Archives: October 2006

Efficient Toast

There is an interesting article in this month's Harvard Business Review called "Breaking the Trade-off Between Efficiency and Service." The basic idea is that service businesses, unlike manufacturers, have the unfortunate challenge that customers come barging in and interfere with their operations, introducing significant variability. Most businesses think they face a black and white choice:—accommodate the variability, or reduce it. The author, Frances Frei, says there are better ways to address this challenge.

While reading this article, I came face to face with this problem as I tried to order toast.


An Old Debate, Revisited

I recently read Marcus Buckingham's Now, Discover Your Strengths. I bought in to the idea that tapping into and developing an individual's innate talents is the way to go. He argues that training is ineffective if someone does not have a natural propensity to learn what it is you are trying to teach. However, someone could have an unrealized talent that, once discovered, can be developed through knowledge, education, and experience.

Well, if you've read the recent Fortune magazine (October 30, 2006) cover story, "What It Takes to Be Great," you know that recent research shows that "the lack of natural talent is irrelevant to great success." It all comes down to "practice and hard work."

On which side of this debate do you stand?

Mindless Business

Recently, Tom told us about an upcoming book, Mindless Eating, by Brian Wansink. The book is now out, and it's very interesting. Key themes—The amount we eat is usually not determined by how full we are, but by how much food is put in front of us. And, we usually underestimate how much we've eaten. (I highly recommend the book. The stale popcorn story at the beginning is worth the price of admission.)

Can't help but relate this to business—How often do people, out of inertia, keep working on the thing that's in front of them, without questioning whether it's worth continuing? And, would they then underestimate the amount of time that's been sucked up by a stale project?

Leapfrog Measures Safety

You have to be intrigued by a group that calls themselves "Leapfrog!" The Leapfrog Group is an organization that focuses on promoting health care quality and safety. They have created an assessment to determine the safety readiness of hospitals across the country. According to a recent press release, "Fifty-nine U.S. hospitals have been named to the first Leapfrog Top Hospitals list, based on ... results from the Leapfrog Hospital Quality and Safety Survey, a national rating system that offers a broad assessment of a hospital's quality and safety. The survey results from over 1,200 hospitals ... reveal significant findings ..."

Part of the survey has revealed that 9 out of 10 hospitals have implemented procedures to avoid wrong site surgeries. In our language, that means they assure operating on the right part of the body! Hmmm, do you wonder what the rest of the hospitals are doing?

The Leapfrog Group publishes and updates hospital data regularly, and it can be viewed by consumers at no charge on their website,

See if your hospital has made the top fifty-nine list: Leapfrog_Top_Hospitals_2006_list.pdf

Comments Housekeeping

To cut down on spam attacks we have a limit on the number of links you can include in a comment. And that limit is one. So if you've tried to include more than one link in a comment it goes into comment purgatory. From which we can save it if we find it. But the better alternative is to just limit your links to one and then your comments won't get held up. Thanks for your understanding.

Cool Friend: Pipher

A clinical psychologist with a background in anthropology, Mary Pipher has written seven books, including three New York Times bestsellers: Reviving Ophelia, The Shelter of Each Other, and Another Country. In her Cool Friends interview, we discuss her latest, Writing to Change the World. Upon reading the book, Tom had this to say:

Call me hopelessly naive, but I believe there is no excuse for any variety of "business writing" that should be crafted any less carefully or aim any less high than a great novel or great inaugural address. After all, we do aim—day in and day out—to change the world via our human collectivities called enterprises. Right?

You can read Mary Pipher's Cool Friends interview here.

Thirty Years. 1976-2006. Sell. Sell. Sell.

La Scala Opera House

I'm a Robert Louis Stevenson kinda guy: "Everyone lives by selling something." I've been a traveling idea salesman for 30 years, since the foreshadowing of the Peters-Waterman "excellence thing" at McKinsey/San Francisco in 1976. That's a lot of miles. But Zig Ziglar would approve: I love the "product." I am compelled to sell. (I'm in Milano on a sales call as I write—at 4 a.m.) A lot of miles ... because I think these ideas matter. They represent a more liberating way to work-live than is the norm. And they are the most likely path-to-profit. To figure out why I'm still on the road, 10 days before my 64th birthday, I made a list, in no particular order, of the "products" in my salesman's bag:

* "Hard is soft. Soft is hard." Social stuff, Emotional stuff = Good stuff.
* Mess = Normal = Reality. Rationality = Delusional. Non-linearity = Life 101. (Design accordingly!)
* Failure = Normal = Good. ("Reward excellent failure. Punish mediocre success." "Fail faster. Succeed sooner." "Fail. Forward. Fast.")
* If "they" agree with you—then you're on the wrong path.
* Do > Think. Act > Talk. Action bias!! EXPERIMENT!! R.F.A./Ready. Fire. Aim.
* Decentralization = Holy writ = More independent tries.
* Implementation-Execution-the "Missing 98%."
* Strategic planning, limits thereto. Severe.
* Pitiful performance of Huge Companies. Need C.D.O./Chief Destruction Officer.
* Severe limits to scale advantage. Mega-mergers = Bad = Stupid.
* "Built to last." Why??? Instead: Built to change the world.
* People first! People Power!
* Best "roster" wins! HR (should) rule!
* Aesthetics! Beauty! Grace! (Design primacy.)
* MBWA!!!!!!! (Managing By Wandering Around.)
* Don't over-complicate. (MBWA, Product, People, Action ...)
* Educate for Risk-taking, Creativity, Independence.
* B.Schools suck. Teach all ... except what's important. D.School = Cool.
* Healthcare's Big Three: Quality. Prevention. Wellness.
* R > C. (Adding Revenue > Cutting cost.) C.R.O./Chief Revenue Officer. Sell! Sell! Sell!
* Free markets work! Free trade works! Rise of India-China = Good thing. Fight back with Excellent Performance: Add "insane" amounts of value! Become a "Lovemark"!!
* Brand You. Self-reliance!! Mastery!! Liberation!!
* Survival = PSF/Professional Service Firm "mindset." Goal #1: Enable clients to become successful beyond their dreams!
* Fun! ("Cool" is Cool.)
* Service-obsessed!/Experience-obsessed! (Object: "Raving fans.")
* Passion-Exuberance-Enthusiasm. "Hot" Language! WOW! Insanely great!
* The "right thing" is the profitable thing.

(La Scala above: What else?!)

Event: Milan

Flower Stall in Milano

HSM's World Business Forum is in Milan today, and Tom sent us the flower stall picture to complement his photo of La Scala above. Nice. If you would like to download the slides, you can do so here:
HSM World Business Forum, Milan, Italy

Henry Mintzberg Is Crazy

That's what the Frankfurt journalist said. (Okay, more or less.) A radical. On the fringe. I know Henry Mintzberg. And he is not crazy. Michael Porter? The late Peter Drucker? They're my candidates for crazy.

I agree with Henry Mintzberg almost 100% of the time. Did in 1970. Do so today. The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning is probably my favorite management book of the last 25 years. (I've offered up other "bests" over the years—but Rise and Fall has influenced me personally more than any other.)

I read Peter Drucker's The Effective Executive while a U.S. Navy lieutenant in the Pentagon in 1968. I liked it. In a madcap environment, his idea of setting aside an uninterrupted hour a day for planning seemed a great idea. Twenty-eight years later it still seems like a good idea—maybe someday (I'm only 63) I'll get that hour.

In the meantime my life wanders on, chopped up and ...

Chopped up and ... decidedly non-linear. You see, Henry Mintzberg and I are avowed "non-linearists," purveyors of the idea that managing (or, even more so, "leading") is a non-linear affair. I'm not sure of HM's mentors, but I am a direct descendent of Herbert Simon, the only management academic to bag a Nobel Prize. (Economics, 1978.) Simon coined the word "satisficing." He said managers behaved, under the pressure and force of reality, in a non-rational, non-linear, best-they-can, on-the-run fashion. Simon often collaborated with James March, an emeritus Stanford professor—and one of my mentors. March, my great colleague Gene Webb, and Karl Weick were my teachers of the non-linear way called reality. It's no coincidence that the first book Jim March assigned in the first class I took from him was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In general, good fiction is a better descriptor of organizational life than most non-fiction. I was reading only yesterday about David Cornwell (aka John Le Carré); the author compared Cornwell's and George Smiley's messy realism with the linear (good is immediately distinguishable from evil, etc.) world of Ian Fleming and James Bond.

Michael Porter's world is Bond's world, in a way. Think logically, develop a plan ... and succeed. My world (and Herb Simon's) is about doing the best you can in the midst of near chaos and madness—and hoping things work out in a mostly satisfactory fashion. (Looking at the shabby performance of the lion's share of mammoth companies, such a "satisfactory" rarely sustains. Dirty reality intervenes.)

The point of all this, relative to the German reporter's comment about Mintzberg, and implication about me, is that we are not "nutters." We come from a clear academic lineage—and are simply recent manifestations thereof. We both have contempt for the rationalists among us. (Mintzberg, amazingly, may be a more vociferous critic of Biz Schools than I am.) Our "advice," such as it is, comes from the premise of the ineluctable mess with which we (and our institutions) are permanently surrounded.

"We are in a brawl with no rules," according to former Xerox chief Paul Allaire. To which I say there is but one answer ... S.A.V. (Obviously: Screw Around Vigorously.) The deep philosophy behind this flippant phrase: To deal with a mess and to remove a little of the surrounding ambiguity demands acting, not talking—so one can see how the messy world reacts to your experiment.

To make a convincing argument would take 500 thousand words. Ah, through 15 books and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of columns and articles and Posts I have tried to do just that—describe messy reality and offer a few practical suggestions for dealing with it. In the meantime, you'll find, naturally, a PowerPoint attached: "The (Necessary) War on Linearity: One Engineer's (Unusual) Life's Work." The principal "chapter" thereof is titled, what else, "Think vs. Do." (I'm also including a PPT that is a condensed version of the "Think vs. Do" chapter.) The last "chapter" is titled "Worth the Hassle." It summarizes the areas that have interested me, and in which I've tried to be helpful, over the last three decades or so. There it is, my non-linear life. A far cry from my Civil Engineering roots. Damned reality, anyway.

"We are now allowed"

I was conducting a workshop yesterday with hotel industry salespeople. We were discussing how to have meaningful encounters with customers, and had arrived at a section of the workshop that focused on getting beyond the facade of business roles ("salesperson" and "customer") to see each other as unique, special people.

One participant commented: "We are now allowed to talk about things beyond business, to ask about our customers' personal lives, so we can get to know them as people."

I loved how she articulated that. Her belief—which I share—is that we have arrived at a point in time where genuine human encounter in business is more valued than ever. It is accepted and expected to go beyond the strict bounds of business to create meaningful business relationships.

And, of course, this means that it is not only appropriate to seek to know a customer as a real person, it is important for the person who is selling to reveal his or her humanity. Salespeople playing the role of salespeople is out. Salespeople being themselves is in.