Archive for July, 2011

When all you have is a hammer…

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

…everything looks like a nail. Even if it’s an ice cream sandwich.

According to Bloomberg Business Week, the failure of the Chevy Volt to win over consumers is due to the mismatch between the “green” image of the car and the decidedly non-green image of General Motors. The author of the article, who is a brand and marketing consultant with a long background at Clorox, and who bought his car in December 2010, says that

most of my “Green” friends are uninterested [in the Volt]. They’d rather own a Toyota Prius—or await for a plug-in from some other company. Why? Because the Volt is made by General Motors and they just can’t believe GM’s heart is in it.

The author goes on to explain that consumers want to buy a product from a company that shares their values:

Toyota has long supported fuel-efficient vehicles. If Toyota had launched the Volt, chances are it would already be a runaway success. But GM? It’s hard to associate the company that brought us the Hummer with a green image. How could GM executives possibly care about fuel efficiency? Or even get it right? Are they doing this only to look like good corporate citizens?

I suppose there’s some merit to this argument. It would seem weird if Payless Shoe Stores starting selling high-end performance running shoes. Except that ascribing the Volt’s struggles to GM’s non-green image is like saying the Titanic sank because the dining room menu didn’t include a porterhouse.

Consider the following:

  1. As of mid-July, there are only about 200 Volts available nationwide.
  2. There will only be about 10,000 units available for sale in the U.S. by the end of 2011.
  3. The Volt starts at $40,000. The Prius starts at $23,500. The Nissan Lean starts at $32,800.
  4. It takes 10-12 hours to recharge the car with a standard outlet. Good luck if you live in an apartment building that doesn’t have electrical outlets near the parking spaces.

Maybe it’s just me, but those seem to be far more salient facts than whether or not GM has a sufficiently green image. Who wants to pay twice as much for a car that they probably won’t get for months and that might not be easily rechargeable, when they can get a Prius or a Leaf?

This is what happens when your article is written by a consultant who specializes in branding.

Missing the boat like this isn’t a mortal sin when the product is an article in a weekly magazine. But it could be catastrophic when the product is a new corporate strategy. Or a succession plan. Or the roadmap for international expansion in China.

Everything we do is colored by our experiential filters. Those experiences shape our views and give us tools with which to address our organizational challenges. That’s human nature. And therefore it’s incumbent upon you to know what experiences and biases an employee, a writer, or a consultant brings to the table.

Because if the only tool on his belt is a hammer, you damn well better have a bunch of nails.

Monkey bars physics

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

Kyle is a VP at a large manufacturing firm. His ascent up the organizational food chain has been fast and impressive, and now he’s reaping the financial rewards of all his hard work.

Kyle also works horrific hours, between 90 and 100 hours per week. He doesn’t spent nearly as much time with his family as he’d (or they’d) like. More importantly, he’s got a pile of strategic initiatives and projects as long as his arm that are lying moribund on his desk. He knows they’re important to both his and the company’s future success, but right now they’ve got about as much chance of completion as Transformers 3 does of winning the best picture Oscar. It just ain’t gonna happen.

Kyle’s obviously competent, but he’s being held back by his own proficiency. He’s still doing work that he did earlier in his career because he’s really, really good at it. He’s forgotten the essential physics of monkey bars that he learned on the playground: you can’t move forward until you let go of previous bar.

Kyle is holding onto work that should be — must be — delegated to others. It’s almost certain that it won’t get done the way that he would have done it. And it’s possible that it won’t be done as well as he would have done it. If that’s an issue, then it’s his responsibility to create standard work to ensure that it’s done his way. In any event, he can’t keep doing it. If he’s holding onto those lower value activities, he can’t turn his attention to the bigger picture issues that the company needs him to address.

I often see companies struggle with execution because managers and executives aren’t able to devote the time and attention to the critical initiatives facing their firms. They haven’t internalized the physics of monkey bars. They have to let go before they can move forward.

What every CEO needs to know about 5S and signal to noise ratio

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

Ron Ashkenas tells the following story:

In one large consumer products company, the CEO insisted on having detailed operational reports rolled up every month to the corporate level, which she then used for a monthly review meeting with business heads and corporate staff. Creating these reports required a small army of corporate financial analysts while also creating a cascade of work within all of the business units. And since the financial analysts were not always busy with the monthly reports, they also generated additional activities for the businesses that they thought were value-added. When the CEO retired, her successor decided that these detailed operational reports were unnecessary since each business unit already reported its key numbers — and the big review meetings never resulted in substantial decisions anyway. In other words, he quickly determined that this form of operational roll-up was not critical to the company’s success and it was eliminated (along with the small army of financial analysts and the additional work they spawned).

People commonly think about 5S (a place for everything, and everything in its place) in manufacturing terms: organizing and decluttering the physical space around you. That’s too limiting. It’s also the wrong focus for knowledge workers. In other words: no, it doesn’t matter where you hang your damned sweater.

Factory workers manipulate and process titanium alloys or scratch-resistant iPhone glass faces. Knowledge workers manipulate and process information. Regardless of what kind of worker you are, you need 5S to provide you with quick access to what you’re working on, and to allow you to spot abnormalities.

So, when the signal-to-noise-ratio approaches zero — when there’s just a little bit of information coming through the static, as at the consumer products company described above — you know it’s time for information 5S. It’s time to identify what information is necessary to serve the customer, make decisions, and manage the business, and eliminate the rest. Anything else may be interesting, but is ultimately irrelevant — and even worse, it sucks valuable resources into the giant maw of waste.

In my upcoming book (A Factory of One, out in December 2011) I tell the story of the nurses at the Covenant Health System in Texas. They analyzed their work and found that they spent 51% of each shift filling in forms (rather than doing something useful, like, say, taking care of patients). The vast majority of that time and effort was waste. An information 5S project cut that time in half.

Take a look at the information you create and ask others to create for you. How much of it is waste, and how much of it is value? How much of it is just “legacy work” — stuff that’s just always been done, and no one remembers why anymore — and how much of it really helps you make decisions to lead the business?

July 2011 Newsletter

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Does your work style make you a magnifying glass — focused, concentrated power — or a prism — lots of pretty colors, no heat?

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Godzilla in the corner office (part 2)

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

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.