Archive for Transformation

Disfluence: Learning is a Mess

Image result for image of writing in finger paintsI always carry a notebook. This has been part of my work life since its inception. I’ve always known that if I write it down in my messy handwriting, I remember it better. Even when I’m told in a meeting “No need to take notes; I’ll send you the PowerPoint”, I still take notes. Sometimes I do it self-consciously since it seems I’m the only one with a pen in the room. But it helps me soak in the information. Now that I understand the concept of Cognitive Disfluence I will pull out my pen with pride. Cognitive Disfluence is a fancy way of saying that you learn more when you interact with what you are trying to learn.

In 2011 a study was done at Princeton. Subjects were asked to read about complicated, fictional biologic taxonomies. One group read in the common Arial font and the second read in Comic Sans MS. The group that read in the more unusual font remembered 14% more. This study has been done in a number of ways and the results are the same. The same concept is true with numbers. If you have to graph the data yourself on a piece of paper, it will stick. If you do the math by hand and not with a calculator, you will remember it better. If you punch in someone’s cell phone number a few times into your phone, you will remember it.

Humans are meant to interact with their surroundings. Our brains are wired to forget the easy stuff and hang on to the stuff we wrestle a bit with. Knowing this can help us absorb the data and information that comes barreling at us day in and day out. Below are some ways to better grab onto what is flowing past.

  • Use the whiteboard: For those of us working in offices whiteboards are ubiquitous. Have you noticed that some people are fast to jump up and use the board and others hang back? Be one of those board doodlers. As a discussion progresses, note the key points. Write down the dates and make a timeline. Assign owners. Draw a picture of how it works or who is connected to whom. If you are the leader of the meeting feel free to hand over the pen to others to pull them in. You will find that the room is more engaged and that the concepts are remembered. You and your team will think about this meeting more than most because the team was actively engaged.
  • Take notes in meetings, during the lecture or sermon, as you read: Keep a notebook close at hand to jot down something that inspires. Draw a picture of the image that comes to mind. Even if you are doodling or writing key thoughts or names, this is enough to engage a different part of your brain and you are more likely to retain what you are hearing.
  • Graph out your expenses or revenue or miles run over time: I’m a big proponent of dashboards in business. These simplify the noisy data and give leaders key performance metrics to be sure that they haven’t lost control. But the very best way to get to this information is by graphing it yourself. Those shop floor charts where the data is added one point at a time (remember TQC?) are the best. Maybe a good combo is to look at and manipulate key pieces of information. If you see the trends going in the wrong direction dig down a level. See what the key contributors are and normalize by doing some math.
  • Write a list of things to do: Lots of us have “to do lists”. Crossing things off feels so good. But maybe the act of writing something down puts it into our heads to complete as well. We think about the task, consider how big the job is, break it down further and actually visualize the act of doing it.
  • Write stuff on sticky notes and move ’em around: A Kanban board or Scrum board is used in businesses to track, prioritize and pull through work. There are tools available to put this online and manipulate virtually but many companies and teams find that a good old fashioned white board with columns and sticky notes work the best. Why? Because you are engaged with the work. You can write on it. Add thoughts and move them around.
  • Argue from another perspective: One of the most interesting “features” of our brains is the tendency to find and stick with a simple frame of understanding. This saves us time. It helps us get through the day. We know how to drive our cars without a lot of brainpower. We can get ready in the morning without being totally awake. We have a perspective on life and we filter everything to comply with that perspective. The downside of this is that we don’t easily learn and change based on new information. We are blind to changes that can be very important in the running of our businesses or families. To shake ourselves out of this rut, try re-framing a situation by taking the other side and arguing it. It is helpful to hire or befriend people who are not going to simply feed you information that you already know or agree with.

The most successful people are ones who are exceptional learners. They digest new information, absorb new insights and aren’t afraid to look beyond their frames of reference. Many of these successful learners try crazy new things just to shake it up. Resolve to get out of your comfort zone and amp up your learning.

Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.        Albert Einstein


Marcy Alstott is an Operations and Supply Chain Consultant with diverse product and technology expertise, multinational management credentials and extensive transformation know-how.  



Trickle-up: A Path to US Manufacturing

fountain2This is not a political post. It is a call to personal reflection and action. Politicians and policies can help change the rules but we are the change agents in our companies. We have gutted our manufacturing prowess here in the US. We can blame trade agreements, tax burdens, short term quarterly reporting or politicians. But we also need to look at executive leadership. I am guilty. I’ve been a manufacturing executive during the biggest downturn in manufacturing…ever. Since the 90’s we have been shuffling manufacturing off-shore at an amazing rate. We have lost over 8M manufacturing jobs since the peak in 1979 with most moving to Asia since 1999. While this trend has slowed and there is some evidence of a reversal (~800K net increase in manufacturing jobs returning since 2010), it isn’t enough and we need to take action. The economics are just about there. What isn’t clearly showing in the numbers yet is the longer term benefit of having a return of the manufacturing base. I call this a trickle-up effect.

Trickle-up is not a new term but is new in this context. The trickle-up effect or fountain effect is an economic theory used to describe the combined demand of middle-class people to drive the economy. The theory is credited to John Maynard Keynes early in this century. Because each manufacturing dollar supports $1.33 in output from other sectors, it creates a trickle of economic value. Manufacturing has the largest multiplier of any other industry sector. Reshoring is a way to multiply jobs and economic value for our country. In addition there are intangible business benefits like increased creativity, faster time to market and increased customer responsiveness.

The late Andy Grove said in a 2010 New York Times essay, that what creates tech employment is scaling. “Scaling is hard work but necessary to make innovation matter.” And now scaling is not happening in the US. The big tech legends like Intel, Tandem, HP, Sun, Cisco all scaled in the US when they started. Then we shifted manufacturing to Asia. Now, companies like Foxconn and Flextronics build our electronics products with millions of engineers, technicians and managers located in Asia. Let’s tune our innovation engine to include scaling. Tools such as additive manufacturing, collaborative robotics and IC manufacturing equipment are developed here. Let’s use them here.

If we agree that it is best for our country to bring these jobs back, how can we accelerate? We need to examine our decision criteria. In some cases the numbers are in our favor already. In other cases we need to take action as leaders to change the equation. Here are some practical actions to take:

  • Calculate the total cost of manufacturing before deciding where to build. Labor costs have increased in Asia and have decreased in the US. Energy costs are competitive. In some parts of the country the real estate is less expensive and local governments are interested in attracting industry by offering tax breaks. Automation can be used to increase quality and increase efficiency further. The Reshoring Institute has developed a Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) estimator that is free to use.
  • Assign a value to time. Manufacturing close to a development team accelerates time to market. Learning quickly through rapid prototyping and iterating designs based on real manufacturing input will shorten your time to volume manufacturing and that in turn gives you an edge over the competition. If your product goes to market 1-2 months faster, what is that worth?
  • Value Superior products. New technology needs an effective ecosystem in which technology accumulates. This happens between functional areas and between inventors and makers. We are missing an element of the creative process if we don’t include manufacturing in the cycle. It can be done with Asian partners but it often isn’t. Designers often don’t even see their product being built. They don’t interact with the builders of the product and they learn only through second-hand feedback.
  • Consider the cost of quality.  Ideally when there is a failure early in a product launch, it is quickly understood and either the product or the process changes to avoid that failure the next time. Tight feedback between design and build is the key to this rapid improvement process. Proximity matters. It doesn’t guarantee the close interaction between design and build but it takes down an obvious barrier.
  • Lower inventory levels.  Do this by moving manufacturing closer to the demand. This has been called “next-shoring” or “right-shoring”.  Companies can respond to changing demand because there is less inventory on its way. The need to commit to next season’s fashion a year ahead of time goes away. Colors, fabric, quantity, sizes can change as demand is better understood.  Inventory is expensive to store, ship, scrap and obsolete. The money saved by placing build close to demand can be taken to the bottom line. Companies like Nike, GE and Brooks Brothers are working on “next-shoring”.
  • Train. One of the biggest gaps we have is the readiness of our workforce for this strengthening in US manufacturing. As business leaders we should be readying our workforce to take on manufacturing jobs through apprenticeship programs, on-the-job training, internships, partnerships with local colleges and universities and funding for skills training.

Increasing our manufacturing base in the USA will trickle up jobs and prosperity. The jobs are good ones and they are multiplicative. Job creation matters. We have an financial obligation in business to sustain the society and infrastructure on which we depend. It isn’t altruistic. It is a long term fiduciary obligation. Our children will be better off. What kind of world will this be if we only have highly paid professionals designing products and the rest are unemployed or serving those who are highly paid? We need to take action to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US. It is the right thing to do.

Be courageous. I have seen many depressions in business. Always, America has emerged from these stronger and more prosperous. Be brave as your fathers before you. Have faith! Go forward. Thomas Edison

Hire a Learner

When I was 20 years old I worked at GM as a co-op student in their tech center in Michigan. While working on the engine dynamometer, I met Bob and Hank. They were technicians of the highest caliber. Both were Cessna pilots. I tagged along a couple of times and for my birthday at the end of the summer Bob asked his instructor (he was getting an instrument rating) to give me a lesson. I couldn’t stop there and when I had my own funds a couple of years later I got my pilot’s license in California where I moved after graduation. There was nothing quite like the challenges of reading maps, mastering the radio, understanding the plane and knowing that controlling that airplane was in my hands. The learning curve was steep and worth it.

Years later I’ve mastered much that has involved starting from nothing and ending with taking control. The skill of learning something new is the most valuable arrow in my quiver. Nothing beats the adrenaline around figuring something out especially when the stakes are high. While I continue to learn even after decades in the working world, I see others in the workplace who are not so willing to jump into something new.  Often, managers and recruiters bias toward hiring those who have been there and done that. Some proven skill is necessary but not sufficient. The best employees are those who are curious, unafraid and driven to learn. When hiring, look for and ask about these things:

  • Adaptability – Ask your candidate to tell stories of transition. Dig when you hear about something that was tough to overcome. What did she or he do when placed in an unknown situation? International travel, cross-functional projects and joining companies involved in a new technology are fertile grounds for stories of adaptability.
  • Growth – An exceptional candidate will show a track record of jumping into new challenges. There is value to longevity in companies and roles but be careful when someone has only moved on when forced. A curious learner will look for ways to stretch and will not be satisfied in a stagnant job. When relating accomplishments, a learner will enthusiastically talk about the journey. Ask questions. (e.g. What challenged you in that job? What skills were mastered? How are you better prepared now because of your history? What attracts you to this job?) Answers should point to a growing set of skills and experiences and an aptitude to learn and change.
  • Emotional Intelligence (EQ)- This term was developed by Daniel Goleman in 1995. The book by the same name describes EQ as an ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotions and to use that knowledge to guide thinking and behavior. This is closely correlated to learning agility especially as it relates to how you react to your own emotions. Fear can be an inhibitor to learning. Recognizing those butterflies in your tummy as something you’ve felt before and have worked through keeps you going forward. It is easy to let those feelings of uneasiness slow down your growth and learning.
  • Curiosity – The most valuable colleagues with whom I’ve worked have an insatiable curiosity. They aren’t stuck in their pay grade or functional slot. They reach outside of their comfort area to ask questions and to understand context. They sit at the lunch table with others in the company and learn about projects, technology, marketing launches, financial challenges. They combine their EQ with their curiosity to pull out information from others. They sincerely want to know what is going on outside of their cubicles. Hiring someone with this trait will land you a cross-functional connector. That person is worth her weight in gold.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

Mahatma Gandhi

Nurturing Momentum

quote on beginningAs I started college I was told by friends and family that great things would begin to happen. I was ready to embrace the new experience.  I left for Indiana in August during allergy season with a cast on my right arm. I sneezed and sweated through the first few weeks of classes and those classes were harder than expected. It was a terrible start. I lacked momentum as my college career began.

As I start 2014 there are plenty of encouraging messages being blasted out from all media sources telling me to be positive and embrace the new year. But I don’t want to fall for that again. Simply claiming momentum won’t make it so. Getting through the holidays takes a lot of energy. The end of this stressful time typically brings some welcome rest. And now somehow I am supposed to launch energetically into a new year. As Newton’s first law of physics points out, an object at rest will stay at rest unless an outside force acts upon it! Business and life demand our energy. It helps to be passionate but it can not be forced. You can not force momentum….but you can nurture it.

As 2014 begins I plan to nurture the momentum that I need to propel myself forward. There are three key elements to this plan. They have worked for me before so I expect good results.

  1. Open up to new things – Take one day at a time and watch for opportunities to create momentum. Trying new things can reveal new abilities and interests. As the new year begins there will be chances to engage in physical and mental activities that will take you out of your comfort zone. Surprise yourself.
  2. Learn constantly – Don’t think that graduation from formal education is the end. There are so many new things to learn. Read, watch, listen. Get your creative juices flowing.
  3. Try, Try again – Failure is not a problem. Not trying is the problem. If January starts out slowly or if there are stumbles as you begin, February is not far behind. Pick up and start again.

My college start was not smooth but I did nurture my own momentum to send me successfully through a great college experience. I did it by applying these same ideas. I took risk and signed up for things I had not done before. I got involved in student government, a sorority and several academic societies. I never lived in my home town again. Instead, I chose to take a summer job in Michigan working for GM.  I embraced physics which was my first academic challenge. Eventually it became my favorite class. I didn’t give up in the face of disappointment. I didn’t always get the grade or the job or the boy or the position I went for at the time, but I continued to go for what I wanted and was propelled forward to a broader future than I could ever have imagined.

In 2014 I resolve to keep an open mind to what is around the corner. While I don’t feel the momentum yet, I am certain that I will be swept up in it as the year gets going. And I will do my best to nurture that momentum myself. Join me!

Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no help at all.”Dale Carnegie


yosemite-valley_1304_100x75There is a bucolic meadow over the next hill. It is filled with just the right amount of sun and shade. Crystal clear water flows over a little waterfall into a pond. A sumptuous picnic is set out for you. The temperature is a balmy 74 and there is a hammock with your name on it. Ahhh, but to get there you have to climb up the hill in front of you. You have to make this climb while tieing complicated knots. And…it is raining on this side of the hill. This hike could take hours… Would you go for it or would you hunker down under an overhanging rock to tie your knots?  You might chat with your fellow hikers and suggest:

  • What if there is just another hill after this one?
  • What if the picnic isn’t that good after all?
  • What if there are bears over there?

How do you motivate humans to climb a hill in search of a better state? In business-speak, how do you get your employees to embrace difficult change even when there is a promised bright outcome? This is a problem faced regularly in the fast paced world in which we live. It is no longer ok to slowly evolve. Companies, functions, teams and individuals need to adapt more quickly or they will lose to another.

I have been steeped in the art and science of transformation recently as I’ve tackled challenging change projects with my corporate clients. It is a fascinating subject and one that I long to master. Given the rate of change I’ve just discussed, I don’t think it is possible to master anything completely. As soon as you “get it” more information is available.  But I am going to climb the difficult hill to get to a better place of understanding.

Here are the truths I know to be the foundation of transformation:

  1. Pick a grand vision with some heart. Continuous improvement is another subject. It is a good thing but not the same thing. And if you plan to involve more than a few people, you need to tug at heartstrings.
  2. Get on the same page. The leadership team needs to have a shared view of the future state. How to get there can be up for debate but the vision needs to be clear.
  3. Debate and even disagree. Transparent concerns are much better than passive aggressive resistance. Get it all said out loud and then pick  a path and move forward.
  4. Stay nimble. There will be redirects. Adapt to them but keep the direction constant. Success isn’t a straight line but it should be measurable and should track in the right direction.
  5. Make room. Carve out the bandwidth to do the work. Stop doing some things to take on this new work. Come on. People were already busy.  If you really believe in the future state then you can justify either a redirect or an investment of resources.
  6. Anoint the right leaders. Pick change leaders who are both good managers and good leaders. Execution, details, driving for results are hallmarks of good management. Picking the right path, inspiring others and breaking through inevitable obstacles are outcomes of good leadership.
  7. Build a change engine. The skill to transform organizations is becoming a key differentiator. There are very few companies that can avoid this need and those that can are probably small and stagnant. If a company is growing, shrinking or evolving these skills are critical. Train, develop, practice, reward, repeat.

The truth is, we are good at changing. Think of where you were 20 years ago. Now, harness that energy and knowledge of how far you have come  to fuel your own change engine.

I Resolve

Picture of Earth from Voyager 1 Spacecraft



There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.   Carl Sagan



The world did not end on December 21st. Christmas came and went with all of its joy and stress. We did not fall off of the fiscal cliff. Our children are still being sent to fight in Afghanistan. Frightful violence continues even in our schools and neighborhoods. The San Francisco 49ers have lost much of their momentum heading into the playoffs. While there are plenty of challenges remaining with the global economy there is evidence of growth and recovery.  The future is a mixed bag of big and little joys and sorrows, blessings and curses. Whether or not we are ready for it, HERE COMES 2013.

Does it matter one bit what I resolve to do in 2013? Like Carl Sagan, I look at the world in perspective and take away two ideas. One is that I should be humble and not take myself or my opinions too seriously. As it says in Psalms, “Man is like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow.” The second take-away is that I have a responsibility to both my fellow-man and to the earth on which I live.  So, below are 6 things I resolve to work on this year. These resolutions are both simple and impossible. My success with them is not easily measured. Success will manifest in other more eternal ways. But I will feel it if progress is made. It will matter to me.

  1. Impact others –  I resolve to spend more of my time and resources helping out. This can be formal or informal but I will shift my focus further from my center of gravity.
  2. Live in the present – Life passes quickly. There is little value in worry though I’ve honed the art. I resolve to focus more on today and less on what I can’t control. I also resolve to open my eyes to the apparent joy around me.
  3. Cut myself some slack – I’m ok. I’ve done some cool stuff. I screw up sometimes. All of that makes up me. I resolve to pat myself on the back every once in a while keeping the humility theme in mind.
  4. Risk more – Why wouldn’t I? I am but a speck on a speck for a brief moment. I give myself permission to risk more as long as I’m not impacting others negatively.
  5. Lessen the footprint I leave on this earth – I will take less into my space. When I don’t need it anymore I will recycle it or give it away. I will consolidate driving trips and will walk more often. Not a huge dent will be made but it is my part.
  6. Celebrate Love – From Les Misérables, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” When I’m irritated with those I love I resolve to remember this, to slow down and to thank God.

Exercise the Brain: Learning as a Lifestyle

10391659-running-brain-cartoon-characterWhen I was 20 years old I landed a Cessna 152 on a runway in Pontiac, Michigan. It blew me away. I was by myself in this flying machine and no one but me could get it to the ground safely. I knew what to do because I had practiced with an instructor many times. But actually doing it was a thrill like few others in my life. This wasn’t a requirement for a class. It wasn’t a necessary skill to propel me in my chosen field. It wasn’t even very logical to learn this “flying thing”. It was expensive, time-consuming, and even a little risky. But I love airplanes, always have. So when I had a chance to learn to fly, I didn’t hesitate.

The world in which we live gives us opportunities all of the time to get outside of our comfort zones. The rate of change in our work lives can be overwhelming. Leadership changes, mergers, acquisitions, change in strategy, downsizing, right-sizing and re-engineering….stop the roller coaster, I wanna get off!  But this crazy carnival ride provides us with learning opportunities. Our ability to learn and evolve has never been more taxed but this is a good thing if we rev up our brains and get going. I’ve put together some helpful hints for embracing the cycle of learning on and off the job.

  1. Monitor your level of “stretch” – If you have been in a job for a while you are likely to get comfortable. You know your job. You understand the ins and outs. You know who to call. It is time to change jobs. This doesn’t have to be a new company or really even a whole new job. You can take on a project or work on something that is cross-functional. Moving laterally in a company is often encouraged. Climbing sideways up the “lattice” rather than simply climbing up the ladder is a wise way to build a base of experience. Don’t allow yourself to get bored in a job. If you have to leave a company to keep up the rate of learning – do it. Shame on any company for letting that happen.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask why – We should have learned this as kids but grown-ups tend to lose their curiosity. It is ok to explore and not be satisfied with an answer. Even as a manager or even an executive it is impossible to understand it all and your team will appreciate honest questions and a willingness to be taught.  This technique of asking why is a valid “lean” principal. Ask the question five times to get to the real root of an issue.
  3. Lean into the fear – Most of us get butterflies when asked to present in front of an audience. Some of us get nauseous. Some love the rush. Fear of presenting in front of an audience is one of the most common fears out there. But there are other fears in the work place. It is hard to speak up in a large meeting especially when your ideas conflict with others. It is hard to bring up an issue with a boss especially when it is personal or controversial. It is scary to take a job where you are not the expert. Leaning into the fear can be the right thing to do if your quest is positive. It will teach you about your limits and your strengths. You will learn about yourself and you will see how great you are. If you fail…you will learn even more.
  4. Allow for ambiguity – When you are sorting out a new area and you don’t have a full understanding it is important to let the unknowns rest for a time. This is especially true on a new job. It is easy to be discouraged because you don’t get it but slowly but surely the picture will come into focus. During those times of uncertainty the best questions are asked and the most wisdom is offered. You are fresh to the problem. What is “obvious” to many won’t be to you and that is a good thing. Be confused but be ready to absorb new bits of information to help fill in the missing pieces.
  5. Intuit – This means “to understand or work out by instinct”. This works most of the time and if you are on a steep learning curve for most of your life you need to hone this skill. Given that people who are learners are used to figuring things out and used to gaining information through their many senses, this probably will come naturally.
  6. Joy in the process – One of the greatest gifts we have as humans is the ability to take on new information. We are able to continue to form new ideas and perspectives and skills throughout our lives. There is plenty of evidence available that the more we use our brains the healthier they will be. My father who is in his eighties is re-learning calculus. Why? The answer is simply that he appreciates math and enJOYs the process. Go for it Dad!

Flying an airplane, sailing a boat, learning how to program in C, understanding differential equations, tackling software defined networking technology…it is all the same. Stretching the brain cells to comprehend something new can be hard but if you embrace it and make learning a lifestyle not a task for school kids, it will turn into a joyous process.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”     Mahatma Gandhi

Leaders Communicate via Story

On a TV interview last night a rather boring sounding older gentleman began his answer to a question with the phrase, “let me tell you a story.” He had my attention. Stories are like magnets. We all are interested in a story.  Humans have told stories forever. In recent decades we have gathered around radios and then TV’s to listen to stories. Now we watch reality TV to see and hear the semi-real stories of others. Somehow stories stick to us. They make more sense to us than lists of facts or even an interesting lecture. We want to know what happens and we dive in with our imaginations and our full selves. It isn’t academic. It is human.

A story’s job is to simulate potential realities. Our brains can then think through the situation without taking risk or really much time. It is a learning tool that is efficient and effective. No wonder stories are so powerful as a way to communicate. Advertisers know this of course. Hallmark commercials are all about the narrative. Even short beer commercials tell a story about what could be if only a certain beer is purchased. Drug commercials try hard to stick to the story even when in the background the poor narrator is listing all of the awful side effects that are possible with the drug. Lucky for drug companies we pay more attention to the pictures of the story than to the list of all of the ways you will potentially suffer.

Leaders need to use the power of the story to move organizations forward. Creating a vision and motivating people to join on the mission toward that future state is part of what we as leaders do. Consider the following ways to incorporate this into your leadership toolkit:

  • Share something of yourself – This does two things at once. It hooks people in via the motif of story and it connects them to you as a person.
  • Think in simile – What are you trying to accomplish and how is this like other things in life. Is there a way to compare? Finishing this task will be like completing a marathon. Simplifying this product line will be like cleaning up your garage.
  • Bring in the stories of others – Consider what is going on in the news or in the lives of your team. Perhaps someone just had a new baby. Maybe a space shuttle is being launched or is landing. Connect what you are doing to what is happening in the rest of the world.
  • Create a narrative about the task at hand – If there is a beginning, middle and end to the path you are on with your team, paint that picture. Use your imagination. As the real story unfolds, reflect back on what you visualized with the group.
  • Read and Listen – If you are connected to the rest of the world via books, newspapers, TV, radio you will see the connections between what you do and what is happening elsewhere. You can create context and back story to what is going on in your business. You can paint a picture of how your work fits in and connects.

We all want to be part of a bigger narrative. We want to hear how our stories connect. If you use this kind of language while leading you will tap into a very basic need in all of us. Your organization will not only listen more closely, they will remember more completely.  And most important, they will identify with the journey and join in.

“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”

Ira Glass  (a wonderful NPR storyteller)

Transforming Organizations: Hit the Heart

When I was ten we moved across town. I spent the first lunch hour locked in the bathroom of my house. I hated my teacher, Mrs. Hansen. She gave me detention for looking out of the window. I had no friends. I was in a new neighborhood, new house, new room and now new school. I had made the change but I had not transformed. I hated this new life and simply was not going back to school.

We are all faced with change. Companies change regularly and leaders are judged by their ability to visualize change, outline the steps to get there and then execute. The measure of success is numeric: cost reduction, headcount reduction, revenue increase, deadlines met. But how do you measure whether the change is embedded? Will the organization resist the new processes and thus limit the benefits?

Changing requires both doing something different and thinking differently about things. A good leader must bring the heart around.

  • Listen to the organization – Create working teams, feedback sessions, training opportunities and design sessions to make sure that the organization is on-board and has skin in the game.
  • Incorporate input – The listening is not just for show. If you want to get to the best solution for change you need to take input onboard. The best ideas come from a diverse organization. The best performing organizations are diverse.
  • Communicate progress – Do this in more than one way. Write newsletters. Send emails. Have coffee or tea meetings and open it up to questions. Show up in person wherever possible and let people vent, contribute and question.
  • Celebrate success – Often when moving fast it is easy to forget to recognizing the good stuff along the way. It is tempting to wait until the end even if you do remember. Not wise. The heart needs to be moved along with the process and organization changes. You will actually accelerate change by stopping to recognize the good stuff.

My first day of 5th grade was not a disaster after all. I did stay after school but in doing so met my best friend. Mrs. Hansen was very strict but ended up being my favorite elementary teacher. My friends and I bike-hiked to her house the following summer to meet her new baby daughter. Mrs. Hansen became a mentor.  I was not a fan of the move across town but ended up loving our house, neighborhood and school after going through my change of heart. What changed my heart was relationships and experience over time. Putting that language into work terms this looks like engaging people in the change with honest interest in what they contribute to the process.

Things do not change, We do
~ Henry David Thoreau

Product Actualization: Bento Box or Potluck?

During the many trips to Japan I’ve made over the years a bento box for lunch is common sup. Everything is neatly presented and fits into its section. There are many flavors but they don’t run together. Stuff stays where it is put because the box is compartmentalized. Sometimes there are familiar looking little finger sandwiches made out of white bread and what could be tunafish or chicken salad. Sometimes there are creatures of unknown origin. Always there is a neat lid that can be used to tidy up at the end.

It would be lovely if launching and ramping a product was like a bento box. If only we could keep things from blending together. If only the bad things could be ignored in their little compartment and eventually sent away with the lid on top. In the world of new product development, supply chains, manufacturing and logistics, stuff runs together.

As an operations executive I see the organization’s bias to keep things organized, separated, clean. Let the development team work their problems. Don’t slow them down. Let the marketing team think about product roadmaps and forecasts. Don’t second guess. Customer service can deal with quality issues in the field. There is no time to get to root cause with an angry customer on the phone. Just ship them a new one. But alas, without the messy cross-functional conversation and real-time data exchange the results are non-optimal. Sometimes the results are disastrous.

The international economy fluctuations have made the job of forecasting consumer goods next to impossible. I’ve worked hard in a previous position to shorten lead times to allow for faster reaction to changes in demand. But that wasn’t good enough. The breakthrough took place with a move to design the product so that we could postpone differentiation. The work was upfront with the design and marketing teams to design for postponement. The payoff is that a few “assets” could be built into many end products to meet localized needs. The result is less inventory, more availability, better customer satisfaction, lower lead time.

Potlucks are a messy, yummy, eclectic, out of control smorgasbord. When a manufacturing organization puts on a potluck it is the best darn eating you can find. There are typically dishes from all over the world. The tastes mix together on your paper plate…with any luck.

Product actualization done well is more like a potluck. The lines blur and true concurrent work happens naturally. Customer data is vigorously collected and then it flows freely to the cross-functional team. Manufacturing partners are brought in at ideation. The development team thinks about how to design for postponement. Marketing is working alongside the other functions to anticipate the localization needed and to make the product configurable as a last step. There are blurred borders and no compartmentalization and the result is a much more successful business.

Simplicity follows complexity. Business is messy.