Sep 062010
 

Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World by Margaret J. Wheatley.

I rarely read books more than once…at least not since my children were enthralled by Dr. Seuss! Occasionally, however, a particular book and I develop a rewarding long-term relationship. Meg Wheatley’s masterpiece and I have been friends now for more than 15 years. I just finished reading the 3rd edition and it was as generous in challenging my thinking and providing mental nourishment, as were the first two.
In this perennial best-seller, Meg examines the new sciences—Quantum Mechanics, Chaos Theory, Field Theory, self-organizing systems and others. From these she extracts topics like uncertainty, strange attractors, fractals and action-at-a-distance, and uses them to re-imagine organizational theory in light of how we now understand the Universe’s modus operandi.
What Meg asks the reader to consider is that the world does not operate by the dictates of Newtonian and Cartesian science—in a clocklike, mechanical, cause-and-effect way. She reminds us that in open systems, like the organizations we inhabit and nurture, entropy will not cause anarchy to reign. We do not necessarily need humanities’ extraordinary management skills—and boxes on an organization chart—to whip the Universe into shape. As I recall, the Universe organized itself fairly well before we arrived…thank you very much!
She describes so eloquently that vision, values and self-reflective identity can serve as organizing principles—what Dee Hock, CEO Emeritus of Visa, calls organizational DNA—around which we gather to be creative and add value to the world.
If you have been kind enough to travel this far in my review, you obviously did not allow the scientific jargon to dissuade you. If so, this book will invite you into a comfortable conversation about the future of organizations. However, here’s my warning: this book, based on my 15 year friendship, can leave you adrift. The ideas will so deeply challenge the very essence of what we were raised to believe, you may be tempted to ask, “This is all very fine, but certainly this does not apply in the real world?” I am convinced it does…and that a livable future for our children and grandchildren hangs in the balance.

Bon Appétit!

Mar 032010
 

Note: This article was originally published in the Batavia Chamber of Commerce newsletter, Batavia Business.

My Father spent his career in quality management, so I was raised with a deep understanding of what quality means, how you get it, how you create systems to deliver it and what to do when those systems fail. Like the humans that create them, all systems are imperfect and will fail to meet customer expectations at some point! Anytime a customer is disappointed—with a product or service—you have a quality problem.

25 years ago, I was a newly-minted sales manager for a chemical company. A customer who used our dye to manufacture industrial paper towels discovered that one of their customers was upset because something was leaching from the towels and turning water brown. They wanted to cancel all future orders because they feared some unknown, potentially hazardous chemical was threatening the health of anyone who might grab a towel.

We did two things. First, we worked with our customer to adjust the amount of dye they added to their towels. Then we called our chemical plant to get toxicity data for the dye—it was completely harmless. Those two actions allowed our customer to report that the cause of the problem was found and corrected, and to document the dye was harmless, which no other towel suppliers could do. The quality “problem” lead to both an improved production process and a competitive advantage.

On the other hand, I once consulted with the president of a jewelry manufacturing company. He loved sales, but hated manufacturing. The only time he entered the plant was when there was a problem and it was time to “kick some butt.” The moment the plant door flew open and he appeared, the manufacturing people literally ran for cover. With everyone pointing fingers to avoid being the one whose derriere was to be roasted, few problems were ever really solved, little competitive advantage was ever gained and costs remained exorbitantly high

There are two ways to deal with a system failure. You can target some individual, label them an inept, inconsiderate slob who doesn’t care about customers, and punish them. Alternatively, you can realize that problems are almost always systemic—the weakness is in the system—and beyond the control of any one individual.

If you follow the first course, you will drive fear into the organization, fail to solve the systemic problem, ensure it reoccurs and train people hide or point fingers the next time the system fails.

A more enlightened approach is to gather the troops, explain the problem, enroll everyone in finding the root cause, fix the system and celebrate success.

Most managers would be amazed how much employees want to help solve problems… and already know how. When I was that wet-behind-the-ears manager, Denis, a customer service rep, would call every so often with a customer problem and ask how to solve it. Thinking it was my job to fix the problem, I would wring my hands, talk to a few people and call Denis back with a solution. One day he called with a problem and I was stressed and frustrated. I said, “I don’t know Denis, what do you think?” He knew how to solve the problem…he always did. He was simply afraid to step on the toes of some young, unknown manager. I came to love Denis for his dedication, creativity and customer commitment.

No system is flawless…no system will ever be flawless. When systems fail, you can exclaim, “Oh God…a quality problem!” Alternatively, you can view it as a gift to help you identify and reinforce a weak link in the chain of events that produces your products and services. When seen this way, next time a customer has a complaint, you just might instead—with the use of one extra “o”—exclaim “Oh Good! A quality problem.”