Content By Akhilesh Gulati

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

By: Akhilesh Gulati

Isn't it the economy that's on everyone's minds? When will the economy pick up? Will we be able to survive until then or will we too become another company that used to exist? How do we ensure a stronger position when the economy turns around?

Alas, if only we had a crystal ball. Nobody does, but many of us have common business sense and the fortitude to act on it. It's called resilience.

Let's explore how an organization can build a resilient culture:

1. Understand environment
2. Evaluate weak spots
3. Examine the organization's value system
4. Look at how your business is spending its time
5. Change your business attitude
6. Protect and enhance your business
7. Take control
8. Build relationships with those around you
9. Live above the line
10. Review your performance

 

I discuss these below, one by one.

Classic business sense says that we need to listen and understand the environment we operate in. It not only allows us to plan to respond to emerging customer needs, but to also create coping strategies.

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

By: Akhilesh Gulati

We usually focus on lean and Six Sigma concepts as ideas for providing improvement. But there are many other approaches around the world that are insightful and worth noting as lessons learned for business and other organizations. For example, during the month of April 2009, an estimated 714 million Indians cast their vote, using India's unique electronic voting machines. And less than a year ago, President Obama used text messaging to reach millions of voters. What can we learn from these radical uses of technology?

In both of these elections, we saw brilliant political strategy that led to unprecedented results. In the United States, President Obama became the first African American president. In India, the Congress party convinced a mix of many different constituencies to vote for them, retaining them in power for a second consecutive term. In the United States, we voted in a younger president, opting for change; in India, people voted in a 78-year old prime minister, opting emphatically for an era of stability. In either case, each was a phenomenal event.

Was it brilliant strategy? Was it how they communicated their vision? Was it the way they executed it? Are there lessons organizations can learn from them as they prepare to compete in the future?

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

By: Akhilesh Gulati

Recently a strategy consultant was overheard saying she writes romantic novels. Look into many organizations and, although said in jest, it has more than a modicum of truth to it.

Don’t get me wrong. The high-level strategic plans are important and necessary. But, the devil is in the details, the down-and-dirty task and activities that really make things happen. Back in 1999, a Fortune magazine study suggested that 70 percent of CEOs who fail do so not because of bad strategy, but because of bad execution. ("Why CEOs Fail," R. Charan and G. Colvin, Jun 21, 1999.)

Strategy implementation is an internal, operations-driven activity that involves organizing, budgeting, motivating, culture-building, supervising, and leading to make the strategy work as intended. It involves people understanding their role in the big scheme, how it links throughout the organization, and the impact it has along the way. Hoshin Planning is one methodology that helps organizations through this process. This tool helps to cascade out detailed work plans: it indicates how projects are to be led and resourced, shows linkages to the organization’s vision and mission, identifies the accountable or responsible parties, aligns the work plans, and indicates how progress and results will be measured.

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

By: Akhilesh Gulati

Those best adapted to particular conditions will succeed in the long run. This idea was invented by Herbert Spencer in Principles of Biology (University Press of the Pacific, 2002) to describe Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection of living species.

By the early 1900s, this insight was being transferred to other areas and continues to be valid today as we witness events in the current global economic crises. It’s interesting that 2009 is the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s treatise on the Origin of Species (Oxford University Press, 2008), which reflects our ability to adapt to the challenges of change. We see that it applies to how living beings adapt to change, as well as to organizations, whose ability to survive depends on the ability to adapt to the changing economic and social environment. Organizations that are able to adapt to change, generate alternative avenues of revenue, discover new markets, and learn from other industries, make the leap to survival. They look for ways to remodel their business and come out stronger. As the rest of this article indicates, commercial and manufacturing companies can also position themselves for natural selection by their customers.

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

By: Akhilesh Gulati

A physics exam question asked students to describe how they would use a barometer to measure the height of a skyscraper. One student who failed the test contested that his answer was correct. He was given a second chance to defend his position, verbally, to the professor. When the student didn’t answer right away, the professor challenged him stating that he didn’t have an answer after all. At this point, the student said that he had lots of answers, only he wasn’t sure which answer the professor wanted. He started by giving the following answers:

  • Tie the barometer to a string and lower that from the roof of the skyscraper. When it touched the ground, add the length of the string with the length of the instrument and calculate the height of the building.
  • Go to the caretaker’s office and offer him the barometer in exchange for a look at the buildings plans to get the height of the skyscraper.
  • Go the boring route of calculating the difference of the pressure at the base and at the top of the building to determine the height of the skyscraper.

Most of us would have thought of only the last solution because that is how we are taught to think—logically. However, lateral thinking is more fun and can sometimes lead to easier and better solutions.

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

By: Akhilesh Gulati

"We have had a series of power outages even though we have central and local uninterrupted power supply (UPS) systems. This disruption causes a loss of service to our customers. While we don’t necessarily lose data, it’s an irritant, and also results in loss of productivity. Perhaps we could attribute it to the lack of adequate UPS capacity. Alternatively, the independent UPS systems also contribute to the disruption, as we don’t keep track of these stand-alone units. Neither do we perform any maintenance on these units; thus some of these units may be past their useful life. This is generally accepted practice but not what’s called for in our procedures. We understand that this is reality and there will always be stand alone UPS units. We really need to solve the problem to avert future disasters. By the way, we don’t even know how many of these units we have in use and although our policies don’t allow the use of these stand-alone units, I have seen them in the IT department itself.”

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By: Akhilesh Gulati

Since one of the pillars of lean thinking is the visual workplace, why hasn’t problem solving in the workplace been taken to the visual level?

Flowcharts are popular visual tools that can show what’s currently happening, what could be happening, or what should be happening—a great opportunity to show where there may be a disconnection between procedures and reality. A flowchart also provides a pictorial display of where problems occur and where and how proposed solutions may or may not solve the issue.

This pictorial display isn't used just in the workplace. Consider explaining the sports of baseball or American football. Just words in explanation can be a bit difficult to follow, but when paired with pictures drawn on a napkin, various positions and plays become quite obvious. Why don't we say it with pictures more often? Using pictorial displays isn’t a new approach in problem solving or process improvement. Lean and Six Sigma use pictures extensively, qualitatively (value stream mapping, fishbone diagrams, affinity diagrams) and quantitatively (pie charts, histograms, control charts, radar charts).

These tools and concepts aren’t new, and some of the more popular examples include:

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

By: Akhilesh Gulati

Remember way back when you knew Newton’s Third Law, how to do long division, how to solve quadratic equations, and the difference between mean, mode, and median? As quality professionals, we’ve probably all had to learn these basic concepts at some point in our careers. Do we remember them?

While teaching a group how to read blueprints, I realized that I could mentally calculate the least common denominator, yet I couldn’t explain it to them easily. I sought help from a teenager, and as he started explaining it to me, it all came back to me and I remembered. Why had I forgotten something so simple?

Thinking back over all of the complex calculus equations I used to solve, it also dawned on me that I hadn’t worked with these techniques since I learned them. Those skills had just vanished. We have all heard the phrase “No pain, no gain.” To that I add, “No practice, no skill.”

Skills are a perishable asset. What can organizations do to keep up their employees’ skill sets? During most training sessions, it’s not uncommon to hear, “I vaguely recall having learned some of these tools way back when, but I don’t really remember how to use them now.” What a waste of time!

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

By: Akhilesh Gulati

A recent conversation with the general manager of a manufacturer that was in the process of implementing lean methodologies provided insights as to their ongoing results. He was excited about what was happening in his company. Initiatives in the past had not been successful, and he now understood why, as well as why the employees and management blamed each other for the failures.

The difference was not in the content of the program, he stressed, but the implementation of it and the associated transformation of his company’s culture. Although the content of the training was rich, and the speeches from the CEO inspirational, the employees were excited only when they were able to work together on meaningful projects. While projects required as part of the initiative helped them get started on this path, the CEO’s display of commitment, support for ongoing improvement projects, and recognition of performance made all the motivational difference. It improved communication among management, employees, and customers. It reconnected the organization!

Based on the initial momentum, successes, and sense of ownership from the employees, the general manager began other efforts focused on communication that supplemented the initiative:

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

By: Akhilesh Gulati

As a manager, one might imagine being a rider atop a horse. You cannot expect to force the horse to win by constantly pulling the reins, neither can you expect to win the race consistently by pushing the horse beyond its capability. The rider needs to influence its performance to win the race; after all, the horse is much stronger than the rider. “Half the failures in life arise from pulling in one’s horse as he is leaping,” state Julius and Augustus Hare in Guesses at Truth (Macmillan, 1882).

How does this apply to our organizations? We can think of the horse as our workforce and the potential it has to produce extraordinary results. We often find ourselves frustrated as we push people to produce results, trying to stay on top of daily issues, controlling, directing, complying, and making deliveries. Other times we provide incentives to achieve more and then pull in the reins just as the workforce is ready with new ideas.

Organizations have realized that to achieve extraordinary results their employees must show initiative, collaboration, enthusiasm, teamwork, and problem-solving skills.