Provoking Productive Thinking

Business leaders agree that human capital is the most important asset in organizations. Ironically, particularly in medium-sized and large companies, it is often the most underutilized asset. Although fierce competition is driving an increasing number of workers to put in long hours, the additional hours have not translated into optimal results in organizations where the traditional approach to work has not changed.

This approach disproportionately focuses on motor skills, leaving much of an organization’s brainpower untapped. Dutifully repeating the same tasks and routines is only a fraction of the capability of the worker. As a young sculptor, Michelangelo applied for a job at a commercial studio. The owner of the studio informed him that he knew exactly how long it took to carve each piece and that his deliveries were never late.

In his book The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone dramatizes the rest of the conversation between the two men: “Michelangelo asks what happens if a sculptor thinks of ‘something new … an idea not carved before.’ The owner replies, ‘Sculpture is not an inventing art, it is reproductive.’

“Michelangelo again asks him what would happen if a sculptor wanted to ‘achieve something fresh and different.’ The owner says, ‘That is your youth speaking, my boy. A few months under my tutelage and you would lose such foolish notions.’ “

Obviously, Michelangelo never worked in this studio. At a time when customers constantly demand new and fresh ideas, and when visionary companies identify and create markets to meet needs the customers didn’t think of, many businesses still operate like that studio owner.

The solicitation of habitual productive thinking in an organization is often limited to management, which is typically 5 percent to 20 percent of the workforce. When professionals, such as accountants, lawyers, and human resource leaders, are included in the productive-thinking process, that still leaves out more than half of the workforce.

Why is productive thinking critical?
Like all human accomplishments, every business begins as a thought. The inventions, innovations, and small improvements that differentiate winners from stragglers result from thinking. Productive thinking involves actively engaging the brain in seeking ways to improve the process and product of work. It seeks better ways of performing routine tasks. It applies talent and experience in generating novel and profitable ideas. As foresighted and innovative as management might be, the thinking that’s likely to have the greatest impact on improving processes, products and services emanates from the people closest to the work. Organizations that understand this fact include frontline staff in an organized productive thinking process.

Under Jack Welch’s leadership, GE caught on to the infinite potential of a thinking organization.
Initially, company culture did not allow workers to safely and regularly share ideas. But after conducting tens of thousands of workout sessions — during which employees in groups of 10 to 100 shared their opinions in off-site meetings — acting on employee input became a way of life in the organization. GE harvested hundreds of innovative ideas from non-management employees through these sessions. Welch provides additional detail on the workout sessions in Winning, a book co-authored with his wife, Suzy.

Toyota is perhaps the best example of how continuous productive thinking facilitates enduring success. Following years of steady growth, the company has surpassed GM as the No. 1 automaker. While GM closes plants, offers buyouts to workers and recently posted a $38.7 billion net loss for 2007, Toyota has been expanding factories and building new ones around the world to meet rising demand. How could there be so much discrepancy in one industry? What makes Toyota so audacious, resilient and successful? The efficiency, durability and freshness of its automobiles are a typical response to the latter question. But high-quality products are only a manifestation of the company’s success formula. Its efficient production system is a more veritable success factor. Then again, virtually every automaker implements a form of lean production.

In Jeffrey Liker’s book (the critically acclaimed The Toyota Way), independent research and public comments by Toyota executives suggest the key to Toyota’s success lies in two principles that are rooted in the company’s culture: The company relentlessly seeks ways to improve and it engages the entire workforce in a continuous improvement process. Toyota provides leadership, structure, incentives and an environment that motivates employees to constantly think of ways to improve business processes and outcomes.

In a 2005 presentation entitled Conflict in Time: Strategy for the 21st Century, Chet Richards, a lecturer and management consultant who teaches organizations how to apply successful military strategies to winning in business, used the German word auftragstaktik — which translates to missions and contracts — to describe the empowering relationship between management and staff at Toyota. Instead of assigning tasks, work teams are given a mission. The impact of each mission on the larger organization is clearly communicated. This enables the teams to understand the big picture and to function effectively as parts of a system. Contracting allows staff to challenge or question the feasibility of a mission, thus gaining commitment from each member.

Within defined, broad parameters, each team seeks out the most efficient way to execute its mission. The “seeking out” process, as well as the continuous-improvement culture, allows productive thinking to flourish. Identifying opportunities for improvement or coming up with ideas for new products is as important as meeting delivery goals. At all levels of the organization, there is no resting on laurels, no plateaus and no satisfaction with the status quo.

As Chad Buckner, a Toyota employee, told Fast Company magazine, “We’re all incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished. But you don’t stop. You don’t stop. There’s no reason to be satisfied.”
This is the Toyota way of life. As a result, a typical Toyota plant makes thousands of changes to its operation each year. These seemingly infinitesimal changes translate into invincibility in the marketplace. Employees gain dexterity from performing the same tasks over a long period of time. At Toyota, they also gain fingerspitzengefuhl, a Zen-like quality of intuitive understanding that results from cumulative productive thinking.

This sort of prodigious insight enables workers to “think without thinking” — to borrow Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink phraseology — and maximize their workday. What’s more, it produces the foresight and momentum that can propel any organization to the top of its industry. Considering that the creative potential of the workforce is infinite and because people closest to the work are actively engaged in the innovative and constant improvement process, Toyota will continue to reinvent itself long into the future.

In their book Seeing David in the Stone, James and Joseph Swartz cited a Stanford University study of public corporations. They concluded that “corporations with the largest performance improvements developed the cultures of entrepreneurs and the discipline of soldiers.”
Toyota’s business model will yield positive results for any organization that has the courage to implement it correctly. How long the results last will depend on whether the organization has the discipline to sustain the model over the long haul.

Productive thinking requires entrepreneurial acumen. Entrepreneurship thrives in an open, empowering and inclusive environment — an environment where fingerspitzengefuhl can be achieved.

Are productive thinkers made or born?
Productive thinkers, over time, begin to consistently deliver exceptional results. At the height of their achievements, they make contributions that change the course of history. Celebrated as geniuses and high achievers, Galileo Galilei, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Sam Walton, Bill Gates and countless others were productive thinkers.

In their research, the Swartzes found that each of these individuals spent at least 10 years in preparation, developing their thoughts and perfecting their crafts. They point out that by the time Edison discovered the fluorescent electric lamp, he knew more about the gas industry and the research of other electric-energy pioneers than anyone of his day.

As Louis Pasteur, world-renowned French biochemist, rightly noted, “In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” All types of workers can reap the rewards of productive thinking. While many may never achieve the fame of the greats, they will make contributions that can transform their organizations.

How do you improve productive thinking?
Learning is the fuel for productive thinking. The more relevant knowledge and information you absorb and process, the greater your chances of experiencing moments of illumination.
In addition to formal education, books, periodicals and daily business news, trade meetings and conferences are excellent ways to keep the brain sharp and stay on top of your trade. People who understand the competitive advantage of timely access to information seek and consume it voraciously.

The partnership that birthed Microsoft originated from a magazine article entitled “Breakthrough: World’s First Minicomputer.” Struck by the photo on the cover of the magazine, Paul Allen picked up a copy and shared it with Bill Gates. The following day, both men called Altair, the manufacturer of the minicomputer, to discuss the possibility of running their software on the machine, according to the Swartzes’ book. What happened next is history. According to Bryan George, a world-class executive coach quoted in HFN [Home Furnishings News] magazine, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies read, on average, four books per week. Busy professionals have others regularly scan news and periodicals for topics of interest. They can supplement reading with audio books.

Cross training or learning something new, such as an innovative way of performing tasks or a different language, will help keep the brain stimulated.

How do you become a thinking organization?
Assessing the level of your employees’ involvement in shaping your operation, products and services is a good starting point. The following questions might be helpful in this process:
* Are you utilizing only a small portion of your organization’s brainpower?
* How effective is your organization’s process in eliciting ideas for improvement and innovation from your entire workforce?
* How critical is continuous improvement to your organization? How is it operationalized?
* Are your creative and critical thinking skills rusting from lack of use?
* How often do you feed your brain to keep your productive thinking skills sharp?
Your answers to the above questions will determine the degree to which you implement any or all of the following recommendations:
* Cultivate a culture that’s not only safe for employees to share ideas, but that motivates them to do so. Organizational norms, structures, systems and processes should be designed to facilitate ongoing improvement-oriented input from all strata of the workforce.
For instance, thinking skills should be assessed during job interviews and employees should be given the freedom to innovate. Employers should provide necessary resources, encourage experimentation and define acceptable levels of mistakes and failure. Performance management and reward systems should facilitate creativity and innovation.
* Infuse your organization with a continuous-improvement mentality.
Continuous improvement must rank in the top 10 management cliches. However, its relevance as a catalyst for growth is not diminished by time or frequency of mention. A mind-set that incessantly questions the way things are with an eye to bettering them is the most relevant ingredient in engaging the intellect of your workforce.
* If your organization is unwilling to embark on large-scale transformation, practice positive disobedience.

No, this concept is not a recipe for a pink slip. It’s a term used by the Center for Creative Leadership to describe the action of subcultures that model a behavior for the larger culture. It’s behavior or action that yields superior results, even though it might differ from the mainstream.
In the 1950s, a malaria outbreak killed thousands in a small town in West Africa. Smack in the middle of the town were about a dozen families who were not affected by the disease. These families took steps such as avoiding stagnant water around the house; burning leaves, which repelled the insects; and shutting their windows at night to avoid mosquito bites.

Their neighbors sometimes mocked them for refusing to grow certain plants — plants that attracted mosquitoes. But these actions preserved their lives. To suggest that the vast majority of the workforce is underutilized might be counterintuitive to many workers and employers. Some might even find it offensive. But as Toyota demonstrates, there’s more to the line worker than performing a task by rote or making the monthly or quarterly numbers.

Employees whose minds are actively engaged in improving processes, workflows and results are unlikely to suffer from boredom or the drudgery of repetitive work. In fact, countless worker-satisfaction surveys highlight the lack of inclusion in decision-making processes as a major source of dissatisfaction. Engaging the intellect of all your workers is not only a smart business decision, it is a demonstration of respect and recognition for what they have to offer.
Published by permission of LRP publications 2008.