But when asked by a Toyota advisor, the simple process of becoming able to answer it launched Liz McCartney and Jack Rosenburg on a journey of finding consistency in things that were “never the same” and stability in things that “always changed.”
Getting Home is, first and foremost, a story. And, with the “business novel” being an almost worn-out genre, seeing a non-fiction story was refreshing. So when Chet Marchwinski from the LEI offered a review copy to me, I accepted.
For the story background, I’ll leave it to you to read the blurb on Amazon.* Better yet – read the book – and it is worth reading. I’ll say that right up front.
Yet with stories like this it is all too easy to dismiss them because they have different circumstances from “my” specific case and say “Yeah, it worked there, but won’t work here.”
I would contend, however, that in this case “it worked” in situations that are far more difficult than anything we are likely to encounter in most organizations.
What I want to do here is help pull their specific achievements into more general application – what lessons are here that anyone can take away and apply directly.
What They Achieved
I can’t think of a lot (any?) business circumstances that would have more built-in variability and sources of chaos than the process of rebuilding communities after a disaster such as a hurricane or flood.
Every client has different circumstances. The make, mix and skill levels of the volunteer workforce changes continuously. Every community has different bureaucratic processes – not to mention the various U.S. government agencies which can be, well, unpredictable in how and when they respond.
Yet they have to mobilize quickly, and build houses. This means securing funding, getting permits, mobilizing unskilled and skilled labor, and orchestrating everything to meet the specific needs of specific clients on a massive scale… fast.
How They Achieved It
When they first connected with their Toyota advisor, the simple question, “Are you ahead or behind?” prompted the response that drives all improvement, all scientific advancement, all innovation:
“We don’t actually know.”
Actually they did, kind of, but it was in very general, high-level terms.
And that is what I encounter everywhere. People have a sense of ahead or behind (usually behind), but they don’t have a firm grasp on the cause and effect relationship – what specific event triggered the first delay?
This little book drives home the cascading effect of ever deepening understanding that emerges from that vital shift from accepting things as they are to a mindset of incessant curiosity.
Being able to answer “Are you ahead or behind?” means you have to have a point of reference – what is supposed to happen, in what order, with what timing, with what result. If you don’t know those things, you can only get a general sense of “on track” or not.
They had to develop standards for training – what to train, how to train – volunteers! – , which meant challenging assumptions about what could, and could not, be “standardized.” (A lot more than you think.)
A standard, in turn, provides a point of reference – are we following it, or are we being pushed off it. That point of reference comes back to being able to know “Are we ahead or behind?”
It Isn’t About the Specific Tools
Yet it is. While it isn’t that important about whether this-or-that specific tool or approach is put into place, it is critical to understand what the tools you use are there to achieve.
As you read the book, look for some common underlying themes:
Information as a Social Lever
The project started revolving around the ahead/behind board.
In the “lean” world, we talk about “visual controls” a lot, and are generally fans of status boards on the wall. We see the same thing in agile project management (when it is done well).
These information radiators work to create conversations between people. If they aren’t creating those conversations, then they aren’t working. In Getting Home it was those conversations that resulted in challenging their assumptions.
Beyond Rote Implementation
Each tool surfaced more detail, which in turn, challenged the next level. This goes far beyond a checklist of tools to implement. Each technical change you make – each tool you try to put into place – is going to surface something that invites you to be curious.
It is the “Huh… what is happening here?” – the curiosity response – that actually makes continuous improvement happen. It isn’t the tools, it is the process of responding to what they reveal that is important.
Like the tools it describes, Getting Home is an invitation, and that is all, to think a little deeper than the surface telling of the story.
My challenge to you: If you choose to read this book (and I hope you do), go deeper. Parse it. Ask “What did they learn?” ask “What did this tool or question reveal to them, about them?” And then ask “What signals did they see that am I missing in my own organization?”
*This is an affiliate link that give me a very small kickback if you happen to purchase the book – no cost to you.