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Life and leadership at the nexus of lean and zen.
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The Simple Leader: Just Say No

Thu, 05/25/2017 - 10:27

This is an excerpt from The Simple Leader: Personal and Professional Leadership at the Nexus of Lean and Zen


Clarity about what is essential fuels us with the strength to say no to the nonessentials.
– Greg McKeown

Two years ago, while on my end-of-year reflection trip, I read Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. What a great book! In it, McKeown discusses how to identify your essential projects, activities, and belongings, so that you can then identify (and eliminate) the nonessential ones.

Once you know what is not necessary, you figure out how to get rid of it. Similar to how we eliminated projects that didn’t align with our hoshin plan, we need to get rid of activities and things that are not essential to implement it. One of McKeown’s admonitions is “if it isn’t a ‘hell yes’ then it’s a ‘hell no’.”

I was able to convince several people at my current company to read Essentialism, so we’ve used that last statement on many occasions. When interviewing candidates for a position, we ask ourselves if he or she is a “hell yes.” If we don’t have that level of enthusiasm, then it’s back to the applicant pool. The same goes for potential partnerships, new projects, and equipment. Yes, it’s somewhat subjective, and we do use more quantitative analyses when appropriate, but that last gut call is valuable.

Another key revelation from the book was on how to say no to requests in a way that conveys your time is valuable. If you explain the reasons why you cannot help someone and do so in an authentic manner, requestors will get over their disappointment and you will still have their respect. Perhaps the hardest thing to do, but something that can really improve productivity, is to say “no” to things we want to do—even to good and valuable projects and activities. This forces us to prioritize, thereby focusing our time, resources, and attention on what really matters.

I have used this concept with considerable success over the past year. I’ve turned down speaking engagements I wasn’t interested in, collaborations that I didn’t think would go anywhere (in the past, I might have tried anyway), and meetings where I was invited but didn’t really need to be there. This has freed up a lot of my time and reduced the stress and drudgery of having to do things that didn’t add value, allowing me to invest my limited time more wisely. Sure, I still use a lot of my time to help others, but I now do it more methodically (and, in my opinion, better and more mindfully).

Categories: Blogs

The Simple Leader: Document the Current State

Mon, 05/22/2017 - 10:26

This is an excerpt from The Simple Leader: Personal and Professional Leadership at the Nexus of Lean and Zen


All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered;
the point is to discover them.
– Galileo Galilei

Before you can improve something, you must first have a very clear understanding of what its current state is. Don’t assume you know what it is. Go to the gemba, be it the factory floor, the shipping and receiving area, your office, or even take a minute to focus on yourself, and observe what is going on. It is important that you get close to the action. The worst thing you can do is try to document the current state from a meeting in a faraway conference room.

To document key processes, such as accounts payable, production, sales, and so forth, document the current step-by-step activities of each of those processes. How long does each step take? How are they physically laid out? Where do backlogs occur?

If you are documenting the current state of a company or organization, there are a variety of ways to do it. You can use the key metrics of the organization, including financials, customer service, quality, operations, and so forth. If they are not the appropriate metrics, create new ones. Then decide how your observations compare to your expectations, industry average, etc. What are your suppliers saying about you? Your customers? Your employees? What about your competition?

Once you have your observations, you might want to consider using some standard analysis methods as well. These include a SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, threat) analysis, Porter’s Five Forces (to analyze your industry), a PEST analysis (for the external macroenvironment), and BCG or GE methods to look at product lines.

From a Lean perspective, you may also want to look at how some key Lean tools are being used (5S, kaizen, poka-yoke, etc.). But remember, they are just tools. Moving forward, you need to determine if they are the right tools for the problem you are trying to solve. What is the problem or opportunity you want to address?

When documenting the current state, be sure to include other people with potentially other perspectives to validate the results. This will help you counteract your own biases. The current state becomes the baseline from which you will start improving. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, consider documenting the current state of you. What are you currently dealing with, your hopes, fears, and aspirations?

Categories: Blogs

The Simple Leader: Share Generously

Fri, 05/19/2017 - 10:24

This is an excerpt from The Simple Leader: Personal and Professional Leadership at the Nexus of Lean and Zen


Teaching is a gift you give not only to others, but also to yourself.
You give and you receive, you teach and you learn.
– Andrea Goeglein

When I became president of the medical device company, I already had a decade of Lean experience. I knew what fundamentals needed to be put in place, what systems needed improvement, and what knowledge needed to be transferred.

Instead of ordering this or that program to be implemented, I decided to help the team identify problems and point them to potential solutions. For example, when we were taking too much time to find production supplies, I suggested they consider using a Lean concept known as 5S. Instead of teaching them everything myself, I let the team take charge of implementing it. The team embraced this management style: first they learned about 5S, and then they implemented what they learned. We repeated this process with several other Lean concepts. They would go and learn about it, and I would coach them on implementation. I shared my knowledge and experience, but a funny thing happened along the way: the team also taught me some new methods they had identified and developed.

In the end, there were still a couple of changes I needed to dictate, one being the morning standup meeting. The team did not think that adding a new daily meeting would be beneficial. But when I made the meeting mandatory, I also let them know exactly why it was being done, why it was important to me, and what results we should expect from it. Within a few weeks they also saw the value, and I know that it continues to this day, more than three years after I left the company.

Another thing we did at the company was to emphasize employee training. People want to learn, and it’s a measure of your respect for them (and their brains) that you provide opportunities for them to learn. I’ve seen far too many organizations that believe it is too expensive to send employees to conferences, work- shops, and other events. Yes, it costs money, but those folks come back motivated and wanting to improve! Isn’t that worth a couple grand? If you cannot recapture the investment of a conference or workshop, you aren’t asking enough of your team.

Every year, I sent quite a few employees to events, choosing people that had demonstrated a passion for learning as well as some that I thought could learn a lot if they were appropriately motivated and respected. In each case, I asked them to come back with three to five ideas that we should implement now, as well as three to five ideas that were pretty cool and we should keep in mind for the future. They presented these ideas to our leadership team as a group, and it was then up to us to evaluate and implement them. The process was difficult, but the new ideas easily paid for the trips, many times over. Properly nurtured, the employees who had gone to the trainings became forceful proponents for improvement.

Sharing your knowledge and experience doesn’t just have to be within your organization. One of my most rewarding activities is writing the blog I started over ten years ago. My posts have ranged across many topics, some far outside of Lean, but the response I’ve received has been tremendous. I’ve also met some incredible people who have become very valuable friends and colleagues—some are now business partners. The effort has also improved my writing ability and helped me organize my thoughts, which eventually even led to this book!

I’ve also learned a lot about recruiting over the years. I’ve had several failures where professionals with great experience and resumes ended up not being the right fit. I have learned that the best predictor of executive success, more than experience, education, references, or personality, is the ability to share and teach new knowledge. More specifically, executives should have a craving for new knowledge, the capability to distill the knowledge, and an ability to effectively share the knowledge. Those types of individuals are few and far between, but they are incredibly valuable and can radically change an organization.

Categories: Blogs

The Simple Leader: Deal with it Now

Tue, 05/16/2017 - 10:22

This is an excerpt from The Simple Leader: Personal and Professional Leadership at the Nexus of Lean and Zen


He who waits to do a great deal of good at once will never do anything.
– Samuel Johnson

So how many questions, issues, and decisions are bouncing around in your head? As an elderly family member aged I became increasingly frustrated with how she was making her life complex when it didn’t need to be. Simple decisions, eventually even tasks such as deciding what to watch on TV, became impossible. Her anxiety was skyrocketing and I realized it was a vicious cycle.

The more we put off decisions and tasks, the more we are juggling in our heads. This makes it increasingly difficult to calmly and rationally evaluate an issue and come to a conclusion, which just adds to the chaos.

Stop the cycle. Do you really need more time or more data to evaluate an issue? Sometimes you legitimately do in order to stay focused on a task at hand, but I bet you’d be surprised how often you don’t. Think about what more information you’d really need and whether it would change your mind. What is the worst that could happen if you were wrong?

Take the extra second and make the decision. When an employee asks to talk to you, do it now rather than putting it off. Deal with it once, then it is out of your head, decluttering your mind.

Categories: Blogs

The Simple Leader: Self-Inquiry

Sat, 05/13/2017 - 10:02

This is an excerpt from The Simple Leader: Personal and Professional Leadership at the Nexus of Lean and Zen

On a deeper level you are already complete. When you realize that, there is a joyous energy behind what you do.
– Eckhart Tolle

Last year, some colleagues and I were discussing books we’ve found to be interesting, and my business partner suggested Edgar Schein’s Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. I read the book and loved it.

Schein describes three types of humility and four types of inquiry, focusing on the power of here-and-now humility. This form of humility happens when we presume to be dependent on someone else because that someone has something we need (e.g., knowledge). Consider the following excerpt:

What we ask, how we ask it, where we ask it, and when we ask it all matter. But the essence of Humble Inquiry goes beyond just overt questioning. The kind of inquiry I am talking about derives from an attitude of interest and curiosity. It implies a desire to build a relationship that will lead to more open communication. It also implies that one makes oneself vulnerable and, thereby, arouses positive helping behavior in the other person.

It strikes me that, although Schein was intending to describe a relationship between two or more people, his concepts are also very appropriate for our discussions with ourselves (assuming we have them). Creating a humble, vulnerable relationship with your- self opens you up to being able to inquire, discover, reflect, and perhaps create change. Accepting yourself for who you are gives you peace. We’ll discuss reflection in more detail later on.

Categories: Blogs

Ensconcing Paranoia in Rules

Sat, 04/22/2017 - 22:50

Silly boy you got so much to live for
So much to aim for, so much to try for
You blow it all with, paranoia
You’re so insecure you, self-destroyer
paranoia, they destroy ya

It’s been over a week since the United incident where Dr. David Dao was forcibly removed from a flight.  It takes about that long for the hysteria to die down and for some meaningful analysis to start coming out.

Yes, the airline was within its right to remove anyone for safety reasons, and perhaps for other reasons – though there’s some doubt that accommodating employees after a passenger has already been seated is in their contract of carriage.  Yes, not getting those employees to the next flight could have created a travel nightmare for many more customers on a different flight.  Yes, Dr. Dao could have just complied, and yes he has an interesting history.  Apparently United didn’t offer up to the full amount authorized to bribe passengers to give up their seats.  And, yes, the actual altercation was created by the Chicago airport police.

All of that finger-pointing and victim shaming misses the point.  A point that both The Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review eventually discussed a few days ago: the real problem is an extreme rules-based culture at United that makes no allowance for situational judgment.

My subconscious must have realized this earlier as I couldn’t get my favorite tune from The Kinks out of my head from the day the United story broke.  A party staple from my college days, which I guess dates me a bit.

Paranoia, they destroy ya… And there you have the root cause of most rule-based organizational cultures.  Paranoia.

As HBR describes, “The public reacted to the video with horror. Those flight attendants must have been appalled, too, as they watched the customer — who just a few minutes earlier was supposed to have been greeted on the plane with smiles and welcomes — being dragged, face bleeding, past other customers. What must they be thinking now? We were powerless to intervene, they might say. Civility was no longer an option. We called security. That was what management told us to do.

Powerless, because they were controlled by rules.  The depth of those rules is discussed in the WSJ article:

Like most other airlines, United follows strict rules on every aspect of handling its passengers, from how to care for unaccompanied minors to whether someone gets a whole can of Coke.

Deviating from the rules is frowned upon; employees can face termination for a foul-up, according to people familiar with the matter. At United, this has helped create a rules-based culture where its 85,000 employees are reluctant to make choices not in the “book,” according to former airline executives, current employees and people close to United.

Of course some procedures do require strict consistency and adherence to ensure safety.  Some rules are necessary.  But it’s important to also understand that rules can remove the ability for decisions to be made based on specific context and circumstance, and in effect assume every hole is round and can be filled by a properly-specified peg.  An organizational culture driven by an overabundance of rules indicates a lack of trust in the caliber, training, and experience of employees – and a paranoia for what might happen.  Yes, United is probably paranoid about the impact on the bottom line of too many people getting a whole can of Coke.

Instead, they could hire great people (perhaps they already do), provide a clear understanding of corporate objectives, draw some general guidelines, and describe the impact of potential decisions, and then set them free to make the best decisions at the right time.  This is the essence of respect for people.  Leveraging the value in brains instead of focusing on the hands.

Companies like United need to cultivate good judgment, and free their employees to use it.

Some companies do.  Netflix has it built into their culture code.

There is no vacation policy, and the travel and expense policy is literally five words: “Act in Netflix’s best interests.” That’s it.

Netflix believes high-performance people should be free to make decisions, and those decisions need to be grounded in context. Mission, vision, and value statements do not create context. To demonstrate this, Netflix’s presentation provides the example of how Enron’s value statement included “integrity.” Real company values are shown by who gets rewarded for embodying desired behaviors and skills. The document goes on to describe the primary Netflix values and the associated behaviors.

At Netflix, flexibility is more important over the long term than efficiency.

At Gemba Academy we have adopted a very similar culture code.   We have have very few policies and procedures, which helps us be very agile and customer-centric.  This has been a major driver of our success.

What would have happened if United allowed – even encouraged – employees to make context-based decisions instead of being bound by paranoia-driven rules?  A flight attendant might have said “there must be a better way,” offered more money, found someone else, or come up with an even more creative alternative.  And United would not have lost a billion or more in market capitalization over the next few days.  A quick call to arrange a Netjet private jet for Dr. Dao, albeit extreme, would have been comparably cheap.  Or a Netjet for the employees they needed to get to the next flight.

HBR branches off into an interesting side note, discussing the potential impact of increasingly AI/algorithm-driven decisions.  Perhaps the ultimate rules-based decision-making?

Machines follow orders. People use discretion. Learning the importance of that truism is the lesson of this awful situation, and it will be a lesson of growing relevance and application as algorithms and machines play ever larger roles in service delivery.

Something to keep in mind.  In the meantime, hire great people, train them on the clear “why?” of the business, then set them free.  It might keep you out of the news.

Categories: Blogs