Learning to Read

Learning to Read

I have always loved to read.  In the last few years, I’ve devoured a lot of business books.  Mostly books on leadership and books on Lean Manufacturing.  These have the most impact on my career and our business so I really find the ideas and concepts give me new ways to approach the problems we run into at the office.

I always looked as books a lot like movies.  They are great the first time but you don’t really re-watch an old movie if there is a new one available.  My view on this had changed lately.

In our management group, we read books together.  We pick a book and read a chapter each week and we have to write 2 distinctions from each chapter and explain how it would apply to our company and what value it would provide.  This has been a valuable process for all of us.  It helps us learn together and have a shared language together.   A lot of these books have been on Lean and because I have read so many books on the subject, a lot of the books are ones I had read previously.

The interesting thing I am finding is that these books that I had already read are now providing completely different insights than they did the first time I read them.  This is not because the book is different or I didn’t read it thoroughly, but because I am different.  The things that I am struggling with, the problems that I am trying to solve and where I am along my journey are all different so the things I am reading and the insights they provide are all different.  Some of the best books I have read in 2014 are books that I had read one maybe two times before.

So if you are looking for a new book to read in the new year, try going back to a book you have read previously.  You might find some profound insights hidden among the pages of something you have already read.

3d Models for Web Viewing

Attending Autodesk University this week. Here is a sample of a 3d model produced for web viewing.  Needs to be viewed in Chrome for best results although they said IE and Safari should work too.

The Power of Not Knowing

I listened to an interesting podcast the other day (you can find it here).  The base idea is that sometimes the best person for the job, especially when the job requires creativity and innovation, is the person with no experience.  This is not what you typically see in the workplace.  Our approach is usually to find the person with the most experience and put them in charge of the project.

But think about a time where you were thrown in over your head and had to do something you had little or no experience doing.  How did you work?  You had to ask a lot of questions.  You had to do a lot of reading or research on YouTube to get ideas.  You had to weigh all of the options and make good decisions then test them to be sure they were right.  Wasn’t it a great feeling?  Didn’t you feel engaged and excited?

Henry Ford in his book “Today and Tomorrow” mentioned that he never wanted to hire an “expert”.  An expert is someone who already knows why things “won’t” work.  He liked to put people in positions where the person didn’t know what they were trying to do couldn’t be done.  He had more breakthroughs where the inexperienced person found a way where the “experts” couldn’t.

I see this each summer with our interns.  We bring in young bright college students (or sometimes high school) and put them on tasks that we haven’t had time to get to but could move us forward.  We point them in the right direction and give them access to resources to learn from but largely, they are on their own to figure it out.  The tasks usually involve things they have never had experience with.  It is always amazing at the end of the summer how much they have accomplished and the things that they have discovered for us.

The issue isn’t weather people are experienced or not, it really has to do with the way we learn.  It really has to do with keeping your mind open and not limiting the possibilities based on your past experiences.  Our minds tend to use heuristics or pattern matching to make the world easier to absorb.  If you start working on something and it is similar to something you’ve done before, your mind will leap to conclusions to make the task easier.  This makes the experienced person overlook things that the inexperienced person would need to explore and test.

So maybe, next time you need to tackle a project, try assigning it to someone without experience.  It will help them grow and you just might get newer and better ideas in the process.

The Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons

I was reading a book the other day and I came across this idea.   I think that I’ve heard the phrase “The tragedy of the commons” but wasn’t familiar with what it meant.

The Tragedy of the Commons is an economic theory put forth by Garret Hardin in 1968.  I think this theory applies to a lot of things in our world of business so I thought I’d share the theory and the application I have been thinking about.

In medieval Europe, herders would share a common plot of land, or The Commons.  If these herders were raising cows, each individual, acting in his own self interest, would want to increase the size of his herd to help feed his family and become more successful.  But as each herder increases his herd size, the land becomes depleted to the detriment of all.  In the end, they will even get to the point where the herds are unsustainable by “the commons” and their herds will perish.  So, since no one really owns the commons, they aren’t worried about it they way they would be if they owned the land.

Obviously this can be applied to a lot of the things around us.  The atmosphere, oceans, rivers, state parks or the kitchen area at the office are all part of “the commons”.  But I’d like to take another look at this based on how it could be applied to some of the problems around me at work.

Let’s say we talk about phones at the office.  A while ago we switched to the iPhone 4S as a standard for our employees.  At the time, they hadn’t quite released the iPhone 5 so this was the most current model.  Shortly after people got their phones, the iPhone 5 came out and since then they have just released the iPhone 6.  A current employee might be wondering when and if we are going to upgrade. They might think something like “our phones are out of date.  When are they going to upgrade my phone?”.  Well the truth is, the phones in our company are part of “the commons”.  There are people who are responsible to purchase phones, who are responsible to make sure they work right and other people who check and pay the phone bills.  But there is no one person who is responsible to review the technology and decide when things will get upgraded.  So, there is no current plan in place to make an upgrade.  Many things that frustrate people at work are probably part of “the commons”.   Sometimes I’m walking the shop floor and Chris (who runs our shop) will come up to me and show me a problem he is running into.  Now Chris might think “I told Steve about that”, but in fact, this particular problem doesn’t have an owner.  So, since there is no one specifically in the company who I can go and have them work on it, it just falls through the cracks and becomes a frustration.

Another example.  I get a call from one of my PM’s.  They are very frustrated.  They have a problem on a project and they sent an email to 5 people and no one responded.  I look and sure enough, there it is.  But the problem?  They sent it to 5 people.  Since it was addressed to all these people, I assumed someone else would handle it.  They all assumed the same.  This email is “the commons”.  Since no one personally owns it, then you can’t really expect anyone specifically to answer it.  I suggested that they should send the email to the person they thought would be best able to help them and just copy the other people.  This way it is clear on who owns that problem and who is expected to reply.

The more I look around the more I see this issue in practice.  Without specific ownership, things fall through the cracks and are not handled.  I know it is not exactly what Hardin was describing, but it helps me now see why some things are happening and a possible way to make things better.

A Culture of Kaizen

This week, we had another 2 Kaizen events in our company.  As many of you know, we have been working on adopting lean into our company for the last couple of years.  As this process has evolved, I thought it might be interesting to document my thinking so far.  This has been the most interesting part of lean for me.  Unlike most of the other subjects I have studied (music, programming, project management, etc…) this is not a linear progression.  It is also not a simple subject.  It is a combination of intellectual learning and hands-on experiments that continually evolves for me.  If you asked me what my definition of lean was 6 months ago, it would be very different than what I would tell you today.  No doubt, if I blog about this in the future, my thoughts will have morphed again.  Here are some of my thoughts to date:

  1. Lean is top down.  We started our lean journey in the management group.  COO, CFO, Vice Presidents, Controller, Owner, Directors.  We all began this journey together before we announced anything to the company.  What would this look like?  What does it mean to continually improve together?  What do we need to know in order to teach this to our teams?  We read books on the subject together, sharing our key points each week in our management meeting.  We made improvement videos every week to learn the discipline of Kaizen.  We took tours and met other lean leaders to get their input. We toured companies that we admired and that we wanted to emulate.  We toured companies where the way they saw lean was very different from what we wanted to do.  We toured companies that had started then failed.  We learned from all of them.  We sent two of our best employees off to get certified in lean.  Was that a good path for us?  Lots of exploration and study to really understand if this was something we could commit to 1000 percent.
  2. Lean is bottom up.  We put everyone in a lean class.  As we began our roll-out, we wanted to be sure our staff understood what we were trying to do.  We taught the classes.  We were the teachers and coaches for the whole company.   We still are.  I have 3 one hour classes that I teach every week.  These classes were cross-functional.  We were exposed to people from other departments (front desk, accounting, auto shop, project management, purchasing, engineering, shop, field).  We were teaching people we don’t manage and meeting a ton of people we hardly ever work with.
  3. Lean is a team sport.  Working together to fix things.  Working together to solve problems and make things better.  We have been doing two Kaizen events each month.  Pick a problem, select a team, sequester them for one week, bring in a coach and work on that problem and see if you can create a better way.  Again, very cross functional so you are working with a bunch of people you might only have a passing exposure to.
  4. Lean is visual.  Get out of your computer.  Put up a white board.  Write down the plan for the day, write down how you are doing, write down your problems.  Get the team around the board and talk it out.  Make things better each day.  Work as a team.  Have the managers walk the floor and see the problems.  Have the managers help solve them.

The bottom line, lean is about people.  This road we are going down has started to really open up the communication between all parts of the company.  It is starting to break down department walls and boundaries.  I’m working along side people from all over the company, not just the people that work for me.  We are creating solutions that will really impact and help our customers.  It is exposing so many problems it is hard to get your head around it all.  I feel like we are a great company but man, do we have a ton of things to work on.  But we are acknowledging these and putting things in place to get closer to the company we want to be.  All of our problems are coming down to the system we have put in place.  It is never a “people” problem, it is always coming down to the crazy system we gave them to follow.

It was a great week this week.  The report-outs yesterday confirm that people really appreciate having a voice and having their ideas heard and implemented.  We reduced change-over on one machine this week from one hour to about 10 minutes based on an employee suggestion.  We are creating strategies to solve other problems that have existed for years.  Lean is hard, but when your whole team gets committed, it can be amazing.

 

The Rope Exercise

The Rope Exercise

When we went to the FMI leadership academy, on the very first day they split you into small groups of about 6 people. Each group sets out to go through a set of exercises designed to teach you different lessons about leadership. You are assigned one of the FMI staff for your group and they lead you to an area, select one of your group to be the leader, give that person some instructions and then have them lead you through an exercise.

It’s been 10 years since I attended these classes but there is one exercise in particular that I keep coming back to. This was the rope exercise.

It was an early morning, cold and fresh at 8,000 feet in the rocky mountains where FMI holds their classes. Our group arrived at a sand pit with a rope across the center. We were given a long length of rope and told: Try to pass the ends of this rope over the rope in the sand as many times as you can in 10 seconds. So, one of our team grabbed the ends of the rope and as the FMI coach hit the timer, he waved them back and forth across the rope in the sand as many times as he could. 35. Then each of us tried it. 36, 40, 42! We were getting better.

Our coach asked: “So, is that about your maximum?” And we told him, yes, to some degree. We tried a few more things but in the end our best number was 45.

So then our coach asked us: “So, your best is 45. What if I told you that the record for this exercise is 2,500?” We just looked at him. There was no way we were getting to 2,500 the way we were doing the exercise. So we started thinking and one person asked: “What do you mean by the ‘ends of the rope’?” “What do you think I mean” came the reply. So, we coiled the rope back and forth to create a bunch of ends. Now, when we passed it over the rope in the sand we were making excellent progress. I think we ended up at about 2,000 when we finished.

Einstein once said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. In a lot of cases in life, we use incremental thinking. So for instance, we might want to improve how long it takes to enter the timecards in our office (this is a real life example from my office). The first thing we think of is trying to make the timecards more legible, making the data entry program have less clicks, etc… So this is incremental thinking. Not changing our thinking but just looking at what we are doing and doing it better. In our rope exercise, this might get you from 40 to 45. But what if I told you that some companies (like ours) don’t have to enter timecards at all? Now you have to use different thinking. You aren’t trying to go from 40 to 45, but from 40 to 2,500. Now what? You start looking at the problem differently.

This, to me, is a revolutionary thought. I come back to this idea time and time again. It has helped us to change our thinking many times and since our entire leadership team went through the same training, it is something that everyone identifies with. We will be looking at a problem and someone will say: “Hey, this is like the rope exercise” and suddenly we all start looking at the problem from a different perspective.

Hope this gives you some food for thought. Have a great week!