Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Problem finding or problem solving?

I recently came across a espoused-theory vs. theory-in-use gap in my training technique which, when thinking about it highlights a complex difference between teaching and coaching.

We know that the best coaching occurs when the mentor lets the mentee discover for himself or herself the terms of the problem. Coaching is about getting people to adopt a new practice, and often to abandon an existing one. We're psychologically biased against this because of built-in loss aversion. One loss feels worse than two gains feel good. The effect is milder when the person has figured out the problem by themselves. The problem, of course, is that this can take a long, long time because we're also biased to prefer our existing theories to new facts.

In teaching, we need to introduce new concepts. As these concepts seldom correspond to an immediate real-life situation, the teacher acts as a foil: he or she proposes a problem, breaks it down into constituent parts and asks the learner to solve each component and somehow put the answer together.

I now see how this sets the teacher as the obstacle. The teacher is standing between the learner and knowledge. And there's an easy slippery step to activate the honor code: if I humiliate the learner enough, they will respond with a surge of energy to prove to me that I'm wrong about them by getting to the right answer. Once one sees it, it's amazing how pervasive this bias is in all our teaching systems. The teacher does not stand by the learner's side to help them solve real world problems, they stand in front of them to punish them with classroom problems. Talk about a misconception.

We're caught in a double-bind. On the one hand if you just wait for someone to discover what they don't know, it's going to take forever. On the other hand if you try to teach them, the chances are they'll learn shallowly because the field has slipped from you and them against the problem, to you against them with the problem in between.

How did the old time sensei do it? They took their time. They assumed you would progress on a topic, and simply asked you to clarify your thinking at every step until you saw the weaknesses of your own arguments. This, however, assumes an environment where this kind of learning is valued and where instant progress is not required for survival.

One compromise I've come across is opening doors and shutting doors. Mentees need to figure out things by themselves, so you don't break down the problem for them, but you also need to teach something so they can see their own progress and not be discouraged, so you can express doubts about some avenues and try to suggest or demonstrate other avenues they haven't seen.

The difficulty in doing so is finding the balance between helping them in finding their way through complex problems and setting yourself up as the obstacle they need to pass, as in medieval teaching. I suspect the image of the dark knight holding the bridge saying "you shall not pass" that you need to vanquish to prove yourself a man is lurking vividly in our narratives, and is just plain silly in a world where rivers are shifting every day, and bridges are flimsy and hard to negotiate. Teachers, trainers, mentors, sensei, how do we ally ourselves with our students to help them overcome real-life obstacles rather than create stylized problems to make them prove their worth to us by fighting us rather than the problem?

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Who killed the electric car?

A classic VW converted into an electrical vehicle. Full of history and charm, but hyper-modern. A car that combines heritage with innovation, that preserves the beauty of a gem while respecting our planet. As a classic car lover, I was very excited when I learned I had an opportunity to combine my passion for vintage cars with my green mentality. Wonderful, right?

Diving into the electric car topic led me to many discussions, half truths stated as facts, and a lot of controversy. Could it be that in this case we are in fact combining the disadvantages of both the combustion engine and electric vehicles? As we look at the full lifecycle of such a car, aren't we adding the footprint of the electric engine to the footprint of the original car? And is it a contribution to road safety to drive cars with 1970’s safety standards on a daily basis?

I tried to stay away from having an opinion on this, but I do have a lot of questions. Are we doing the right thing by making vintage cars greener? Are electric cars the way to go? Why aren’t we producing cars that will last more than 20 years? Why aren't we making them more durable, so that more time will pass before they end up in a pile of scrap?

Why the gas car won over the electric car is the topic of the 2006 documentary “Who killed the electric car?” - which explains that as the 20th century gathered speed, the electric car lost momentum. Automatic starters, cheaper oil and mass production gave the gasoline car a huge advantage. Now the EV is back, and we all need to have one. Or do we? 

For me, when trying to preserve our classic ’72 Alfa Romeo 2000 Berlina, converting it to electric is an option to consider (even though that would have serious implications to my marriage…) because it would be a cool thing to do, not a contribution to save the planet. So, when turning vintage to electric, are we progressing or are we creating a fashion item in the name of global warming? 

Whose "better" anyway?

When the corporate HR director asks the plant manager whether he is on track with his headcount reduction plan and where will he find additional heads to cut, do you really think she's thinking she's NOT doing the right thing? That she tells to herself, sure, I'm setting him - and the company  - to fail, but at least I'm achiving my objectives  and getting that bonus. Unlikely. She's probably thinking she is genuinely helping the plant manager to manager better his Human Resources (spooky, scary term).

Now, the plant manager hears this from the HR Director, but also from the Quality Director asking him to make sure all procedures are audited and respected. And from the CFO asking him to make sure all activities are on budget. The Supply Chain Director wants to evaluate and rank all vendors. And so on. Clearly, trying to satisfy all of them is a recipe for disaster, but that's exactly the kind of organizations we've build: the people in power around the division Head define "better" around the rules of their profession, and not around the only thing that counts: the customers who'll swap their hard earned cash for your product or service. Now what do they want? Not much:

  • something that works the first time around and doesn't breakdown too soon
  • somethign delivered when it's convenient to them
  • at a good price
  • and with a smile and a thank you
And then, only then, if you have an extram thingee to sell them, they're willing to listen. How hard can that be? Not much, if we focus on it. As in FOCUS. But how can the plant manager focus on delivering to customers when he's got all these other guys asking for so much of his or her attention?

Every organization is complex, which is fair enough. Consequently, we can't blame people for choosing easy problems to solve over difficult ones. As Michael Raynor explains in his 3 rules for success TED talk, better before cheaper and revenue before cost make obvious sense except that these are hard problems to solve: they're messy, strange and dicey. As opposed to cheaper and reducing costs problems which are tidy, familiar and reliable

On the other hand a pull system keeps the plant focused on customers and vendors. If the plant manager's line of sight is focused on:
  • On-time-delivery
  • Inventory turns
He or she will have to deal with, daily:
  • shifts in customer purchasing - as well as customer complaints (OTD only counts good products)
  • shifts in vendor patterns
  • Internal effectiveness issues
The pull system breaks down messy, complex problems in day-to-day simpler ones. By its very nature, the pull system tells you where to start. In the end it turns the messy problem of customer specific quality into a tidier problem of daily delivery and solving all customer complaints. No other known business tool does that.

What you allowe will continue. Without a robust pull system, your organization will continue to try and define "better" accoding to the division-of-labor narrow prism of professional certainties. The pull system lets us look beyond our solipcist, self-centered arguments and makes us deal with the fact that every day customer demand changes and that every day vendors do different things. Any system left to its own devices will follow its inner logic to the point of absurdity. A pull system is the proven way to lmake sure we're in constant touch with what's happening out there, and so we co-evolve adaptatively rather than work hard at failing. Without pull, there can't be any reliable better in an established organization. Without pull, the organization will only do what it was set upto do. In other words, even when results are poor, the organization is perfectly adapted to its performance. The pull system is the key to adapting ourselves out of our own systems.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Freedom, collective intelligence, the baby and the bath water

With a group of young entrepreneurs, we were discussing the ways and means to make their enterprises more agile. A consensus soon surfaced:
"To be more agile, you must free the people."
"To be more agile, you must develop collective intelligence."
The conversation developed around these two challenges, drifted to organizational and managerial sideways, away from customers' stakes and eventually resembled the famous expression: "throw out the baby with the bath water".

Freedom. We all want- rightly- to break free from the Taylorist prison and design a more inclusive company. But for the sake of freedom, when getting rid of the alienating Taylorist process "bath water", we tend to throw out the baby along with it: the baby being the customer, our ultimate goal. Without focusing on that goal, freedom is meaningless. I recently visited the headquarters of a large distribution company: beautiful campus, organic food cafeteria, sports complex, etc. During the visit of the logistics center, I am told that today's delivery delays are due to the company’s internal olympic games: part of the logistics team is playing the volleyball final! The young boss, whom I met a little later lamented about the growing gap between the open and free atmosphere he had implemented and the lack of people’s motivation.

Collective Intelligence. We all want - and rightly - to free people's intelligence from the shackles of Taylorism (the water bath), but we often end up forgetting the baby again: intelligence idles and withers when not applied to the purpose of the company, solving problems and finding opportunities to improve customer value. To grow customer centered collective intelligence, you need a rich soil with caring gardeners able to design and secure "spaces of thought ", daily places and time spaces dedicated to learn together how to develop and create value.

Freedom and collective intelligence are starting points, pre-requisites and success factors: you must be free to engage yourself and commit your intelligence. But they are not the destination. Satisfied and loyal customers are our one and genuine destination: a free and wise engagement!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Are your customers an alibi to do what you do?

In a hospital ward last week, as we watched what was going on with the CEO, a patient was left waiting in a bed outside the operating theatre, amongst other unoccupied beds. Two nurses walked past discussing with each other, found that the patient's bed was in the way of opening the door to where they wanted to go, moved the bed without a glance at the patient, and walked through the door without a break in their conversation. Definitely an awkward moment.

I have no doubt the nurses were discussing a professional matter, but therein lies the rub. Is your organization actually working to help customers with what they want to do, or are customers an opportunity to do what you do?

Do teachers have a plan for every child, taking into account that child's learning style (and we know now that children learn differently from one another) or do they have a plan to take this year's class through the imposed program? Does your sales team understand that customers have different things on their minds as they walk in to purchase, or do they believe that the best way to maintain quality is to make sure every customer follows the set process?

Customers, patients, students move in and out: now you see them (briefly), now you don't. Colleagues, bosses, staff specialists stay. You have to deal with them today, you'll have to deal with them tomorrow.

Your skills are your skills. You know what you can do, are told every day what you must do, have some inkling of what you should do, and often think about what you'd like to do. In this sense, every new customer is an opportunity to practice your art. Every new customer is an opportunity to play ball (or fight against) with your colleagues. Customers are too easily an excuse for us to do what we do.

I remember a great teacher who used to start every new group of students by asking them to share something about themselves the others didn't know - it was a very touching, surprising and intense moment. I know a CEO that starts every customer discussion by asking "what is specific about this customer?"

Taking customers as people requires far more flexibility than most processes offer. This is the promise (often seen as a threat) of big data and new players such as Google or Amazon. But technology won't solve the attitudinal problem.

"How are we stopping this specific customer from achieving what he or she wants to achieve?" is a straightforward question at the heart of creating a learning organization. We all learn every day, there is no doubt about that. But are we reinforcing our existing habits, or are we opening up to seeing others? Is a hospital a place to have a great career, or a place to look at every single patient's journey?