Triangle Man, Triangle Man

Open your mind to change.

Take a look at the picture above and count all of the triangles. How many are there? One, two, five, eight, eleven…?

In reality, there are no complete triangles at all. You may see them but they are simply not there. In this optical illusion, called the Kanizsa Triangle, your mind automatically draws the lines to create the illusion of a triangle.

Raed the fowloinlg txet and tehn tlel me yuor biran is not wniokrg bihned the sneces cnriteag wrdos out of jriebsibh. Your mind sees what it wants to see, what is familiar. In this case: words. The first and last letters are in the right spots, but the middle is garbled. But still, you figured it out fairly easily.

There is an important lesson we learn about change from these mind tricks: when we are introduced to something new we tend to view it with pre-conceived expectations. It’s how the brain works. We fill in the blanks with what we expect will be there before it actually happens.

When we are introduced to change our thought patterns automatically start accepting or rejecting it based on pre-conceived notions we have accumulated over a lifetime. This is particularly true when working through the change required to embrace continuous improvement.

To be successful we need to first understand that we are viewing change through a lens; only then can we choose to look beyond these filters. In other words, we need to open our vision to the possibilities of the new, recognizing that our minds might be making mountains out of molehills, or in this case, crafting triangles out of thin air.

Who Deleted Toy Story 2? A Pixar Lesson in Continuous Improvement

Ed Catmull tells a story in his book, Creativity Inc., about the time Toy Story 2 started to disappear from Pixar’s servers one day… The book is a fantastic read for anyone who loves Pixar movies, and especially for process improvement geeks who hope to glean insight into Pixar’s culture of problem solving and leadership.

I love to tell this story when teaching the continuous improvement principle, “Blame process, not people.

To understand this first event, you need to know that we rely on Unix and Linux machines to store the thousands of computer files that comprise all the shots of any given film. And on those machines, there is a command—/ bin/ rm -r -f *— that removes everything on the file system as fast as it can. Hearing that, you can probably anticipate what’s coming: Somehow, by accident, someone used this command on the drives where the Toy Story 2 files were kept. Not just some of the files, either. All of the data that made up the pictures, from objects to backgrounds, from lighting to shading, was dumped out of the system. First, Woody’s hat disappeared. Then his boots. Then he disappeared entirely. One by one, the other characters began to vanish, too: Buzz, Mr. Potato Head, Hamm, Rex. Whole sequences— poof!— were deleted from the drive.

Oren Jacobs, one of the lead technical directors on the movie, remembers watching this occur in real time. At first, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Then, he was frantically dialing the phone to reach systems. “Pull out the plug on the Toy Story 2 master machine!” he screamed. When the guy on the other end asked, sensibly, why, Oren screamed louder: “Please, God, just pull it out as fast as you can!” The systems guy moved quickly, but still, two years of work— 90 percent of the film— had been erased in a matter of seconds.

An hour later, Oren and his boss, Galyn Susman, were in my office, trying to figure out what we would do next. “Don’t worry,” we all reassured each other. “We’ll restore the data from the backup system tonight. We’ll only lose half a day of work.” But then came random event number two: The backup system, we discovered, hadn’t been working correctly. The mechanism we had in place specifically to help us recover from data failures had itself failed. Toy Story 2 was gone and, at this point, the urge to panic was quite real. To reassemble the film would have taken thirty people a solid year.

I remember the meeting when, as this devastating reality began to sink in, the company’s leaders gathered in a conference room to discuss our options— of which there seemed to be none. Then, about an hour into our discussion, Galyn Susman, the movie’s supervising technical director, remembered something: “Wait,” she said. “I might have a backup on my home computer.” About six months before, Galyn had had her second baby, which required that she spend more of her time working from home. To make that process more convenient, she’d set up a system that copied the entire film database to her home computer, automatically, once a week. This— our third random event— would be our salvation.

Within a minute of her epiphany, Galyn and Oren were in her Volvo, speeding to her home in San Anselmo. They got her computer, wrapped it in blankets, and placed it carefully in the backseat. Then they drove in the slow lane all the way back to the office, where the machine was, as Oren describes it, “carried into Pixar like an Egyptian pharaoh.” Thanks to Galyn’s files, Woody was back— along with the rest of the movie.

Here, in rapid succession, we’d had two failures and one success, all of them random, all of them unforeseen. The real lesson of the event, though, was in how we dealt with its aftermath. In short, we didn’t waste time playing the blame game. After the loss of the film, our list of priorities, in order, were: (1) Restore the film; (2) Fix our backup systems; (3) Install precautionary restrictions to make it much more difficult to access the deletion command directly.

Notably, one item was not on our list: Find the person responsible who typed the wrong command and punish him or her.

And so we’ll never learn who launched the delete code, but we do learn of a bright spot in Pixar’s culture, one that fosters improvement by focusing on the process that enabled the mistake… not pointing fingers. (The one exception to this rule is Stinky Pete. He’s just the worst.)



Are You an Exceptional Employee?

According to Jeff Haden over at, one of the 8 signs an employee is exceptional is how they interact with process..

Good employees follow processes. Great employees tweak processes. Exceptional employees find ways to reinvent processes, not just because they are expected to…but because they just can’t help themselves.

Being process minded is a good thing…but putting that mind to work reinventing processes out of sheer passion, is what we sometimes call a process geek! Which reminds me of an Escher quote:

We adore chaos because we love to produce order.

Problems are opportunities in disguise! A principle of continuous improvement.

Opposite George

The continuous improvement mindset suggests that small changes over time eventually add up to big changes. Examples are plentiful for this principle, but of course there are exceptions to the rule. Small trumps big almost every time.

Not many people have been successful turning their entire lives around in a single day. George Costanza is the poster boy for big (some prefer “stocky”) change. This clip from Seinfeld’s Opposite George episode is classic on so many levels.

Professionally, Opposite George can be a great teacher for change. When I teach continuous improvement to others, I show this clip and challenge the group to get out of their comfort zones and try new things. “Try being opposite George for a day.”

I am currently reading Matt May’s new book, Winning the Brain Game, and was happy to see Matt call out Opposite George as an inspiration to naming a technique he calls “Opposite World.” An exercise that helps you flip your thinking on end to see things from a new and fresh perspective – just what you need when trying to solve a problem and you are battling with Fixation. (One of the 7 fatal flaws of thinking in Mays new book).

Thank you George for leading a revolution in opposition.

What is Your Problem?

Of the many lessons we can learn from Moneyball, my favorite is the way that Billy Beane tries to get the managers to see their problem.

The scene played above is not uncommon when starting out on any kind of improvement…The classic “problem statement is a solution” routine is something I’ve seen over and over again. “What is the problem?” “We need to build a system that can track, yada, yada, yada…” “Nope. Not the problem.” That’s a potential solution to a problem we have not yet identified yet.

In my experience, leaders humans are so eager to get to the solution that they let all their biases, and routine problem solving techniques take over. For tough business problems we need to tap into a different part of our brain than the one we use to solve our “where should I eat for lunch” problem. Just ask Matthew May. He calls this out in his new book Winning the Brain Game.

Some of the greatest minds in history have repeatedly said that correctly defining the problem is as important (or more important) than the solution. Kettering, Einstein, Mann, Pink.

A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.

— Charles Kettering

If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.

— Albert Einstein

Defining a problem clearly and completely represents 90 percent of the difficulty in innovation.

–Darrell Mann

Dan Pink explains in To Sell is Human that problem finding is ultimately better than problem solving.

A shift from the skill of problem solving to the skill of problem finding– that’s really what innovators do. They find problems that other people didn’t realize were problems.

Pink didn’t come to this conclusion on his own either…He cites plenty of research and experiments dating back to the 60’s that suggest this simple principle is true. Turning the conventional wisdom of “bring me solutions not problems” upside down!

When we get caught up in getting to solutions quickly, cutting corners around the important initial yet usually bypassed problem identification phase, we don’t get to the solutions that last.

John Wooden said it best…”if you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” Take an extra day, or an extra week (take as much time as necessary) to clearly identify that problem and break it down before setting off to fix it.

Louis C.K. and Kano

If you are ever introducing a group to the concept of the Kano Model, Louis C.K. gave us the perfect primer.

Mr. Kano got some airplay last year in an article by Nir Eyal. He deftly maneuvers through a Kano introduction using the Apple watch and a bit of humor. Read it. It’s entertaining.

But not quite as entertaining as Louis C.K. with Conan!

To learn more about Mr. Noriaki Kano and his customer satisfaction model, shmula has done a fine job explaining it here and here.

What Do William Shatner, Conan O’Brien and Continuous Improvement Have in Common?

This post originally appeared on PEX Network’s Advisory Board Column May 23, 2012

Children love stories. Bedtime in my home is a flurry of bathing and pajama finding, teeth brushing and tears…then comes storytime. Stories are magical. They soothe the temperamental and inspire the dreamer. Not surprisingly, not only do children love stories, adults do too.

Stories have been used throughout human history to entertain, engage, and educate people of all ages. Fables, parables, myths, legends, epics, tragedies, and comedies. Many styles and forms all with a common thread: convey ideas.

According to Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of Made to Stick, storytelling is one of the six attributes of making an idea stick. “Sticky” ideas are those that people understand, remember, and that have the power to change opinion or behavior. Isn’t that the goal of the continuous improvement practitioner? To communicate improvement ideas that are easily understood, remembered, and act as a catalyst for behavior change. Here is one way to make continuous improvement ideas stick: Tell stories.

The classic principles of Continuous Improvement lend themselves quite well to telling tales from business, pop culture, and day-to-day life. Here are two that I use to illustrate different continuous improvement principles.

“Problems are opportunities in disguise” – the Conan O’Brien Story

Once upon a time there was a wild red haired, tap dancing, kooky kid named Conan. He liked to tell jokes. Conan spent his entire life preparing himself for his dream job: hosting the Tonight Show. And do you know what? He got it. He loved it. But less than 8 months later, he lost it all.

Now, little Conan wasn’t so little anymore, and he had a big problem. What did he do? He lived out the principle of continuous improvement: “Problems are opportunities in disguise.” He turned this career ending development into a huge opportunity. “How did he do it?” you may ask. He grew an ugly beard, started tweeting, played guitar, wore a skin tight blue leather suit, and went on tour (among many other random things). He was signed later that same year to host his own show on the television network TBS.

To what did he attribute this turnaround? In June of 2011, Conan O’Brien addressed the graduating class at Dartmouth, “It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for profound re-invention.” Conan has arguably achieved more success in his new career than had he stayed the course and filled Carson’s and Leno’s shoes.

As continuous improvement practitioners we teach others to do the same with their business problems. Turn those sour lemons into sweet lemonade. There was once a hotel chain that set out to remove all the lemons their customers were finding with a brand new Six Sigma initiative. Their goal was to give their patrons a defect-free stay. That sounds like a great plan, right? Well, do you know what happened when they started chopping down lemon trees in the customer experience? Their customers weren’t quite as happy with a hassle-free stay as they were when they had minor hassles! This may sound counter intuitive but customers who experienced a problem that was swiftly remedied were more likely to recommend the hotel than those customers who did not experience any problems at all. The hotel had turned problems into opportunities to go the extra mile and delight their customers. (For more on this story see this article.)

“Say yes!” The story of William Shatner’s success

It is important to know your audience when selecting stories to tell. I started teaching continuous improvement awareness to groups of call center technical service agents recently. Stories from the life of John Wooden and Zappos can set the stage teaching what continuous improvement is (sports and shoe shopping are fodder for all) but when teaching tech agents it doesn’t hurt to bring up a legendary sci-fi captain or two.

I like to tell a story from the life of William Shatner. (For those of you who do not know who William Shatner is, pat yourselves on the back for not being a sci-fi geek.). No, I do not compare and contrast between the leadership lessons of Captain Kirk vs. Captain Picard… (although that one is a good one in its own space and time). I let William Shatner set the stage for the principle, “Say yes we can if…not, no we can’t, because…”

Bill has learned one thing in life, and that is to say “yes.” As continuous improvement practitioners we advocate to say “yes,” too. Back in 1968, Bill said “yes” to making an experimental album called the Transformed Man (this is where he introduced his infamous speak-sing style singing). Many ridiculed the work.

A young boy named Ben, saw the album and said, “That’s Captain Kirk! I’ve got to buy this!” That boy grew up to be Ben Folds, of Ben Fold Five fame. Ben really enjoyed the work of William Shatner and said “yes” to collaborating with him on several musical endeavors over the years, including the Priceline commercial Bust a Move. (Bill speak-sings while Ben rocks the cowbell in the background.)

David Kelley, producer of The Practice, saw Bill in that Priceline commercial and exclaimed, “That’s Denny Crane!” Bill was then cast in the final season of The Practice which spun off into Boston Legal. Two Emmy’s later, as well as a Broadway show (where Bill once again performs in his signature style), William Shatner attributes his success in life to saying “yes.” From the Transformed Man to Broadway, Bill says, “No closes doors. Yes kicks them wide open.”

Stories such as these have a tremendous impact when teaching continuous improvement awareness to those just beginning their improvement journey. Awareness training is fertile ground for teaching through story.

Simple stories can teach profound lessons if we ground the ideas we are teaching in a real world example that everyone can understand. I then like to bring in a business story followed by a discussion among the students, exploring their own personal stories related to the principles you teach. Whether you’re teaching them to ask why, use creativity over capital, or attack process not people, pulling stories from everyday life will personally connect the students to the principles you teach. Let Abraham Lincoln, MacGyver, and In-n-Out do the talking. Exploring the world of process improvement through stories makes them stick in the hearts and minds of learners.

Even as the teacher, I learn through the stories my students tell. After a full day on the job teaching and inspiring others to continually strive for improvement, when I come home and tuck my kids in bed they want to hear new “work stories.”

Stories stick, just ask my kids.

Happiness, Delivered

This post was originally published in January, 2011

delivering-happinessToday I finished listening to Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness. It was a fantastic audio book that taught me why Zappos is so Zappos!

There are so many things the company is doing to keep their culture alive and growing. One thing that really stood out throughout the book was Tony’s humility when it comes to talking about Zappos. He said they didn’t pioneer anything new with the Zappos culture, they just applied what they learned from others, such as reading Good to Great and Tribal Leadership. They put the research that is available to all of us, to work at Zappos.

It is also evident that Tony’s previous experience, the mother of all learning, played a large role in building the Zappos brand.

One solid takeaway from Delivering Happiness — for all the continuous improvement buffs out there: In chapter 6 Tony talks about Continuous Incremental Improvement (which by the way was #25 on Zappos’ initial list of 37 core values).

“So the challenge to everyone is this: make at least one improvement every week that makes Zappos better reflect our core values. The improvements don’t have to be dramatic. It can be as simple as adding an extra sentence or two to a form to make it more fun, for example. But if every employee made just one small improvement every week, to better reflect our core values, then by the end of this year we will have over 50,000 small changes that collectively will be a very dramatic improvement compared to where we are today.”

Continuous improvement is about the small stuff: consistent improvements from everyone. Matt Wrye at Beyond Lean finds the Lean parallels in the Zappos core values.

One last thought from the book. Forget what you learned about networking. Tony says to stop trying to network in the traditional sense. Build lasting relationships instead. Then in 2-3 years something might become of the relationship. The Huffington Post posted a snippet about Tony’s networking philosophy.

So there you have it. Improve continually and build relationships. If only we did these two things we would be on the path to greatness. But more importantly, we would surely be happy.

Gandalf is a Lean Thinker

Towards the end the Hobbit part one, Gandalf is speaking with Galadriel and he pontificates of the greatness that small things can bring…

Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I have found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.

As an improvement practitioner, I have seen that business leaders often think like Saruman… it is only a great project or idea that can keep this company growing… but I, like Gandalf, have found the opposite to be true.

Lesson: Don’t ignore the Hobbitses in your work and life.