Archive for the ‘improvement’ Category

Sports Analogy week day 2: no mulligans

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

I played golf with my brother-in-law a few years ago. He hadn’t played much and was struggling. But no matter where his drive went, or where he found his ball, he would not take a mulligan or improve his lie. “Go ahead and move the ball,” I told him. “Why suffer?”

“No thanks,” was his reply. And he hacked the ball back into the fairway.

That round made a big impression on me. For one thing, I was a poor-to-fair golfer and I’d take mulligans from time to time, or take a favorable drop, or the like. But what my brother-in-law taught me that day was that I would never know precisely how well I was doing at golf if I didn’t follow the rules.

And if I didn’t know how well I was doing, it would be hard to improve. I had to confront the brutal facts (as stated in “Good to Great”–wait, didn’t I discredit this book just last week??) before I could move forward.

I tried to take that lesson into my business life as well. How were things going, really? Was I using excuses to mask weaknesses I myself needed to address?

In short, to be great at business you can’t take mulligans. You’ve got to face reality and try to improve.

It was a very valuable day on the golf course. After I cut down on the mulligans and played the ball where it lay, my scores, predictably, got worse. Over time they’ve come down. And, best of all, they’re real.

(Photo: “Tee Time 3″ from Garrison Photography via stock.xchng–note: NOT my brother-in-law)

Toyota excels by revealing hidden problems

Tuesday, July 17th, 2007

While some wags have predicted Toyota’s imminent fall from grace, the company’s management discipline and long-range outlook remain rare in the business world. In the July/August Harvard Business Review, Toyota CEO Katsuaki Watanabe engages in a wide-ranging discussion of the company’s plans for the future.

It’s a fascinating article, and a couple of passages caught my eye in particular. In them, Mr. Watanabe frankly confronts problems that Toyota has faced on the quality of its automobiles. Rather than sidestepping questions about the problems, or “bridging” back onto his marketing message, Mr. Watanabe addresses them analytically. An example:

In 1995 there were 26 Toyota factories; in 2007 there will be 63…. I realize that our system may be overstretched.

We must make that issue visible. Hidden problems are the ones that become serious threats eventually. If problems are revealed for everyone to see, I will feel reassured. Because once problems have been visualized, even if our people didn’t notice them earlier, they will rack their brains to find solutions to them.

This revealing the hidden problem, not tolerating the “quiet fix,” has been discussed in a prior post. But Mr. Watanabe goes on. He immerses himself in the company’s mistakes, and gets actively involved in diagnosing and fixing them. Says Mr. Watanabe:

Soon after I became president, as you know, we confronted several quality-related problems. We created teams specializing in different areas and instructed them to analyze the root causes of problems in each area. We found that in several cases the problems had occurred because of design flaws or because of short lead times that didn’t allow out engineers to build a sufficient number of physical prototypes. If we had thought about product designs more clearly or had the time to conduct more experiments, we could have avoided those problems.

Can you imagine GM’s or Ford’s CEO making such an admission in public voluntarily? I can’t. Given this degree of candor and clear thinking, I can envision Toyota’s quality problems lasting a short time indeed.

"Quiet Fixers" are the enemy of learning

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

This is the last post, I promise, on “x-teams.” The authors neatly describe a phenomenon that I’ve witnessed at every company I worked for. I dare say I was guilty of it a bunch of times.

It’s called “quiet fixing.” Here’s how it’s described in the book:

At Toyota, for example, when a new car comes off the assembly line with a defective door handle, the person responsible for that part does not fix the problem quietly without the assembly team leader noticing. Instead, the team comes together to identify the root cause of the problem to ensure that it does not happen again. This process often gets noisy, and it requires psychological safety. Without it, quiet fixers would rule the day–leaving the source of the problem and its consequences to crop up again and again. (Ancona and Bresman, “x-teams,” p. 93)

When at EDS we were studying the Learning Organization, I used to joke that we weren’t a Learning Organization, we were a Forgetting Organization, like the guy in “Memento” who has lost his short-term memory.

What I was saying, in essence, was that we had a culture of “quiet fixers.” In the last ten years, I’ve seen how common, in fact, that is.