Monday, February 19, 2018

Your Pain is Your Genius

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

The Obstacle is the Way - Epictetus

I quote one of my heroes, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Ryan Holiday also turned the phrase into a fine book [ LINK ]

What’s it mean in the context of management and leadership?

In Strategy one of our most important tasks is identifying ‘where the shoe pinches’. Imagine we’re a hospital and our biggest problem is Patient Harm. Do we have the courage and humility to talk it openly?

“Folks, we have a big problem…” Can we analyse our mis-medications, infections, and medical errors openly? Can we look at historical trends, compare ourselves to other hospitals and other industries, and produce Pareto charts by type of harm, care line, procedure, time, location and the like?

Or imagine we’re a provider of on-line streaming and our biggest problem is Downtime. Can we talk it openly? Can we analyze incidents, quality rate, overall equipment effectiveness, Mean-Time-To-Repair, Mean-Time-Between-Failure and the like?

Can we also look at historical trends and compare our performance to that of industry leaders like Netflix? Can we break our incidents down and produce Pareto charts by type of outage, service, channel, type of equipment, location and the like?

The obstacle is the way – for the hospital and for the on-line streaming provider. Finding where the shoe pinches, and fixing it, is the path to excellence. To be sure, Design is also central. We have to connect with our patients or customers and understand their needs and journeys.

But there too, the obstacle is the way. Understanding the patient or customer journey entails understanding the ‘pain points’, and designing them out. (And if you get really good, designing in delightful moments, but that’s a topic for another blog.)

As an aside, football fans will recognize this principle in the great teams & coaches. The great Alabama Crimson Tide coach, Nick Saban, invariably talks about it in interviews. (Same is true for New England Patriot’s coach Bill Belichick, though some believe he is nefarious =)

All this takes courage & humility, of course, qualities that have always been rare. (Otherwise, would we talk about them so much?)

Much of my personal practice entails coaches senior executives and Boards. Job One is often dispelling the ‘Everything is Just Great’ syndrome.

But that too, is a topic for another blog.

Be strong, be honest and remember that your pain is your genius.

Best regards,


Monday, February 5, 2018

Strategy and the Worlds of Thought & Experience

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

Strategy, like all problem solving, entails moving fluidly between the worlds of Thought & Experience.

We begin by trying to understand our core problem in the world of thought. We reflect on core strategic questions such as:

  • What happened last year, and why?
  • What worked, what did not work, and why?
  • What do our customers expect of us?
  • What do we need to achieve this year?
  • What are our biggest obstacles?
  • What’s changed in our environment?
  • How capable is our team & our processes?

We use analytical tools like the ‘Q7’ and ‘New 7’ Quality Tools to begin to dispel the fog. Based on our understanding of our customers, organization, industry, technology etc. we begin form hypotheses around the core questions. (A professor pal tells me this is called ‘deductive reasoning’.)

Now we’re ready to ‘go see’ the world of experience. We want to sample as much of this world as we can. In a large organization, we should visit as many sites as possible. Stand in a circle if you can, as Taiichi Ohno suggest, until you see what’s actually happening. Then go somewhere else and do the same. It’s akin to crossing a river by jumping stone to stone, lingering a while at each. The more we sample, the more likely we are to grasp the underlying situation. (My pal tells me this is ‘inductive reasoning’.)

We then return to the world of thought to define the strategic problem (What Is Actually Happening & What Should Be Happening), what’s preventing us, and what we might do about it.

This movement between thought & experience is central to strategy and problem solving in general.

We need to be comfortable in both worlds - one hand digging deep into the earth, the other reaching for the sky.

Thought without action is lifeless. Action without thought is aimless.



Monday, January 22, 2018

Software is Eating the World – What’s It Mean for Lean/CI?

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

Hard to argue with this strong statement. Is there any major organization nowadays that is not an IT organization?

ING Bank, famously, has more IT professionals than Google. Today a Tesla car has more lines of code than macOS or the Windows Vista operation system.

What’s all this mean for the Lean/Continuous Improvement ‘movement’?

Lean/CI practitioners need to raise their games. We have to learn the language, technology and mental models of the digital world.

We have to reach out to our IT colleagues and help them deepen their practice, as they deepen ours.

Lean/CI has had a strong run these past two decades. Most major corporations now in most industries have active Lean/CI ‘programs.’

True, there are still comparatively few brilliant Lean organizations, and most senior executives still don’t understand the methods or the underlying mindsets.

But the Lean/CI tide has lifted most ships, and core concepts such as Value, Waste, Flow and PDCA are firmly rooted in contemporary business practice.

But it’s not enough. Lean/CI has much to offer the digital world. Digitization is an inherently abstract process. Bits & bytes are invisible, as are the circuits that animate a printed circuit board.

The more abstract a practice or technology, the more essential is a counter-balancing engagement with the physical world.

At its best, Lean/CI is simple & concrete. Our old Toyota senseis taught us to continually refine our thinking & processes by removing the unnecessary.

After a while it becomes second nature. Steve Jobs, famously, learned the art of design by studying Japanese calligraphy.

Strategy, problem solving, ideation, rapid experimentation and other core Lean/CI practices require a fluid back & forth between the worlds of reflection & experience.

We go see, reflect on what we saw, and go see again. Such core Lean/CI practices and mindsets can help to enable, focus and refine digitization.

But we have to be humble and open enough to accept that the world is changing very quickly. And we have to work very hard to understand the language, mental models & technology of our colleagues in the digital world.

Good learning, all.

Best regards,


Monday, January 8, 2018

Reflections on True North

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

A New Year, and a new strategic cycle. Strategy begins with our strategic & philosophical Purpose, also known as True North.

True North comprises:
  1. a "Hard" goal, usually entailing critical end-of-pipe measures, e.g. Revenue, EBIT, fatalities, and,
  2. a "Broad-brush" goal (hoshin), a few words defining our purpose, vision, commitment
I encourage leaders to draw a picture of where we want to be, how we’ll get there, and how we will go about our business.

The business chessboard is foggy, multi-dimensional, and unpredictable. Why bother to define a distant, uncertain future?

Because doing so forces us out of the rut of our current thinking. We engage dormant neural pathways thereby, and begin to see the clear blue sky of what's possible.

True North is also the ‘tie-breaker’, to which we turn for guidance at critical moments. “Is this who we are? Is this where we’re going and how’ll we get there?”

True North will tell us. For example, imagine we are a designer & manufacturer of high-end lighting solving challenging technical problems in high-margin niche markets. Our hoshin is Speed Style Invention. Now suppose a major automotive company, say Toyota, approached us and said, “We’d like you to manufacture lighting for our next Lexus model.”

How would we respond? The answer is clear, no? “We’ll have to decline, with great respect, because that’s not what we do, that’s not who we are.”

Our annual plans will be simple & modular one-pagers that express our hypotheses. We’re often wrong, but we adjust quickly. Life never goes according to plan. Clear hypotheses & modular plans enable the rapid PDCA cycles that’ll dispel the fog & get us closer and closer to True North.

Strategy Deployment is messy, humbling, intuitive, a marriage between the Right & Left brain, between intuition & logic, art & science.

Michelangelo's unfinished sculpture "Bound Slave"
I'm reminded of Jack Nicklaus, perhaps the greatest golfer ever, whose swing routine always entailed imagining the perfect shot.

Or of Michelangelo seeing the perfect sculpture in the marble block.

Have a good year, all,