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Steve Jobs


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?



Why all those shiny products may not really be helping you at all.

  SKU over-proliferation is one of my pet peeves since I was in charge of the product marketing for running shoes at Asics. (See my March 2013 newsletter for a longer exegesis on the epidemic of product line obesity.)

Apparently, I'm not alone on this bandwagon. Andy Mooney, the new CEO of Quiksilver, just announced that Quiksilver Women’s and Quiksilver Girl’s lines were cannibalizing sales of Roxy apparel and taking space away from men’s wear in its stores. As a result, both Quiksilver and Roxy are exiting the skate business and DC (another sub-brand) has exited surf. As Mooney says,

Having fewer, better products is better for the brand than having more, average products.

This is a decision that smart -- and lean -- companies are always willing to make. I've written before about the way that Jim Collins uses his "stop doing list," and many people have reported about the slash and burn approach Steve Jobs took to the Apple product line upon his return to the company. As Matt May reports, Jobs was always proudest of the thousands of things Apple said no to.

When people think of Lean, they often think about the drive to eliminate waste from processes and systems. It's important to remember that waste can creep into your products and services, too.



Do you really want to put Steve Jobs on Mt. Olympus?

I come to bury Steve Jobs, not to praise him. Don't get me wrong: I love Apple products. I use them daily, and they’ve made my life easier, better, and more fun. Steve Jobs’ business accomplishments are truly remarkable, and will surely be taught in business schools for decades. The encomiums to him in the newspapers are fitting tribute to his life and career.

Nevertheless, for the business world to lionize him so fervently creates two significant risks for other leaders.

The first risk is that we encourage CEOs to act like him—a dangerous proposition when you’re talking about a charismatic leader. Yes, Steve was visionary, unswervingly committed to perfection, and elicited Herculean efforts from his employees. Let’s not forget, though, that he was also a micromanager and a bully. He had the final decision not just on his all-important products, but on less essential issues, such as the design of the shuttle buses that took employees to and from San Francisco, and on what food would be served in the cafeteria. He humiliated employees in public and abused those who didn’t meet his standards. He once told an engineer that he while he had “baked a really lovely cake,” he “frosted it in dog sh*t.” Edward Eigerman, a former Apple engineer, said that more than anywhere else he had worked before or since, there’s real concern about being fired.

Steve could get away with that kind of behavior both because of his charisma and because Apples was his company, with his DNA inextricably implanted in the culture. That’s not true for most CEOs, however, no matter how accomplished they are: not Sam Palmisano at IBM, not Andrea Jung at Avon, not Jim Sinegal at Costco. My guess is that if they dove as deeply into the details of every facet of the company—if Sinegal had made the decision about the exact pantone of the signs in the food court—he’d end up with a bunch of demoralized people who grumbled about absurd micromanagement. And what about the current belief that innovation depends upon the ability to “fail fast”? Good luck nurturing a creative environment when failure is stigmatized and your staff lives in fear of getting fired. Finally, consider you don’t have to be a bully to be an effective leader: as Jim Collins pointed out in Built To Last, a “humble,” “modest,” “unobtrusive and soft-spoken” gentleman named William McKnight guided 3M for 52 years and turned the company into a colossus.

The second risk is subtler, but equally pernicious. By canonizing Steve, we make ourselves feel inescapably inferior, and diminish our own ability to achieve greatness. I call this the “founding fathers” complex. Elevating the founding fathers of the United States above the status of ordinary men creates the belief that we can’t attain the same grand and noble heights that they did. We end up bemoaning the feckless, unworthy politicians that our era produces, and despair of producing leaders equal to the challenge of our times. (Although, given the failure of the latest super-committee to agree on a deficit cutting strategy, I’m beginning to wonder.)

Yet the founding fathers were human, no more nor less than we. John Adams could be petulant, petty, and prone to holding grudges. Thomas Jefferson kept slaves, had a mistress, and while serving as Adams’ vice president, did everything he could to—secretly—undermine his boss. These were great men to be sure, but they had their own faults and weaknesses that they strove mightily to overcome. If we ignore those flaws and accord them superhuman abilities, then we doom ourselves to permanently diminished expectations, cripple our faith in our own capabilities, and needlessly cap our potential accomplishments.

Steve Jobs was a consummate salesman, a remarkable CEO, and a true visionary. By all means, celebrate his accomplishments. Marvel at his performance. But he wasn’t a god. Elevating him to Mt. Olympus does both him and us a disservice.



Saying No to 1,000 Things.

You can't open a business magazine or newspaper without reading another encomium to Steve Jobs' consummate genius or an analysis of why Apple is so successful. I'll add my two cents here: it's because he said no to a lot of products. Think how tight the Apple product line is: three desktop computers. Two laptops. One iPad. One iPhone. Three iPods. Two major bits of software (iTunes and OSX). That's not a whole lot for a $65 billion company. (Yes, I know there are other products out there, but I'm not counting the accessories, the machines that only differ by size of hard drive, or the niche software.) In fact, when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, one of the first things he did was kill off a bunch of products, including the Newton. As he describes the situation,

There were people going off in 18 different directions doing arguably interesting things in each one of them. . . . You look at the farm that's been created with all these different animals going in different directions, and it doesn't add up. The total was less than the sum of its parts.

In an interview with Business Week back in 2004, he explained that innovation, in part, comes from

saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don't get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We're always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it's only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.

By saying to to all those opportunities, he not only conserved corporate resources -- people and cash -- but he conserved people's ability to do great work and create great products. I thought of this recently when reading about the recent research on "decision fatigue." The new thinking about decision-making is that people have a finite storehouse of energy to make decisions -- whether that decision is major (should you parole an inmate), or minor (do you want tartar-control or baking soda toothpaste). As John Tierney explained it in the NYTimes,

Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making.... You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy. If you’re shopping, you’re liable to look at only one dimension, like price: just give me the cheapest. Or you indulge yourself by looking at quality: I want the very best (an especially easy strategy if someone else is paying).

The cumulative effect of these temptations and decisions isn’t intuitively obvious. Virtually no one has a gut-level sense of just how tiring it is to decide. Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up. Choosing what to have for breakfast, where to go on vacation, whom to hire, how much to spend — these all deplete willpower, and there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low. In making decisions, [willpower-depleted people] take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs.

This pretty well sums up most people's lives at work. You're constantly making decisions during the day, both major and minor. And that takes a toll.

Steve Jobs did a good job of reducing that cognitive burden by saying no to so many product opportunities. Saying no allowed the company to focus its cash, and  workers to focus their attention, on what's most important. It's not the sole reason Apple became the smash success it has, but it's certainly part of the puzzle.

Take a look at your organization. Are you chasing every opportunity out there? Or are you husbanding your energies to do great work on the few truly important issues? If you're not executing well, this is one place to start looking.