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.

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.

Fix it!

If it’s broken, stop and fix it.

No better way to sum up this principle of continuous improvement, than advice from Weekend Update’s Financial Expert and Continuous Improvement guru, Oscar Rodgers…

Take it one step at a time:

  • Identify the problem, fix it!
  • Identify another problem, fix it!
  • Repeat as necessary until it’s all fixed!

(The full SNL skit in unavailable on the web at the moment. If it becomes available again I’ll post the link)

Bob Parsons, Remember Kaizen

Bob Parsons’ 16 Rules for Success in business & life in general.

Rule #7 caught my eye as a lean practitioner…

Always be moving forward.

“…Remember the Japanese concept of Kaizen. Small improvements eventually result in huge advantages.”

Thank you Bob.

And Thank you Masaaki Imai, John Wooden, Bob Wiley, Tony Hsieh, Ed Catmull, Van Gogh and and many others…who each believe in the same tenet; small is the new big. Funny thing though, it’s not so new.

Great acts are made up of small deeds. -Lao Tzu

Principles of Continuous Improvement

I was first introduced to the principles of continuous improvement by Ron Pereira at Gemba Academy. He produced a nice video summarizing the “10 commandments” of continuous improvement.

Over the past 6 years I have learned, taught and done my best to live these tenets everyday. There are many examples of these improvement ideas at play in everyday life, pop culture and of course the business world. Many of which I’ll share here.

I have “improved” the names of several of the principles as I have discovered new ways to apply their wisdom.

1. Open your mind to change
2. Say Yes, And
3. Always attack processes, not people
4. Seek simple solutions
5. If it’s broken, stop, and fix it!
6. Use creativity, not capital: “wits over wallets”
7. Problems are opportunities in disguise
8. Ask Why (instead of who)
9. Seek the wisdom of the crowd (over the knowledge of one)
10. The journey never ends…

Practicing these principles at work and anywhere in your life will get you closer to that better process, that better you.

If you are trying to solve business problems, these principles can guide you. They are not easy to follow. Practicing them does make them easier to see opportunities, but human nature, the lizard brain and “save the status quo” business culture are constantly kicking these principles to the door.

It’s a good thing the journey never ends…