Tag Archives: Matthew E. May

A Reflection on Culture

varanasiThrough the books I’ve recently read I’ve come to see culture as an output, a result or an emergent property of a system. Furthermore, just like all outputs, it cannot be managed directly, as Matthew E. May points out in his post “To Change A Culture, Change The System.” The only way to manage outputs is to change the inputs to the system and/or change the system.

I’ve come to believe that we’re wired to focus on outputs and sort good from bad. And, why not? For most of our evolution we’ve never had any control of our environment. We’ve been a part of the system. In that context it’s perfectly natural for us to comment on culture and sort it into good or bad. However, just as you can’t inspect quality into a product as Harold S. Dodge pointed out, you can’t improve culture by calling out its positive or negative attributes.

In the case of the modern organization, perhaps you can select the type of people to minimize cultural diversity. (Cultural diversity here refers to mindset, drive, focus, etc.) But in my experience, with the way that process (i.e. interviews) works right now, it amounts to shots in the dark. Better to setup a system that is robust to the variation in its human resource to yield a cohesive culture.

System design requires designers (leaders) who have a vision for the system. They must understand the context for their system and then design their system to produce the desired result. These are all skills that can be learned, but so few bother. It’s hard work. There’s no instant pudding. But who’s got the time?

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Pursuit of Perfection

I came across “The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation” by Matthew E. May while scanning the business section at a Half Price Books store. I picked it up because the price was right, to be honest. It sat in a stack at home for months before I came across it again. I had just finished reading Daniel H. Pink’s “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” and was pondering about creativity & innovation. So, it made sense to read on the approach Toyota took. I regret not reading it sooner.

May dispels the myth that innovation happens in flashes of brilliance within a select group of people possessing an aptitude for creativity. He presents the system Toyota has in place wherein innovation and creativity are the domain of every person. Everybody is inherently creative and we would do well tap into this vast resource. But before you roll your eyes, May gives a reality check and points out that the net impact of your innovation is relative to your base of responsibility, power and control. This grows the higher you move in the organization.

In the book he reveals the three principles that fuel the engine of innovation at Toyota even today: Ingenuity in craft, Pursuit of perfection, and Fit with society. He details 10 key practices – the toolbox – that make these principles operational: Let learning lead; Learn to see; Design for today; Think in pictures; Capture the intangible; Leverage the limits; Master the tension; Run the numbers; Make Kaizen mandatory, and Keep it lean. And, he demonstrates how these principles and practices come together with various examples & anecdotes that go beyond Toyota or even the automotive industry to addressing social problems.

May takes great pains to pepper the book with quotes from figures across the spectrum of human endeavors to show that Toyota or the East didn’t invent these concepts. But, Toyota’s innovative & disciplined use of them has made it “a double threat: the world’s finest manufacturer and a truly great innovator…”

The writing is very reader friendly. I was devouring the book with speed. The structure of the book reinforces the problem solving approach. Each chapter on the 10 practices defines the Problem, identifies the Cause and presents the Solution. Each chapter ends with a section for self-reflection (Hansei): questions that I am using to exercise my brain daily. I would recommend that everyone, not just professionals, read “The Elegant Solution” at least once.