Articles: Building ‘Possibility Seekers’

To build a company of Innovative Possibility Seekers to compete & win in 2018 & beyond – we’ll need a respect-filled culture of thoughtful & innovative people who look for new possibilities every day

The following shares some proven ways to do this. It begins with the understanding that we were at our creative best as children due to our boundless curiosity about the possibilities in the world around us. But as the regimentation and discipline of schooling set in – our creative and innovative abilities begin to decline – even though we became more skilled at executing the thinking, and the process routines we use in our work.

So, how do we develop possibility-seeking abilities we can use to compete and win in a global marketplace that demands ever-increasing innovation? It begins by realizing that we must do both. Let’s start by thinking about what the words of Harvard Economist, Theodore Levitt, meant when he said, “Creativity is thinking up new things – Innovation is doing new things.”

Their meanings are different – and winners know it! It means we must constantly seek more and more perspectives on what makes us successful. And we need as many as we can to constantly change our thinking. This is wise because each different perspective can deliver a different perception to the thoughtful observer. These differences in perspectives can yield new insights and opportunities that may result in a new perception that could be a winning competitive advantage.

The ability to continuously see things differently seems to be our new holy grail for winning the battles of coming competitiveness battles. For nearly three decades, we have learned from emerging Lean cultures, that to succeed requires us to strengthen the collective contributions & thinking of EVERYONE in our organization. The inter-personal ‘sparks of insight’ among team members drive the team toward new – and often different – possibilities that helps produce new winners.

The Power of Possibility-Seeking People

Building a more creative company, community or family often slips to the back burner when distracted by the shiny objects of money, new technology, or status. But once focused – and believing in the power of Possibility-Seeking People – good things begin to happen. The opportunities for enhanced global competitiveness become clearer as one thinks about the powerful words of Dr. Wayne Dyer: “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

A Practical Example

This ATJ Hogg-Blogg shares a ‘first-person encounter’ with a Lean leader that has changed many companies and people over the last thirty years through his plant transformations. I call him “Jonah” – and yes, it is a deliberately chosen alias – but one that will resonate with those who have read “The Goal” by Eli Goldratt. This book is a unique and unusual novel because its hero is a plant manager by the name of Alex, who has a coach whose name is Jonah. This book has sold over 6,000,000 copies around the world. If you have not read it yet, it still delivers solid value to readers looking to solve Lean problems, and ATJ still recommends it, with a five-star rating.

To this day, I thank ‘Jonah’ for making me a believer, that when a plant transformation is needed – ‘Most of the critical answers needed for a successful transformation are already inside the plant!’ They are there all right, but invisible, as these answers are hiding in plain sight. According to Jonah, the challenge is to help the plant leaders and managers see the possibilities that are before them – and especially to help them see their people as they could be – and not just as they are seen to be today. To do this, requires a platform of total respect, sensitivity, and a keen eye for possibilities all combined with people-centred listening & communications skills, integrity and compassion. And did we mention total respect?

In the very early days of Lean, I met Jonah in his own 150-person plant which we were touring as part of an HPM Consortium best practices visit. We came to see examples of World-class best practices our consortium members could learn from. This plant had been highly recommended. Jonah had led the transformation of this international NA plant, from his leadership place as Vice-President of Manufacturing. As I found out later, his career and background included serving in almost every manufacturing position over the years, in many kinds of companies, from his first days as a Tool & Die maker. While there were many ‘best processes & practices’ to see and learn from – the dominant take-aways were richest with leadership, management, and human behavior lessons that were very clear since most segments of the visit were led by the employees themselves.

The focus ALWAYS centred on respect for the people; the incorporation of employee thinking and the building of their pride; the depth of their roles that connected what they did to the success of the company; – and their perceptions of the company’s responsibility to equip them with the right tools, guidance, and expectations. With this, and a supportive middle management, the thinking & routines used to solve problems together developed a thirst for identifying possibilities for solutions and a drive to self-implement the improvements. His belief was unshakable that the greatest motivator of the human being is achievement – and achievement begets more achievement.

This tour introduced 20 practitioners to ‘The power of possibility’ conversations with multiple threads extending through the projects & transformations that had turned this factory thinking around. Jonah stressed that “Words matter – they really do!” He went on to stress that to build a team that can endure, the words they use among them must always be inclusive – and genuine. What hit me was his ‘take-no-prisoners-focus’ on the power of the word ‘Possible’. Jonah believed that “It’s a word that injects instant two-way energy & involvement into a conversation”.

He pointed out that the gold you get out of such conversations depends on how you ask them, and how you respond to them – always supportive and without judgement. He added, “The way you listen should radiate your genuine interest as you listen intently to what your employee is thinking.” Powerful conversations erupt when you treat people with total respect and ask simple questions like, “What do you think might work”, or, and Jonah liked this one better, “If there might be a solution what do you think it would look like?” For years after, I knew why the words ‘possible’ and ‘possibility’ were always somewhere in our conversations.

Simplicity and Enhanced Possibilities go Hand in Hand

It was not surprising that throughout Jonah’s plant simple posters with simple messages were conspicuous – one of which I really related to:

                                              “Just Imagine the improvements we could make,                                                                              if we made everything so simple – everyone could understand”

This thinking was alive and in evidence everywhere. An obvious example was the unusual absence of waste and inventory – along with a breath-taking simplicity-in-all-things that enabled one to see the flow and understand it. These accomplishments take time – and this company invested some 18 months of training & interaction with management, employees, customers, and suppliers.

Seeing the corporate bottom line results was rewarding. Jonah shared his enjoyment in the amazement shown by AME/SME practitioners; University/College staff; and the community tours who came to learn. What excited them was the people-focused approach to applying a key corporate information flow process (Plant Scheduling) that enabled the Shop Floor Personnel to understand and run the daily scheduling of the entire plant – and they did!

The Road Ahead

In 2018, we are moving into a high-velocity and high-challenge age where innovation, practicality, and adaptability are sought and integrated to deliver sustainable quality and scalable productivity strategies that will spell success. The beat within manufacturing beyond 2018 is increasingly driven by the acceleration of IoT technologies and infrastructure. Hence – training is becoming more precise and urgent with management now responsible for providing the right training, and then getting out-of-the-way of practitioners who are expecting to have the freedom to solve problems – and seek more possibilities.

The Take-Away

• Perspectives from this article may be useful in building a ‘Possibility Seeker’ culture in your world? Jonah reminds – “The conversations must continue every single day – they are part of a process to build a company of Possibility Seekers”
• It is easier to learn how people think about the issues of today – and tomorrow – if conversations include discussions about ‘Possibilities’
• People gain perspectives from which a valuable perception may emerge

Lessons Learned

Over 30 years of visiting hundreds of companies of all kinds have shown that the answers to improve plant operation are not just coming from senior managers, engineering departments, or designated gurus – but more and more from respected, well-trained, engaged, Lean-savvy team-based workforces who are now expected to take command of their processes and “Make them Better!” Of course, the willingness and extent of the ‘bringing forward of the answers’ depends on the management style.

But what a change is underway! In the 70’s and 80’s we saw command and control management heaping so much adulation upon only the few employees associated with Product Design/Product Excellence. In the late 80’s respect for Process Excellence emerged enabling large numbers of employees to be recognized (and motivated) for their Process Excellence achievements. This fit perfectly with the emergence of people-centred Lean thinking in the post 1990’s which added to their self-respect during the recession of 2008 due to the acceleration of corporate recognition for Process Excellence achieved by practitioners.

As Jonah counseled me, “Over the last decade, ideas for improvement and improvements themselves are coming from people who: Own their processes; are well-trained as professionals; take command; and don’t hesitate to find and make improvements on their own. They are to be found in all levels of the organization. “When everyone is in harmony, we are all winners,” says Jonah. People-centered thinking is a cornerstone of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence and will be at this year’s International Conference in Boston this October 9-13

The Evidence is in – Getting Specific

“What are the keys?” I asked Jonah. He replied: “Total respect is everything – but it must be genuine and shared honestly and without reservation. I always show my personal respect for what they can do – and that pays off.”

Here’s a few Leader Keys & Thinking in building a Team of ‘Possibility Seekers’

♦  Employ them in a respect-filled Vision-driven culture
♦  Get to know every Value-Adder (VA) as a person. Respect is everything
♦  Define expectations, processes and areas of responsibility clearly

— Show respect for them & their suggestions
— Ask questions to understand, and with interest
— Ask “In what way can we help improve your work area?”
— Have them explain their process to you
— How is the work connected to the success of the organization?

Achieving the right culture requires a clear vision, time, and a leadership that says what they believe and believes what they say. By visibly showing total respect with that vision, Jonah believes one will gain all the answers they need. We both believe that in almost every situation, the answers really are within the company, but getting them out requires trust, and clear & deep discussions with the existing management… (Possibly with some help from another Jonah?)


Relevant Resources:

Here is Dan’s discusses last Blog’s Good Read:  Lean Strategy
Published July 14, 2017 by Dan JonesLean Strategy, is the foundation of the people-centric business system of our time. Lean creates dynamic gains from leaders seeking the right possibilities and finding the right problems.  And building the capabilities to solve them and translating improvements to the bottom line. Lean is about leading from the ground up and learning for continuous innovation.

Lean Academy – For more resources from the UK’s Lean website. 

      Lean Enterprise Institute – The huge NA Lean reservoir – A must visit: 

Planet Lean Resources ~ For global resources (Advanced) For a distillation of international Lean thinking & practices in all sectors and applications.