This year’s must-read business book … and by must-read I mean you must read it because every other manager is reading it … is Steven Spear’s Chasing the Rabbit (2008).
Fortunately, it would be worth your time to read, even if it wasn’t a must-read book. Like Jim Collins’s Good to Great (2001) and Joyce, Nohria and Roberson’s What Really Works (2004), Spear dug deeply into how several outstanding organizations (high-velocity “rabbits”) operate to extract common operating principles.
And came up with a different formula, proving once more that as someone once said, management science is to science as plumbing is to hydraulics.
Not that I’m disparaging Spear’s research. The book does a terrific job of explaining how it is that such disparate organizations as Alcoa, Southwest Airlines, the Naval Reactor Program (yes, some government agencies operate exceptionally well), and of course, Toyota function so much more effectively than their brethren.
Spear concludes that the usual characterizations focus too much on the artifacts of technique and not enough on the underlying philosophy — that for any organization to run well it first has to understand how it works. The more complex the system, the more important this is, which is why the usual disciplines aren’t front and center. As Spear puts it, each of these organizations “… gave up depending on designing perfect processes and committed itself to discovering them instead.”
Specifically, these organizations:
1. Recognize problems as they occur. They consider every single unexpected event, close call, minor accident or anomaly to be a symptom of insufficient knowledge. So rather than just muddling through, as (for example) General Motors assembly line workers do by carrying awls to manually align the bolt-holes that attach seats to frames, Toyota recognized that misaligned bolt-holes meant the company didn’t yet fully understand how to assemble a car.
(In this vein, we’ve often recommended to our clients that they consider every call to the Help Desk a preventable situation.)
2. Fix problems rather than muddling through. General Motors, failing to recognize the misaligned bolt-holes as a problem, never bothered to identify and fix the root cause. By extension, it failed to identify and fix the root causes of an unknown number … probably a very large number … of other problems. Toyota, in contrast, long-ago fixed the problem: Seats arrive at the bolting station perfectly aligned and ready to be attached.
“Rabbits” (high-velocity organizations) consider every root cause to be an urgent situation requiring immediate attention and resolution.
3. Spread the knowledge. This is the one we’re all going to hate, because spreading the knowledge inevitably means documented procedures, lots of them, and rigid adherence to them.
This doesn’t have to mean ossification. The Rabbits are open to better alternatives. But because they understand deeply how things work, innovations won’t be and can’t be improvisations.
Another consequence: New employees need quite a long time to learn their trade, because an employee who doesn’t know how to do each job according to spec creates a risk of throwing the whole machine out of kilter.
4. Have leaders who train other leaders to lead this way. The usual corporate dysfunctions, replete with knowledge hoarding, internal competition, and organizational silos, would prevent the first three capabilities from ever taking hold. Leadership is essential, and the usual set-goals-and-attain-them-and-never-mind-how mentality that dominates current business thinking would be ruinous.
Keep the Joint Running has promoted the importance of a “culture of honest inquiry” for quite some time (see “Where intellectual relativism comes from,” 10/17/2005; also Chapter 12 of Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology). A bit of self-promotion here: My consulting company, IT Catalysts, developed a comprehensive model of the factors required for IT organizational success back in 2004 and has been fine tuning it ever since for this exact reason.
So of course I like this book — it reinforces my biases. I’m predisposed to endorse it without subjecting it to scrutiny.
So next week I’ll do exactly that. This week I’ll apply it to last week’s subject: Prevention, and the immeasurability of its successes.
To those correspondents who recommended comparison to baseline incident levels to be a solution: This works well … for non-catastrophic incidents like server outages that occur in a statistical universe. Prevention of rare or one-time calamities (we’re using our current economic situation as an exemplar), doesn’t fit that model.
Our biggest challenge is that economists don’t understand macroeconomics the way Alcoa understands aluminum manufacturing. Worse, too many influential economists benefit personally from the approval of those who profit when a particular theory sets public policy rather than some other theory.
Which means economics isn’t regulated by a culture of honest inquiry.
We’ve seen the results.