Potential: Revealed

Strategic Thinking, Innovative Ideas, Growth Marketing, and Revealing of Potential

Archive for August, 2008

Car nostalgia

The definition of nostalgia is “a fond longing for the past”. In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently there was an article named Cars We Love To Hate. Now, the words “fond” and “longing” as part of the definition for nostalgia might be a stretch but I did feel quite nostalgic when reading this article.

Perhaps because of the seven cars featured, I drove three of them as a teenager and as a college student: the Chevy Vega, the Chevy Corvair, and the AMC Pacer.

Notwithstanding that the first car my Dad let me drive was made infamous by Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” screed, these cars did exactly what was needed: get me from point A to B, cheaply and with pretty decent reliability. The fact that I became a bondo “artist” with all of these cars (partly due to Michigan weather and road salt, partly due to cheap nature of these cars) also doesn’t ruin my recollection. I probably see these cars (plus my mom’s lovely AMC Hornet, my sisters’ AMC Rambler and Ford Fairlane — a great car!) as part of my character and shapers of my life philosophy:

Be happy with what you have (for others have worse or nothing at all), take care of that which you’ve been given, and if want something better then work hard, save and persevere until you reach your goals.

Did I say these things to my mom and dad back in the late 1970 and early 1980’s when I drove these jalopies? Doubtful. But through the lens of time — and the fact that my youth was “celebrated” in the AJC article, certainly served to improve my memories.

How about you? Any stories to share?

Experimenting leads to Expanding

Recently I read an interesting research article on “The Contradictions That Drive Toyota’s Success” that I may blog a couple times on since it was full of, well, contradictions to conventional wisdom of what makes businesses successful.

In summary the authors describe three “forces of expansion” (defined as those that lead the company to instigate change and improvement) and three “forces of integration” (defined as those that stabilize the company’s expansion and transformation. The countervailing nature of these forces allow Toyota to be widely and sometimes wildly innovative, creative, and constantly renewing itself, without undo chaos or losing its very clear and constant cultural identity. First I’ll focus on the Expansion forces.

The Expansion forces are noted as Set Impossible Goals, Local Customization, and Experimentation. Each are interesting but the Experimentation force was of particular interest. First, it is an important tool to facilitate the achievement of Impossible Goals. The culture of Toyota is one of pushing the employees to move freely outside their comfort zone and into uncharted territories through regular experiementation — and learning from both successes and failures. There is an interesting illustration from the development lifecycle of the Prius hybrid vehicle. In 1993 (yes, 1993!) they began development and first came out with a car that had 50% improvement in fuel efficiency. This was summarily rejected by Toyota executives in favor of a goal of 100% improvement. This made them look beyond conventional technologies and experiment their way through a string of failures: engines that would not start reliably, ones that could only travel a few hundred yards, battery packs that would not operate in the heat — or the cold.

Two simple concepts that Toyota employs when in experimental mode leapt out at me:

– think deeply but take small steps
never give up

These sound trite on the surface — too simple to be truly useful. But in thinking about them further, they go together beautifully (and powerfully).

On the first concept, my experience is that many companies get caught up in what I call “mistaking action for progress”. The steps they take may be indeed small but they are not small on purpose. And regularly they admonish their employees to take steps, any steps, so that they can report on “progress” (typically upwards to those above putting the pressure on). Rather than thinking deeply (which takes time but can look like lack of progress) and purposefully breaking a goal down into small, purposeful steps, the action appears to be guided by ready-aim-fire in reverse.

The second concept also sounds too pat but again my experience is that contemporary short term business thinking precludes applying a “never give up” attitude. It is not that companies want their employees to give up at the first sign of duress but without the advantage of using a small-step approach, which carries with it the corresponding advantage of low costs for any failures, costs can mount and patience for success wanes.

Experimentation is one of the most useful and powerful tools an organization can employ. The growing availability of data on markets and customers, the open foundation of the Internet, the near instantaneous pace of all communications, and many other aspects of the current business environment make experimentation both possible — and vital.

Do you agree? Are there other ingredients to successful experimentation?