BOOK REVIEW: Managing to Learn: Using the A3 Management Process

A3Managing to Learn: Using the A3 Management Process
by John Shook
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to get better at problem solving, organizational leaders wanting to create a problem solving culture.

From the day I met him, my friend and Lean mentor, Jerry Bussell always recommended using an A3 for the problems I encounter. I ignored him. The A3 was something I didn’t understand during my Lean studies and I had a tendency to gloss over it. During a recent outing, he stressed to me the importance of being a problem solver. I agreed this was something I wanted to improve about myself so decided to give A3 a study and a try.

For those that don’t know, the A3 is a Lean tool a person uses who is held responsible for investigating a problem and offering countermeasures. It is typically conducted on an A3-sized paper. Shook’s book is the gold standard for learning the tool.


Example of an A3. Problem– feeding the baby! TheKaiZone,org

This is what I got out it:

  1. The ultimate goal of the A3 is not to solve the problem at hand, but to make the process of problem solving transparent and teachable in order to create an organization populated with problem solvers (what organization doesn’t want that?).
  2. The A3 forces you to slow down and think, patiently, instead of just rushing ahead looking for solutions (i.e. firefighter mode). It forces individuals to observe reality, present facts, propose working counter measures designed to achieve the stated goal, gain agreement, and follow up with a process of checking and adjusting for actual results. That’s powerful!
  3. You must know what the problem is, why its important, and how it ties into what the organization is trying to accomplish. This was an important concept for to me. I think we get so stuck on our solutions, we forget what the problem really is.
  4. An A3 properly done will produce enemies. (Ouch). This is because as you explore ideas and go into finer details of how people get their work done, the greater degree of turf wars and general push back or resistance you will find.
  5. Don’t be discouraged. Challenge people with facts, push them to explain their thinking. Refuse sub-optimal results. The more an A3 sparks healthy debate, the more it has done its job.
  6. Once you complete the process, you will become the company’s expert on the problem. You must then become a champion for getting it implemented or until another course is decided to be taken. This is a great way of gaining influence, I believe.
  7. A challenge for me– Shook asks, instead of being discouraged by the unending nature of problems cropping up, can you become encouraged by the unending opportunity and challenge?
  8. Shook recommends using the term ‘countermeasure’ instead of ‘solution’. Countermeasures indicates temporary responses to specific problems where as solutions imply something permanent. Nothing should be permanent. Countermeasures serve until a better approach is found or conditions change.

I am going to try the A3 in the workplace, but I do have concerns:

  • The A3 requires patience and understanding. Most American organizations have a culture that values action and decisiveness. When I showed this book to a very trusted and respected colleague of mine, he indicated that it looked like analysis paralysis. Uh oh.
  • Nigel Thurlow who is connecting the Agile-Lean divide, believes the A3 is better suited for a linear system, not a complex one, which is what many organizations are facing these days. Thurlow is good friends with Shook; I’d be curious as to what Shook has to think about Thurlow’s opinion on this matter. I’m also curious if Thurlow has an alternative.

This book made me realize I was good at figuring out what was causing problems, but I needed to get better at coming up with countermeasures. It showed me how. I’m looking forward to giving it a whirl.

The book can be ought here.


BOOK REVIEW: The Machine that Changed the World

machineThe Machine that Changed the World
by James Womack, et al.

Recommended for: Beginners to Lean, car enthusiasts, change agents, managers and leaders

I’m a little embarrassed. I’ve been such a Lean advocate and never actually read this book. I thought it would be a good follow on to my review of My Life with General Motors so went ahead and read it.

I was challenged to make my blog posts smaller, so instead of listing out points, I’m going to list out the biggest thing that jumped out at me.

The book’s authors were often asked by traditional mass production managers what key organizational strategy Lean plants used. The answer: transfer the responsibility to the workers and create a system that quickly traces defects to its ultimate cause. This means creating a dynamic workforce that is founded upon team work that uses a simple and responsive system for detecting problems and understanding the overall status of the plant. Sounds like an Agile team, huh?

Researchers said this is not easy to create. Workers have to know all the other jobs in their group. They also need to be coached to think proactively. These are things we try to do as Agilists.

The authors concluded this type of work force can only be created if the workers believe management values them and are willing to sacrifice to retain them and delegate responsibility to them. This creates a reciprocal relationship between worker and manufacturer. They share a fate and creates a willingness to participate toward the betterment of the company because everyone benefits.

If we take this lesson into our own work as Agilists, how do we reconcile the contract-workforce model so prevalent in IT? When budgets are cut, the human ‘ballast’ is jettisoned. Contractors are under no illusions their employer will stick with them through thick and thin. This creates a lack of commitment between worker and organization. What does it mean for our Agile initiatives if the company choses to stick to this model?

The book can be found here.

BOOK REVIEW: Orbiting the Giant Hairball

Orbiting-the-Giant-Hairball-9780670879830Orbiting the Giant Hairball
by Gordon MacKenzie
Recommended for: Change agents, creative types stuck in the stifling corporate culture and what you can do about it, storytellers

This book was given to me my by my friend and agile coach, Jamie Gillis, who considers this book a game changer for his life.

This might be one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read. MacKenzie was an artist at Hallmark for several decades and the pages are covered in doodles. Its almost like reading someone’s sketch book! MacKenzie is a master storyteller. This book inspired me to be improve this skill.

MacKenzie calls corporate culture a giant hairball. He likens policies, procedures, and decisions made by a corporation as individual hairs which when added over the lifetime of the company, becomes an enormous hairball. One orbits the hairball by latching on to the corporate values that resonate with you and use this to fuel your creativity.

Some of my top take-aways and favorite parts of the book:

  1. As is the world of physics, so too in the corporate world: the gravitational pull a body exerts increases as the mass of that body increases. Like physical gravity it is the nature of corporate gravity to suck everything into the mass– the mass of corporate normalcy.
  2. The ghosts of past successes outvote original thinking.
  3. Some people try to escape a giant hairball by going to another company, but find the company is a hairball just like the one they left.
  4. The whole of reality is too much for the conscious mind to grasp. We can only comprehend a slice. So too with civilization and companies. These realities are imposed on the worker. This creates a cocoon that gives us a sense of emotional security through a connection of shared belief. But its also a shroud that binds and cripples us as badly as the ancient practice of binding Chinese women’s feet.
  5. Hypnotizing a chicken. I had never heard of this before and I’ve been around chickens much of my life. He says when we join a company, that is what we are doing. Our face is pushed down to the line. The company line says, “This is our history. This is our philosophy. These are our procedures. These are our politics. This is simply the way we are.” What we need to do when we are being pushed down to the line is to find the goals of the organization that touch your heart. And release your passion to follow those goals.
  6. When a corporation prizes those who heroically overwork themselves in stress filled jobs, the company is telling others: make your job difficult, stretch yourself thin, stress yourself out, and eventually you too may be honored with executive approval. If you desire the blessings of the Mighty Corporate Fathers: work longer hours than is sensible, take on more responsibility than is sensible, make your job harder than is sensible. Do this and your sacrifices will be celebrated and your worth confirmed. This is seductive and plays into the old illusion that if we just work hard enough, and if we just work long enough we will finally be found valuable, be found lovable, and find security. If we fall for this seduction, quality of life erodes.
  7. He described job descriptions like boxes. People are not allowed to step into each other’s boxes. Instead he says we  should be performing like dancers. I like this analogy.
  8. Mandatory Fun- the force feeding of some cockeyed activity to a captive audience with intent to generate joviality. These don’t work. Instead, it generates discomfort that everyone feels but no one acknowledges.
  9. Any time a bureaucrat (a custodian of the system) stands between you and something you want or need, your challenge is to help that bureaucrat discover the means harmonious with the system to meet your need. I like this strategy!!
  10. He talked about organizations as mechanistic (and asphyxiating) versus organic (and vitalizing). I’ve often used these same descriptors for traditional management thinking.
  11. In the end, he finally came to the conclusion that it would be better to stop trying to change the hairball but instead offer to help those who want a fuller more original work experience.
  12. Compassionate emptiness– the state we need to enter when people come to us with their burdens. Stop trying to fix people. People will leave feeling unheard and you will feel a sense of helplessness. When someone comes to you, listen in silence. Imagine yourself being an empty vessel existing only to receive as fully as possible and without judgment. I absolutely love this!
Hairball Doodles

I love this book’s style. It was so fun and easy to read. I finished it over a weekend.

MacKenzie and I have drawn a lot of the same conclusions about management and it was refreshing to see his take on it. I’ve often called corporate systems giant balls of tangled yarn. A giant hairball is also fitting.

Though enlightening, his advice is a coping strategy rather than an antidote. I can appreciate this tactic for those who have grown tired of fighting the power, though I find it sad that he has drawn this conclusion and suggests others do the same. I don’t see the problem as a corporate problem. Its a management problem. Companies, no matter how big or small, are creating hairballs all the time. We shouldn’t expect our employees to just orbit, otherwise our company is doomed. The solution is stop making (and reduce) the hairball!!

The book can be bought here.

BOOK REVIEW: My Years with General Motors

My YearsMy Years with General Motors
by Alfred P. Sloan, Jr.
Recommended for: Change agents who are trying to understand the traditional corporate mindset.

This book is regarded as a must-read for management. It was a best seller when it was published in 1964. Peter Drucker recommended it as a must-read for his students and for managers.

For 50 years, GM was a worldwide powerhouse–the largest automotive company in the world. Success breeds a lot of copy cats and GM’s organizational structure, strategy, and attitudes served as a model for many different types of industries. Many of its principles still hold sway today in corporate America.

Drucker described the book as enjoyable reading. I found it to be 21 hours of uninspiring, soul-sucking verbosity. Still,  if you are a change agent for a more progressive style of management, this book may give you insight into how the traditional corporate mind thinks and how many organizations are still organized.

Sloan’s purpose of the book was to establish a new profession, the manager, and to spell out exactly how to do it. Sloan himself would be the exemplar of the professional manager.

It lays out the corporate strategy for GM in detail. Yeah. Its tedium. Marketing strategy, corporate organization, production schedules, pricing, financial controls (he talked about this a lot. He considers it key in GM’s success), acquisitions, research and innovations, ROI, decision-making structures, handling dealerships (which are franchises–I never knew that), forecasting sales, reporting and communication, talent acquisition (especially at the leadership level), company expansion, personnel matters, and lessons learned (he has a LOT of lessons learned. Good for him). It made me appreciate more what all a CEO has on his mind and their capacity to handle it all.


Mr. Drucker says you have to read this book, even though ol’ Pete had a lot of critical things to say about GM’.

Sloan spends almost a whole chapter discussing unions. You can tell by his tone that this is a sore spot for him. Drucker had criticized him for how he handled them. I wonder what Sloan would have thought about what happened at NUMMI.

He also spent a whole chapter on GM’s bonus plans, which rewards individual contribution. He spent a lot of time defending it, I assume because plenty criticized it including Drucker. Sloan said to abolish it or severely alter it after 45 years could destroy the spirit of GM’s management and he credited the bonus plan for much of the company’s success.

I was disappointed, though perhaps not surprised, that Sloan didn’t talk about operational excellence nor how GM got workers up to speed during the war years (he glossed over it as being a challenge and adjusted production expectations).

Good take aways:

  • Sloan talks about how people want variety and choice and your company must be able to provide this.
  • He says an organization must be adaptable. He gave the example of Ford and the Model T (I wonder what he would have said about the company’s turn-of-the-century struggles and eventual 2009 bail-out).
  • He warned against building a company to support a genius (he implied this was what Ford did). I wonder what he would think of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk?

Insights into the roots of traditional management attitudes:

  • Decisions should be made by capable and rational men coming together. Their focus should be focused on benefiting the shareholders.
  • Increased efficiency does not flow from the increased effectiveness of the workers, but from more efficient management and investment in labor saving devices.
01tail fin


Despite its tedium, the book included some interesting parts on the early history of the automotive industry. Sloan spends a lot of time discussing GM’s early competition with Ford. GM simply could not take on the Model T (GM acquired Chevy to compete). Eventually, though, the company’s strategy of “a car for every purse and every purpose” took hold and left Ford in the dust. I was also interested in how GM began to emphasize styling. The classic tail fins of the 50s were inspired by fighter jets!

Walter Friedman with the Harvard Business Review wrote an article surmising My Years with a fifty year perspective in 2014. It can be found here. I recommend it.

Looking at Scrum Through a Deming Lens

Deming Lens ScrumIndirectly, Scrum introduced me to W. Edwards Deming. For that, I will always be grateful to it. I’m a big fan of Jeff Sutherland. His book The Art of Scrum is an all time favorite and was a huge game changer for me. I like to pass a copy of it around to my fellow co-workers so they can all learn a lot of good wisdom.

Now that I’ve ‘done’ Scrum for several years, I continuously find myself looking at it from a Deming perspective. Through that lens, there’s a lot of good, but I’m also seeing some things that have me concerned.

Here’s my observations:

There is an emphasis on breaking down silos between departments. Hard to go wrong with this approach no matter what methodology you use. I remember one of our directors say this was the biggest benefit the company had gotten since adopting scrum.

Scrum Masters are encouraged to compete, instead of collaborate, which can lead to sub-optimization. I’ve experienced this myself way too often. As a scrum master, our job is to protect the team and the sprint at all costs. This includes competing with others for resources or forcing ourselves into line to become a higher priority. In the end we may have protected the sprint and the team, but has anyone ever stopped to to think if this benefits the system/company as a whole?

There is a focus on doing work right the first time and ceasing to depend on inspection. Granted, its not like this in all places, but overall, I think scrum does a pretty good job of chanting a steady mantra for saying no to rework and focusing on quality. Deming would approve.

Scrum Teams focus on management by objective. You get done things done within the iteration time frame. Period. Admittedly, some are more rigid than others, but overall the focus is on getting everything done within the allotted time frame. I’ve seen the pressure this puts on a team. The tendency to cut corners or hide issues to meet the deadline or achieve points is strong. I’m not so sure this is what Sutherland imagined. I can see Deming wagging his head and muttering about MBO.

User stories try to create an understanding of who the customer is and what it is they want. Every time we work on user stories, I think of Deming’s analogy of you can’t clean a table until you know what its going to be used for. User Stories try to achieve this, though, from my experience, few teams understand its importance.

The company focuses on sub-optimization (the team) instead of optimizing the company as a whole. When things go wrong, the focus seems to always come back to the team. What is the team doing wrong or could be doing better? In my experience, most of the issues the team encounters is outside its control. Too often, the team is forced to get creative with a bad hand. If we could optimize the whole system, the team will improve.

The team stops at the end of the sprint to determine what it is doing right and what can be done better. This is PDSA and a basic Deming tenant. Experiment. See how it works. Try something new. Make corrections. Watch. Observe. Learn. Etc., Etc. I’ve heard lot of scrum folks say the scrum retrospective may be the most important of all the scrum ceremonies.

Even though there is an emphasis on velocity, variation is not understood, or taught. Ideally, a team’s velocity should be steady. I’ve yet to be on a team where that happens (though we are working toward it). A basic understanding of variation would help put people’s minds at ease and better help us make corrections.

Scrum is a recipe. I know proponents call scrum a framework, but its treated as a bolt on remedy. A silver bullet. Or, as Deming would call it, instant pudding. As a result, the company becomes overly focused on implementing the framework (process, whatever) instead of how their current system operates and how it can be improved.

For those who are familiar with Deming, what else do you notice about Scrum teams?


Drive_The_Surprising_Truth_About_What_Motivates_Us_1-sixhundredDrive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink

Recommended for: Any new manager, anyone who wants to learn the best way to get the best out of your people.

This one has been on the top of my reading list for quite awhile. It keeps coming up on podcasts I listen to (Mark Graban and This Agile Life).

The premise of the book is that when it comes to motivating people, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. If we want to strengthen our companies, elevate our lives, and improve the world we need to close this gap. Our current model for business is to use sticks and carrots to motivate, but these don’t work and can cause harm. Science shows the way to upgrade. Pink sites three essential elements: 1. Autonomy- the desire to direct our own lives. 2. Mastery- the urge to get better and better at something that matters. 3. Purpose- the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Here’s my top 21 takeaways:

  1. Workers were once approached like parts in a complicated machine. If they did the work in the right way at the right time, the machine would function smoothly. To ensure it continued, you rewarded the behavior you sought and punished the behavior you discouraged.
  2. Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self determined and connected to one another. When that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.
  3. Rewards (carrots) can deliver a short term boost, like a jolt of caffeine, but the effect wears off and can reduce a person’s long term motivation to continue the project.
  4. Some advocates say that extrinsic motivation is all evil, but Pink says this isn’t true. What’s true, he says, is that mixing rewards with inherently interesting, creative, or noble tasks—without understanding the science of motivation—is a very dangerous game. He created this flow chart to help you determine when to use rewards:rewards-simple-flow-chart
  5. Goals that people set for themselves and are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy. Goals imposed by others—sales targets, quarterly returns, standardized test scores– can have dangerous side effects.
  6. All goals are not created equal. Goals and extrinsic rewards aren’t inherently corrupting, but goals are more toxic than traditional management thinks.
  7. Carrots can cause addiction. Rewards and trophies can provide a delicious jolt, but the feeling soon dissipates and to keep it alive the recipient requires even larger doses and more frequent doses (scary!).
  8. Ensure that the baseline rewards—wages, salaries, benefits are adequate. Without a healthy baseline, motivation of any sort is difficult and often impossible.
  9. Any extrinsic reward should be offered after the task is completed. If you offer the reward before hand, people will focus on the reward instead of the task. In other words, shift from “if-then” rewards to “now that” rewards. HOWEVER, repeated “now that” bonuses can become “if-then” entitlements which can crater effective performances.
  10. Intrinsically motivated people usually achieve more than their reward seeking counterparts in the long run. Its not true for the short term, though. However, continuing to get short term results is difficult to sustain.
  11. We forget that management does not emanate from nature. Its not like a river or a tree. Its like a tree or a bicycle. Its something humans invented.
  12. Good change agent strategy– If you want to work with more progressive management-style people the best strategy is to become one yourself. It becomes contagious.
  13. Transitioning to autonomy won’t or can’t happen in one fell swoop. Plucking people out of controlling environments and plopping them into autonomous ones will cause the people to struggle. Organizations must provide scaffolding.
  14. The highest most satisfying experiences in people’s lives is when they are in the state of Flow (Its a fascinating concept if you haven’t heard of it before. Take a look!!).
  15. One source of frustration in the workplace is the frequent mismatch between what people must do and what people can do. When what they must do exceeds their capabilities, the result is anxiety. When what they must do falls short of their capabilities, the result is boredom.
  16. A challenge must not be too hard nor too easy in order for a person to achieve flow. Pink calls these Goldilock tasks (not too hot not too cold).
  17. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who coined the term Flow and who studies it, conducted an experiment that deprived people of Flow. The subjects experienced what is called general anxiety disorder in the medical field. People become sluggish, they complained of headaches, many complained of difficulty concentrating, some got sleepy, others were too agitated to sleep. Csikszentmihalyi said that just after two days, people’s mood became so deteriorated it became inadvisable to continue with the experiment. Conclusion—flow is a necessity. We need it to survive. (I found this fascinating!)
  18. Csikszentmihalyi discovered we are more likely to experience flow during work than during leisure.
  19. “One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to somethin greater and more permanent than oneself.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  20. Great people have one sentence that describes their purpose (ex. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and kept the Union intact.”). Orient your life toward a greater purpose by summarizing it in one sentence. So ask: “What’s your sentence?”
  21. Ask yourself each night before you go to bed, “Was I better than yesterday?”

At the end of the book, Pink lists essential reading to learn more, highlights management thinkers who get it (oddly, Deming wasn’t listed—he would have been all over this book), provides a glossary for new terminology, and gives suggestions on how to improve motivation in organizations and personal lives (exercising and motivating kids!).

Pink also gives questions for people to discuss among themselves. I’d be curious to have a traditional manager read this book and see what they think. I can’t help but hear them saying already, “Yes, but . . .”

I think this is a must-have book for any leader or manager. As a matter of fact, if I were to recommend just one book for a manager to read, I believe this would be the one. Its powerful.

You can buy the book here.


GritGrit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
by Angela Duckworth
Recommended for: improvement agents, systems thinkers (as a counter to their beliefs), parents, the education community, people wanting to reach their life goals.

I’ve seen this books floating around the educational circles. Its part of the growth mindset movement in our schools. The book’s premise is that our ability to be gritty (i.e. being able to relentlessly pursue an objective) is what will determine our ability to succeed in life and lays out strategies on how to get more grit.

The book and Duckworth’s ideas have been criticized by systems-thinkers who believe that most of our problems are systems/culture/environment related and praised by those who believe that we need to become better individuals in order to become successful.

Here’s my top 25 takeaways:

  1. Americans endorse hardworking over intelligence by five times when asked about hiring a new employee. However, in practice, we have a tendency to favor “naturals.” (I have personally seen this. We want people who ‘just get it.’)
  1. There’s a grit test in the book. I scored in the 60% which, according to the survey, means I’m grittier than 60% of the population. Should I put this on my resume? Heh.
  1. Grit is about working on something you care about so much your willing to stay loyal to it. Its not about just falling in love, but staying in love.
  1. “Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.” Good quote.
  1. She suggests envisioning your goals in a hierarchy. The top level goal (your life philosophy) is supported by mid-level goals which are supported by low level goals. The lower level goals change in order to meet the higher level goals. Top level goals are written in ink. Lower level goals are written in pencil.
  1. You might have to do things in your lower level goals that you don’t want to do in order to reach your higher level goals.
  1. Grit is about holding the same top level goal for a very long time. This is your life philosophy and is so powerful that it organizes a great deal of your waking activity.
  1. Positive fantasizing is when you have a high level goal, but no lower level goals to reach it. You live with the short term great feelings about your goal, but in the long term, you live with disappointment of not having achieved the goal. This is common.
  1. Grit, just like other character attributes like honesty and generosity are genetically influenced, but also experience influenced.
  1. She had a chart that showed the older you are, the grittier you are. It was quite pronounced. Two ways to interpret this—the older generation grew up in a time when grit was more important (i.e. they just worked harder as they’ve always claimed) or we become more grittier as we get older.
  1. For some, purpose dawns early, for others, it takes many years of refinement. (I fall into this camp. I’m definitely a late bloomer).
  1. For the beginner, novelty is anything they haven’t encountered before. For the expert, novelty is nuance.
  1. “Some people get twenty years of experience, others get one year of experience twenty times in a row.” Another great quote.
  1. Grit paragons exude kaizen. There aren’t any exceptions. (Glad to hear this).
  1. This is how experts practice (called deliberate practice)—they create a stretch goal. They are very specific on what they want to do. Instead of practicing what they do well, they strive to improve weakness. They then give the goal great effort and undivided attention. Experts typically practice when no one is watching. Experts hungrily ask for feedback on how they are doing. They are more interested in what they are doing wrong rather than what they are doing right.
  1. Experts say they do the practice that they don’t like so they can better enjoy what they love.
  1. Doing crazy hours of practice is not the same as deliberate practice. There’s a story of the Japanese Rowing team inviting Mads Rassmusen (Danish rower and double World Champion and Olympic Gold winner) to visit them. He was shocked at how many hours they were putting in. Its not hours of brute force exhaustion you are going after he told them. Its high quality training goals pursued for just a few hours of the day.
  1. Infants and toddlers don’t seem to be bothered when they can’t get something right. They practice it over and over again until they do. What happens? It seems to be that once they get older, they realize their mistakes cause a reaction in some grownups. We frown. Our cheeks puff out. We point out that they are doing something wrong. What does this teach them? Embarrassment. Shame. Fear. Between coaches and parents, they’ve learned that failing is bad. After awhile, they aren’t willing to stick their necks out and give their best effort.
  1. Paragons of grit all believe their hard work and struggles are worth it because somehow they see it helping other people.
  1. Don’t say setbacks aren’t discouraging. That’s not realistic. Of course they are discouraging. Instead believe that setbacks don’t discourage you for long. Always get back on your feet.
  1. You don’t need to be a parent to make a difference in someone’s life. If you care about them and get to know what’s going on, you can make an impact. Try to understand whats going on in their life and help them through that.
  1. Learned industriousness—the idea that hard work and reward can be learned. Without experiencing the connection between reward and effort, animals, including people default to laziness. Calorie burning efforts is, after all, something that evolution has shaped us to avoid whenever possible. Psychologist Robert Eisenberger at the University of Houston has done research on this (this sounds like evidence for X style management).
  1. If you want to be grittier, find a gritty culture and join it. If you’re a leader, and you want the people in your organization to be grittier, create a gritty culture. (aha! So there is systems-thinking in this book!)
  1. It seems the hard way to get grit is to learn it yourself. The easy way is to use conformity—the basic human drive to fit in—because if you are around people who are gritty. You’re going to act grittier.
  1. Culture has the power to shape our identity. Over time and under the right circumstances the norms and values of the group to which we belong become our own.

Duckworth admits there needs to be inquiry into exploring the possible downsides of grit. For example, she admits there is a danger in sticking with something for too long. What is the cost of the pursuit? Our family? Relationships? Health? Money? Time? Duckworth says that people with grit are often described as obsessive. When does this go too far?

Overall, I found this book inspiring and I often find myself thinking on what Duckworth has to say, particularly on how we go about setting and accomplishing our goals.

As noted, her ideas and research seem to run, at first glance, counter to systems-thinking. Her thesis is that we need to strengthen the individual in order to get ahead. However, she also argues that gritty culture creates gritty individuals, which is a systems idea.

After reading this book, I’m thinking we need both. For us systems-thinkers, we need grit when our influence is low, because we are unable to improve the system, but when our influence becomes greater, we have the responsibility to improve the system (Deming often remarked that our system is destroying the rugged individual—we need to fix this).

My concern, though, is that within our dualistic culture, we will concentrate on one or the other and because we are an individualistic society, we will focus more on the individual. This book may be giving those with this mindset too much ammunition. Perhaps this is why, Alfie Kohn, who I admire a lot, has been highly critical of Duckworth’s work. His argument against it can be found here.

The book can be bought here.

How to Get Better Results in our Projects

business-graph-resultsIts all about getting better results.”

Its so common of a saying its become cliché. As a project manager, we are tasked with getting a good result for our companies. However, I can’t help but wonder if we are steering into some dangerous waters by repeating it.

What does this phrase mean exactly? It almost seems kind of a dumb thing to say. I mean, who doesn’t want a better result?

Martin Yates in Knock Em Dead: The Ultimate Job Search said “the committed professional is willing to do whatever it takes to get a job done, whenever and for however long is necessary . . .”

This is also my interpretation of the results statement: the phrase appears to be referring to our commitment/dedication/perseverance. Its throwing down a challenge to our personal strength of will and willingness to make personal sacrifices.

Its not surprising really. In our culture, individual perseverance is a highly sought after character trait, so why wouldn’t our employers be looking for it?

This is how my mind processes the statement:

‘You will have to make a lot of personal sacrifices on your project. You must be willing to work lots of evenings. You must be willing to work weekends and holidays. You must be willing to become out of touch with your family and friends. You must be willing to lose sleep. You must be willing to put your health at risk. You must be willing to push your team to the brink of exhaustion, but you will need to push them harder and keep their morale up in order to reach the objective. Further, you are expected to a have a good attitude about it all. If you aren’t willing to do all this, you are not a good worker and will be fired.’

Some may just tell us this is just the way things are, but for me, this makes my skin crawl.

This statement appears to be reinforcing the need for individual contributions instead of the whole organization committing to continuous improvement. Its reinforcing our reliance on heroes and breeding asshole management. Its also reinforcing short term thinking vs. long term thinking.

Personal perseverance is a noble quality we should all aspire to have and will definitely help get us better results, however, it is only a part of the formula for success and oversimplifies how we get there.

Deming regularly warned about management by objective or management by results (MBO or MBR). I think this statement is hovering dangerously close to what he was talking about.

Too often when we chase objectives, we end up making things worse for ourselves or our organizations. Everything we want has a cost applied to it. When we just count on perseverance to get a result, which of the below are we willing to pay to achieve it?

  • Do something illegal? (Wells Fargo and the US women’s gymnastics team both counted on MBO and look what it’s done to them).
  • Do something unethical?
  • Sacrifice our values and principles?
  • Sacrifice our relationships (friends? family?)
  • Sacrifice our health?
  • Introduce more bureaucracy or overhead?
  • Kick the can down the road so someone else can take care of it later?
  • Introduce more problems?
  • Create a more complex/confusing system?
  • Decrease team morale and/or trust?
  • Alienate another department, a partner, supplier, vendor, or (shudder) our customer?

I believe we need to add wisdom and discipline to the formula of success. How about making these payments to get a better result instead:

  • Improve the overall system so better results become common.
  • Actively engage your teams and people so they can find joy and pride in their work and increase productivity and creativity.
  • Discover and fix the root cause issues so future projects and programs will have better success.
  • Do it right the first time (even if this means adding more time, resources or money).
  • Create a culture that is obsessed with quality and learning so the organization gets better and better.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
  • Be disciplined and focused and never rest on your laurels.

I realize that as project managers, we may see the above as many times outside our area of influence. We can instill most of these principles in our own teams, however, and if these principles become part of our DNA, we will be able to influence more people as our influence and/or authority grows. Also, I believe we have the obligation to influence others outside our areas to adopt the mentality that we can’t go about doing business as usual. Its a tough road to take, but for the sake of ourselves, our colleagues, our organization, and the world in general, we need to be agents for improvement. It will also greatly increase the likelihood that our projects will succeed, which we all want to see.

Perhaps we need to rephrase the results statement going forward. Instead of saying “its about getting better results,” we really need to be asking ourselves “what can we do to get a better result?”

What are your thoughts? Am I off in my thinking?


The World is FlatThe World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century by Thomas L. Friedman.

Recommended for: Anyone who has a job! Students about to enter the real world, parents.

Thomas Friedman is the New York Times‘s Foreign Affairs columnist and the recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes. He travels the globe extensively to get a better understanding of his work. The World is Flat, which explores globalization was #1 New York Times bestseller and received the inaugural Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award in November 2005. I’d heard a lot about this book over the last year or so and was glad to finally get a chance to read it.

Friedman said the purpose of the book is to create a framework to maximize and manage globalization to our benefit. Many of us are uneasy about the ‘flattening’ of the world (some of his stories certainly scared the bejezus out of me). Friedman says its natural. He says it happens every time we have a technological revolution. The difference this time is its happening a lot faster.

This was another book that was tough to narrow down to my favorite parts. Friedman had fascinating examples of outsourcing, the reasons why the world globalized, how India became our tech center, and the dangers of oil dependencies.

After a lot of work, I narrowed it down to 25 points:

The Scary Stuff

  • He didn’t use these exact words, but Friedman makes no bones that what can be outsourced will be outsourced.
  • Venture firms want new companies to become profitable quickly so they can then sell them, also, they want to make sure companies are hiring the brightest– this leads to outsourcing.
  • The average wage of a high skills mechanist in America is $3,000-$4,000 a month. The average for China is $150.
  • The problem is not just that outsourced companies will work for less, that will work more hours, they don’t take the same amount of holidays or days off. Other countries’ employees will work 15-18 hour days and come in on the weekends. They are doing this because they have a dream to work at Microsoft.
  • Other countries do not want to work for us or be us, they want to dominate us. They want to be the ones creating the companies of the future. They are not content on where they are.

Why Are We Struggling?

  • We are a leisure-time society. In China, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In the U.S., Britney Spears is Britney Spears.
  • Our culture needs to better prize education. Immigrants’ children inhabit the top ranks of math and science. Our kids aren’t interested in it. China and India have a long tradition of parents telling their children that the greatest thing they can be in life is an engineer or a doctor. (My wife pointed out that this is actually not prizing education as much as it is prizing an occupation. We still need firefighters, teachers, public servants, etc.).

The Upside

  • This has happened before. It happened when we connected New York to California by rail. It happened when we connected America to Western Europe and Japan. It happened again when we connected America, Europe, Japan, to India, and China. We will get through it and get better because of it.
  • One reason people fear globalization is because they believe that there are only so many jobs to go around and we are losing them. This is wrong headed. The pie is not a fixed amount. As these jobs are sent overseas, people have more of an income to spend, and it creates a larger pie.
  • It is easy to demonize free markets and the freedom to outsource and offshore because it is so much easier to see people being laid off than being hired.
  • In the end, everyone is going to benefit, there will always be fear, but the fear is good, because it stimulates a willingness to change and explore and find things to do better.
  • America still has huge advantages– we have innovative businesses, good universities, labs, retailers, and the best regulated and most efficient capital markets in the world for taking ideas and turning them into products and services. We are the best country for taking a risk on an idea. We also have an advantage with intellectual property protection, the most flexible labor laws, the world’s largest domestic consumer market, the most first adopters (if you starting something new—you better have a presence in America). We also have had political stability. Finally, we are a great place for different types of people to come together and meet. China, India, and other countries will not be successful until they have successful capital markets and they won’t have these until they have rule of law that protects minority interests under conditions of risk.

What to do

  • As the world flattens and new ways to collaborate are made available to more people, those who will succeed will be those who learn the habits, processes, and skills the quickest (there is no guarantee that this will be America).
  • You have to constantly upgrade your skills. There will be plenty of good jobs out there in the flat world for people with knowledge and ideas to seize them.
  • People need to become less specialty tools and become more Swiss army knives.
  • The most important attribute you can have is creative imagination—the ability to be the first on your block to figure out how all these enabling tools can be put together in new and exciting ways to create products, communities, opportunities, and profits.

Change Management

  • Management, shareholders, and investors don’t really care where the profits come from, but they do care about sustainability.
  • “Transformation begins with a sense of crisis or urgency. No institution will go through fundamental change unless it believes it is in deep trouble and needs to do something different to survive.” Lou Gestner.
  • Sometimes the best strategy is to get the big players to the right things for the wrong reasons because waiting for them to do the right thing for the right reason can mean waiting forever.
  • When it comes to economic activities, one of the greatest virtues a country or community can have is a culture of tolerance.
  • Trust is essential in a flat world—you have up to a thousand people involved in a company and who have never met before.

Respect for People

  • Friedman believes terrorism is spawned by the poverty of dignity, not money. Terrorists often talk about being humiliated. He said humiliation is the most underestimated force in international relations and in human relations.
  • Ali Salem, an Egyptian playwright said terrorists are “walking the streets of life, searching for tall buildings—for towers to bring down, because they are not able to be tall like them.”
  • People do not change only when they must. They change when they see that others like themselves have changed and flourished.


  • He used to say that no two countries that had a McDonalds had ever gone to war with each other. He calls is the Golden Arches theory of Conflict Prevention. He now has the Dell Theory– no two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain. It would bring both countries to their knees and wouldn’t be worth it.

The book isn’t without its critics. Many have argued the world is not as flat as Friedman is making out. I tried a couple of things he said we can do now (such as finding the address of someone just by Googling their phone number and looking up people on the internet to find out more about them—no dice). Still, I think we can all agree that we are heading in that direction, though, and we need to get a jump on it. This book certainly gave me a wake up call, increased my awareness for what the world has become, helped me better plan what I can do to do a better job in it, and what I can do to help others be prepared (such as my kids.)

The book can be bought here.

Obstacle to Visual Management- Aesthetics

When I first saw people using post-its to track their progress on a wall, I thought the idea ignorant or naïve. Come on, I thought. We live in the 21st century. Are we not aware of task tracking applications? Have we really reverted to pieces of paper stuck to the wall? It looks like children are running the place!

I’ve run into this attitude quite a few times since I’ve become a believer in the power of visual management. I sometimes forget I had this attitude at one time.

I’ve often been asked why I just don’t use Excel instead of using a board. One guy yelled across the room at me, “You’ve made a mess!” When consultants for our software department suggested a team use Kanban, management met them with a solid, “No. It doesn’t look professional.” (I guess they thought the same thing about my wall!).


This is the view of my old Kanban wall from across the floor. Does it look unprofessional?

I once had a part time job at a cafe at a local museum. The cafe just opened and leadership was very proud of it. It was built in an old WWII jeep garage and had brand new granite counters, rustic sheet metal facing, and exhibits on life during WWII. The museum had great plans for it. My first morning, another employee and I were looking all through the cabinets for coffee and other items. We just couldn’t find anything. There were over 50 drawers and cabinets in the cafe—all white.


After several attempts of rummaging through drawers and cabinets trying to find things, I decided to put labels on them. Something simple and temporary— the top of post it notes. I had a feeling management wouldn’t approve, but hey—it was helping me with my job! At the least, I could show a proof of concept and it could be easily taken down if not approved.


Sure enough, a manager came in and asked who put up the labels. I said I did. I was told to remove them. I explained it was difficult to find anything. I was told I would soon memorize where things were. Further, I was told it was important that the cafe look nice for visitors (and labels look bad). He related a story on how the last cafe manager had put labels all over the cabinets and it didn’t look good. I asked why he thought the last manager did that. He said she was trying to organize things (but he didn’t like the way it looked). I asked if we could perhaps create labels with WWII style fonts. He said no. At that point, I decided I couldn’t win and because I had just started and didn’t want to get the reputation for being difficult, I removed the labels.

In retrospect, I may have had a better chance of convincing him if I had gotten others to come along with the idea (though I doubt it. Another employee told me they didn’t offer ideas because they wouldn’t be adopted. They just did what they were told to do).

Regardless, between these two jobs, I have greatly underestimated how some will value aesthetics over efficiency. I’m not sure how one bridges this gap, especially when one doesn’t have any position of power and has little influence. For me, I made the transition when someone asked me to make a Kanban board for the team. Once I did it, I was hooked and haven’t looked back. But how does one get someone to even try?

What obstacles have you encountered in trying to get an organization to adopt visual management? Has anyone brought up the issue of aesthetics?