.  That means a wizened and experienced group of people have to be monitoring that process and the system within which those processes occur.  This means LEADERSHIP.  The real problem we seen in so many organizations, however, is that leadership is absent or weak, and defines itself as the ability to push people around rather than push obstacles out of people’s way.  We are left, instead, with a caste of managers whose greatest wish is to never have to deal with their staff on a personal level or report a problem upwards…which is the antithesis of leadership.

With good leadership, any approach can be successful.  Without it, any approach is doomed.  The question, then, is which is likely to produce good leaders – ROWE or Lean?  If the situations at Best Buy and Toyota are taken as examples, the answer to that question is obvious.

ROWE is enticing, as are any other arrangements that promise more freedom, respect, responsibility and control.  Unfortunately, too many of those things leads only to under-performance and, at the extremes…chaos or stagnation.  Direction and organization are mandatory, too, and they often can’t take place without a good, swift kick in the butt taking place.

ROWE, at its best, might be able to point out Fake Lean and help Lean initiatives get off the ground, but that only highlights that embarking upon a Lean journey ought to focus on True Lean from the outset.  Doing so would invoke the same concern for individuals, in all respects, that ROWE focuses on anyway.

In the end, my conclusion is this – ROWE is, clearly, the way people want to work.  Lean is, equally clearly, the way that they should.

Unlimited vacation, unlimited responsibility….for management

working outdoors

Studying outdoors by ubul on

There’s been a lot written recently about companies that have adopted a very ROWE-like approach to vacation time:  It’s unlimited.  Simply get your work done, or make sure someone can do it in your stead so that work processes can continue, and go ahead and do whatever you need to do.  This article on demonstrates how the unlimited vacation ideal has been implemented at Red Frog Events.

The policies are certainly enticing and might be a useful countermeasure to a long understood problem – that people are not treated like adults and, if left alone in an environment of enthusiasm and trust, will not abuse the privilege.  Not abusing the privilege, however, somehow implies that the individual contributor has full knowledge of the entire flow of work within the office and their role in it.

That is an ideal – a completely engaged workforce with a 100% clear understanding of the value stream and its day-to-day operations.  If that occurs, and you believe in people’s intrinsic motivations to always do the “right thing,” then unfettered vacation policies make sense and seem to be a good idea.

Unfortunately, there are some fatal flaws in the concept, which a good dose of Lean thinking addresses.  As I mentioned in response to some comments left on the ROWE: An attempt at achieving the Lean Ideal? post, if you have 2 employees working on the same task, and one takes all week while another is finished on Tuesday – that’s not necessarily an indication that you have one super-capable person and on slacker.  It could simply mean you have 1 innovator and 1 very hard worker who gets results even with the most inefficient methods – and they are not talking to each other.  While traditional management would say this is a fine way to go about work, enlightened thinking realizes the hard-working person is going to burn out and the other person has simply developed a better method, for which he or she gets to leave the office rather than share the wisdom.

The true burden for making unlimited vacation work rests not on the workers for knowing what’s coming down the pipe and, therefore, which days they can take off.  The burden rests on low-level managers who are aware of not just the workflow – but also have an emotional connection to the individuals placed within their area of control.  If you have a person showing signs of burnout, it’s not enough to just tell him or her to take the day off.  Someone needs to assess the costs of having that person out of the office vs. the decrease in productivity or creativity (or anything else that is valued deeply).  Any action must be judged by someone able to see the entire system.  Most normal, healthy individuals are going to look for more time away from the office.  A more wizened professional, however, should have more visibility into how losing a resource has far greater impacts across the organization.

The role of management in an environment that supports unlimited vacation is a crucial one.  It necessitates that managers have a handle on the value stream and the ability to establish multiple workaround paths and redundancies to ensure work continues no matter who is in the office or on the shop floor.

Which, when you stop to think of it, isn’t just  a necessary component of good culture – it’s a fundamental for good business management practices.

Respect for People is not Respect for Person, just ask Clint Eastwood



On my mind lately is the concept of “Respect for People” that is at the core of Lean and one of the fundamental building blocks of the Shingo Model.

I remember just about 3 years ago, as I was first introduced to Lean via the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership, there was a video in which Bruce Hamilton mentioned that, sometimes, leaders need to tell the late adopters to get with the program.  “Wait a minute…” I thought. “Doesn’t that contradict the need for management to show concern for each of their charges, and guide them to accepting new ways of thinking & doing?”

I’ve carried that thought with me for some time, and as I continue to evolve my understanding of what the Lean school of thought teaches, I’ve come to realize the error of my previous assumption.

What I have finally come to realize is that Respecting People is a focus on People and not necessary any one single individual within the group.  If you are bending over backwards to accommodate each individual person, you are detracting from the ability of the group to survive, as a whole.  It has taken me a long time to come to this realization.

Lean is about systems.  More importantly, it is about how individuals within systems interact.  So, that necessitates an understanding of how the individual becomes a functioning part of a greater whole.  Coupled with that, is the belief that the role of Leaders is to build teams.  In order to lead individuals to become a valued part of the whole, to the benefit of the system for the benefit of the individual (and not the other way around), it is occasionally necessary to kick a person square in the ass.

The difference between most, traditional management we see and useful foot-in-seat-of-pants action is usually one of experience.  A good leader will make you better than what you are, because he or she knows who you need to become as an individual in order to become part of the team.  The leader knows this, not through some education received in a classroom, but through hard experience.  Simply put, the leader has been there before and knows the way, and is able to get you to the same point.  This does not, automatically, necessitate being nice and pleasant and sidestepping difficult, personality issues or simply telling people how wonderful they are.  On occasion, it requires a stiff hand and a stern voice.

While I suppose I could go on describing any number of situations or personal recollections to illustrate my point, I think there’s a perfectly good example already.  In the 1986 film, HeartBreak Ridge, Clint Eastwood plays Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and just about the toughest SOB to ever walk the planet.  His job is to take the ridiculously inept crew he’s been assigned to and turn then into a proper group of Marines.  While his men certainly don’t like the treatment he gives them, they also certainly come to appreciate it when their performance, as a group, turns around.  Most importantly they appreciate it when the long days of hard training and constant, cranky barbs from “Gunny” have prepared them for battle and helped them to stay alive.

Like the Recon Marines under Sergeant Highway’s command, I can also say that one of the toughest-on-me bosses I’ve ever had (which is very different from the “tough” bosses I’ve had) was also the one I learned the most from.  With that in mind, perhaps it’s time we take a step back and decide if we’re really thinking about respecting people when we talk continuous improvement, or just the person?

ROWE: An attempt at achieving the Lean Ideal?


Roundabout by juiCZe on

In the past few months that I’ve been blogging about ROWE, I have been poking at how the two concepts might help to reinforce each other, with the premise that ROWE-thinking could help to enable Lean-thinking by overcoming the tools-based focus that is so prevalent in Lean implementations and, instead, returning the focus to the culture where I believe it belongs.

I managed to pursue my curiosity to the point that I was able to have one-on-one discussions with one of ROWE’s creators, and I sparked the curiosity of several recognized Lean thought leaders as well.  After stirring the pot and looking for the common ground between the two, I am now wondering if my original theory – that ROWE could enable Lean – was a bit backwards.

Tuesday, when Mark Graban appeared on the Results-Only Live radio show, the conversation centered around the similarities both the Lean and ROWE community face when attempting to change the leadership styles and culture I posed this question via twitter (and, yes, I realize the irony in the fact that I wasn’t able to call in because I was busy at work!):

Is Lean enabled by ROWE, or is ROWE an attempt to achieve the Lean ideal?

Whereas I began this comparison of ROWE and Lean believing the former, I am starting to believe it is the latter.  ROWE, as Mark indicated on the show, is a response to the same problem Lean sees – people are underutilized and non-value-added activities are everywhere.  So, what ROWE has attempted to do is eliminate that waste and utilize people to their fullest.  It also does so in an intuitive fashion, and returns the gains back to the workers in terms of control over their time and freedom to work when and where they please.  All of which is very enticing to all ranks of the organization, at a personal level.

Lean’s bad rap stemming from the terrible implementations of the practice due to a misunderstanding of Lean principles is an issue to be addressed, to be certain.  What I am currently considering, however, isn’t how much ROWE’s perspective can be used to help overcome bad implementations, but why a whole other paradigm should be layered on top of “Bad” Lean just to make it go better.  Why not just focus on making True Lean, which has a well-developed set of principles and tools, the norm?  If we’re focusing on making Bad Lean more palatable, aren’t we missing a focus on the root cause and, instead, focusing on doing expertly that which should not be done at all?

As I have mentioned on this blog and others is that the countermeasures to that problem are much more well developed in the Lean school of thought.  Which begs the question, if “Good” Lean and ROWE are seeing the same problem, with the same end goals in mind, and Lean has a much more robust and mature tool set – shouldn’t we be focusing on understanding on making the adoption of “Good” Lean the norm, and not on adopting ROWE to overcome the bad?