Stump the Chump, and the Steve Jobs Paradox?

Paradox
Paradox

iTime paradox by IlookingYou

Two weeks ago, I delivered the presentation that’s been adorning the home page to a monthly meeting of the New Hampshire chapter of the project management institute.  That presentation was drawn from a series I put on the blog just a little over a year and a half ago, where I made a connection between common, sub-optimal activities that are found in project environments and Lean’s 7 wastes.

I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to stand up and speak about how Lean is not a set of cost reduction techniques nor a quality assurance program, but a philosophy of how organizations work, how people work, and of how people within organizations work.  While several in the audience were expecting a discussion of Agile software development when they heard the topic would be about Lean in Project Management, I think my focus on understanding environments and behaviors resonated with a few of the audience members.  Many asked if they could obtain a copy of the presentation, which I took to be quite the complement, also.

If the Q&A that followed, however, I was asked a question that – as I put it, “Stumped the Chump.”  One gentleman asked, in response to the portions of my presentation that focused on the Respect for People foundation of Lean and, in particular, the Shingo model, how I would characterize Steve Jobs and Apple’s success, given that Jobs was a well-known egomaniac and had a reputation for being quite stern and non-compromising.

While some members of the audience offered their take on what might have happened at Apple as others took up the cause of Respect for People and the “appropriate” management styles, in an effort to help me out as I stated that the question would require some thought, I thought up my response.  I briefly recounted my understanding of the work Steve Jobs did at Pixar, and the interpersonal dynamics he created within the hallways of Pixar (quite literally) that fostered collaboration and creativity – including several dynamics for idea sharing and generation that were drawn from – you guessed it – the Toyota Production System.

While this answer satisfied the gentleman asking the question, it has stuck with me for the past couple of weeks, as I felt the need to contemplate the question a bit further.  What I may have come to realize, is that there is something of a Paradox involved when a true visionary ascends to the position of influence within an organization.  These situations are remarkably rare, I believe, which is why they are so disruptive, revolutionary, and highly successful.  It is dependent as much upon the circumstances as the traits of the individuals involved, but it is clear to me that the person(s) who creates a whole new paradigm for conducting the work of an organization very often must embrace what I will call the “Jobsian Paradox.”

Clearly, the stories of the founders of the Toyota Production System are not that far from what we hear of Jobs doing at Apple.  The outcomes are revered by many, studied and copied by others, and delved into by an army of commentators looking for the secret to the success these visionaries bring about.  What they have in common, however, is something that is, indeed, contrary to the tenets of creativity and innovation in both project and process.  That is, that at the beginning – when people’s mindsets need to be calibrated towards a new understanding and  that understanding needs to translate into action, someone authoritative, demanding, relentless personality must be at the forefront of creating and driving the system under which change will occur.

From those personalities come systems, and from that relentless focus on driving people to the correct behaviors comes guiding them to possibilities, and from satisfactory mediocre comes the expectation of greatness.  It must begin, however, with unique individuals willing to drive others to the point of aggravation in order to be achieved, which is something of a paradox in the realm of thinking that believes people are intrinsically motivated and that all a brutish task master can do is to de-motivate them.

This is, in many ways, akin to the concept of a Level 5 Leader that Jim Collins discusses.  To foster change, unique, rare, visionary people are needed.  In order to turn their vision into reality, however, a certain drive is required that leads the people with that vision to adopt behaviors we tend to believe, at least in the short term, are counterproductive and entirely suboptimal.

To wrap it up, the Jobs-ian paradox is this:  For true visionaries with the ability to persevere, many of the management practices and behaviors that we associate with high levels of creativity  and innovation among the workforce, are ignored or simply not practiced in order to bring the organization, as a whole, to high levels of creativity and and innovation.

 

When habits go bad – walking the extra mile

Let_Your_Mind_Do_The_Walking_by_jzcj5

Let your mind do the walking by jzcj5

So, it has been nearly 2 weeks since I’ve post to the blog.  Some times, inspiration is simply hard to find.

Other times, your mother-in-law takes your wife and 2 sons off on a trip and you get a whole week to yourself.  Such has been the case around here.  As it typically goes when the family takes off on an adventure without me, the fist half of the week is grand and glorious.  Napping, eating at crazy hours, sleeping at even crazier hours and, of course, the chance to knock some long overdue projects off the list.  The second half of the week, however, gets to be downright boring and lonely.

In the midst of the boring and lonely part, I needed to pick up my car from the mechanic’s this weekend (having it serviced was one of those projects that is much more convenient when only one car is needed for the week).  The shop is a bit of a walk – about 40 minutes, but not too bad once you get going.  While I could have easily called a neighbor or a friend for help, I simply felt like getting the exercise, so I hoofed it through the neighborhood and cut through a field to get to the shop, picked up the car, and drove home.

That, of course, is not much of a story.  But it did lead to an interesting observation.

What did strike me about 2/3 of the way there, however, is the thought –  “Why in the hell didn’t I just ride my bike??”

Duh.

Seriously, I should have.  The car I was going to pick up is an SUV.  There’s plenty of room for the bike once I get there.  It would have saved about half the time, at least, and still afforded plenty of good exercise.  Especially since I made the trek early in the morning when there was little traffic to worry about, too.  Of course, I could rationalize and say the exercise was great, or the slow pace was cathartic, or whatever else we all tell ourselves when we haven’t though through all our options only to realize later that there was a better way to go about our business.

And that’s the point when it comes to trying to understand how and why we all do, what we do.  Habit tells me that to get places without my car means I have to walk.  If I rode my bike more often, the thought to get on the bike and ride down to the mechanic’s shop would have been as natural as the thought that tells me I have to put on shoes before I go out the door most mornings.  Also, I could say, if I’d developed a better habit of stopping and thinking…to weigh alternatives….before doing….then I would have realized I didn’t need to hike all the way down to the shop.  I might still have wanted to, but I would not have needed to.

So, in a way, my habits let me down.  It makes you wonder how many other things we prevent ourselves form consciously choosing because we are unconsciously eliminating possibilities.  When habits rule, the likelihood of seeing other options simply diminishes.

It might even get you left all along on the roadside.

Every customer trusts you. But what do they trust in?

Trust by alireza1

Thanks to the wonders of LinkedIn Today, I was introduced to a 2010 Harvard Business Review article entitled, “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers.”

I gave a mental nod to the authors,  Matthew DixonKaren Freeman, and Nicholas Toman for the title that caused a little adrenaline to rise in my bloodstream, and clicked the link to read the article.

Their point is a good one – that “delight” is overshooting things a bit.  What customers really want is follow-through.  You don’t need to heap tons of service onto customers, they say, you just need to deliver consistently.  Since so many companies are quite poor at doing that, just being consistent and following through on what is promised is enough to sustain loyalty.

Which makes me think that the number one thing companies need to focus on is trust.

Trust will be established no matter what.  Customers will trust in something when it comes to your company – but what will they trust in?  Will they trust in your ability to deliver a really good western omelet, even if it is by a grump waiter?  Will they trust that your product never fails, justifying the price tag, or will they trust that they can save a few bucks if they are willing to sacrifice what they perceive as frills?  Do they trust that your people will arrive on time for service appointments, or do they trust in the fact that they will need to idly wait during a long appointment window?

All of which is about establishing operations that deliver on a business plan.  A plan that guides the business into servicing a particular niche.  If you want customers to trust in your products and/or services, you need to know what it is you are delivering, and what the expectations are within that niche.  If you want to be a first mover, customers have to trust that your higher-priced products will be particularly innovative or stylish.  If you want to be known as a high-quality, low-cost provider – target budget-minded customers who place a premium on practicality. 

When it comes to customer service, there is a lot of discussion and advice on creating trust.  Trust, however, occurs naturally.  Dictionary.com offers a definition of trust  as the “confident expectation of something.”  People will, quite quickly, develop an expectation of what they are likely to get from you – good service or bad, high quality or low, good price or not.  What you want to establish is a positive trust, one that is based on customers consistently getting what they value.  This is why establishments with grumpy waitresses but good omelets, low quality products but good prices, and innovative products with big price tags are the foundations of so many successful companies – they consistently deliver what is expected to a particular niche that values it.

It is also why businesses that consistently fail to live up to expectations ultimately fail.  That much is intuitive, of course.  When people come to trust that your products are not worth the price tag or that your service doesn’t adequately measure up to the experience people desire, you will fail.  There are many suggested countermeasures, but they all boil down to two simple approaches  – improving quality and service, or marketing your way into a different image so that you can occupy a different niche.  Improving quality is about creating greater positive trust.  Finding a different niche is about raising awareness among a new audience that is predisposed to trusting you in the first place.  Either approach creates that sense of delight – an audience that believes it knows what to expect from you is provided with more than they anticipated. 

Fortunately, according to the 2010 article, people have come to trust in poor service.  That makes it fairly easy to raise the bar and establish trust – consistently deliver good service within your niche and you will exceed expectations.  Consistency, no matter what else you bring to the market, is how trust is established.  When people believe they know what they are going to get, that expectation will either lead to sustainable business performance, or inevitable decline.

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

Warrior vs Sorcerer

 

Warrior vs Sorcerer

Warrior vs Sorcerer by Pydracor on deviantart.com

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?

Wrong.

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:

Leadership

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.

Googleyness

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.

An All or Nothing Attitude Usually Gets You Nothing

A big trap in leading major improvements is to set massive and sweeping goals with no intermediate steps or sub-goals along the way. Here’s the trap. Because these goals are so massive, it ends up taking forever to just get it started or to generate any measurable results. Consequently, people see little or no progress, they get discouraged, they become distracted by other priorities and they end up finding reasons to do nothing. Thus, the vicious cycle of “no improvement/no results” begins.

Case in point. I’ve worked with a couple of clients to help them get their stalled supply chain improvements going again. In both cases, when they began their improvement initiatives, very broad and aggressive goals were set that involved identifying, tracking and making changes to literally hundreds of products and raw materials. Needless to say, both projects ended up going nowhere. After months, while conversation and theory continued to abound, no real improvement actions had been taken. The scale of the changes required to meet the overall goals was just too big to manage, even with the aid of advanced supply chain system tools. Morale was low and cynicism was high as the improvement teams waited for someone to admit the problem and take the lead.

My suggestion was a simple one. Pick a handful of high impact items – at most five. Develop and implement some bold lead-time reduction actions, track the results, make needed adjustments and learn. Then, apply the concepts learned through the small-scale improvements broadly through the use of their supply chain management systems to get the big bang results. Guess what? The approach worked. Getting some tangible results and quick learning created energy, enthusiasm and momentum that carried over to hundreds of other products. Ramping up the initial successes was much easier than going after the big goals from scratch.

The lesson? Huge goals are great and feel good when you set them, but they can quickly stall out and go nowhere. Make sure your improvement plan includes some small-scale steps that generate quick wins and early learning. Then, the scale-up to deliver the big results will be a natural next step in the improvement process.