Viewing entries tagged

1 Comment

The Silent Andon Cord

I was fortunate to hear Rich Sheridan, president of Menlo Innovations and the author of the terrific book, Joy, Inc., speak at the AME Innovation Summit last week. At one point, he explained that "the sound of silence from your colleagues is a signal that they need help." There's always conversational noise at Menlo Innovations. It's an open office environment, and his programmers work in pairs, so there's always plenty of talking. If programming is progressing smoothly, there's a consistent conversation between the programmers. But if there's extended silence, the programmers have probably hit a roadblock and are having problems figuring out a way around it. Essentially, the sound of silence is a kind of invisible, silent, andon cord. When it's "pulled," one of the nearby programming teams comes to help.

I love this story.

In a typical office environment, it's often an effort to signal that you need help: you have to get up from your desk and find your boss or a colleague, which might take 2 minutes or 20. There's also the need to overcome the psychological hurdle of explicitly saying that you've got a problem and need assistance. Menlo's approach eliminates the need to find someone while removing the psychological hurdle. How easy is it in your company for people to get help when they need it?

1 Comment


How not to build a kaizen culture in three easy steps.

  1. Establish some sort of "lean promotion office."
  2. Create a caste system of colored belts, and staff your organization with them.
  3. Tell everyone that the belted elite will lead their improvement efforts.

This is what's happening at my wife's hospital. The "lean team" is responsible for implementing improvement initiatives throughout the hospital. While they're very, very good at these kaizen activities, they have effectively killed any self-initiated improvement work. Doctors, nurses, and staff passively wait for the lean team to turn its focus to their area, and not surprisingly, the pace of improvement is glacial.

Contrast this situation with Quality Bike Parts (QBP), a distributor of bicycle components and products. The company has not only fervently embraced lean at all levels of the organization, they've accomplished the holy grail of embedding lean thinking within the culture. All this while their lean office had precisely one person in it. (It's now up to a whopping two people.)

Nick Graham, the Director of Continuous Improvement, explains that QBP doesn't need people in an office to drive lean throughout the company; they need people on the floor who have the skills to do that. So for each project, Nick enlists a few people within the relevant department to lead the effort. Nick serves as a resource for them, but the people in the department do all the work. The result is tremendous growth in individual problem solving skills, the planting of lean thinking into the company culture, and the creation of a deep bench of people who can -- and do -- pitch in to help other departments with their projects.

Which do you want: the Johnny Appleseed approach, spreading lean seeds that will sprout and bear fruit far and wide throughout the company? Or the Monsanto "terminator seed" approach of Lean Six Sigma Black Belts who parachute in to save the day, but in so doing compromise the learning potential of the company?



1 Comment

One way to avoid corporate self-aggrandizement

With all the recent news about Tony Hsieh's decision to flatten Zappos' organization, Girish Navani's (C.E.O. of eClinicalWorks) comments about titles in the workplace really struck me:

We don’t have titles. I used to call myself co-founder, but then some of our larger customers wanted to know who the C.E.O. was. Our whole company is built around teams. The only leadership position you can have is team leader. Your career grows through bigger projects and initiatives.

Full disclosure: when I ran my skateboarding shoe company for several years, the only titles my partner and I allowed was "worker." Our thinking was that if you couldn't identify the person's job by what he did, he probably wasn't doing his job all that well. And when I worked for a brief time at Adidas, I put "corporate fat" on my business card. (I figured that there's an unlimited supply of organizational fat, so it would be unlikely that I'd ever get cut. My boss wasn't amused, and mentioned that when I was fired eight weeks later. But that's another story.) So I'm always interested in the elimination of titles.

But leaving aside my preference for a non-hierarchical, low-title workplace, Navani is perspicacious in his assessment of human nature when he says:

Sometimes you have individuals who seek titles. But what I won’t do is create an unsustainable title warfare — today they’re a V.P., tomorrow a senior V.P., then executive V.P. New titles get old within the first day of having them. Titles are self-fulfilling, short-term objectives that you get tired of. Then you aspire for another title, and then you essentially create a business whose growth path of individuals now becomes their title growth rather than serious accomplishments and creating change in the industry.


Titles very often do create "title warfare." We've all worked with and for people who seem to prize the text on their business card over the organizational results. Human yearning for status often trumps the need of the larger group. And yet there are companies that have succeeded beautifully without titular trappings. Semco is one. CloudFlare is another. And Zappos is (sort of) following that path as well with its adoption of the holocracy.

I'm not suggesting that you mindlessly discard everyone's titles today. But I do believe that it's worth considering what effect all those titles has on overall organizational performance. It might be deeper than you think.

1 Comment


Architectural poka-yoke.

There are two buildings on the Pixar campus. Each one has only four bathrooms (two men’s, two women’s). All in the same place – the main hall of the building. No matter where you sit, if you want to pee, you have to get up from your desk, schlep down a long corridor to the staircase, down the stairs, and across the main hall to the bathroom. This layout is not an example of lousy architecture. This is by design. Steve Jobs's design.

Jobs recognized that functional silos are an unavoidable feature of large, complex organizations. He also recognized the danger in those silos—the lack of communication, the lack of cohesion, the development of an “us” and “them” mentality. The design of the buildings was one of his attempts to foster interaction and communication between departments. If you force everyone to come to the same place to go to the bathroom, they’ll see each other and talk with each other on a regular basis.

The Wall Street Journal’s recent article on the effects of moving people into different seats is testament to Jobs’ instincts. You can’t force people to think horizontally in terms of a value stream, but you can certainly help to blunt the silo mentality by forcing people to meet other people upstream and downstream. It's kind of like architectural poka-yoke -- error proofing through building design.

If your organization is growing, think about how the office is laid out and where people are physically sitting. Think about the silos that will be inevitably be created by location. What can you do to increase the level of interaction among departments?



A sheep in sheep's clothing

In working with a client this week, I learned that there can be serious cultural obstacles to embracing structured problem solving (what I'll call "A3 thinking" in this post -- sorry, Jon Miller). A worker at one of my clients recently confessed that she was anxious about talking to colleagues in other departments about her A3. She needed to get background information about how this problem was affecting other areas of the company in terms of cost overruns, rework, etc., but she was afraid that her coworkers would be suspicious of her questions. Even though the company doesn't have the entrenched fiefdoms of a giant 10,000 person firm (it's only about 150 people), there's still a deep-seated wariness of someone from another functional silo poking around. She was also worried that her colleagues would see her questions -- and her A3 -- as merely a cover for her ulterior motive: a justification for her pre-determined and preferred solution.

Creating and sustaining a culture committed to learning and continuous improvement ain't easy -- if it were, we wouldn't still be talking about Toyota. (And I'm looking forward to reading Jon Miller's new book, Creating a Kaizen Culture.) But it seems to me that one critical step is in the process is to undertake A3 thinking with a true spirit of open inquiry.

You can't go into an A3 with a pre-determined solution. The A3 is a vehicle to structure your learning process and help you communicate your learning effectively. It's a visible way to guide your PDSA cycles. It's not a sales technique (although it does ultimately help sell your solution), and it's not a magician's misdirection. To use it in these ways is to breed cynicism, suspicion, and resistance.

An A3 is not a wolf in sheep's clothing. It's just a sheep.



1 Comment

How to make lean ideas spread more quickly.

In his latest article in the New Yorker (Slow Ideas: Some innovations spread fast. How do you speed the ones that don’t?), Atul Gawande argues that there are ways to increase the speed at which new ideas spread. I think there are powerful lessons for lean leaders in his analysis. Gawande relays the dramatic differences in the adoption rates of anesthesia and antisepsis in medicine. In October 1846, the first patient was anesthetized in a US hospital for the excision of a tumor. Within eight months, anesthesia was being used all over the world, and within seven years virtually every hospital in the US and Britain had adopted it. By contrast, Joseph Lister first published a series of reports in 1867 about the benefits of antisepsis, but it was over twenty years before sterile procedures and practices became the norm. As Gawande describes it,

two decades [after Lister's reports], hand washing was still perfunctory. Surgeons soaked their instruments in carbolic acid, but they continued to operate in black frock coats stiffened with the blood and viscera of previous operations—the badge of a busy practice. Instead of using fresh gauze as sponges, they reused sea sponges without sterilizing them. It was a generation before Lister’s recommendations became routine and the next steps were taken toward the modern standard of asepsis—that is, entirely excluding germs from the surgical field, using heat-sterilized instruments and surgical teams clad in sterile gowns and gloves.

Gawande goes on to argue that there were two key differences that caused anesthesia to be adopted more quickly than antisepsis:

First, one combatted a visible and immediate problem (pain); the other combatted an invisible problem (germs) whose effects wouldn’t be manifest until well after the operation. Second, although both made life better for patients, only one made life better for doctors. Anesthesia changed surgery from a brutal, time-pressured assault on a shrieking patient to a quiet, considered procedure. Listerism, by contrast, required the operator to work in a shower of carbolic acid. Even low dilutions burned the surgeons’ hands. You can imagine why Lister’s crusade might have been a tough sell. This has been the pattern of many important but stalled ideas. They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious, if not outright painful.

How about the spread of lean ideas through an organization? It seems to me that we face similar challenges. Most organizations have adapted over time to the inefficiencies and problems that their processes create. People are so used to the problems -- product defects, mis-shipped orders, overworked staff, long lead times -- that they no longer question whether or not those issues can be improved. They're just taken for granted as the way things operate. The problems have, in essence, become invisible -- like germs.

Moreover, embracing lean necessitates adopting new approaches to work -- single piece flow, visual management, etc. These new approaches are neither comfortable nor easy for leadership or front-line staff. Yes, lean makes life better for customers (higher quality, lower costs, faster delivery), but in the short term, it doesn't make life any better for workers.

So how do you get ideas to spread more rapidly? Gawande suggests that:

  1. You have to understand existing norms and barriers to change to really grasp what’s getting in their way.
  2. You need “seven touches” -- that is, you need to talk to people at least seven times. You can't rely on evidence, no matter how powerful.
  3. You need to have just a few key, easy to remember messages about the new ideas.

Gawande explains that

“Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

The lesson of this article is that a training program, or a lean promotion office, or a couple of workshops will not be sufficient to spread the change throughout your organization. No matter how logical the changes and no matter how apparent the benefits, you won't be able to spread lean without consistent, one-to-one mentoring.

For another view on this article and its applicability to lean, read Mark Graban's post at the LeanBlog.


1 Comment


What's inhibiting your team?

How much damage is caused by small, irritating, daily problems like pointless meetings, ambiguous communication, and frustrating fire drills? A few months ago, my friend Matt May interviewed Teresa Amabile, author of the new book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. According to Amabile, those little problems can be surprisingly toxic:

Of all the things that can cause people to have lousy inner work lives, the single most important is experiencing setbacks – feeling stalled or blocked in the work, or having a sense of moving backward. Amazingly, the negative effect of setbacks on emotions, perceptions and motivation can be 2-3 times greater than the positive impact of progress. This means it’s especially important for business owners and managers to reduce or eliminate forces that inhibit people’s ability to feel like they are getting somewhere on something that matters. Inhibitors can be very mundane – like a goal that isn’t sufficiently clear, or a person in the organization who hoards information – but they can be deadly.

What's really striking about Amabile's claim (and it's backed up by considerable research) is that people probably don't even notice the inhibitors, because "that's just the way it works around here." They're small and commonplace, and yet they exert a powerfully baleful influence on people's inner work lives, their creativity, and their passion for their work.

As an example, the executive team at one of my clients subscribes to a variety of market research reports. These monthly and quarterly reports are really impressive -- huge 3-ring binders that contain sales data that's been sliced and diced better than a pastrami at a kosher deli. The problem is that management hasn't defined standard metrics, so if they dig long enough, they can find anything they want in the data. Consequently, every few months there's a full-scale executive fire drill when someone on the team finds a bit of data that seems to indicate they're losing ground to a competitor. Panicked, the president will call the exec team, along with several members of marketing and sales, into the conference room for a 90 minute analysis and debate about how they should respond.

The people in marketing and sales who end up with an extra day or two of work re-analyzing the reports roll their eyes when I ask about this. They're frustrated by the lack of a consistent data dashboard to guide them, and they hate the havoc and pointless extra work it causes. As Amibile would point out, although these fire drills constitute a relatively small "inhibitor" to their ability to make progress on their work, they're soul-sucking experiences for all involved.

Sadly, the president doesn't realize this, because the data fire drills don't affect his ability to get his work done.

Take a look at the niggling annoyances in your office -- or better yet, ask people what annoyances they deal with. What pointless meetings do they have to attend? What forms are difficult to use? What goals are ambiguous? What non-value added work are they forced to do?

Amabile's theory about the importance of "small wins" ties in beautifully to the small improvements that lie at the heart of kaizen. Improvements don't have to be earth-shatteringly large to have a significant impact on the creativity, happiness, and engagement of your staff.



Librarian vs. Archaeologist

Michael Schrage writes at the HBR blog that getting organized is mostly a waste of time:

When it comes to investing time, thought and effort into productively organizing oneself, less is more. In fact, not only is less more, research suggests it may be faster, better and cheaper.

IBM researchers observed that email users who "searched" rather than set up files and folders for their correspondence typically found what they were looking for faster and with fewer errors. Time and overhead associated with creating and managing email folders were, effectively, a waste.

Six years ago, I would have disagreed with Schrage: I recommended that people embrace their inner Linnaeus and set up elaborate folder structures for their electronic files and their email. The goal was a comprehensive taxonomy that would allow people to locate any message in seconds. But when Google desktop can find anything within .03 seconds, why bother taking the time to do all of this organizing? Yes, you'll have to cull through some irrelevant results, but the time you spend sorting the informational wheat from the chaff is far less than the time you'd spend painstakingly cataloging and filing each individual message and file. (And that's assuming that you don't mistakenly put the Henderson invoice in the Hernandez folder; then it's gone forever.)

As Schrage points out, this approach is actually very much in keeping with lean thinking, insofar as we're moving from a "push" approach to information management -- organize now, whether or not you need it -- to a "pull" approach -- organize and sort your information when you need to find it.

What Schrage doesn't address is the reality that not all of our information is electronic and suitable for search. There's no Google search for carpet swatches and spec sheets, Etruscan pottery fragments, or pathology samples. There's also no random search for plenty of publications that aren't digitized. For these things, there really is value to "getting organized."

Even when information is electronic, sometimes it's easier to organize it than to search for it. My wife, for example, handles the scheduling for the 13 interventional radiologists in her section. Each month she sends an email to her colleagues asking them if they have any vacation requests, conference commitments, or other scheduling issues she needs to account for. She'll get responses like this:

"I'll be at the ASCO conference from Jan 22-26." "I'm taking my kids skiing from Jan 20-24." "I'm visiting Dana Farber Cancer Center Jan 18-19." "I'm taking a couple days off from Jan 25-28."

With no keywords, there's no way to search her mail for these messages. And the messages can't even be threaded, because people don't always respond to her original email. As a result, she keeps distinct mail folders to handle scheduling requests as they come in.

I think the organized vs. disorganized dichotomy is a false one. Your information takes many forms, and requires different treatment. Sometimes it's better to be a librarian , and sometimes it's better to be an archaeologist. The method you take depends on the problem you're trying to solve. That's real lean thinking.


1 Comment

A life preserver for drowning rats.

In last week's blog post, I wrote that Jeff Kindler, the former CEO of Pfizer, was

thoughtless about the demands his communication style placed on his team and the results of that style. By making all his questions a matter of supreme urgency for his team — and let’s face it, communicating via BlackBerry at all hours of the night screams, "PAY ATTENTION! I’M IMPORTANT!" — he sowed the seeds of his own demise. Part of your role as a leader is to help people distinguish among levels of urgency and importance. Cramming everything through one communication channel — whether that’s email, IM, text message, or meetings — is a recipe for disaster.

One of my clients has taken this concept to heart. They don't have a leader who abuses his BlackBerry, but they do have an awful lot of engineers who are drowning like rats in the flood of communication -- particularly phone calls and emails --  within and between their teams. As a result, they can't distinguish between critical and time-sensitive issues like a major product flaw, and trivialities like the new flavor of coffee that they company has put in the machines.

Their situation is hardly unique, of course. But unlike most groups who simply wave their hands inertly and bemoan their fate, they're actually doing something about it. This is their new communication protocol:

Communication Protocol

Okay, this protocol isn't a breakthrough along the lines of, say, cold fusion. (Or duct tape. Or Oreos, for that matter.) But it does create clear expectations and guidelines to help the engineers manage the communication and information flow that was previously threatening to inter them.

Pay attention to one critical consequence here: everyone has agreed that email is NOT to be used for urgent or complex issues. This agreement really is significant, because it unshackles people from their BlackBerries during meetings, or product development work, or strategic planning. Or their kids' soccer games. Or dinner. Or sex. Which means that there's now a fighting chance to have some uninterrupted time to, you know, think.

This protocol might not work for you. Every company has an idiosyncratic culture and needs. The important thing isn't how you define your communication protocol, but that you define it. And while this might not be perfect, so far it's been a pretty good life preserver for all those drowning rats.

Now, what are your guidelines?

1 Comment


Godzilla in the corner office (part 2)

John Rowe, president and CEO of Exelon, tells this story:

In my first C.E.O. job, a young woman who worked for me walked in one day and said, “Do you know that the gossip in the office is that the way for a woman to get ahead is to wear frilly spring dresses?”

And I just looked at her and asked, “Where did this come from?”

She said: “Well, you said, ‘pretty dress’ to four women who happened to be dressed that way. And so now it’s considered policy.”

I said: “Well, it’s the furthest thing in the world from policy. I was just trying to be pleasant in the elevator.”

People hang on a leader’s every word on what seems like trivia and can resist like badgers your words when you’re really trying to say something you think is important.

I wrote about this phenomenon, which I call "Godzilla in the corner office," before. Godzilla's tail alone can destroy hundreds of buildings without him even realizing it, and people high up in the food chain in an organization can wreak havoc without even realizing it. John Rowe's story is a perfect example.

You create expectations and  tacitly encourage behaviors through your own actions. Do you check your smartphone when you're talking to a direct report? Do you arrive five minutes late to all meetings? Do you send emails on Sunday afternoons? What messages are you sending to your team? Is that what you want?

It's ironic, of course, but people in your organization will attend closely to what seems like trivia, and ignore or resist what you think is important. This is the nature of hierarchical organizations. Recognize it, be alert to the messages you're sending, and periodically seek honest feedback from people throughout the company. You might be surprised at what you learn.



Go See. Ask Why. Show Respect.

In 2009 Google launched "Project Oxygen." You probably haven't heard of it, because it's not a product. It's Google's quest to build a better boss. In typical Google fashion, the company gathered enough data on managerial performance to float a battleship. They followed up with interviews, coded feedback, and ranked results in order of importance. What they found is music to any lean manager's ears. Here's how the NYTimes describes it:

Mr. Bock’s group found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight [drivers of managerial excellence]. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Mr. Bock says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

John Shook over at the Lean Enterprise Institute has been talking about this for awhile now (most recently here). It seems so simple, doesn't it? Go see. Ask why. Show respect.

And yet.

Even assuming that your managerial team is staffed by well-meaning people and not those who think that Mein Kampf is the sine qua non for leadership lessons, this simple activity is surprisingly difficult, for two reasons.

First, finding time to "go see" is absurdly hard. Managers and executives spend so much time cooped up in conference rooms that you'd think they were mapping the human genome, not setting the sales price for a new candy bar. Spending six hours a day stifling hypnagogic jerks in a Powerpoint-induced stupor isn't exactly a solid foundation for a "go see" culture.

Second, we want to help. We want to solve problems. And, frankly, we like demonstrating our smarts. But in providing answers, we undermine people's intellectual development and corrode their self-esteem, just as surely as salt air rusts the supports on a bridge. People need to stretch themselves and solve their own problems -- with guidance and instruction, yes, but largely on their own. Otherwise they neither develop the capacity for learning nor the pride of accomplishment.

Your company may not be like Google (or even aspire to be like it), but good management transcends industries and idiosyncratic corporate culture. In lean terms, go see. Ask why. Show respect. In generic terms, make yourself available. Ask questions. Take an interest.

It's really not that hard. And hey, Google has quantitative proof that it works.



When good data go bad.

Bob Lutz, longtime car guy who held senior leadership positions at GM, BMW, Ford, and Chrysler, tells a story about the feedback that David Davis, an auto industry expert, received on a speech he delivered at GM:

Sometime in the early '80s, he'd accepted a gig as speaker to a large group of GM executives. The speech appeared to go well, and the applause felt genuine. David went home pleased and thought no more about it until he received the following letter:

Dear David:

You asked for feedback on your remarks at our recent conference. The data is just now available.

The rating scale was zero to ten with ten being "best." The five non-GM speakers had scores ranging from zero to ten. Yours ranged from three to ten. The five "outside speakers'" average scores ranged from 5.25 to 8.25.

Your average was 7.35.

Two speakers had higher scores than yours. Your standard deviation from the mean was 1.719 and ranked second among the variances, showing that most people had a similar opinion about your remarks.

I personally enjoyed your remarks very much. Your refreshing candor, coupled with your broad understanding of people, product, and the market, gave us exactly what we asked you for—"widened competitive awareness."

Thank you for your participation.

Absurd, right? Hopefully you didn’t snort the milk from your Cheerios out your nose as you read this. It’s a miracle that GM survived as long as it did with this kind of bureaucratic plaque clogging its organizational arteries.

But before you sprain your shoulder patting yourself on your own back for how much smarter you and your company are than big, stupid GM, think about the birth of that colossal dysfunction. At some point, a diligent, well-meaning employee—or her manager—probably wanted to help improve the quality of presentations. And he probably read in business school that what matters gets measured, so he created a simple 10-point rating scale.

[Stop here. Does your organization use one of these scales to evaluate speakers, or training sessions, or the selection of deli meats in the company cafeteria?]

It’s a short—very short—step from a 10-point rating of an individual event, to a comparison of multiple events. And an even shorter step from that comparison to a deeper, more thorough statistical analysis, replete with r2-values and more Greek letters than you’ve seen since your last purchase of foreign yogurt.

Organizations, and individuals within organizations, drive themselves to the land of absurdity all the time because they don’t ask the first question that lean thinkers focus on: What is customer value?

Learning that a speech was well received with a score of 7.35 out of 10 is valuable, important, and worthwhile for the customers (in this case, the speaker and the people who invited the speaker). The other data, not so much. The Outside Speaker Effective Analysis Group could have identified that value by simply (gasp!) asking the customers what information would be helpful for them. Hell, there probably wouldn’t even be a need for an Outside Speaker Effective Analysis Group in the first place had GM focused on this question.

In my mind, this is where traditional approaches to productivity go wrong. These approaches focus on improving the efficiency of producing these reports without considering whether or not they should be produced in the first place. The lean approach—first, identify the value—is, to me, a far better way to operate. And once you’ve identified the value, you can apply the lean tool of 5S to the information: sort the value from the waste, set it in order, systematize the delivery of the information, etc.

Of course, the waste from not focusing on customer value isn’t always as obvious as having an Outside Speaker Effective Analysis Group (The existence of a department like that is pretty much a dead giveaway.) Sometimes it’s subtler, like having the IT department generate dozens, or even hundreds, of reports per week, most of which go unread (as happened at one of my old employers).

Unless you continually evaluate your own generation of data, reports, and statistics, you run the risk of becoming the punch line to a joke and an object lesson in making good data go bad.



Decision Sclerosis

Recently I've been hearing companies lament that they're no longer as nimble as they once were. Decisions require more meetings and take longer. People at all levels are frustrated because they can't implement new ideas quickly. Even the simplest issues seem to require endless rounds of discussion and debate. Eventually, the organization is either outflanked in the market, or talented people leave to find opportunities with faster-moving companies. I see at least two causes creating this problem. First, as companies get bigger and there are more zeroes attached to their budgets, the risks inherent in any decision seem to grow. It's one thing to screw up the colors on a running shoe when it only sells 8,000 pairs; it's quite another to screw it up when it accounts for 800,000 pairs. You really want to be sure that the fluorescent colors of the 80s are back before plastering them all over your new high-end shoe, and as a result, you end up consulting with sales, marketing, manufacturing, account management, IT -- pretty much anyone who has even the most tangential relationship to the product.

The fallacy here is that compared to the scale of the business, that product or initiative isn't really any more significant or risky. It's not the absolute number that's important; it's the relative number. A $5000 investment decision for a start-up is just as meaningful and fraught with danger as a $5 million decision for GE -- maybe even more so, since GE can absorb that loss without going out of business.

Second, as organizations get bigger, consensus rather than action becomes the driving force. When companies are small, everyone either sees eye-to-eye (that's why they're there, after all), or they're at least comfortable with the inevitable interpersonal conflict. But as organizations grow, employee diversity grows, and management is increasingly sensitive to the need for harmony and agreement. People may have the titular authority to make decisions, but in reality they don't: they have to gain consensus before acting. If one group doesn't agree, nothing proceeds.

The problem here is that when no one has the power to make a decision, either nothing gets done, or everything gets pushed up the the CEO for a judgment. Neither option is acceptable. Decision-making authority must reside with individuals within an organization, not be diffuse within a group.

So what is to be done? Establishing clear decision-making criteria is an important start. Set thresholds based on money, say, or risk for involving other groups. Also, allow some decisions to be made by majority, rather than consensus. Neither of these are easy changes to make, but if you don't want to become a sclerotic, lumbering dinosaur, you'll have to pursue these changes at some point.



Can you start a lean contagion?

Efforts to drive a lean transformation across an organization are difficult. Improvements in one area of the business often don't spread to other areas. Deep-seated resistance to change slows progress to a crawl or stops it entirely. Backsliding erases hard-won gains. But what if you could get lean to spread like a contagion? What if acceptance of lean, or even an outright embrace of lean (not the tools, but the mindset), could become like a virtuous epidemic?

Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, in their book Connected, posit that all kinds of behaviors and characteristics that we consider independently defined actually spread like a contagion. Take obesity, for example. After analyzing the Framingham Heart Study, they found that obese people tend to hang with other obese people, and thin people hang with thin people. (Birds of a feather, and all that business.)

More intriguingly, they found that there's a causal relationship: obesity spreads by contagion. So if your friend’s friend’s friend — whom you’ve never met, and lives a thousand miles away — gains weight, you’re likely to gain weight, too. And if your friend’s friend’s friend loses weight, you’re likely to lose weight, too.

How does it work? Scott Stossel explains in the NYTimes that

Partly, it’s a kind of peer pressure, or norming, effect, in which certain behaviors, or the social acceptance of certain behaviors, get transmitted across a network of acquaintances. In one example the authors give, Heather stops exercising and gains weight, which influences her friend Maria’s thinking about what normal weight is, so that when Maria’s other friend Amy (who has never met Heather) also stops her exercise regime, Maria is less likely to urge Amy to resume it. So Heather’s weight gain influences Amy’s, even though the two women never meet.

And it's not just obesity that can be contagious:

Christakis and Fowler explore network contagion in everything from back pain (higher incidence spread from West Germany to East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall) to suicide (well known to spread throughout communities on occasion) to sex practices (such as the growing prevalence of oral sex among teenagers) to politics (where the denser your network of connections, the more ideologically intense and intractable your beliefs are likely to be).

So this got me thinking: is it possible to spread lean throughout an organization like a contagion? Is it possible to have it take on a life of its own? After all, when you're looking at a value stream horizontally across an organization, you've got a great opportunity to have lean spread widely and quickly. In some respects, you even need lean to spread this way, because you're cutting across so many functional silos.

When I think about my work -- applying lean to individual behaviors -- I realize that this idea presents a huge opportunity. One person running a lean meeting, for example, has a chance to, um, infect up to a dozen other people in a company. A simple change in email processing policy (say, only four times a day) can touch hundreds of others. In fact, at Intel, Nathan Zeldes created blocks of time during each day that engineers could work without interruptions, and when word of the experiment spread, other regions demanded to be included in the program.

There's more research to be done in this area, though: some companies mandate email-free Fridays, but usually can't sustain it. And even Intel hasn't been entirely successful in maintaining the new behaviors. It's possible that those initiatives didn't start at a "hub" -- one of the “influenceable” nodes that are likely to spread a behavior most quickly. Or perhaps you need a critical mass to prevent recidivism.

What do you think? Could you take advantage of this idea of behavioral contagion to spread lean more quickly through your company?