Archive for the ‘Workplace’ Category

“We have decided to be happy because it is good for our health.”

July 9, 2008

Yesterday for the first time I read this quote written on the bottom of a sign inside Boulange Bakery on Union St (SF) — it was right above the counter with sugar, jam, cream, nutella, etc. Although I had visited the same bakery and spread raspberry preserves on my croissant there numerous times before, I had not noticed the quote until now — pure genius. We often look externally for happiness — is it social, cultural, economic, or geographic? Or is it really just as simple as deciding to be happy?

Study: World Gets Happier

Denmark is the happiest nation and Zimbabwe the the most glum, he found. (Zimbabwe’s longtime ruler Robert Mugabe was sworn in as president for a sixth term Sunday after a widely discredited runoff in which he was the only candidate. Observers said the runoff was marred by violence and intimidation.) The United States ranks 16th…. “The results clearly show that the happiest societies are those that allow people the freedom to choose how to live their lives,” Inglehart said.

The Keys to Happiness, and Why We Don’t Use Them

Happiness is 50 percent genetic, says University of Minnesota researcher David Lykken. What you do with the other half of the challenge depends largely on determination, psychologists agree. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”… One route to more happiness is called “flow,” an engrossing state that comes during creative or playful activity, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has found. Athletes, musicians, writers, gamers, and religious adherents know the feeling. It comes less from what you’re doing than from how you do it.

How much people enjoy their life-as-a-whole on scale 0 to 10


> 7,7

Middle range

± 6,0





























South Korea





Corporate risks + rewards of breakthrough R&D

March 10, 2008

Corning’s Biggest Bet Yet? Diesel-Filter Technologies
By SARA SILVER, March 7, 2008; Page B1, Wall Street Journal

Corning, which went public in 1945 and has a market capitalization of about $36 billion, has survived — and often thrived — in recent decades by following a playbook that Wall Street and corporate America deems outmoded. While companies like Xerox Corp. scaled back long-term research, Corning stuck with the old formula, preferring to develop novel technologies than buy them from start-ups.

An investment 25 years ago has turned Corning into the world’s largest maker of liquid-crystal-display glass used in flat-panel TVs and computers. But another wager, which made it the biggest producer of optical fiber during the 1990s, almost sank the company when the tech boom turned into a bust.

Corning Inc. has survived for 157 years by betting big on new technologies, from ruby-colored railroad signals to fiber-optic cable to flat-panel TVs. And now the glass and ceramics manufacturer is making its biggest research bet ever.

Under pressure to find its next hit, the company has spent half a billion dollars — its biggest wager yet — that tougher regulations in the U.S., Europe and Japan will boost demand for its emissions filters for diesel cars and trucks.

“This is the biggest cash hole we’ve ever been in,” says Corning President Peter Volanakis.

In Erwin, a few miles from the company’s headquarters in Corning, the glassmaker is spending $300 million to expand its research labs. There, some 1,700 scientists work on hundreds of speculative projects, from next-generation lasers to optical sensors that could speed the discovery of drugs.

Corning’s roots go back to 1851, when Amory Houghton, a 38-year-old merchant, bought a stake in a small glass company, Cate & Phillips. For most of Corning’s history, a Houghton was either chairman or chief executive. Even today, Corning, population 12,000, is very much a company town. The original Houghton family mansion, still used for company meetings, overlooks the quaint downtown, which is punctuated by a white tower from one of Corning’s original glass factories. Most senior managers have spent their entire careers at Corning.

“Culturally, they’re not afraid to invest and lose money for many years,” says UBS analyst Nikos Theodosopoulos. “That style is not American any more.”

Corning also goes against the grain in manufacturing. While it has joined the pack in moving most of its production overseas, it eschews outsourcing and continues to own and operate the 50 factories that churn out thousands of its different products.

Corning argues that retaining control of research and manufacturing is both a competitive advantage and a form of risk management. Its strategy is to keep an array of products in the pipeline and, once a market develops, to build factories to quickly produce in volumes that keep rivals from gaining traction.

But because Corning often depends heavily on a single product line for most of its profit — 92% of last year’s $2.2 billion profit came from its flat-panel-display business — it is vulnerable to downturns. Even small movements in consumer demand for or pricing of its LCD-based products can cause gyrations in its stock price. During the dot-com meltdown when the market for fiber-optic cable crashed, Corning was brought to the brink of bankruptcy and by 2003 was forced to lay off half of its workers. Today it has 25,000 employees.

Trust in students + lessons tailored to their needs leads to results in education

March 8, 2008

What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart? By ELLEN GAMERMAN, February 29, 2008; Page W1, Wall Street Journal

“…by one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries. American teens finished among the world’s C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they’re way ahead in math, science and reading — on track to keeping Finns among the world’s most productive workers…

The academic prowess of Finland’s students has lured educators from more than 50 countries in recent years to learn the country’s secret, including an official from the U.S. Department of Education. What they find is simple but not easy: well-trained teachers and responsible children. Early on, kids do a lot without adults hovering. And teachers create lessons to fit their students.

In addition to the article, also see the video linked from the WSJ website. The international comparison/test was for 15 year olds in math, science, and reading skills. The video explains that Finnish students don’t start school until age 7 allowing them to play, be free, and develop emotionally for a longer time than their American counterparts who start first grade at age 5.

Making cars safely, efficiently, and high-quality — a look into organizational culture

January 29, 2008

Along with a group of MIT alums, one week ago (1/22/2008) I was fortunate to visit the automotive manufacturing plant in Fremont, CA that turns out the Toyota Corrolla, Pontiac Vibe, and Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. The NUMMI auto plant is a joint venture of GM and Toyota. In North America, for Toyota it is the most efficient plant taking 19 hours of human effort per vehicle produced and seventh overall (GM and Honda have more efficient plants) — see the article “Most efficient assembly plants” in Automotive News. In 2007 NUMMI produced 407,881 vehicles — see “There’s a new No. 1 plant: Georgetown.” I have blogged about NUMMI’s high-trust workplace, and here are some notes that another MIT alum put together in 2003.

The first thing I noticed at the entrance to the plant was a rug on the ground titled “Safety Absolutes”

Safety is the overriding priority

All accidents can and must be prevented

At NUMMI, safety is a shared responsibility

Their mission statement posted on the wall is

“Through teamwork, safely build the highest quality vehicles at the lowest possible cost to benefit our customers, team members, community, and shareholders.”

What struck me was message of social accountability and interdependence being conveyed in both the rug and mission statement.

The plant is 5.5 million square feet (118 football fields or 122 Costcos), and workplace for 5,000 “team members” (they didn’t say employees). There are also 300 temporary workers who come in to help for seasonal variations in production.

The emphasis on relationship with team members and “community” comes out at every turn in the plant. The plant has had no layoffs in its 23 year history of operation. Wages start at $20/hr and go up to $35/hr in three years. The plant has 160 “team rooms” with refrigerators, lunchrooms, and lockers. Phrases I heard included “quality, pride, teamwork, job security, benefits, pay, family, successful year, looking out for my family, winning team, all about the family.”

There are five stages (divisions) to auto manufacturing at NUMMI.

  1. Stamping steel into body sheets — 1 million lbs of steel / day
  2. Body / welding
  3. Paint
  4. Plastics
  5. Assembly — the assembly line is 1.5 miles long producing 650 trucks / day and 900 cars / day. There hours per truck, one produced every 85 seconds.

Quality control involves random test drives and audits at the end of the production line. The quality philosophy really starts with the team members who are trusted with the authority to push a button that will raise an alert to stop the assembly line if they find a problem — an innovation from Japanese lean manufacturing. There was a time when auto plants did not allow their employees to do this. Once they raise the alert, the a red light goes on and they have 81 seconds to decide to clear the alert the before the line actually stops. Sometimes it gets cleared up within that time, and other times the line has to stop to fix the problem. After reading about it before coming to the plant, I was really curious and I actually saw it stop a few times. The line statistics are prominently displayed for team members to view on a scoreboard. They were reporting 2% downtime and the target is to remain less than 4%.

The NUMMI team members work in teams of 4-6 people, and they rotate their jobs throughout the day whenever they want to — this eliminates most of the repetitiveness and boredom usually associated with manufacturing. They usually spend 1 year in a division (like plastics) before moving onto other types of jobs in the plant, so that way employees learn about all aspects of manufacturing/production. Team members are encouraged to find ways to improve the process and implement these ideas. Using a “frame rotator,” the truck chassis were flipped upside down to aid team member ergonomics during assembly of the drivetrain. We saw several robots by Kawasaki, and automatically routed (guided) vehicles to transport auto parts.

If an auto plant can do this, what would it look like if we incorporated this philosophy into software development? Software programmers and test engineers would have the authority to raise alerts and hold up software releases instead of a manger having the final say in triage of bug reviews. People would rotate between software and test. What if the space shuttle launch could be delayed by any engineer on the team instead of being determined by launch managers? To make this work all engineers have to have sufficient system level knowledge and be “trusted” with the authority to make these decisions.

There is a hierarchy,

  1. skilled worker — several of whom are organized into quality circles
  2. team leader of 4-5 workers (tends to be nurturing)
  3. group leader of several teams (tends to be more disciplined)

Only the teams are evaluated for performance, not individuals. People can get fired, but they can’t get layed off. The plant operates in two 7.5 hour shifts for a total of 15 hours per day, five days a week so people have weekends off. According to the tour guide, job rotation was the big thing that drew employees to the plant, not work or guaranteed employment.

The big difference that comes out here is the relationship with team members and that trust turns into better results.

Spaceship One, Spaceship Two

January 24, 2008

According to news this week, for $200K you will be able to fly up into space in a few years, “Entrepreneur Unveils New Tourist Spacecraft”

On October 8, 2006 in San Carlos, CA at the Hillier Aviation Museum, I had the good fortune of listening to Burt Rutan speak about breakthrough innovation, aviation, spaceflight, and aviation safety—totally inspiring. Some of it is very big picture, but here are a few of the highlights,

  • Technical progress and the ability to take big risks has been what sets humans apart from animals
  • Children make the decision to be innovators during the age of 3-14, usually due to some events that occur during that period.
    • Most of the aviation pioneers that people recall (Von Braun, etc.) were growing up during the time when the airplane was invented early 1900. Most aviation since then has used the same basic principles they discovered
  • Next major wave of innovation occurred WWII and after when he was growing up.
  • Third wave was when Sputnik made Americans feel they lost to the Russians, which kick started the space race of 1960s.
  • Since then, we have been using essentially the same space technology for last 30 years.
  • His SpaceShip One is now housed in the Smithsonian right next to the other major plans of the last century
  • Commercial & military airplanes have stagnated in their altitude and speed because the technologies have not been pushed by the organizations that develop them. Space Ship One pushes the envelope by orders of magnitude, representing the next wave of innovation in aviation and space travel. Space Ship Two will be for commercial travel—Virgin airlines may be accepting orders for the first flights.
  • Safety and stability have been the barriers to entry in commercial space flight—that’s what he’s out to change. One of his first jobs out of college was to understand why the F4 had so many failed flights and engineer a stability control system.

Below is a photo of him telling me what he thinks about the Columbia accident report: “if you read it carefully, what they are saying is not to take risks. NASA as an organization will never take risks.” Also asked him what he thinks is the difference between his small 130 person company and NASA is. He replied that he never puts his engineers and factory personnel in the position of defending safety, i.e. never to be in a defensive position, or allow an aviation regulator do that to them.

  • I read this to mean this places full responsibility in the people doing the work to ensure safety.
  • Safety has to be so obvious to the people doing the work that there is never a need to be defensive—they understand exactly why their aircraft is safe.
  • My interpretation is that this nurtures a culture which outperforms regulated safety—he claims he has built some 40 research aircraft with an excellent safety record he claims

Also see, Larry Page on how to change the world: Breakthrough ideas are around the corner, says the Google co-founder.  But most of us are failing to take a chance on them.”

Trust in the workplace: hospitals, manufacturing plants, and engineering organizations

January 4, 2008

this week one of my friends asked the question,

are companies/hospitals with a high degree of interpersonal relationships and trust more efficient and do they have better quality outcomes?

francis fukuyama describes the cultural foundations of toyota’s lean manufacturing operations in “the high trust workplace” chapter of his 1996 book “Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity” and compares it to auto manufacturing in other companies like GM with its highly contractual relationship between management and labor unions. he reports that toyota experiences far fewer defects and the lowest labor hours required to manufacture a car in the world. to understand the difference, see the section on “labor relations” described by the website for the joint GM/Toyota manufacturing plant in Fremont, CA — this is one of the case studies that fukuyama looks at in that chapter.

it took me a while to connect all the dots but it there is evidence from multiple sources that high (low) trust in organizations is linked to fewer (more) errors, failures, and mistakes in all kinds of highly technical industries such as hospitals, beyond just auto-manufacturing plants. the opposite — a lower level of trust/relationships among doctors and nurses contributes lower reporting rates of medical errors, and hence more mistakes in practice.

first dot. the fun short 2007 book called “the no asshole rule” by sutton (from stanford business school) — on p. 39,

“Edmondson did what she thought was a straightforward study of how leadership and coworker relationships influenced drug treatment errors in eight nursing units. she assumed that the better the leadership and coworker support, the fewer the mistakes people would make. yet edmondson, along with the harvard medical school physicians funding her research, were at first bewildered when questionnaires showed that units with the best leadership and coworker relationships reported the most errors: units with the best leaders reported making as many as ten times more errors than units with the worst leaders. after Edmondson pieced together all the evidence, she figured out that nurses in the best units reported far more errors because they felt psychologically safe to admit their mistakes. nurses in the best units said that mistakes were natural and normal to document and that mistakes are serious because of the toxicity of the drugs, so you are never afraid to tell the nurse manager. the story was completely different in the units where nurses rarely reported errors. fear ran rampant. nurses said things like the environment is unforgiving; heads will roll, you get put on trial, and that the nurse manager treats you as guilty if you make a mistake and treats you like a two year old. as the late corporate quality guru w. edwards deming concluded long ago, when fear rears its ugly head, people focus on protecting themselves, not on helping their organizations improve. edmondson’s research shows that this happens even when lives are at stake.”

second dot. in 2004 i started reading a book about medical errors called “internal bleeding” by wachter & shojania (at ucsf), p. 216

“in one survey of more than seven hundred nurses, 96 percent said they had witnessed or experienced disruptive behavior by physicians. nearly half had pointed to fear of retribution as the primary reason such acts were not reported to superiors.”

p. 222

“one study compared the attitudes of flight crews regarding teamwork to those held by surgical teams. the surgeons themselves thought the team functioned well (three quarters rated teamwork as “high”). the other members of the team begged to differ. only 39% of anesthesiologists, 28% of surgical nurses, 25% of anesthesia nurses, and 10% of anesthesia residents agreed that the level of teamwork was good. nearly half the surgeons felt that junior team members shouldn’t question the decisions of the senior physician. in contrast 94% of airline pilots reject this sort of hierarchy– possibly because when the captain makes a mistaken everyone else goes down as well.”

watcher discusses an example of what they are doing to address this in an article

“At my hospital (UCSF Medical Center) and several other centers around the United States, we have enlisted the help of commercial airline pilots to teach us how to communicate better, how to dampen down hierarchies (so that a young nurse feels comfortable questioning a senior doctor when something seems awry), and how to debrief participants after an operation, just as crew members are debriefed after a flight.”

also see a piece on medical ethics and reporting of errors. a piece on transforming hospital culture from secrecy to safety oriented, explains it well

Focus on Safety, Rather than Secrecy
In the current climate, hospitals often deny that mistakes exist. When they do happen, they react as if the event is an anomaly. The popular approach is to find the person responsible – the “bad apple” – and issue a punishment. Typically, the first question workers ask when they hear a mistake occurred is “who did it?” followed by “have they done it before?” The focus is on the individual rather than the system.

The reality, Dr. Pepper said, is that human beings will always make mistakes. “Human beings have flexibility. This is what distinguishes us from a computer, but it is also what makes us error-prone,” she said. “If we didn’t make errors, we couldn’t be creative.”

A safety culture has a different assumption: It says that errors are common and they are made by good people in a flawed system. It distinguishes between blame-worthy and blameless mistakes (those that are made out of vindication, carelessness or recklessness versus those that are unintentional).

In a safety culture, the discovery and reporting of errors is rewarded, not punished. This doesn’t mean health professionals are not accountable. Accountability is not being perfect, but rather it involves acknowledging the error, apologizing, repairing the harm, discovering the causes of the error and fixing the system or process.
Initiating this kind of safety culture does work, Dr. Pepper said.

A five-year study in a variety of industries demonstrated that a behavioral safety initiative resulted in 29-percent improvement in safety practices in one year, which rose to a 69-percent improvement by the fifth year.

third dot. it turns out that hierarchy, secrecy, and underreporting of errors was a major factor that led to the poor safety record of the soviet nuclear industry and in particular the poor designs/operation of the chernobyl reactor according to richard rhodes in “Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race” in his first chapter on chernobyl, p. 7

“unknown to the soviet public and the world, at least 13 serious power reactor accidents had occured in the soviet union before the one at chernobyl”

after reading “internal bleeding,” in later 2004 i started studying case studies of the largest technological disasters and found that “system understanding” was missing in all of the accidents and a good portion of this can be avoided with effective team reviews where trust already exists between team members. if trust does not exist might as well forget the reviews.

in the end, the lesson is simple. in highly technical industries where corporate success depends on every team member, hire and work with teammates whom you can trust and can be completely open with. otherwise, you can expect failures at all levels that you won’t know about until it’s too late.

Tips on how to motivate people from Coors’ “Chief Beer Taster”

October 1, 2007

Leo Kiely says that the job of a leader is to set Big Hairy Audacious Goals (or BHAG’s according to “Built to Last”) and the staff/company will rally around that. “Turn the team loose and let them play.”

How ‘Chief Beer Taster’ Blended Molson, Coors


October 1, 2007; Page B1; Wall Street Journal

Innovation in Process vs Product

September 30, 2007

The Unsung Heroes Who Move Products Forward

Published: September 30, 2007

New York Times