Potential: Revealed

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

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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?

And in the end…

Perhaps fitting (or just cheeky?) this blog will start by stealing from one of the best. In this case, The Beatles. On their last recorded album, “Abbey Road”, they were famous for naming the supposed ending tune “The End”. Yet they rewarded those that were patient and persistent with a gem (14 seconds) after “The End” called “Her Majesty”. I loved it when I first heard it (thanks Big Sis’ who gave me the original issue 33rpm), and still love it today.

For some reason I have always been a fan of surprises. As a child, I actually liked waiting until Christmas morning to find out what presents were there for me under the tree. Later in life, I have found pleasure in the word “latent” which is defined as “present potential not yet realized or revealed”. Sort of like a surprise of a different but related sort. Looking back at personal and business experiences that I’ve enjoyed and been fortunate to be a part of, many have some aspect of latency. Whether they were reinvigorating a tired product line with a great and loyal customer base, or finding hidden value in data that is the artifact of a core business process, or on a more personal note volunteering as a elementary school tutor and helping kids see possibilities in themselves that were always there, but just not able to shine through as brightly as they could.

So, this is not actually the end but the beginning of hopefully an interesting experience sharing ideas, insights, and thoughts on the subject of “revealing potential”.