Scaling Up Excellence

How’s your process excellence initiative going? Frustration and confusion everywhere, pummelled by unpredictable and unpleasant events, the stench of failure in the air?  So far so good, then. That’s according to Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao, Stanford professors whose research convinces them that ‘organizations that scale well are filled with people who talk and act as if they are in the middle of a manageable mess’.

Scaling is fraught with risks and uncertainties. Even the best leaders and teams recognise that muddling through can be inevitable, sometimes for months, while searching for the best way forward. Scaling stars have grit. ‘It’s not simply a marathon. It’s like running a long race where you don’t know the right path, often what seems like the right path turns out to be the wrong one, and you don’t know how long the race will last, where or how it will end, or where the finish line is located’.

It’s refreshingly candid advice, and Scaling Up Excellence is full of it.  On a seven year journey that started with a Stanford management education program on ‘Customer-Focused Innovation’, Sutton and Rao set out to explore The Problem of More:

“Executives could always point to pockets in their organizations where people were doing a great job of uncovering and meeting customer needs. There was always some excellence – there just wasn’t enough of it. What drove them crazy, kept them up at night, and devoured their weekdays was the difficulty of spreading that excellence to more people and more places. They also emphasized that the Problem of More (which they often called “scaling” or “scaling up”) wasn’t limited to building customer-focused organizations; it was a barrier to spreading excellence of every stripe.”

Scaling Up Excellence is a thoughtful, easy-to-read and intensely practical book about successful business transformation and innovation: how to start it, lead it, nurture it and sustain it.

OK, it sounds bizarre about a business book, but it’s almost exciting.  The authors are great story tellers and the diversity of organizational contexts is fascinating: from Google to the Girl Scouts, from Facebook to surgery, from advertising agencies to African academies.

There is so much wisdom in this book (and it’s distilled into bite-size chunks). In a chapter on ‘Buddhism vs Catholicism’, they explore how best to strike the right balance between centralization vs decentralization, between customization and replication. IKEA’s success in China, and Home Depot’s failure, illustrate how crucial this can be. A failed Xerox sales process rollout provides a parable about the dangers of attempting to replicate a complete template that has not been proven to work in at least one place.  On the other hand, ’tilting towards Buddhism’ can be useful in boosting engagement and creativity, and especially when you don’t have a complete template that has worked elsewhere. The Big Mac, they point out, was actually invented by a McDonald’s franchisee (and only grudgingly allowed at first because it “would throw a monkey wrench into the finely-tuned store operations system”).

There’s a superb chapter on how to ‘cut cognitive load’:

“Leaders and teams often pile so many metrics, procedures, and chores that people lose capacity and willpower to do the right things.”

But it’s not just about the drag of informational clutter. There’s evidence on optimum group sizes, diversity and longevity; on the power of simple checklists; and an exploration of hierarchy as a vital element in ‘building a better organizational operating system’.

One key to cutting cognitive overload is to develop subtraction as a way of life. The constant search for the ‘profound simplicity’, revealed when we clear away the temporary scaffolding of necessary complexity, is essential. In the words of P&G CEO AG Lafley, we have always to strive to keep things ‘Sesame Street Simple’.

The subtraction mindset is illustrated in Adobe’s decision ‘to kill off one of the most sacred of corporate cows: traditional yearly performance reviews’, in favour of regular check-ins. [hats off to Adobe, one of whose execs quipped that if the annual performance review was a drug, it wouldn’t get FDA approval: ‘it’s often ineffective and has so many vile side effects’. It took up 80,000 hours of management time each year in a ‘soul-less and soul-crushing exercise’.]

Adobe’s initiative wasn’t just intended – this is real life – to cut cognitive load. It was also – and the case studies are peppered with this, as you’d expect – about nudge. In this case, about nudging Adobe managers to engage more often and more candidly with their team members. [The authors refer to another remarkable example of nudge thinking: in an attempt to make the city’s roads safer, conventional measures having failed, the mayor of Bogota, Colombia employed 420 mimes on the streets to tease and taunt reckless drivers and pedestrians, calculating that citizens were more afraid of embarrassment than traffic tickets.]

Aside from Nudge, there’s plenty of design thinking and Daniel Kahneman also features heavily: “Slowing down and thinking about what you are doing and why – shifting to the laborious, reasoned, deliberative and conscious ‘System 2 thinking’, as Kahneman calls it – is the best defense when you are in a cognitive minefield”. In the training of new doctors, the most valuable advice can be: ‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’

There’s so much more. A nursing case study on the perils of shared governance. Contrasting major IT project case studies: one a glittering success [‘Catholic’ but with guiderails, great intelligence, ingenuity and a collaborative approach], the other an abject failure. And an airline case study which will set process geeks’ hearts racing, and includes the unlikely line: “It’s just amazing how impactful a Post-It note can be. It’s taught me that nothing is impossible.”

It boils down to intelligent, systematic, human-shaped pragmatism. Avoid “the smart-talk trap”:

“We’ve been involved with too many organizations where internal champions have taught hundreds, even thousands, of employees to talk a good game about ‘lean’ or ‘quality’ techniques or design thinking… Yet when we ask where and how such excellence is lived in their organizations, they offer vague plans or fantasies about efforts that haven’t started (and probably never will) or success stories that are irrelevant.”

Tools, methodologies and frameworks are invaluable but only go so far in the crucible of people and culture.

Where to start? Here and now. In the words of scaling star and P&G innovation executive, Claudia Kotcha: “Start with yourself, where you are right now, and with what you have and can get right now.” See – it really is quite exciting.

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