I’ve received notes from engineering leaders that, based on a single line of a post, reinvented the cost signature of their products.
I’ve been sent messages from folks who were stuck in a rut, and after reading my post, were able to work through their self-imposed constraints.
My inbox has let me know a reader, after thinking about my thinking, tried something that truly scared them.
They all thanked me for what I gave them, but, really, I want to thank them for what they gave me.
They listened; they thought; they changed their behavior. There can be no bigger gift.
I know not everyone celebrates my holiday, but, nonetheless, I want to share it with you.
Merry Christmas, and thanks for your gifts.
We strive to get everyone on the same page, to align the crew in a shared direction. The thinking goes – If we’re all pulling in the same direction, we’ll get there faster and more efficiently. Yes, the destination will come sooner, but what if it’s not there when we get there?
There’s implicit permanence to our go-forward travel plans. We look out three years and plan our destination as if today’s rules and fundamentals will still apply. We think – That imaginary tropical vacation spot will be beautiful in three years because it looks beautiful through the kalidascope of today’s success. But as the recent natural disasters have taught us, whole islands can be destroyed in an instant. But still, the impermenance of today’s tried-and-true business models is lost on us, and we see the unknowable future as statically as the unchangeable map of the continents.
Thing is, all around us there are weak indications the fundamental tradewinds have started to shift – weak signals of impermenance that may invalidate today’s course heading. But weak signals are difficult to hear – the white noise of yesterday’s success drowns out the forward-looking weak signals. And more problematic, once heard, weak signals are easily dismissed because their song threatens the successful status quo.
You feel weak signals in your chest. It could be a weak signal when your experience tells you things should go one way and they actually go another. Martin Zwilling (Forbes) has some great examples. (Thanks to Deb Mills-Scofield [@dscofield] for retweeting the article.)
100% alignment reduces adaptability because it deadens us to weak signals, and that’s a problem in these times of great impermanence. To counter the negative elements of alignment, there must be a balancing injection of healthy misalignment. This is an important and thankless task falls on the shoulders of a special breed – the radical fringe. They’re the folks smart enough to knit disjointed whispers into coherent ideas that could unravel everything and brave enough to test them.
Disruptive movements and revolutions build momentum quietly and slowly. But if you can recognize them early, there’s a chance you can get into position to ride their tsunami instead of being ambushed and scuttled by it. But you’ve got to listen closely because these young movements are stealthy and all they leave in their wake are weak signals.
It’s difficult to do something for the first time. Whether it’s a new approach, a new technology, or a new campaign, the mass of the past pulls our behavior back toward itself. And sadly, whether the past has been successful or not, its mass, and therefore it’s pull, are about the same. The past keeps us along the track of sameness.
Trains have tracks to enable them to move efficiently (cost per mile), and when you want to go where the train is heading, it’s all good. But when the tracks are going to the wrong destination, all that efficiency comes at the expense of effectiveness. Like we’re on rails, company history keeps us on track, even if it’s time for a new direction.
The best trains run on a ritualistic schedule. People queue up at same time every morning to meet their same predictable behemoth, and take comfort in slinking into their regular seats and turning off their brains. And this is the train’s trick. It uses its regularity to lull riders into a hazy state of non-thinking – get on, sit down, and I’ll get your there – to blind passengers from seeing its highly limited timetable and its extreme inflexibility. The train doesn’t want us to recognize that it’s not really about where the train wants to go.
Trains are powerful in their own right, but their real muscle comes from the immense sunk cost of their infrastructure. Previous generations invested billions in train stations, repair facilities, tight integration with bus lines, and the tracks, and it takes extreme strength of character to propose a new direction that doesn’t make use of the old, tired infrastructure that’s already paid for. Any new direction that requires a whole new infrastructure is a tough sell, and that’s why the best new directions transcend infrastructure altogether. But for those new directions that require new infrastructure, the only way to go is a modular approach that takes the right size bites.
Our worn tracks were laid in a bygone era, and the important destinations of yesteryear are no longer relevant. It’s no longer viable to go where the train wants; we must go where we want.
Companies strive for predictability, yet if it’s predictable, it cannot be innovation.
We seek comfort in our work, but if it’s comfortable it can’t be innovation.
Businesses like to grow by selling more to the customers we have, but if existing customers can recognize it, it can’t be innovation.
We want to meet year end numbers, but if the project will generate profit in the year it begins, it can’t be innovation.
We love our standardized processes, but if it’s standard, it cannot be innovation.
If there’s consensus, it’s not innovation.
If the project isn’t wreaking havoc with your organizational norms, it can’t be innovation.
If the market already exists, it can’t be innovation.
If you’ve done it before, it can’t be innovation.
If you are following a best practice, it can’t be innovation.
If there’s a high probability it will work, it can’t be innovation.
If people aren’t threatened, it can’t be innovation.
The natural mindset of innovation is more-centric. More throughput; more performance; more features and functions; more services; more sales regions and markets; more applications; more of what worked last time. With innovation, we naturally gravitate toward more.
There are two flavors of more, one better than the other. The better brother is more that does something for the first time. For example, the addition of the first airbags to automobiles – clearly an addition (previous vehicles had none) and clearly a meaningful innovation. More people survived car crashes because of the new airbags. This something-from-nothing more is magic, innovative, and scarce.
Most more work is of a lesser class – the more-of-what-is class. Where the first airbags were amazing, moving from eight airbags to nine – not so much. When the first safety razors replaced straight razors, they virtually eliminated fatal and almost fatal injuries, which was a big deal; but when the third and fourth blades were added, it was more trivial than magical. It was more for more’s sake; it was more because we didn’t know what else to do.
While more is more natural, less is more powerful. The Innovator’s Dilemma clearly called out the power of less. When the long-in-the-tooth S-curve flattens, Christensen says to look down, to look down and create technologies that do less. Actually, he tells us someone will give ground on the very thing that built the venerable S-curve to make possible a done-for-the-first-time innovation. He goes on to say you might as well be the one to dismantle your S-curve before a somebody else beats you to it. Yes, a wonderful way to realize the juciest innovation is with a less-centric mindset.
The LED revolution was made possible with less-centric thinking. As the incandescent S-curve hit puberty, wattage climbed and more powerful lights became cost effective; and as it matured, output per unit cost increased. More on more. And looking down from the graying S-curve was the lowly LED, whose output was far, far less.
But what the LED gave up in output it gained in less power draw and smaller size. As it turned out, there was a need for light where there had been none – in highly mobile applications where less size and weight were prized. And in these new applications, there was just a wisp of available power, and incandesent’s power draw was too much. If only there was a technology with less power draw.
But at the start, volumes for LEDs were far less than incandesent’s; profit margin was less; and most importantly, their output was far less than any self-respecting lightbulb. From on high, LEDs weren’t real lights; they were toys that would never amount to anything.
You can break intellectual inertia around more, and good things will happen. New design space is created from thin air once you are forced from the familiar. But it takes force. Creative use of constraints can help.
Get a small team together and creatively construct constraints that outlaw the goodness that makes your product great. The incandescent group’s constraint could be: create a light source that must make far less light. The automotive group’s constraint: create a vehicle that must have less range – battery powered cars. The smartphone group: create a smartphone with the fewest functions – wrist phone without Blutooth to something in your pocket , longer battery life, phone in the ear, phone in your eyeglasses.
Less is unnatural, and less is scary. The fear is your customers will get less and they won’t like it. But don’t be afraid because you’re going to sell to altogether different customers in altogether markets and applications. And fear not, because to those new customers you’ll sell more, not less. You’ll sell them something that’s the first of its kind, something that does more of what hasn’t been done before. It may do only a little bit of that something, but that’s far more than not being able to do it all.
Don’t tell anyone, but the next level of more will come from less.
Overall, our upward evolutionary spiral toward infinite productivity is a good thing. (More profit with less work – can’t argue with that.) And also good is our Darwinian desire to increase our chances of realizing profit by winding a thick cocoon of risk reduction around the work.
But with our productivity helix comes a little known illness that’s rarely diagnosed. It’s not a full-fledged disease, rather, it’s a syndrome. It’s called Transplant Syndrome, or TS.
Along with general flu-like symptoms, TS produces a burning and itching desire to transplant something that worked well in one area into another. On its own, not a bad thing; the dangerous part of TS is that scratching its itch feels so good. And it feels so good because the scratching fits with capitalism’s natural law – only the most productive species will survive.
In a brain suffering from TS, transplanting Region A’s successful business model into Region B makes perfect productivity sense (No new thinking, but plenty of new revenue.) But that’s not the problem. The problem is the TS brain’s urge to transplant is insatiable and indiscriminate. With TS, along with Region B, it makes perfect sense to transplant into Region C, Region D, and Regions L, M, N, O, and P. And with TS, it must happen in record time. Like a parasite, TS feeds on our desire for productivity.
When you transplant your favorite flowering plant from one region of your yard to another, even the inexperienced gardener in us knows to question whether the new region will support the plant. Is the soil similar? Is there enough sun or too much? Will it be blocked from the wind like it is now? And because you know your yard (and because you asked the questions) you won’t transplant unless the viability threshold is met.
But what if you wanted to transplant your most precious flowering plant from your yard in North America to someone else’s yard in South America? At a high level, the viability questions are the same – sun, soil, and water, but the answers are hard to come by. Should you use google to get the answers? Should you get in an airplane and check the territory yourself? Should you talk to the local gardeners? (They don’t speak English.)
But digging deeper, there are many questions you don’t even know to ask. Some of the local bugs may eat your precious plant, so you better know the little crawlies by name and learn what they like to eat. But still, since the bugs have never seen your plant, you won’t know if they’ll eat it until they eat it. You can ask the local gardeners, but they won’t know. (They, too, have never seen it.) Or worse, they may treat it as invasive species and pull it out of the ground after you leave for home.
Here’s an idea. You could scout out local plants that look like yours and declare viability by similarity. But be careful because over the years the local plants have built up tacit defenses you can’t see.
Transplant Syndrome not just a business model syndrome; it infects broadly. In fact, there have been recent outbreaks reported in people that work with products, technologies, processes, and company cultures.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for TS. But, with the right prescription, symptoms can be managed.
Symptoms have been pushed into dormancy when companies hire the best, most experienced, local gardeners. These special gardeners must have been born and raised in-region. And in clinical trials the best results have been achieved when the chief gardener, a well respected local gardener in their own right, has full responsibility for designing, viability testing, and implementing the transplant program.
There have been reported cases of TS symptoms flaring up mid program, but in all cases there was a single common risk factor: no one listened to the gardeners on the receiving end of the transplant.
We’ve been conditioned to ask for direction; to ask for a plan; and ask for permission. But those ways no longer apply. Today that old behavior puts you at the front of the peloton in the great race to the bottom.
The old ways are gone.
Today’s new ways: propose a direction (better yet, test one out on a small scale); create and present a radical plan of your own (or better, on the smallest of scales test the novel aspects and present your learning); and demonstrate you deserve permission by initiating activity on something that will obsolete the very thing responsible for your success.
People that wait for someone to give them direction are now a commodity, and with commodities it always ends in the death spiral of low cost providers putting each other out of business. As businesses are waist deep in proposals to double-down on what hasn’t worked and are choking on their flattened S-curves, there’s a huge opportunity for people that have the courage to try new things on their own. Today, if you initiate you’ll differentiate.
[This is where you say to yourself – I’ve already got too much on my plate, and I don’t have the time or budget to do more (and unsanctioned) work. And this is where I tell you your old job is already gone, and you might as well try something innovative. It’s time to grab the defibrillator and jolt your company out of its flatline. ]
It’s time to respect your gut and run a low cost, micro-experiment to test your laughable idea. (And because you’ll keep the cost low, no one will know when it doesn’t go as you thought. [They never do.]) It’s time for an underground meeting with your trusted band of dissidents to plan and run your pico-experiment that could turn your industry upside down. It’s time to channel your inner kindergartener and micro-test the impossible.
It’s time to choose yourself.
Early in projects, even before the first prototype is up and running, you know what the product must do, what it will cost, and, most problematic, when you’ll be done. Independent of work content, level of newness, and workloads, there’s no uncertainty in your launch date. It’s etched in stone and the consequences are devastating.
A zero tolerance policy on uncertainty forces irrational behavior. As soon as possible, engineering gets something running in the lab, and then doesn’t want to change it because there’s no time. The prototype is almost impossible to build and is hypersensitive to normal process variation, but these issues are not addressed because there’s no time. Everyone agrees it’s important to fix it, and agrees to fix it after launch, but that never happens because the next project is already late before it starts. And the death cycle repeats project after project.
The root cause of this mess is the mistaken porting of manufacturing’s zero uncertainly mindset into design. The thinking goes like this – lean and Six Sigma have achieved magical success in manufacturing by eliminating uncertainty, so let’s do it in product design and achieve similar results. This is a fundamental mistake as the domains are fundamentally different.
In manufacturing the same product is made day-in and day-out – no uncertainty; in product design no two product development efforts are the same and there’s lots of stuff that’s done for the first time – uncertainty by definition. In manufacturing there’s a revision controlled engineering drawing that defines the right answer (the geometry and the material) – make it like the picture and it’s all good; in product design the material is chosen from many candidates and the geometry is created from scratch – the picture is created from nothing. By definition there’s more inherent uncertainty in product design, and to tighten the screws and fix the launch date at the start is inappropriate.
Design engineers must feel like there’s enough time to try new things because new products that provide new functionality require new technologies, new materials, and new geometries. With new comes inherent uncertainty, but there are ways to manage it.
To hold the timeline, give on the specification and cost. Design as fast as you can until you run out of time then launch. The product won’t work as well as you’d like and it will cost more than you’d like, but you’ll hit the schedule. A good way to do this is to de-feature a subassembly to reduce design time, and possibly reduce cost. Or, reuse a proven subassembly to reduce design time – take a hit in cost, but hit the timeline. The general idea – hold schedule but flex on performance and cost.
It feels like sacrilege to admit that something’s got to give, but it’s the truth. You’ve seen how it goes when you edict (in no uncertain terms) that the timeline will be met and there’ll be no give on performance and cost. It hasn’t worked, and it won’t – the inherent uncertainty of product design won’t let it.
Accept the uncertainty; be one with it; and manage it. It’s the only way.
Accomplishments in 2013
- Fourth year of weekly blog posts without missing a beat or repeating a post. (251 posts in total.)
- Third year of daily tweets – 2,170 in all. (@mikeshipulski)
- Second year as Top 40 Innovation Bloggers (#12) – Innovation Excellence, the web’s top innovation site.
- Seventh consecutive year as Keynote Speaker at International Forum on DFMA.
- Fourth year of LinkedIn working group – Systematic DFMA Deployment.
- Third year writing a column for Assembly Magazine (6 more columns this year).
- Wrote a book — PRODUCT PROCESS PEOPLE – Designing for Change (Which my subscribers can download for free.)
Top 5 Posts
- What They Didn’t Teach Me In Engineering School – a reflection on my learning after my learning.
- Guided Divergence — balancing act of letting go and shaping the future.
- Innovation in 26 words — literally.
- Lasting Behavioral Change — easy to say, tough to do.
- Prototype The Unfamiliar – test early and often.
I look forward to a great year 5.
You’re busier than ever, and almost every day you’re asked to do more. And usually it’s more with less – must improve efficiency so you can do more of what you already do. We want you to take this on, but don’t drop anything.
Improving your efficiency is good, and it’s healthy to challenge yourself to do more, but there’s a whole other side to things – a non-efficiency-based approach, where instead of asking how can you do more things, it’s about how you can do things that matter more.
And from this non-efficiency-based framework, the question “What aren’t you doing?” opens a worm hole to a new universe, and in this universe meaning matters. In this universe “What aren’t you doing?” is really “What aren’t you doing that is truly meaningful to you?”
[But before I’m accused of piling on the work, even if it’s meaningful work, I'll give you an idea to free up time do more things that matter. First, change your email settings to off-line mode so no new messages pop on your screen and interrupt you. In the morning manually send and receive your email and answer email for 30 minutes; do the same in the afternoon. This will force you to triage your email and force you to limit your time. This will probably free up at least an hour a day.]
Now we’ll step through a process to figure out the most important thing you’re not doing.
Here is a link to a template to help you with the process — Template – What Aren’t You Doing.
The first step is to acknowledge there are important things you’re not doing and make a list. They can be anything – a crazy project, a deeper relationship, personal development, an adventure, or something else.
To make the list, ask these questions:
I always wanted to ____________.
I always wished I could __________.
Write down your answers. Now run the acid test to make sure these things are actually meaningful. Ask yourself:
When I think of doing this thing, do I feel uncomfortable or or a little scared?
If they don’t make you a little uncomfortable, they’re not meaningful. Go back to the top and start over. For the ones that make you uncomfortable, choose the most important, enter it in the template, and move to the next step.
In the second step you acknowledge there’s something in the way. Ask yourself:
I can’t do my most meaningful thing because _______________.
Usually it’s about time, money, lack of company support, goes against the norm, or it’s too crazy. On the template write down your top two or three answers.
In the third step you transform from an external focus to an internal one, and acknowledge what’s in the way is you. (For the next questions you must temporarily suspend reality and your very real day-to-day constraints and responsibilities.) Ask yourself:
If I started my most meaningful thing tomorrow I would feel uncomfortable that ____________.
Write down a couple answers, then ask:
The reason I would feel uncomfortable about my most meaningful thing is because I __________. (Must be something about you.)
Write down one or two. Some example reasons: you think your past experiences predict the future; you’re afraid to succeed; you don’t like what people will think about you; or the meaningful stuff contradicts your sense of self.
Spend an hour a week on this exercise until you understand the reasons you’re not doing your most meaningful thing. Then, spend an hour a week figuring out how to overcome your reasons for not doing. Then, spend an hour a week, or more, doing your most meaningful thing.