Jan 312012

Please never miss an opportunity to do the right thing. I ran across this story today. Bill Gates wrote a letter to Steve Jobs before he died. It touched Steve so much, he kept it next to his bed to the end, according to his wife. I am glad Bill didn’t disclose what he wrote in the letter. It wasn’t for us.

I told Steve about how he should feel great about what he had done and the company he had built. I wrote about his kids, whom I had got to know.

Do you have a friend feeling down, sick or just in need of a virtual hug? Write them a quick note. It doesn’t have to be much. Four short lines are more than enough to let them know you care. Who knows how much it will mean to them?

C’mon. Do it right now. I am.

Jan 302012

Not only do they make diamond drill bits, but they make colorful gem diamonds as well.

Recently, I had a most unexpected networking experience. I was invited to visit an amazing company that does some truly incredible work. Chances are they will never make it to the cover of a major magazine or be the subject of a best selling business book, but they deserve to be. While they don’t make the flashiest of products (diamond bits for deep bore drilling rigs), how they do it and what they have become because if it is the real story.

From the moment I walked in the front door, I could tell this was not the typical manufacturing company I expected. Everyone from the receptionist forward was polite, happy and eager. I met my friend, the president of the company and he started me on a tour that would leave me astounded. He first introduced me to the IT team and left me in their capable hands for a few minutes. As they showed me around their area, the pride and excitement for their jobs was evident. They understood their job wasn’t to make cool technology, but to move the company forward. While cool technology abounded, they all knew exactly how it was going to help everyone else. Everything had a purpose and nothing was overkill, which I have seen in too many IT shops over the years.

They showed me some of the cool things they were doing to bring the company closer together as it grows. In the cafeteria, they have displays mounted showing the latest performance, safety and financial results. The cafeteria, by the way, was also completely unexpected to me. This is definitely a manufacturing company, but the cafeteria would have looked at home in Google or other hot company known for their pampering of employees. I was starting to get the idea I had stumbled into something special by this point.

The IT Director and I swapped stories as he showed me his pride and joy – a state of the art data center. He was proud of every switch, cooling system and server. He told me how they had embraced virtual servers recently that had reduced the need for new servers to the point of saving an entire second row. Huge savings for the company. He then proudly told me meant to showcase their network capability, but actually started to explain why this company is special.

Recently, the whole company had been working hard to win the Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence. When the award was announced, my friend wanted to do something nice for everyone. The answer? iPads for everyone. Keep in mind, “everyone” was around 800 people. The IT Director’s first thought was “Awesome!” The second was “I wonder if the network can handle it?” Yes, the network could handle the influx of new attached devices. The part that interested me was the focus of shared reward.

I have read many management books and have strived for years to be a different kind of leader. I gnash my teeth at the leaders presented in popular culture, like The Office and The Devil Wears Prada. I strive to be the kind of manager whose people are all more productive because of the work I do in the background. What I found at this company was exactly what I have been trying to espouse for the last decade and a half.

It was time to talk with my friend. He wanted to show me the floor. As we walked around, everyone knew him by his first name. He knew theirs, too. He proudly showed me how they take diamond dust, a fine talc-like powder and exert the same pressure the earth uses to create diamonds. The result is a diamond drill bit. He explained how they switched from a linear factory flor to LEAN processes, grouping several tools into cells. By making small teams that do several steps of the process together, they find defects fast – hours instead of days, saving thousands of bits being wasted should a defect crept in.

Quality is everyone’s job. Each team meets at the beginning and end of each shift to discuss how this could be improved. Everything is driven by these suggestions and rapidly implemented. I forget the number of improvements they have made at the request of the people doing the job, but it seems like it was over 10,000 suggestions. What is the result? These people make over 10,000 drill bits per day of the highest quality. That translates into a solid company that is very successful and profitable. And, you guessed it, the employees share in that profit.

I have read about companies like Toyota and Motorola who have pioneered this style of manufacturing, but I had never actually seen one before. I was simply amazed. Their systems were nothing short of amazing. The work they have put into making their product the best in class is obvious. I can see why they are so successful. I have read book after book on better process, management, leadership and alignment to create a better business. I just found a company that appears to live these principles. It actually exists! I am more motivated to take the ideals back and implement them in my own job now because I know it is possible. It has been done and I tip my hat to them. It was the most fun I have had in all my years of meeting people and companies. This is why I love networking – the chance of stumbling on a gem of a company or individual. In this case, I found a man-made diamond.

Bravo to them. Congratulations on the 2011 Shingo Prize. I hope someone writes their story one day.

Jan 292012

Juggling Elephants: An Easier Way to Get Your Most Important Things Done–Now!  by Jones Loflin and Todd Musig

Ah, business training parables. I have read too many of them. I guess I am more than a little cynical when I pick one up anymore. Most are contrived stories, about 100 pages of large font type, teaching some simple concept with the care and tenderness of a treasured faberge egg. While they teach the principle in an format that is easily digested, they don’t delve into the topic enough to provide much knowledge, background or depth. They tend to be like a quick sugar hit, the Krispy Kreme of the self improvement world.

Juggling Elephants follows this same format. We are told the story of a man who takes his daughter to the circus even though he is overwhelmed with everything in his life pressing down on him. He has so much to do, he feels guilt for taking time to take his daughter out for the evening, but knows he should be spending more time with her. As “luck” would have it, he ends up sitting next to a ringmaster from another circus, there to check out how a friend’s troupe is doing. The ringmaster instantly reads him and suggests that he needs to stop “juggling elephants” and get his “circus” in order. Naturally, the ringmaster invites the man back the next day to teach him the secret of being a ringmaster.

The rest of the story lays out how a ringmaster controls the show and how it applies to managing personal lives. The man quickly adopts the practices and becomes a master of controlling everything around him, becoming hyper-productive and accomplishing all his wildest dreams. He even loses all the weight he has always wanted and improves his marriage. Amazing.

The book is filled with little “pearls” of wisdom, each on its own page with a nice picture of an elephant. Some of these include:

The result of juggling elephants is that no one, including you, is thrilled with the performance.
The ringmaster cannot be in all three rings at once.
The key to the success of the circus is having quality acts in all three rings.
Every act must have a purpose.
Intermission is an essential part of creating a better circus performance.

So why did I give this short book four stars? I usually won’t give this type of parable more than two at best. Well, to my surprise, I learned a concept I find useful. I can only concentrate on one thing at a time. In order to have good performance, I should have a prioritized list of acts (multiple meanings to this word… get it?) for each ring of my life and be able to move between them with speed and ease. A ring represents an area of focus, such as career, relationships and self. GTD teaches this as well, using the weekly review as a mechanism to plan and prioritize the task lists. I like the concept of grouping the many areas of focus into three rings, though. That is a number I can keep in my head easier. Lining things up by priority puts the most important things on stage first. That is good thing to remember.

Juggling Elephants is a short read, a couple hours or so long. I think this one may be worth it.