Where You Look Shapes What You See

Over the last few weeks, I have introduced the first stage of Passion Management, with key elements – Vuja De, anthropology and freshness. In it was the emphasis on ‘seeing’ opportunities. Often we do this within our own industries. Sometimes it is better to look outside. Never assume that you are the only person to have faced an issue like the one you are facing, or that you cannot learn something valuable from the world around you.

As referenced in what you see shapes how you change, the advertising giant TBWA, uses what it calls the “CEO Hat” exercise to encourage organizations with tunnel vision to develop a new line of sight. Participants search for out-of-the-box answers to big strategic questions by reaching into boxes filled with hats, shirts, and other paraphernalia from breakthrough organizations such as Apple, Virgin, Target, Southwest Airlines—and then adopt the mindset of those free-thinking companies as they think about the questions with their clients. “We define possible strategies for companies through the eyes and values and under the leadership of a different CEO,” explains Laurie Coots, TBWA’s chief marketing officer. “The sheer act of being free to think like somebody else gives you permission to generate ideas that you might not get to otherwise.” The specific questions…are less important than the spirit, which is to challenge conventional wisdom.

Where you look shapes what you see. That’s the lesson of the “CEO Hat” exercise. The most creative leaders I’ve met don’t aspire to learn from the “best in class” in their industry—especially when best in class isn’t all thatgreat. Instead, they aspire to learn from innovators far outside their industry as a way to shake things up and leapfrog the competition. Ideas that are routine in one industry can be revolutionary when they migrate to another industry, especially when those ideas challenge the prevailing assumptions that define so many industries. 

Consider the transformation of Virginia Mason Medical Center, a 100-year-old hospital in Seattle, Washington with 400 doctors and nearly 5,000 employees. For years, despite a rich history, Virginia Mason struggled with deteriorating finances, inefficient processes, and uneven quality. Its CEO, Dr. Gary Kaplan, didn’t focus on what other hospitals were doing. (Many of them, after all, had the same problems.) Instead, he became fascinated with the legendary Toyota Production System. Eiji Toyoda had used the Toyota Production System to drive Japan’s flagship company to global prominence—and Kaplan came to believe that his organization could borrow methodologies from the automobile industry to fix its problems. Of most interest was the blend of ‘just in time’ assembly techniques (kanban), continuous improvement (kaizen) and front line employees who fixed real problems in real time (jikoda). 

So the CEO began leading 14-day trips to Japan in which doctors, nurses, and hospital staffers get exposed in the intricacies of how Toyota organized work, tracked quality, and solved problems. There were classes and meetings, of course, but a defining piece of the experience is when doctors, nurses, and hospital staffers spent several days working eight-hour shifts in a factory. They staff the lines, do the work, and, like their Japanese counterparts, are expected to use the Toyota Production System to solve problems. “This is a real eye-opener for the team,” Kaplan explains. “We stick a bunch of doctors on an assembly line. We use the methods and tools we’ve learned, we come up with suggestions, and the Japanese put them into place! They did things they never thought they were capable of doing. It changes the way you think.” Each trip begins with a daylong tour of the Toyota Museum in Nagoya, which offers an eye-opening display of the ideas, technologies and management techniques behind the company’s rise. Virginia Mason employees visit the museum armed with sketchbooks, in which they are required to take visual notes of what catches their eye. “The museum is fundamental to the experience…this is all about learning to see, and people see more when they draw.”

Years of in-depth study of Toyota have transformed Virginia Mason. The hospital eliminated millions of dollars of inventory, cut the time required to deliver lab results by 85 percent, and reducedstaff walking distances by 60 miles per day. One frontline team redesigned how nurses interact with patients and with each other—allowing nurses to spend 90 percent of their time at the bedside, as opposed to 35 percent before. Indeed, the student is now a teacher: The hospital has become so proficient at Toyota’s techniques that it created an institute to show other companies how to practice what it has learned. 

In other words, over the last decade, Virginia Mason became the ultimate learning organization. In recent years, it has also aspired to become the ultimate teaching organization. The Institute leads tours of the facilities and explains how they work, teaches classes in various management techniques, and otherwise shares what Virginia Mason knows with individual executives and entire health-care systems. The student has become the teacher. Why bother? “First and foremost, this is about our vision to be the quality leader in our field and to help transform the field as a whole” Kaplan says. “Part of our mission as a company is to help improve our industry. But the more we educate, the faster we move as well. This will spur us on and push us to keep getting better. Our credibility as a company is dependent on our ability to deliver results.” Ultimately, though, the real impact of Virginia Mason’s exposure to the theory and practice of Japanese quality management was as much about fuelling imagination as I was about transferring methodologies.

Ideas that are routine in one industry can be revolutionary when they migrate to another industry, especially when those ideas challenge the prevailing assumptions that define so many industries. Next week we will look at how Toyota ‘stole with glee’ from an icon from another industry.

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