Nov 27, 2011

Intellectual property can be a liability in China

There are a lot of things wrong with intellectual property law in the U.S., Canada, Europe and elsewhere that similar systems are used. Patents take a long time, litigation is common, and lawyers prosper as much as innovators. In a country like China, however, the political and legal system can be rigged against people with critical knowledge in ways we can hardly imagine. In "Engineer's return to China leads to jail and limbo," today's New York Times reminds us of things we take for granted.

Hu Zhicheng is a naturalized American citizen, an engineer educated at MIT, with 48 patents and deep experience designing catalytic converter systems. Mr. Hu saw an opportunity to help China with its pollution problems if he returned and applied his knowledge there. He went to China in 2004, bringing his family there in 2006 as he went from success to success in manufacturing, eventually becoming president of the company that supplies catalytic converters to half of China's cars.

Then he declined to accept a company as a supplier, Hysci Specialized Materials. Retaliation was not long in coming, according to Mr. Hu. Tianjin public security officers arrived in response to an accusation that Hu had stolen trade secrets, though the technology was public information in the U.S. The shady part was that buying from Hysci would make the charges go away. Mr. Hu was jailed for 17 months, at times being made to sleep on the floor of his cell. He was released after prosecutors withdrew the case.

The Hu family was able to leave China when the situation became dire. Now that Mr. Hu is at liberty, whenever he tries to board a plane for the U.S., he is stopped by immigration officials who have unsubstantiated claims that he is wanted for crimes in Tianjin.

Although Thanksgiving in the U.S. is past, perhaps we should be grateful for a business and legal system that is imperfect, but not a threat to life and liberty.

Nov 17, 2011

Hierarchy or wider-archy?

We're used to seeing pyramid organization charts with the CEO at the top and the workers down at the bottom, with varying numbers of levels in between. It's popular now to flip the pyramid and show the leader at the bottom supporting the workers at the top.

But are we stuck with a vertical model in our heads? Even if a cross-functional horizontal set of connections is added, it still has a top and a bottom. And we hardly ever see pyramids in real life.

We have no trouble seeing a map as a flattened out representation of reality, with centers of power and critical channels of communication radiating - waterways, roads, railroads, airways. You can drive a car to just about any gemba.
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 We have no trouble seeing a ceiling or a window with a hub-and-spoke design with the center holding the structure in place.

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Why then do we so rarely see organization charts represented this way?


Nov 6, 2011

My brain told me

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"How did you know that?" we asked a 3-year old. His answer? "My brain told me."

Yesterday was one of those weird days where I kept hearing about the brain and how we behave. The fundamental fact is that we have an organ in our head, related to the rest of our body, where our actions, thinking, stories of ourselves, beliefs, relationships, feelings, and temperament come from. It's hard to think of it as a separate entity from our "self."

Emerging neuroscientific and psychological research may be important to our understanding of lean as a culture and management philosophy. So much of the discussion is about why the people driving the management bus don't "get it," about why cultures don't change, and why so few organizations have been able to sustain lean if they even made a try at implementing it. These issues all boil down to why human beings in organizational systems have a hard time moving together to a different way of doing things.

Let's look superficially for a moment at what Dr. Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California, Santa Barbara, tells us about what's going on in the noisy brain. He says there is a constant narrator telling us a story of ourselves and experiences. Anyone who has tried to meditate or has become "lost in thought" knows that. But the stories are often laced with fiction, false memories, and faulty beliefs. (New York Times, "Decoding the Brain's Cacophony")

The manager who doesn't get why lean thinking may be better than traditional thinking is telling himself or herself a story about being rewarded because of doing certain things in certain circumstances despite experiences where those actions don't work well at all. The story may be filled in by believing that the problems are someone else's fault, or because the economy is bad, or the planets are aligned unfavorably. What to do next is part of the story too -- get someone fired or hired, put pressure on someone, buy a new IT system or machine, borrow money. Walking through workplaces and asking what's going on, leading an improvement event, re-examining a value stream rarely fit into the story. Though painful, it's coherent.  The person may tell the story to others and explain the belief of how things should work, or complain about why things aren't working.

Gazzaniga's study of people with brains "split" by surgery to treat epilepsy or by stroke show that when they "see" things with only one eye, they may not be able to "know" that it is there. It doesn't make sense to the part of the brain telling the story. In such cases, the storyteller will make up some explanation that may be completely irrational but will make the story coherent.(The Neurontal Platonist, Journal of Consciousness Studies.)

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aye_shamus
The self is the hero of the story. I am doing things right. I have the right skills. Things going wrong are not my fault. I'm not here to make friends. I compete with my peers for power or money. My [boss, wife, children, husband, employees, parents...] don't understand me. You know how it goes. You have a similar storyteller in your head.

Doubt about the way to do things doesn't easily enter the story, unless enough ideas have penetrated to compare his or her current predicament to something that might be improved through fundamentally changing behavior about how people and processes should be managed.

That's just one example of why a person may resist new ideas with great force of will, especially if they mean facing the realization that everything you believed about cause and effect are simply not true, and that you don't have the skills to do your job. Humility and our cultural history don't go together.

I think it's important to understand that resistance or opposition come from the very way the brain works. It is not that person's "self" resisting or opposing. You can't blame someone for the way the brain works any more than you can blame someone for having a vascular system that produces high blood pressure. (If only the intervention was as easy as taking a pill.) But maybe you can help that person rewrite the story, become the hero another way without having to believe they are stupid or wrong. Maybe some people can accept that as a revelation. Most people aren't going to want that. Perhaps participating in an event that makes a difference helps write a new story of personal heroism, as a member of a team rather than as a lone ranger.

Would understanding more about the brain help us spread change -- what we call "lean" -- more widely and strategically? Let's think about it.

Nov 3, 2011

Be the product in the process

Pigs with room to move around
When she spoke at the 2011 AME Conference, Temple Grandin did not talk a lot about engineering process flow in the livestock industry, but it would have resonated with the process improvement zealots at AME's conference. 

As a visual thinker and someone who felt that animals a processed experience the same way, she was pained and distressed to see how they were treated as they moved from pasture to meat market. It wasn't that they were destined for death that bothered her. It was the suffering and fear they were experiencing along the way.

She went on to study the process and product through detailed direct observation --go and see, gemba walk). She noticed little things that caused sensory alarm to the animals, and believed that it mattered. This was in part because a symptom of her autism was great sensitivity to sensory input -- light, noise, motion, abrupt change.

The right way to unload cattle
from trucks
As she watched cattle and other animals moving from truck, to disinfecting baths, to that ramp, to the stun gun, she saw every little detail. She was able to walk the process in her mind as though she was the product. She may even have walked through the process as though she were one of the animals.

At one site, the proud American flag waving in the air was spooking the cows, but who knew that it was part of the process as far as the cow was concerned. An unnoticed detail interrupted process flow. Besides slowing down movement through the process, floods of fear hormones in the animal weren’t going to improve the quality of the meat. Neither would bruises sustained by the animals bumping into barriers or being prodded by workers. Unnoticed factors like the flag were introducing defects as well as slowing flow. 
Other factors she noticed included a difference between the animal's reaction to being made to turn a corner or a circular path, whether people were moving around in their peripheral vision, or whether they saw reflections on pools of water. If they could walk into a bath sure-footedly they would remain placid, but balk if they were caused to slip and slide. Shouting disturbed them. 


After decades of persistent work, Temple Grandin has seen her process design principles transform an industry. All because she could imagine herself moving through a process.

How often do we think of ourselves as a piece of metal moving, waiting in line, or dropping on the floor? Or an invoice being filled in, waiting in digital darkness to be electronically stamped, pushed, cursed at, until finally being paid and payment accepted by the customer? We do become the material in the process when we shop or go to the hospital. When we are made to move through a system that was not designed for flow.

Maybe we can try visualizing ourselves moving through the process we want to improve and see what we learn.

Nov 1, 2011

All kinds of minds

For those who don’t know, Temple Grandin is a gifted engineer and advocate for people who are different. She is also a woman with autism, or perhaps Aspergers, but definitely “on the spectrum” as people are beginning to say. Dr. Grandin gave a keynote talk at the recent AME conference and described how her mind works differently from most other people. She calls it thinking in pictures.

Using her example, when she says the word “steeple,” most of us see a picture of a generalized steeple, something pointy at the top of a church. We might accompany the picture with a verbal sort of description, and may have memories of being in a church with a steeple or watching a movie where someone falls out of a steeple.

In contrast, she says she sees pictures of all the steeples she has seen, not an identification of a category that they belong to. Her mind just works that way.

Which comes to her point -- we need all kinds of minds in our world, and many kinds in our companies.

She sees a problem right in a child’s early years, when schools are increasingly labeling children and channeling them in special ed -- kid who would have been in the classroom in the past. One driver she mentioned is the need for schools to pass assessment tests. They need a set of students who are good at remembering things and performing well on certain kinds of tests. It’s serious. The fate of the school and careers of teachers really do depend upon these scores.

Which kids are on the autism spectrum and which are on the “typical” -- we don’t say “normal” anymore. Well, if a spectrum is a statistical representation of a population, we’re all on it. Each of us is just a little more up the scale or a little more down it. Then there are all the other spectrums (spectra?) we can imagine:

Artistic
Social
Mathematical
Musical
Introspective
Sensitive
Athletic
Energetic
…and so on.

Some children with specialized talents are not well-endowed with those measured on the tests. If they can be excluded from the test-taking population by labeling them, schools and teachers will be assessed as satisfactory or exemplary.

Of course, some children have needs so specialized that they truly need intensive support of a different sort. The topic of mainstreaming -- putting special ed kids in the regular classroom with a support person -- is a big one.

The wrong metrics can drive the wrong behavior -- we know that. Now how can we help the school improvement process develop better ones?

Let’s not stop here. Are our preconceived notions about employees excluding people whose talents might add value we couldn’t get any other way? If we’re now calling human resources “talent management,” where are we looking for talent? How are we rewarding people who are different? (John Robison's book, “Look Me in the Eye,” shows how difficult it is to accept some people in an organization if the organization can’t adapt.) Of course, there is a point where a business cannot function well if behavior diverges too far from what gets the right things done.

Challenge yourself to look at the humans in your organization in a new light. How does your organization fit people who are different? What are you missing when some people can’t thrive? Do you have an opportunity to stretch your boundaries and those of your organizations?
Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm