Seeing What Isn’t There

It’s relatively straightforward to tell the difference between activities that are done well and those that are done poorly. Usually sub-par activities generate visual signals to warn us of their misbehavior. A bill isn’t paid, a legal document isn’t signed or the wrong parts are put in the box. Though the specifics vary with context, the problem child causes the work product to fall off the plate and make a mess on the floor.

We have tools to diagnose the fundamental behind the symptom. We can get to root cause. We know why the plate was dropped. We know how to define the corrective action and implement the control mechanism so it doesn’t happen again. We patch up the process and we’re up and running in no time. This works well when there’s a well-defined in place, when process is asked to do what it did last time, when the inputs are the same as last time and when the outputs are measured like they were last time.

However, this linear thinking works terribly when the context changes. When the old processes are asked to do new work, the work hits the floor like last time, but the reason it hits the floor is fundamentally different. This time, it’s not that an activity was done poorly. Rather, this time there’s something missing altogether. And this time our linear-thinker toolbox won’t cut it. Sure, we’ll try with all our Six Sigma might, but we won’t get to root cause. Six Sigma, lean and best practices can fix what’s broken, but none of them can see what isn’t there.

When the context changes radically, the work changes radically. New-to-company activities are required to get the new work done. New-to-industry tools are needed to create new value. And, sometimes, new-to-world thinking is the only thing that will do. The trick isn’t to define the new activity, choose the right new tool or come up with the new thinking. The trick is to recognize there’s something missing, to recognize there’s something not there, to recognize there’s a need for something new.  Whether it’s an activity, a tool or new thinking, we’ve got to learn to see what’s not there.

Now the difficult part – how to recognize there’s something missing. You may think the challenging part is to figure out what’s needed to fill the void, but it isn’t.  You can’t fill a hole until you see it as a hole. And once everyone agrees there’s a hole, it’s pretty easy to buy the shovels, truck in some dirt and get after it.  But if don’t expect holes, you won’t see them. Sure, you’ll break your ankle, but you won’t see the hole for what it is.

If the work is new, look for what’s missing. If the problem is new, watch out for holes. If the customer is new, there will be holes. If the solution is new, there will be more holes.

When the work is new, you will twist your ankle. And when you do, grab the shovels and start to put in place what isn’t there.

Image credit – Tony Atler

Growth Isn’t The Answer

Most companies have growth objectives – make more, sell more and generate more profits. Increase profit margin, sell into new markets and twist our products into new revenue. Good news for the stock price, good news for annual raises and plenty of money to buy the things that will help us grow next year. But it’s not good for the people that do the work.

To increase sales the same sales folks will have to drive more, call more and do more demos. Ten percent more work for three percent more compensation. Who really benefits here? The worker who delivers ten percent more or the company that pays them only three percent more?  Pretty clear to me it’s all about the company and not about the people.

To increase the number of units made implies that there can be no increase in the number of people required to make them.  To increase throughput without increasing headcount, the production floor will have less time for lunch, less time for improving their skills and less time to go to the bathroom. Sure, they can do Lean projects to eliminate waste, as long as they don’t miss their daily quota. And sure, they can help with Six Sigma projects to reduce variation, as long as they don’t miss TAKT time. Who benefits more – the people or the company?

Increased profit margin (or profit percentage) is the worst offender.  There are only two ways to improve the metric – sell it for more or make it for less. And even better than that is to sell it for more AND make it for less. No one can escape this metric. The sales team must meet with more customers; the marketing team must work doubly hard to define and communicate the value proposition; the engineering staff must reduce the time to launch the product and make it perform better than their best work; and everyone else must do more with less or face the chopping block.

In truth, corporate growth is the fundamental behind global warming, reduced life expectancy in the US and the ridiculous increase in the cost of healthcare. Growth requires more products and more products require more material mined, pumped or clear-cut from the planet. Growth puts immense pressure on the people doing the work and increases their stress level. And when they can’t deliver, their deep sense of helplessness and inadequacy causes them to kill themselves. And healthcare costs increase because the companies within (and insuring) the system need to make more profit.  Who benefits here?  The people in our community? The people doing the work? The planet? Or the companies?

What if we decided that companies could not grow? What if instead companies paid dividends to the people do the work based on the profit the company makes? With constant output wouldn’t everyone benefit year-on-year?

What if we decided output couldn’t grow? What if instead, as productivity increased, companies required people to work fewer hours? What if everyone could make the same number of products in seven hours and went home an hour early, working seven and getting paid for eight? Would everyone be better off? Wouldn’t the planet be better off?

What if we decided the objective of companies was to employ more people and give them a sense of purpose and give meaning to their lives? What if we used the profit created by productivity improvements to employ more people? Wouldn’t our communities benefit when more people have good jobs? Wouldn’t people be happier because they can make a contribution to their community? Wouldn’t there be less stress and fewer suicides when parents have enough money to feed their kids and buy them clothes? Wouldn’t everyone benefit? Wouldn’t the planet benefit?

Year-on-year growth is a fallacy. Year-on-year growth stresses the planet and the people doing the work.  Year-on-year growth is good for no one except the companies demanding year-on-year growth.

The planet’s resources are finite; people’s ability to do work is finite; and the stress level people can tolerate is finite. Why not recognize these realities?

And why not figure out how to structure companies in a way that benefits the owners of the company, the people doing the work, the community where the work is done and the planet?

Image credit – Ryan

How to Prevent Depletion

On every operating plan there are more projects than there are people to do them and at every meeting there more new deliverables than people to take them on. At every turn, our demand for increased profits pushes our people for more.  And, to me, I think this is the reason every day feel fuller than the last.

This year do you have more things to accomplish or fewer? Do you have more meetings or fewer? Do you get more emails or fewer?

We add work to people’s day as if their capacity to do work is infinite. And we add metrics to measure them to make sure they get the work done. And that’s a recipe for depletion. At some point, even the best, most productive people reach their physical and emotional limits. And at some point, as the volume of work increases, we all become depleted. It’s not that we’re moving slowly, being wasteful or giving it less than our all. When the work exceeds our capacity to do it, we run out of gas.

Here are some thoughts that may help you over the next year.

The amount of work you will get done this year is the same as you got done last year. But don’t get sidetracked here. This has nothing to do with the amount of work you were asked to do last year. Because you didn’t complete everything you were asked to do last year, the same thing will happen this year unless the amount of work on this year’s plan is equal to the amount of work you actually accomplished last year. Every year, scrub a little work off your yearly commitments until the work content finally equals your capacity to get it done.

Once the work content of your yearly plan is in line, the mantra becomes – finish one before you start one. If you had three projects last year and you finished one, you can add one project this year. If you didn’t finish any projects last year you can’t start one this year, at least until you finish one this year. It’s a simple mantra, but a powerful one. It will help you stop starting and start finishing.

There’s a variant to the finish-before-you-start approach that doesn’t have to wait for the completion of a long project. Instead of finishing a project, unimportant projects are stopped before they’re finished. This is loosely known as – stop doing before start doing.  Stopping is even more powerful than finishing because low value work is stopped and the freed-up resources are immediately applied to higher value work. This takes judgement and courage to stop a dull project, but it’s well worth the discomfort.

If you want to get ahead of the game, create a stop-doing list. For each item on the list estimate how much time you will free up and sum the freed-up time for the lot. Be ruthless. Stop all but the most important work. And when your boss says you can’t stop something because it’s too important, propose that you stop for a week and see what happens.  And when no one notices you stopped, propose to stop for a month and see what happens. Rinse and repeat.

When the amount of work you have to get done fits with your capacity to do it, your physical and mental health will improve. You’ll regain that spring in your step and you’ll be happier. And the quality of your work will improve. But more importantly, your family life and personal relationships will improve. You’ll be able to let go of work and be fully present with your friends and family.

Regardless of the company’s growth objectives, one person can only do the work of one person. And it’s better for everyone (and the company) if we respect this natural constraint.

On Gumption

Doing new work takes gumption. But there are two problems with gumption. One, you’ve got to create it from within. Two, it takes a lot of energy to generate the gumption and to do that you’ve got to be physically fit and mentally grounded. Here are some words that may help.

Move from self-judging to self-loving. It makes a difference.

It’s never enough until you decide it’s enough. And when you do, you can be more beholden to yourself.

You already have what you’re looking for. Look inside.

Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish, it’s self-ful.

When in doubt, go outside.

You can’t believe in yourself without your consent.

Your well-being is your responsibility. And it’s time to be responsible.

When you move your body, your mind smiles.

With selfish, you take care of yourself at another’s expense. With self-ful, you take care of yourself because you’re full of self-love.

When in doubt, feel the doubt and do it anyway.

If you’re not taking care of yourself, understand what you’re putting in the way and then don’t do that anymore.

You can’t help others if you don’t take care of yourself.

If you struggle with taking care of yourself, pretend you’re someone else and do it for them.

Image credit — Ramón Portellano

Advice To Young Design Engineers

If your solution isn’t sold to a customer, you didn’t do your job. Find a friend in Marketing.

If your solution can’t be made by Manufacturing, you didn’t do your job.  Find a friend in Manufacturing.

Reuse all you can, then be bold about trying one or two new things.

Broaden your horizons.

Before solving a problem, make sure you’re solving the right one.

Don’t add complexity. Instead, make it easy for your customers.

Learn the difference between renewable and non-renewable resources and learn how to design with the renewable ones.

Learn how to do a Life Cycle Assessment.

Learn to see functional coupling and design it out.

Be afraid but embrace uncertainty.

Learn how to communicate your ideas in simple ways. Jargon is a sign of weakness.

Before you can make sure you’re solving the right problem, you’ve got to know what problem you’re trying to solve.

Learn quickly by defining the tightest learning objective.

Don’t seek credit, seek solutions. Thrive, don’t strive.

Be afraid, and run toward the toughest problems.

Help people.  That’s your job.

Image credit – Marco Verch

An Environmental Call-To-Arms for Industry

What is your obligation to improve the health of our planet?

For the CEO – Look around. Look at Europe. Look at China’s plans. Look at the startups. I know you want to achieve your growth objectives, but if you don’t take seriously the race toward cleaner products and services, you’ll go out of business. You can see this as a problem or an opportunity. Bury your head or put on your track shoes and run! It’s your choice.

Look at the oceans. Look at the landfills. Look at the rise in global temperatures. Just look. This isn’t about ROI, this is about survival. Growth objectives aside, no one will buy things when they are struggling to survive in an uncertain future. Your same old dirty products won’t cut it anymore. So, what are you going to do?

For an example of a path forward, look to the companies in the oil business. Their recipe is clear. They’ve got to use their large but ever-diminishing profits to buy themselves into technologies and industries that will ultimately eat their core business.  Though the timing is uncertain, it’s certain that improvements in cleaner technologies will demand they make the change.

Whatever you do, don’t wait. You don’t have much time. Cleaner technologies are getting better every day.  It’s time to start.

For Marketing – Look at the upstarts. Look at the powerful companies in adjacent markets who will soon be your direct competitors. Look at your stodgy, unprofitable competitors who are now sufficiently desperate to try anything. Their next marketing push will be built on the bedrock of an improved planet. They’ll be almost as good as you in the traditional areas of productivity and quality and they’ll blow your doors off with their meaner and greener products. Customers will choose green over brown. And they’ll look for real improvements that make the planet smile. The time for green-washing is past. That trick is out of gas.

You need to help customers with new jobs to be done. They care about their environment. They care about their carbon footprint. They care about clean water. And they care about recycling and reuse. It’s real. They care. Now it’s up to you to help them make progress in these areas. It will be a tough road to convince your company that things need to change, but that’s why you’re in Marketing.

You’re already behind. It’s time to start. And it’s up to you to lead the charge.

For Manufacturing – Look at your Value Stream Maps (VSMs). Assign a carbon footprint to each link in the chain. And do the same with water consumption. Assess each process step for carbon and water and rank them worst to best. For the worst, run carbon kaizens and improve the carbon footprint. And run water kaizens for the thirstiest processes.

And look again at your VSMs, and look more broadly. Look back into the supply chain, rank for carbon and water and improve the ones that need the treatment. And teach your suppliers how to do it. And look forward into your distribution channels and improve or eliminate the worst actors. And then propose to Marketing that you teach your customers how to use VSMs to clean up their act. And challenge Engineering to change the design to eliminate the remaining bad actors.

You’ve made good progress with your value streams. Now it’s time to help others make the progress that must be made. As subject matter experts, it’s your time to shine. And, please, start now.

For Engineering – Look at your products. Look at how they’re used. Look at how they’re delivered. Look at how they’re made. Look at how they’re recycled. Sure, your products provide good functionality, but throughout their life cycle they also create carbon dioxide and consume water. And you’re the only ones that can design out the environmental impact.

Learn how to do a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Learn which elements of the product create the largest problems. For all the parts that make up the product, sort them worst to best to prioritize the design work. It’s time for radical part count reduction. Try to design out half the parts. It’s possible. And the payoff is staggering. What’s the carbon footprint of a part that was designed out of the product?

Or, to make a more radical improvement, consider an Innovation Burst Event (IBE) to make a fundamental change in the way your products/services impact the environment. With this approach, your innovation work, by definition, will make the planet smile.

It’s time to be open-minded. Ask Manufacturing for the worst processes (including supply chain and distribution) and try to design them out. Design out the part, or change the material, or change the design to enable a friendlier process. Manufacturing can only improve a bad process, but you can design them out altogether. There’s power in that, but with power comes responsibility.

And it’s time for you to take responsibility.

For Everyone in Industry – Regardless of your company, your country or your political affiliation, we can all agree that all our lives get better as the health of our planet improves. And everyone can agree that cleaner air is better. And everyone can agree it’s the same for our water – cleaner is better. And that’s a whole lot of agreement.

As industry leaders, I challenge you to build on that common ground. As industry leaders, I challenge you to improve our planet one product at a time and one process at a time. And as industry leaders, I challenge you to help each other. There’s no competitive disadvantage when you help a company outside your industry. And there’s no shame in learning from companies outside your industry. And it’s good for the planet and profits. There’s nothing in the away. It’s time to start.

As an industry leader, if you want to make a difference in the health of our planet, send me an email at mike@shipulski.com and we will help each other.

Image credit – halfrain

Organizational Learning

The people within companies have development plans so they can learn new things and become more effective.  There are two types of development plans – one that builds on strengths and another that shore up shortcomings. And for both types, the most important step is to acknowledge it’s important to improve. Before a plan can be created to improve on a strength, there must be recognition that something good can come from the improvement. And before there can be a plan to improve on a shortcoming, there must be recognition that there’s something missing and it needs to be improved.

And thanks to Human Resources, the whole process is ritualized. The sequence is defined, the timing is defined and the tools are defined. Everyone knows when it will happen, how it will happen and, most importantly, that it will happen.  In that way, everyone knows it’s important to learn new skills for the betterment of all.

Organizational learning is altogether different and more difficult.  With personal learning, it’s clear who must do the learning (the person). But with organizational learning, it’s unclear who must learn because the organization, as a whole, must learn. But we can’t really see the need for organizational learning because we get trapped in trying to fix the symptoms. Team A has a problem, so let’s fix Team A. Or, Team B has a problem, so let’s fix Team B. But those are symptoms. Real organizational learning comes when we recognize problematic themes shared by all the teams. Real organization learning comes when we realize these problems don’t result from doing things wrong, rather, they are a natural byproduct of how the company goes about its work.

The difficulty with organizational learning is not fixing the thematic problems. The difficulty is recognizing the thematic problems. When all the processes are followed and all the best practices are used, yet the same problematic symptoms arise, the problem is inherent in the foundational processes and practices. Yet, these are the processes and practices responsible for past success. It’s difficult for company leaders recognize and declare that the things that made the company successful are now the things that are holding the company back. But that’s the organizational learning that must happen.

What worked last time will work next time, as long as the competitive landscape remains constant. But when the landscape changes, what worked last time doesn’t work anymore. And this, I think, is how recipes responsible for past success can, over time, begin to show cracks and create these systematic problems that are so difficult to see.

The best way I know to recognize the need for organizational learning is to recognize changes in the competitive landscape. Once these changes are recognized, thought experiments can be run to evaluate potential impacts on how the company does business. Now that the landscape changed like this, it could stress our business model like that. Now that our competitors provide new services like this, it could create a gap in our capabilities like that.

Organizational learning occurs when the right leaders feel the problems. Fight the urge to fix the problems. Instead, create the causes and conditions for the right leaders to recognize they have a real problem on their hands.

Image credit – Jim Bauer

Why not choose the right words?

We all want to make progress. We all want to to do the right thing. And we all have the best intentions. But often we don’t pay enough attention to the words we use.

There are pure words that convey a message in a kind soothing way and there are snarl words that convey a message in a sharp, biting way. It’s relatively easy, if you’re paying attention, to recognize the snarl and purr. But it’s much more difficult to take skillful action when you hear them used unskillfully.

A purr word is skillful when it conveys honest appreciation, and it’s unskillful when it manipulates under the banner of false praise. But how do you tell the difference? That’s where the listening comes in. And that’s where effective probing can help.

If you sense unskillful use, ask a question of the user to get at the intent behind the language. Why do you think the idea is so good? What about the concept do you find so interesting? Why do you like it so much? Then, use your judgment to decide if the use was unskillful or not. If unskillful, assign less value to the purr language and the one purring it.

But it’s different with snark words. I don’t know of a situation where the use of snarl words is skillful. Blatant use of snarl words is easy to see and interpret. And it looks like plain, old-fashioned anger. And the response is straightforward. Call the snarler on their snarl and let them know it’s not okay. That usually puts an end to future snarling.

The most dangerous use of snarl words is passive-aggressive snarling. Here, the snarler wants all the manipulative benefit without being recognized as a manipulator.  The pros snarl lightly to start to see if they get away with it. And if they do, they snarl harder and more often. And they won’t stop until they’re called on their behavior. And when they are called on their behavior, they’ll deny the snarling altogether.

Passive-aggressive snarling can block new thinking, prevent consensus and stall hard-won momentum. It’s nothing short of divisive. And it’s difficult to see and requires courage to confront and eviscerate.

If you see something, say something. And it’s the same with passive-aggressive snarling. If you think it is happening, ask questions to get at the underlying intent of the words. If it turns out that it’s simply a poor choice of words, suggest better ones and move on. But if the intent is manipulation, it must be stopped in its tracks. It must be called by name, its negative implications must be be linked to the behavior and new behavioral norms must be set.

Words are the tools we use to make progress. The wrong words block progress and the right ones accelerate it.

Why not choose the right words?

Four Questions to Choose Innovation Projects

It’s a challenge to prioritize and choose innovation projects. There are open questions on the technology, the product/service, the customer, the price and sales volume.  Other than that, things are pretty well defined.

But with all that, you’ve still go to choose.  Here are some questions that may help in your selection process

Is it big enough? The project will be long, expensive and difficult. And if the potential increase in sales is not big enough, the project is not worth starting. Think (Price – Cost) x Volume. Define a minimum viable increase in sales and bound it in time. For example, the minimum incremental sales is twenty five million dollars after five years in the market. If the project does not have the potential to meet those criteria, don’t do the project. The difficult question – How to estimate the incremental sales five years after launch? The difficult answer – Use your best judgement to estimate sales based on market size and review your assumptions and predictions with seasoned people you trust.

Why you? High growth markets/applications are attractive to everyone, including the big players and the well-funded start-ups. How does your company have an advantage over these tough competitors? What about your company sets you apart? Why will customers buy from you? If you don’t have good answers, don’t start the project. Instead, hold the work hostage and take the time to come up with good answers. If you come up with good answers, try to answer the next questions. If you don’t, choose another project.

How is it different? If the new technology can’t distinguish itself over existing alternatives, you don’t have a project worth starting.  So, how is your new offering (the one you’re thinking about creating) better than the ones that can be purchased today? What’s the new value to the customer? Or, in the lingo of the day, what is the Distinctive Value Proposition (DVP)? If there’s no DVP, there’s no project. If you’re not sure of the DVP, figure that out before investing in the project. If you have a DVP but aren’t sure it’s good enough, figure out how to test the DVP before bringing the DVP to life.

Is it possible? Usually, this is where everyone starts. But I’ve listed it last, and it seems backward. Would you rather spend a year making it work only to learn no one wants it, or would you rather spend a month to learn the market wants it then a year making it work? If you make it work and no one wants it, you’ve wasted a year. If, before you make it work, you learn no one wants it, you’ve spent a month learning the right thing and you haven’t spent a year working on the wrong thing. It feels unnatural to define the market need before making it work, but though it feels unnatural, it can block resources from working on the wrong projects.

There is no foolproof way to choose the best innovation projects, but these four questions go a long way. Create a one-page template with four sections to ask the questions and capture the answers. The sections without answers define the next work. Define the learning objectives and the learning activities and do the learning. Fill in the missing answers and you’re ready to compare one project to another.

Sort the projects large-to-small by Is it big enough? Then, rank the top three by Why you? and How is it different?  Then, for the highest ranked project, do the work to answer Is it possible?

If it’s possible, commercialize. If it’s not, re-sort the remaining projects by Is it big enough? Why you? and How is it different? and learn if It is possible.

Image credit – Ben Francis

Four Pillars of Innovation – People, Learning, Judgment and Trust

Innovation is a hot topic. Everyone wants to do it. And everyone wants a simple process that works step-wise – first this, then that, then success.

But Innovation isn’t like that. I think it’s more effective to think of innovation as a result. Innovation as something that emerges from a group of people who are trying to make a difference. In that way, Innovation is a people process. And like with all processes that depend on people, the Innovation process is fluid, dynamic, complex, and context-specific.

Innovation isn’t sequential, it’s not linear and cannot be scripted.. There is no best way to do it, no best tool, no best training, and no best outcome. There is no way to predict where the process will take you.  The only predictable thing is you’re better off doing it than not.

The key to Innovation is good judgment. And the key to good judgment is bad judgment. You’ve got to get things wrong before you know how to get them right. In the end, innovation comes down to maximizing the learning rate. And the teams with the highest learning rates are the teams that try the most things and use good judgement to decide what to try.

I used to take offense to the idea that trying the most things is the most effective way. But now, I believe  it is. That is not to say it’s best to try everything. It’s best to try the most things that are coherent with the situation as it is, the market conditions as they are, the competitive landscape as we know it, and the the facts as we know them.

And there are ways to try things that are more effective than others. Think small, focused experiments driven by a formal learning objective and supported by repeatable measurement systems and formalized decision criteria. The best teams define end implement the tightest, smallest experiment to learn what needs to be learned. With no excess resources and no wasted time, the team wins runs a tight experiment, measures the feedback, and takes immediate action based on the experimental results.

In short, the team that runs the most effective experiments learns the most, and the team that learns the most wins.

It all comes down to choosing what to learn. Or, another way to look at it is choosing the right problems to solve. If you solve new problems, you’ll learn new things. And if you have the sightedness to choose the right problems, you learn the right new things.

Sightedness is a difficult thing to define and a more difficult thing to hone and improve. If you were charged with creating a new business in a new commercial space and the survival of the company depended on the success of the project, who  would you want to choose the things to try? That person has sightedness.

Innovation is about people, learning, judgement and trust.

And innovation is more about why than how and more about who than what.

Image credit – Martin Nikolaj Christensen

The only thing predictable about innovation is its unpredictability.

A culture that demands predictable results cannot innovate.  No one will have the courage to do work with the requisite level of uncertainty and all the projects will build on what worked last time.  The only predictable result – the recipe will be wildly successful right up until the wheels fall off.

You can’t do work in a new area and deliver predictable results on a predictable timetable. And if your boss asks you to do so, you’re working for the wrong person.

When it comes to innovation, “ecosystem,” as a word, is unskillful. It doesn’t bound or constrain, nor does it show the way. How about a map of the system as it is? How about defined boundaries? How about the system’s history? How about the interactions among the system elements? How about a fitness landscape and the system’s disposition? How about the system’s reason for being? The next evolution of the system is unpredictable, even if you call it an ecosystem.

If you can’t tolerate unpredictability, you can’t tolerate innovation.

Innovation isn’t about reducing risk. Innovation is about maximizing learning rate.  And when all things go as predicted, the learning rate is zero. That’s right. Learning decreases when everything goes as planned. Are you sure you want predictable results?

Predictable growth in stock price can only come from smartly trying the right portfolio of unpredictable projects.  That’s a wild notion.

Innovation runs on the thoughts, feelings, emotions and judgement of people and, therefore, cannot be predictable. And if you try to make it predictable, the best people, the people that know the drill, will leave.

The real question that connects innovation and predictability: How to set the causes and conditions for people to try things because the results are unpredictable?

With innovation, if you’re asking for predictability, you’re doing it wrong.

Image credit: NASA Goddard

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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