Archive for the 'Excellence' Category

Fix everything two ways, learn from everything in multiple ways.

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

“Fix everything two ways” is one of the tenets of the Toyota Production System. It means:

  1. Fix the problem at hand — e.g. the part that doesn’t fit on this car being built.
  2. Figure out and fix the underlying issue that caused the problem to occur at all — e.g. the part is designed badly, the worker doesn’t have the right tool to install the part, the batch of metal used to make the part was inferior, etc.

The concept applies much more widely, of course. (I’m hardly the first to point this out.) Let’s say you see that your kids have tracked mud onto the carpet. There are two fixes:

  1. Remove the fresh smudges on the carpet before they set into stains. (Or, better yet, make the kids do it.)
  2. Put a shoe rack by the door and establish a firm policy that muddy shoes have to come off while you’re still in the entryway, before you ever make it to the carpet.

You get the idea — a specific fix, backed up by a structural fix. It’s a smart practice, in many settings.

Learning Multiple Lessons at Once

There’s a related concept I’ve been playing with that I find similarly useful. I thought of it by juxtaposing the preceding idea with the Confucian saying that an attentive person can learn from either a sage or a fool. From the sage, you learn what to do; from the fool, you learn what not to do. By extension, you can absorb lessons at different layers from virtually any situation — IF you’re paying attention.

My focus here is on business lessons, although again this should generalize across many settings. Basically, it operates along two axes:

  • From the particular to the general. So a particular business challenge might teach you about THIS person with whom you’re doing business (their temperament, quirks, likes and dislikes, etc.) at the same time it teaches you something about your approach to dealing with ANY person in business (assume the best, one size does not fit all, be patient, etc.).
  • Across dimensions. I’m talking about dimensions like these:
    • People
    • Projects
    • Processes
    • Institutions
    • Disciplines

To take the “projects” example and apply the rubric “from the particular to the general,” you might address a particular setback on a work project at three distinct levels:

  1. “How do we fix THIS issue?” There’s a particular task that needs doing, but it’s stuck or broken or out of sync. How do you un-stick it, fix it, get it aligned?
  2. “What does this issue say about where this whole project is going?” Maybe there have been persistent breakdowns in communication or work handoffs between two departments, or between you and your vendor. How can you take the fresh example at hand as a call to reorganize the project — or least to get everyone to realize that coordination has been a problem — so that the whole project runs better?
  3. “What does this tell me about organizing projects in general?” A major project I’m shepherding at work keeps reminding me of the mindset I need to have and the practices I need to follow to keep things moving like they should: remind people gently but persistently about what needs to be delivered by when; create better visibility into progress (and lags) for all parties; when in doubt, over-communicate; and so on.

You get the idea: you take the matter at hand not just as a problem to be solved in the moment — a hangnail, so to speak — but as an opportunity to get better at doing a whole class of things.

Help me expand on this?

Is this approach useful to you? What dimensions or nuances would you add to it?

Photo source.

Don’t make it more complicated than it is.

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

When something is legitimately complicated, we have an easy out: we’re not supposed to get it / learn it / master it on the first go, and we can even elicit others’ sympathy for making an effort.

  • “You’re reading Ulysses? I’m too scared to even try.”
  • “You’re taking organic chem? That would be totally over my head.”
  • “You’re implementing a new CRM system? That must be a nightmare.”

It’s an easy out because this benefit of the doubt may be there even if you’re badly half-assing your efforts at reading Ulysses.

Some people spend far more effort in mastering this strategy than they do in getting the actual work done. The fact that many of them do it subconsciously makes it less wicked, but so much sadder. These poor souls actually believe that life keeps presenting them with challenges that are just too complicated for them to master.

It’s a crock.

If you’re doing something genuinely complex — switching a Fortune 100 company from Oracle to SAP, staging La Traviata at the Met — yes, take steps to deal with the complexities. Build a team, designate leaders in different specialties, hold weekly status meetings, build out Gantt charts, what-have-you. If it’s a complex solo effort, you should still spend a little extra time on organizing to try to get the various threads to come together on time and in good order.

But whether it’s simple or complex, at some point you just have to roll up your sleeves and do the actual thing. The writing, the studying, the construction of the stage sets, the installation of the new hardware. The actual nuts and bolts of the project.

And here’s a thing that some people never get: most of the projects you do in life are only nuts and bolts. Many of them are just a single nut to be tightened onto a single bolt.

When you hit a project like that — you’ve probably had eight of them already today — just pick out a wrench and go to work. In the time it would take you to deconstruct it, worry about it, and organize it, you could have done it and the three next to it.

To review:

  1. Let things be as simple as they really are.
  2. Organize just enough.
  3. Get to work.

It’s not easy — but it is simple.

Photo by Joel Cooper.

“Toughen up your will.”

Friday, October 1st, 2010



Those were the opening words of an e-mail that Patagonia sent me this week. The e-mail touched on an insanely difficult climb being tackled in France by Patagonia-outfitted alpinists, but the principle holds true across many things: if you’re going to take on something difficult, and if it’s genuinely important to you, it’s vital that you harden yourself to the task.

Yes, prepare. Yes, plan. But above all set your mind to it.

This hit home to me, in my own little way, because yesterday I did a particularly tough treadmill workout. Hey, it’s just the treadmill — not the French Alps — and it wouldn’t have taxed a “real” runner. But it was tough for me, and it required upping the intensity throughout the workout.

In case you’re curious about specifics of the workout, it went like this:

  • Decide on the overall distance you’ll cover.
  • Start at an easy jogging pace for the first half-mile — or whatever works for you to get good and warm.
  • Every quarter-mile after that — or tenth, or whatever increment you decide — increase the speed by a planned amount, e.g. 0.1 or 0.2 or 0.5 mph.
  • Keep doing it until you cover the whole distance.

Easy, right? Sure it is — unless you’ve really picked a challenge for yourself, which in this case I had.

By the end of the workout, my legs were steaming and my lungs were screaming. When I’d tried this previously (I’ve been doing these treadmill sessions twice a week for a couple of months now), I hadn’t been able to maintain the increases in pace all the way to the end. But yesterday I did.

Part of it, I’m sure, is that with each workout-and-recovery cycle, I’m getting more of my old running legs under me. But a big part of it — the biggest part — was that I had made up my mind to do the whole program, regardless of how much I wanted to quit.

When you set your mind to something, don’t quit.

It’s a simple lesson — one of the simplest — but it bears repeating.


(Photo by Zach Dischner.)

Are you “working out,” or “training”?

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Sunday’s workout was okay — squats, bench presses, and lots of stretching. Overall, though, February has been a hollow month for me in terms of fitness: a few workouts, but no consistent progress, and I’m nowhere near the goals I set out for myself.

It’s not like the frustration is gnawing away at me, but it has led me to think more about Dave Tate’s advice on pursuing one’s real priorities, plus my own advice for sticking with a workout program.

Here’s what struck me: plenty of people, myself included, “work out” regularly — often without ever hitting any particular milestone. Or, if they hit a milestone, it’s an oh-by-the-way side effect of what they’ve been doing, rather than the fruit of a cherished or methodical pursuit.

Contrast this to how the winter Olympians we’re watching every night train for years on end to achieve a particular goal. I’ve been struck by how many of the competitors have said, both before and after finding out whether they won, that they’re happy with the outcome regardless because they know that they have trained as hard as they could and then given their absolute best effort in competition.

My goal now is to go back to the drawing board to decide (a) what I want to train for, and (b) how I’m going to go about it.

What are you training for?


(Image by snakemanrob, used under a CC-Noncommercial license.)

Commonplace: Tate.

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

DaveTate.jpgIf you want to be successful, you will rearrange your priorities, and put your focus where it belongs: on the one thing you want to obtain. Results will follow.

Dave Tate, powerlifter and fitness entrepreneur

Be advised: the page just linked has foul language, plus a gory picture of a soldier’s arm after it got shredded by a bomb in Afghanistan. If that doesn’t put you off, the story of the soldier’s recovery and return to powerlifting is an inspiring one.

That’s a picture of Tate on the right. His philosophy is uncompromising both because that’s how he’s wired, and because that’s what has worked to make him successful as a strength athlete and a businessman. As he says elsewhere, “I don’t do moderation.”

You can find out more about Tate, and sample from his highly knowledgeable but frequently R-rated observations on strength training and life, via TMuscle, EliteFTS, and the “One Movement” series of weightlifting videos.

Commonplace: Semple.

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Real training means committing to the process: showing up at the keyboard or behind the lens or in the ring or on the rope, and doing it religiously, even when you’re tired, even when you’ve got nothing to say, even when it’s too cold, too hot, too hard.

People wish they had talent. They see it as a practice-free ticket to crowd-stunning skill. But talent doesn’t exist. “Talent” doesn’t get results; practice and devotion do.

Scott Semple


Updated, Thursday evening: Thanks to Semple himself for providing the link to the original — I’ve corrected it above. I originally came across his essay “The Talent Myth” on the Gym Jones site.


(Photo by lecercle, used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.)

Mental toughness.

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009
“Mental toughness is to physical as four is to one.”
~ Bobby Knight ~

In case it’s not obvious, I’m the ‘thinky’ type. In my line(s) of work, being smart and intellectual is like being athletically gifted and skilled in sports.

But being athletically gifted, and even being highly skilled, aren’t enough to dictate success on the playing field. The best competitors, regardless of sport, are those who have the best combination of athleticism, skill, and other qualities — psychological qualities — to help them succeed.

Sometimes, great physical attributes come together with great mental attributes, and you get Pele or Tiger Woods or Donald Bradman or Pete Sampras. But many of the greatest sports heroes were notable more for their mental attributes — especially tough-mindedness — than for their physical gifts. (Case in point: Jerry Rice.)

The more I travel through this life, the more I come to believe that talent is a shallow attribute. Great, the kid is a talented Little Leaguer. Great, the marketing VP is really smart. It doesn’t mean much until you see how those talents play out — how the person puts them to use — and that relies much more on mental approach to the task than it does to talent for the task.

So, for now I’ll just say that I’m working on my mental toughness, and doing it methodically. In a later post, I’ll spell out my approach.

What do you think? Is mental toughness as important as I make it out to be?


(Photo source.)

Another driving peeve: overly slow driving.

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Bulletin: it’s just as disorienting to the drivers around you when you go super-duper slow as when you go super-duper fast.

Twice in the past two days I’ve had drivers in front of me nearly foul up the works for me and others because they went through small intersections a good 10 m.p.h. slower than most folks would.

As I tell my kids, who are still years away from driving age: be predictable when you’re driving.




In which I begin to vent my traffic peeves, starting with the use of parking lights.

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

It’s been raining a lot in Austin lately — and thank goodness, because we’ve had an awful drought this year.

But the rain has exposed me, again and again, one of my traffic peeves. I refer to the use of parking lights when headlights are called for.

People, it’s simple:

  • If you’re parked somewhere and need to indicate that your car is occupied — for example, in a loading zone — use your parking lights.
  • If your car is moving and you need any lights, use your HEADlights.

Really, it’s not that hard, is it?

A note: I intend to vent a few more of my peeves here, but understand that I’m also willing to consider alternate good explanations — UNLIKELY AS THEY MIGHT BE — for doing the things that peeve me. To put it another way, I’m willing to revise my biases, IF you’re willing to lead me down that road.

Be aware that it will take some doing.

Anyone want to stand up for using parking lights instead of headlights when your car is moving?


(Parking light photo; headlight photo.)

What discipline means, and why Tony Gwynn was a bad example of it.

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

I loved to watch Tony Gwynn hit, and it was clear early on that we were watching a hitter who was historically good at hitting for a high average.

But for all his ebullience, intelligence, and skill, he was a deeply flawed player, and by the end of his career he was so hefty that his frequent absences from the Padres lineup came as no surprise.

I’m thinking about all of this because of a bookmark I just ran across — one I’ve had lying around for a long time — for a 2004 Baseball Prospectus roundtable about Ichiro Suzuki‘s (successful) pursuit of the single-season hits record.

The discussion includes a key quote from Gary Huckabay, whom I have the pleasure of knowing slightly:

Discipline isn’t manifested through compulsive and repetitive execution of those tasks which you enjoy, like cage time and video study. It’s manifested through the diligent repetition of those tasks you don’t like–in the case of Mr. Gwynn, cardio workouts, weightlifting and proper nutrition–so that you’re in a position to perform the entirety of your required task set at the highest possible level. The final years of Gwynn’s career were a pathetic waste, plagued by excessive fragility and impaired defense, primarily because of miserable conditioning.

It’s a thought worth transferring to other fields. We all know people who obsess over the things that appeal to them, but don’t tackle the set of challenges required to achieve their best. Gwynn ended his career with more than 3,100 hits, but given his Olympian skill at hitting and how long he played, even such a big number seems hollow.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to guess how I’m applying this lesson to myself.


(Photo by Brian Wallace, used under a Creative Commons Noncommercial license.)