Category Archives: understanding

Find the 15-Minute Competitive Advantage

Just because this is a time of transformation doesn’t mean that it’s easy to sell transformational ideas. Economic uncertainty has reduced the audience for bold, grand rhetoric. Besides, even in boom times innovation is risky. Innovators often have to ease anxieties by sounding conservative while doing something radical.

We all want breakthroughs; it’s just that we can’t know exactly which of the bold new ideas will break through. For every Mustang, there’s an Edsel. For every flip phone, there’s a flop. (Apple’s track record — iPod, iTunes, iPhone — is extraordinary but atypical.) It’s is also hard to get traction for ideas that are so far ahead of their times that the infrastructure or human habits do not yet support them. For every dream of cheap renewable energy, there’s the reality of still-high costs of wind turbines or solar panels.

As many technology companies have seen to their peril, you can leap much too far into the future by seeking revolution, not evolution, leaving potential users in the dust. But steady progress — step by single step — can win internal support and the external race for share of market or share of mind. Especially if you take each step quickly.

Consider Woody Allen’s comedy routine about the first landing of UFOs on Earth and our first contact with an advanced civilization (AKA advanced competitor). Allen wrote that most worries about planetary takeovers involve aliens that are light years away and centuries ahead of us in technology, bringing devices we can’t understand or communicate with, which enables them to control everything. Not to worry, Allen said. If we can’t understand or communicate with their systems, we’ll just ignore them, doing our work the way we always do until they leave in frustration. Instead, he argued, the advanced civilization that we should really worry about is one that is just 15 minutes ahead. That way they’d always be first in line for the movies, they’d never miss a meeting with the boss… and they’d always be first in every race.

Call this the “15 minute competitive advantage”: changing in short fast bursts rather than waiting for the breakthrough that transforms everything. If every proverbial 15 minutes, you learn something and incorporate it into the next speedy step, you’ll continue to be ahead. And a few time periods later, transformation will be underway.

Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, praised the value of cheap, fast experiments at a recent CEO meeting. He recalled watching Toyota’s method of continuous improvement on the shop floor: simplifying, speeding, and taking costs out with each round. Bolt instead of weld, tape instead of bolt, hold instead of tape. Cook’s advice is to turn business concepts into hypotheses to test fast. This is the essence of rapid prototyping, and it doesn’t require total transformation.

Stay a little ahead of the competition while close enough to what customers can understand and incorporate, and the innovation idea is easier to sell. Here are some characteristics of innovations most likely to succeed at gaining support:

Trial-able: The idea or product can be demonstrated on a pilot basis. Customers can see it in action first and incorporate it on a small scale before committing to replace everything.

Divisible: It can be adopted in segments or phases. Users can ease into it, a step at a time. They can even use it in parallel with current solutions.

Reversible: If it doesn’t work, it’s possible to return to pre-innovation status. Eventually you want life to be unimaginable without it, but at least in theory, it’s possible to go back to zero.

Tangible: It offers concrete results that can be seen to make a difference in something that users need and value.

Fits prior investments: The idea builds on “sunk costs” or actions already taken, so it looks like not much change is involved.

Familiar: It feels like things that people already understand, so it is not jarring to use. It is consistent with other experiences, especially successful ones.

Congruent with future direction: It is in line with where things are heading anyway. It doesn’t require people to rethink their priorities or pathways, even though of course it changes things.

Positive publicity value: It will make everyone look good.

These principles leave plenty of room to promote revolutionary ideas under cover of evolutionary change. But to find and grow a market for anything — whether green products or new health delivery plans — means staying close to what users can adopt easily and then leading them to the next iteration.

Innovators who take risks must reduce the risk for others. Think long-term trends but short-term steps —15 minutes at a time.

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Bob Sutton’s 15 Beliefs:

  1. Sometimes the best management is no management at all — first do no harm!
  2. Indifference is as important as passion.
  3. In organizational life, you can have influence over others or you can have freedom from others, but you can’t have both at the same time.
  4. Saying smart things and giving smart answers are important. Learning to listen to others and to ask smart questions is more important.
  5. Learn how to fight as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong: It helps you develop strong opinions that are weakly held.
  6. You get what you expect from people. This is especially true when it comes to selfish behavior; unvarnished self-interest is a learned social norm, not an unwavering feature of human behavior.
  7. Getting a little power can turn you into an insensitive self-centered jerk.
  8. Avoid pompous jerks whenever possible. They not only can make you feel bad about yourself, chances are that you will eventually start acting like them.
  9. The best test of a person’s character is how he or she treats those with less power.
  10. The best single question for testing an organization’s character is: What happens when people make mistakes?
  11. The best people and organizations have the attitude of wisdom: The courage to act on what they know right now and the humility to change course when they find better evidence.
  12. The quest for management magic and breakthrough ideas is overrated; being a master of the obvious is underrate
  13. Err on the side of optimism and positive energy in all things.
  14. It is good to ask yourself, do I have enough? Do you really need more money, power, prestige, or stuf
  15. Jim Maloney is right: Work is an overrated activity

10 Reasons Why You’re Probably Going to Fail

Post on failure by Tony Morgan, “10 Reasons Why You’re Probably Going to Fail” is really worth sharing, so here is Tony’s list…

10 Reasons Why You’re Probably Going to Fail

  1. It’s not your passion. If it doesn’t make your heart beat fast or cause your mind to race when you’re trying to sleep, you’re probably doing the wrong thing.
  2. You don’t have a plan. You need a vision, and you need to identify specific steps to make that vision become reality. That includes a financial plan. (I happen to believe you need direction from God on this.)
  3. You’re waiting for it to be perfect. Test-drive it. Beta-test that new idea. You’ll fall into the trap of inaction if you think it has to be absolutely right from day one.
  4. You’re not willing to work hard. Everything worth pursuing in my life has involved discipline and perseverance.
  5. It’ll outgrow you. Keep learning. Keep growing. But more importantly, build a team of people including leaders that can be who you’re not.
  6. You’ve had success in the past. I’ve watched organizations hang on to a good idea for too long. Time passes. Momentum fades. It’s risky to let go of the past and jump on the next wave.
  7. You’re unwilling to stop doing something else. Complexity is easy. Simplicity takes discipline. You can’t build a healthy marriage if you’re unwilling to give up dating other women. Who/what do you need to stop dating?
  8. You won’t build a team of friends. Anyone can hire from a resume. You need to find people you want to share life with. In the long run, great relationships will get you out of bed in the morning.
  9. You won’t have the tough conversations. When breakdown happens (and it always does), someone needs to put on their big-boy pants and initiate the difficult conversation that leads to relational healing.
  10. You’re afraid of failure. When fear consumes you, it will cause you to do stupid things. You’ll let negativity distract you. You’ll embrace the known, and grow comfortable with mediocrity. The more often you fail, though, the more often you’ll find success.

Helping Teams Advance One Gemba at a Time

Most frontline teams in my organization are not used to being asked to improve their own process.  Like most organization in transition most improvement that has taken place in the organization in the past was management driven and usually owned and executed by outside experts like consultants and project managers.  As we transition into a system where teams are asked to be responsible for improving their processes every single day one of the most powerful tools management has is the gemba walk.   There are many reasons why the gemba walk is not only an important tool, but an essential tool in a Lean transformation.  Here are just a few:

  • Gemba walks are one of the most important methods for teaching management Lean.  It takes Lean out of the conceptual world and forces management to learn by doing. 
  • Gemba walks demonstrate a behavior change from management.  It shows that management is curious about the work and interested in seeing the real problems.   Early on they also demonstrate to the teams that everyone is in the change together.  Management is learning alongside the teams they are coaching.
  •  Gemba walks allow management to begin to understand the problems that they create and forces them to begin to take responsibility for solving the gaps in their management system.  They see firsthand the challenges created by unclear or too many priorities, silo thinking, narrow job classifications, etc.    
  • Gemba walks teach leaders how to set clear expectations and have the discipline to follow-up to see progress.  In order to do this effectively the manager must understand the content of the work; know how to see problems, and to know how far a team can improve over a set increment of time. 

In several post in the past I have talked about some of the advice I give leaders as the learn how to effectively lead gemba walks.  As my own experience has grown some of my thinking has advanced.  Here are a couple of tips that I hope help:

  • Gemba walks can only be effective if leaders are disciplined, consistent and organized.  This is why having management standard work is so important.  In our organization we create visual systems (Kamishibai boards) that track adherence to management system work to help reinforce this discipline.   These boards track the frequency, sequence and content of what should be checked during each gemba walk and clearly make visible that the walks are happening as scheduled.  As managers build these boards they need to determine how often they will visit each team (less frequently the higher you are in the organization), and then the board makes it transparent to the teams how often they can expect a visit thus reinforcing the management responsibility.
  • Early on it is important to have some coaching help during gemba walks.  It is nice to have a Sensei to go with you, but it is also effective to walk with a leader that has more experience then you do if a Sensei in not available.
  • During each walk a leader should ask the team a series of open ended questions to assess the current situation, challenge the current thinking and prepare the team for taking the next step.  If you are just getting starting it is very helpful to have a set of standard questions you always ask the team as well as a system to track notes from past gemba walks.  The leader should take the time to review their notes and prepare their questions so that they respect the time of the team.
  • Gemba walks and visual management go hand and hand.  Without visual systems gemba walks often end up being disorganized, not focused on data and worst of all they turn into PR visits or complaining sessions.  Gemba walks are probably the most important tool in helping set and maintain the expectation that teams make their processes visible.
  • Finally, at the end of each gemba walk the leader should summarize what they and the team has learned and then clearly define the follow-up items that the team and the leader need to resolve.  Often the due date will be during the next gemba.  This is the most powerful part of the gemba, because when done effectively it helps move the team to the next level of improvement and at the same time gives leadership credibility as the leaders solve some of the systems problems that get in the teams way.   In order to do this well a leader needs to have a system to track on follow up items.  If they ask a team to try x by y date the leader better show up to check or they will lose credibility quickly.  When they do show up to check on the follow up just like they said they would teams start to see that management is serious and they will invest the appropriate time in the improvement activities moving forward.  Something very important as teams begin to learn how to improve their own processes.

Eblin’s 5 questions for struggling leaders

Question 1: 
What am I trying to do that extends beyond the actual time available to me to personally do it?

Question 2: 
What am I trying to accomplish by doing that?

Question 3
Given the role that I’m in, what should I be trying to accomplish instead?

Question 4: 
What resources (people, systems, processes) do I need to acquire or develop to cover whatever still seems worthwhile in my answer to Question 2?

Question 5: 
What opportunities do I have to shift from retail leadership (being personally present or involved in everything) to wholesale leadership (leveraging and involving others to act on the overall plan)?

What are you noticing about limits lately? What are you doing to adjust?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories about changes you’re making to deal with the limits leaders face.

Be like Farve with Skeptical Team

In the category of “Man, I wish I’d written that,”  my blogging friend Mike Figliuolo had a great post last week called “Ten Reasons Your Team Hates You.”   It was a brilliant piece with so true they might hurt items such as you don’t fight for them,  you micromanage, you’re a suck up and you’re above getting your hands dirty.   It’s gotten a lot of well deserved attention, is definitely worth a read and is a post you’ll likely want to share with others.

Brettfavre So, it was with Mike’s post in the back of my mind that I watched Brett Favre lead the Vikings this week to a 30 – 23 win over his old team, the Packers, on Monday Night Football.  If you follow football at all, you understand why I’m making the connection between Mike’s “Why Your Team Hates You” post and Favre. Even non-sports fans are likely aware and completely sick of Favre’s multi-year act of will he retire or not retire, who will he play for, when will he play, etc., etc., etc. He’s done about as much as he possibly can to make his colleagues skeptical of his motives and intent. And yet, the Vikings at 4 and 0 so far this season seem to be gelling around him.

If you take the publicity, the uniforms and the bone crunching hits out of the equation, Favre appears to be successfully doing what you’ll likely have to do at least once in your career – stepping in to lead a team that for whatever reason is skeptical of your motives and has their doubts about whether or not you’re the right leader. In spite of all the drama baggage he carries with him, Favre is winning the Vikings over. How is he doing it? Here are a few things he’s doing that I think apply to leaders in fields other than football:

Win: Winning games – whatever that looks like in your context – can solve a lot of problems. Favre brings the skills and the experience of a winner to the Vikings. He’s getting it done.  It’s a lot easier for a leader to win the team over win he or she brings the talent and experience needed to help them win.

Spread It Around: Prior to his Monday night win, Favre had changed his game plan of firing off passes to one that got a lot of other players involved in the game. The Vikings running back, Adrian Peterson, has been a key part of their offense this year. When a leader sets things up so everyone gets to contribute at the full extent of their talent, there’s a much better chance of full engagement from the team.

Throw Some Blocks: On a fairly regular basis, you can see Favre throwing a block downfield to help clear a path for one of his runners. This is his way of counteracting Mike Figliuolo’s point about not getting your hands dirty.  By throwing a block, Favre is stepping out of his role to help make his team successful.  Leaders in every field need to look for and act on their own opportunities to “throw a block” for their team.

Keep It Light: Say what you will about Favre, when he’s on the field he looks like he’s a lot of fun to play with. He jokes, he jumps around, he bumps his teammates in celebration, he gives noogies. I’m not suggesting that you give noogies to your teammates, but there are ways to keep it light. Look for them. (Just don’t go over the line. Michael on The Office offers weekly examples of what over the line looks like.)

Passion: If you’re still playing in the NFL at almost 40 years old, it’s safe to say that you have a fair amount of passion for the game.  Favre clearly does. The presence of the leader influences the presence of the team.  Favre’s passion is infecting the Vikings in a positive way. Showing your commitment and passion through your words and action is a great way to win over your team. Watch out though.  If passion is all you bring to the table, you’re likely to lose them.  Remember the first Favre lesson. It helps to win.

No Rx for Lean

by Jamie Flinchbaugh, Lean Learning Center

I recently have had the opportunity to review a wide range of sites and companies and provide feedback on their lean journey. One of the things that really surprised me was how many of them were still trying to follow a prescription for lean. I heard things such as “the book says to do this but it doesn’t work for us, what should we do?”

Simple, drop it or change it.

Too many lean thinkers (I use the term loosely because to me, they aren’t thinking) try to take a prescription or recipe and apply it across all sites within a company universally, or across multiple companies. There are many people to “blame” for this (sorry, hate to even use the word) from authors to consultants to new hires into companies. Here’s an author that we’ve come across that in my opinion is part of the problem. His statement includes:

I reduced applying lean to almost a prescription that you can follow with detailed steps that have been proven, time and time again. I have a number of case studies in the book where the prescription is laid out and you just have to implement it.

That’s a prescription for one thing: failure. We hope that you don’t follow the same approach. Every organization is different. You have different cultures, resources, skills, business needs, restrictions, and hopefully a vision of your own ideal state that you would like to achieve.

Understand your current state, have a vision of where you would like to go, and chart your own course of action. This is a lot more work, and that’s probably why some people avoid it. But it’s working on the hard that separates from the good lean efforts from those that fail. Take ownership. Only you can lead your organization, don’t try to rely on a prescription.