Episode 8 - Wiring the Winning Organization with Gene Kim and Steve Spear

8 | Wiring the Winning Organization with Gene Kim and Steven Spear

Leadership Strategies for Effective Problem-Solving and Innovation

Have you ever wondered why some organizations consistently outperform their competitors? 

Why is it that despite operating in the same market space, using similar resources, and facing the same regulations, some companies achieve extraordinary success while others struggle to keep up?

And how come some organizations are able to leverage the concepts, tools, and practices of lean, the Toyota Production System, DevOps, or Agile, to enable their success, whereas at other companies these management practices and methodologies just become the flavor of the month?

Tune into the latest episode of Chain of Learning to discover the answers, but first….register to win a signed copy of my new book from guests Gene Kim and Steve Spear!

Author Interview with Dr. Steven Spear and Gene Kim: Wiring the Winning Organization

You won’t want to miss this episode of Chain of Learning where I sit down with Steve Spear and Gene Kim to unpack what makes companies “great” and key concepts in their new book, “Wiring the Winning Organization: Liberating our Collective Greatness through Slowification, Simplification, and Amplification”. 

Together, we peel back the layers of organizational innovation and problem-solving to focus on the critical – and often missing elements – for high performance. 

We dive into the critical roles that management systems and leadership play in shaping an organization’s success and the mechanisms that enable innovation, problem-solving, and collaboration across large, complex organizations.

It makes no difference what you call it  – lean, agile, DevOps –  wiring your organization to win always comes back to the principles of good leadership.

If you are a leader, an operational excellence practitioner, or simply someone aspiring to create and thrive in a winning organization, this is an episode you cannot afford to miss.

In this episode of Chain of Learning you will learn:

✅ What defines a winning organization and separates great organizations from “not great” ones

How to navigate from the “danger zone” to the “winning zone”

The three layers of organizational problem-solving and continuous improvement

The critical role of leadership and management systems in creating conditions for success

The sociotechnical mechanisms of winning organizations: slowification, simplification, and amplification

Three questions leaders should ask daily to enable a profound organizational transformation

Leadership behavior shifts to be more effective in wiring your organization – and team –  to win

Hit play now to discover how you can build a high-performing organization and wire your organization for greatness.

You can also watch this episode of Chain of Learning on YouTube.

Reflect and Take Action

Reflect on my discussion with Gene and Steve and ask yourself what you can do to help wire your organization for greatness. 

It’s a leader’s role to wire the organization’s circuitry to win, to create the management systems and create the conditions for people to thrive and contribute their thinking in the most impactful way.  

And it’s in your control – the only difference in winning organizations is the level three circuitry – the social systems, and that is up to you! 

Consider some of the behavior changes that Steve, Gene and I share at the end of the episode that we each have personally made to become better leaders:

  • Be comfortable saying “I don’t know” – be vulnerable. You don’t have to have all the answers
  • Be passionate, have high energy, love walking the floors – to learn and to show you care. So you can help fix the issues that get in the way
  • Personalize the concept of amplification – be willing to say “this is the best I know right now” and iterate faster
  • And “Break the Telling Habit” – hold back from giving all your ideas all the time and give others the space to think. (To learn more about my concept of Break the Telling Habit® check out some of the articles and resources linked below)

Set your intention for what you will do to help make your organization move towards great and be wired to win!

About my Guests: Dr. Steven Spear and Gene Kim

Steve Spear is a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and is a renowned thought leader in the field of organizational excellence and high performance systems. His work across diverse industries, including manufacturing, healthcare and government, have been instrumental in shaping the way businesses approach problem solving, continuous improvement, and building resilient, adaptive organizations to achieve breakthrough results. Steve’s publications, including Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System and Fixing Healthcare from the Inside Today, along with his book The High Velocity Edge, have helped shape my approach and understanding of the management and people systems that underlie high performing organizations.

Gene Kim is a  Wall Street Journal bestselling author, researcher, and multiple award winning CTO who has been studying high performing technology organizations since 1999. He was the founder and CTO of Tripwire for 13 years and is known for his pioneering work in helping organizations improve their software development and IT management processes. Gene’s authored many award winning books including Accelerate the DevOps Handbook and The Phoenix Project.

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01:30 Introduction of Steve Spear and Gene Kim
03:41 Definition of a winning organization
04:02 Understanding what high-performance is
06:10 Disparities in organizational performance and the role of management systems.
07:53 Common mechanisms of performance 
09:55 The three layers
10:06 Social circuitry
11:13 Capability and competency
13:50  The socio part of the sociotechnical system
14:05 Mr. Yoshino’s paint mistake story
15:49 Paul O’Neill’s three critical questions for leaders
18:50 The role of leaders in creating conditions that enable individuals to succeed
19:07 How to move from the danger zone to the winning zone
19:17 Slowification, simplification, and amplification
21:29  Culture of learning and improvement through social circuitry
25:30 How slowfication helps winning organizations
30:24 The performance paradox and learning zones
31:17 The importance of simulating disasters 
33:03 Misuse of terminology and principles i.e., “lean”
35:12 Interrelationship between management practices
37:18 Lessons learned from the writing and collaboration process
43:09 Steve and Gene’s behaviors to be more effective in wiring winning organizations
47:17 Breaking the telling habit

Full Episode Transcript

Katie Anderson: Thanks for tuning in to Chain of Learning before we dive into this episode, I have an exciting announcement. My guests, Gene Kim and Steve Spear are giving away 15 signed copies of their new book, Wiring the Winning Organization. Be sure to tune into the end of this episode where I share details of how to enter. The giveaway is only open through January 17th so be sure to register as soon as you finish listening. Now it’s on to the podcast. 

Katie Anderson: Why is it that some organizations seem to find success year after year where they continue to innovate and their people thrive and others just can’t seem to get there? Their people are burnout, frustrated and overwhelmed despite a focus on efficiency and process improvement? And how come some organizations are really able to leverage the concepts, tools and practices of lean, the Toyota production system, DevOps or agile to enable their success, whereas these management practices and methodologies just become the flavor of the month at other companies? Why is it that some organizations are great and some simply are just not great? If you’re a leader or lean, Agile DevOps practitioner, or simply someone who wants to create and work in a great organization, you won’t want to miss this episode where I speak with Gene Kim and Steve Spear, the authors of the new book Wiring the Winning Organization, liberating our collective greatness through slowification, simplification and amplification, and learn how you can wire your organization for greatness. 

Katie Anderson: Welcome to chain of learning where the links of leadership and learning unite. This is your connection for actionable strategies and practices to empower you to build a people centered learning culture, get results and expand your impact so that you and your team can leave a lasting legacy. I’m your host and fellow learning enthusiast, Katie Anderson. Steve Spear is a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and is a renowned thought leader in the field of organizational excellence and high performance systems. His work across diverse industries, including manufacturing, healthcare and government, have been instrumental in shaping the way businesses approach problem solving, continuous improvement, and building resilient, adaptive organizations to achieve breakthrough results. 

Katie Anderson: And Steve has been instrumental in my own chain of learning by being an early influence in my understanding of the behaviors and systems behind lean and continuous improvement. When I was first leading performance improvement initiatives in hospital systems in the early 2000s, Steve’s publications, including decoding the DNA of the Toyota production system and Fixing Healthcare from the Inside today, along with his book the High Velocity Edge, have helped shape my approach and understanding of the management and people systems that underlie high performing organizations. And Gene Kim is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, researcher, and multiple award winning CTO who has been studying high performing technology organizations since 1999. He was the founder and CTO of Tripwire for 13 years and is known for his pioneering work in helping organizations improve their software development and IT management processes. Gene’s authored many award winning books including Accelerate the DevOps Handbook and the Phoenix Project, and Gene and I initially got connected through another link in my chain of learning. 

Katie Anderson: John Willis, who is another influential leader in the DevOps space and who came to Japan with me in 2023 on one of my Japan study trips. And I’m so honored to have recently joined Steve and Jean as a Shingo Publication award recipient for my book Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn. And I was excited to invite them here to Chain of Learning to talk about the insights that they have gained about how to create high performing organizations and their book wiring the winning organization. We started our conversation off with a discussion about the endpoint, how they define a winning organization. 

Gene Kim: One of the things I am so professionally proud to be associated with is a study called the State of DevOps research, similar to what the automotive folks did in the 1980s, where they benchmarked 40 plus plants around the globe. We did a cross population study that spanned about 36,000 respondents from 2013 to 2019. And so this was Dr. Nicole Forrester and Jez Humble. And our quest was to understand what does high performance look like? 

Gene Kim: And we found the same sort of agility and resiliency found in manufacturing organizations, where we measured it by the agility metrics of how quickly can they go from code being ready, done by developers, through testing, through integration, through deployment. So it’s successfully running in production, and they can do it more quickly, more frequently, and when something goes wrong, they can repair those issues far more quickly. And we found not a fourfold difference in performance, but we found, like, somewhere between two or three orders of magnitude difference in performance. There’s something about the nature of software that allows for these even bigger differences between high and low performers, or we called it high and not high performers. But we also found that in addition to those technology measures, these organizations were twice as likely to exceed profitability, market share, and productivity goals. 

Gene Kim: Employees were twice as likely to recommend their organizations a great place to work to their colleagues and friends. So that’s the employee net promoter score. And so it really just says, when winning requires working the technology value stream, then these practices and principles that we associate with DevOps help with the achievement of those objectives. And I think this is one of the reasons why I was so excited to work with Steve, who I met almost ten years ago, and it’s been one of the most rewarding journeys of my entire life. 

Steve Spear: Yeah. So if I could pick up on what Gene said first, I just want to really appreciate Gene’s reference back to the motor vehicle program, which was housed at MIT in the 1980s. And that was billed as the five year, $5 million study of the world auto industry, which revealed these enormous disparities between the very best in the field and everybody else, as Gene would say, best and not best. Credit to Gene here is that this motor vehicle program was across multiple universities, lots of researches, et cetera. Gene did this, a handful of people, and did an equally good, ambitious, comprehensive, rigorous study in a very different sector. 

Steve Spear: Katie, to your question about defining what does it mean for a winning organization? Everything Gene was saying, and this was true everywhere else we look, you have these enormous disparities in performance, whether it’s multiple differences in productivity, orders of magnitude, differences in quality, safety, security, et cetera, et cetera. And the key point is, it’s on a level playing field, is that when you do these comparisons, it’s not as if everyone is working in the same environment of looking at a market space for opportunities. And because they’re looking in the same place, more or less through the same lens, they find similar opportunities. They’re dependent on the same vendors for raw materials, capital equipment. 

Steve Spear: They’re operating within the same regulatory, legal, financial environment, ecosystem. And the thing about level playing fields, everything equal like that you would expect, if everything is equal, so should be the outputs and the outcomes. And what was so striking to the folks who looked at the motor vehicle program and gene, with his colleagues looking at DevOps, is that despite the level playing field nature of the competitive space, the differences in performance were extraordinary. And so this loops back to this whole learning dynamic that we all share great appreciation and affection for and enthusiasm about, is that if all you have is differences in outcome, because everything else is the same, the only thing left to explain the differences in outcome is the management systems and how people’s time is shaped and crafted, informed and otherwise curated. I appreciate the mention you gave to several articles I wrote across different sectors, healthcare, industry, et cetera. 

Steve Spear: You tie that together with all the great research Gene has done. We see these huge disparities between great and not great everywhere. And that really encourages us to start thinking about what’s the nature of the management systems that can create these huge disparities everywhere. 

Gene Kim: And just a call out to your book, Katie. I think we have these kind of cross population studies, like what Steve mentioned that I got to participate in. But we also have these longitudinal studies, like the new me joint venture, where Mr. Yoshino tells so eloquently. Everything was the same equipment, workforce. 

Gene Kim: The only thing that changed was the management system. And I think that was a thread that Steve and I got so much glee and also had so much exertion, really trying to understand what are these mechanisms of performance that span all industries, different phase of value creation, and ask what is in common between DevOps, the Toyota production system, and the conclusion all they’re the same mechanism of performance. 

Steve Spear: If I could just piggyback on something gene just said about, if it was all about cross sectional, then that’s an interesting story. And if you’re interested in such interesting stories, you go there. But you could also read War and peace or anything else. But the gene’s point is longitudinal, and that’s not an interesting story, that’s a useful story, because if it’s longitudinal, it means that if there’s a before condition, an intervention, a change in the management system, and an after condition, then these methods, mechanisms, whatever it is, are available to everybody, which means going from not great to great is a possibility for everybody. 

Katie Anderson: I love that. Right. It is about the human element, and it’s so easy to get caught up in the artifacts of what you go and see. And that was some of the trap, right? And what some of the early researchers saw at these organizations, and they were enablers and some of the different levels of the system. 

Katie Anderson: But the secret sauce, as Mr. Yoshino says, is an attitude towards learning and how do we engage people in that. So I’d love to dive into some of that and the different levels of system and how you get to that level three, which is often the most invisible part, right? The part that’s hard to see, but it’s actually the enabler, the management system, the leadership behaviors, the systems that support learning and the conditions for learning. So maybe you could walk us through sort of those three layers and then really focus on that third layer and some of the AHA’s you had in your research together. 

Steve Spear: starting at the end, we talk about these different layers, and we talk about the third one being the social circuitry, the overlay of processing and procedure. So I’ll explain how we got to that term and why, again, what we’ve been saying all along, and it’s evident not only in this conversation, but everything the three of us have ever said, the people with whom we work closely have ever said, ever written, et cetera, is that the difference between great and not great is the ability of an organization to really tap in and give full liberation to the ingenuity of the minds and the intellectual horsepower that’s distributed throughout the enterprise. And when we start thinking about the application of people using their minds, their ingenuity to solve hard problems, there are a couple of places where we naturally think people do that. So the first, and this is to this issue of layers that we discussed in the beginning of the book is that we all tend to think about, oh, that person. He/she wickedly clever in understanding the object in front of them, whether it’s literal or figurative. 

Steve Spear: And that object might be a gear, that object might be a gene, that object might be a piece of code, might be a concept, but the thing on the benchtop, and we also appreciate that as much understanding and ingenuity and genius you have about that object, your ability to act on it is enabled by that ingenuity and that competency and capability. But it also depends on a second layer of capability and competency, and that’s the understanding of sometimes very sophisticated, complicated instrumentation through which we act on that object. And again, just to go back to the literal examples, so if you have someone who’s a wicked genius about a mechanical device like a gear or a gear set, the only way they can give expression to that understanding is they also have tremendous capability about using various types of tools, material addition, material subtraction forming, shaping, whatever else, heat treating. There’s a lot of capability necessary there. In the papers just the other day, there’s a huge breakthrough in developing a treatment for sickle cell. 

Steve Spear: I mean, it’s enormous. It’s enormous. It’s a terrible affliction on people, and there’s a promise that it will not afflict anybody once this treatment is in place. There’s nothing about that layer. One huge understanding of the genetic code that causes sickle cell and the change in the code that would remove this as an affliction about which we have to worry. 

Steve Spear: And then there’s the mastery of the CRISPR technology to actually edit the genes. All right, so that’s layer one, layer two, the object, the instrumentation. Then we get to layer three. And this is something that really struck Gene and me as we were writing the book, is, I think we make a very simple assertion, which, once you say it, it becomes self evident. But I don’t think we discuss it often as practitioners, is the whole reason we form organizations in the first place is to solve problems collaboratively that we can’t even imagine addressing individually and whatever else it happens to be. 

Steve Spear: In the end of the book, we go with a lot of examples. But that’s the key point, right? That we’re not putting our literal shoulders to the wheel together as an expression of brawn. It’s that we’re putting our minds onto the problem as an expression of collective brain. And this is where this layer three comes in, is that when we are tackling enormous, complex, unwieldy problems, far greater in scale and scope than any of us individually could tackle. 

Katie Anderson: We need processes and procedures because that’s the way we first get the division of labor. You do this, Gene does that, I do something else. And then make sure those pieces come together smoothly, harmoniously integrated into a very nice collective action towards a common purpose. And it’s that overlay of processes and procedures which allow this harmonious choreography, this really seamless integration, which we call social circuitry. This layer three, the way we connect individual effort into this collective whole. 

Gene Kim: I’ll just add one point, which is, I love the term sociotechnical systems. So layer three is the socio part of the sociotechnical system, and leaders are ultimately responsible for creating the conditions so that people can do their work easily and well. And so when we talk about layer three, that is really about the architecture that people work within. 

Katies Anderson: And just to highlight the story that Mr. Yoshino shared with me and is in one of my book, the story I tell the most about this paint mistake, and listeners can go and read more about it. It’s one I open all my keynotes with. But really the highlight is Mr. Yoshina made this mistake that required over 100 cars to have to be repainted. 

Katie Anderson: This is in his orientation program. Not only did he not get yelled at or blamed for making this mistake, his managers thanked him for making the mistake. And they said, thank you for highlighting that we didn’t create the conditions for you to be successful at work, and that’s our responsibility. And he said that happened over and over again at Toyota. And this really speaks to that real understanding and responsibility, exactly of what you’re describing, of that level three circuitry, of the leader’s responsibility to create those conditions and the structures that allow the thinking and the processes and the work to happen in a way that results in better outcomes and better problem solving. 

Steve Spear: Yeah, Katie, if I could just pick up on that with a huge ditto. Hallelujah. Amen. That kind of thing is that one of the things that I found so enormously encouraging over the many years I’ve been researching, writing, and trying to bring channel ideas that geniuses have created and make them available to other people. Many of the geniuses that we know sort of have this coevolution towards exactly the same conclusions. 

Steve Spear: And we can be pretty certain that several of the geniuses had no opportunity to even know of each other, let alone influence each other, yet they reached exactly the same conclusions. And the reason I bring that point up is I was a student, a mentee, and I’d say a friend of Paul O’Neill. For the better part of two decades, he led Alcoa. We talk about it in the first book, the High Velocity Edge, about how he led this profound transformation from a very dangerous place, as you would expect, given the nature of the processes they work, to create aluminum products and turn it into the safest employer in the country, along with the most productive, the most efficient. Everything went from not great to great at everything. 

Steve Spear: And when Paul was asked how he was able to lead such a profound transformation over such a sprawling enterprise, one of his answers was, it depended on three questions. And this links back exactly to what you said. He said, look, what I did and what I taught our other leaders to do is just have three questions they were equipped with to ask everyone every day. And the first question was, when you arrived at work today, did you feel like you were prepared to succeed? And the second question was, when you did your work, did someone whose opinion you respect, did they make you feel appreciated for what you’ve done? 

Steve Spear: And then the third question was, and when you were done with your work, when you went home, did you feel the act of doing that work added value to your own life? And Paul’s point about all this, and it ties exactly back to your paint story with Mr. Yoshino, was that an answer of no to any of those three, had to be a trigger back to leaders that they somehow would fail to create the conditions in which someone else could show up and give fullest expression to their potential as a creative human being. 

Katies Anderson: I love that. And I have to say thank you for bringing those questions forward in your book. They were hugely impactful in the work I was doing at Stanford children’s hospital at the time. And we brought some of those questions into the healthcare organization. And how do we start creating those conditions there as well? 

Katies Anderson: I want to highlight something else, this connection, and it sort of builds off this concept of circuitry as well. At Toyota, there’s a process they call pull the and on which is light. Well, it used to be a cord that people could pull if there was a problem on the line. Now it’s a light. When I go to Japan, when I go to Toyota and watch them, it’s like the light is being signaled all the time. 

Katies Anderson: But where the circuitry element comes in, know, a lot of people say, oh, we need to create an organization where people feel empowered to stop the line or to highlight, yeah, they, they do. That’s one thing. But the important element is the manager or the leader’s response to that request. It’s like closing the circuit, closing the loop, because if you’re just expecting people to make the problem visible, if we don’t have that response by leaders, it’s in vain. And also we’re going to probably have the opposite reaction. 

Katies Anderson: And people are like, why would I even do that? Can you talk about some of your experience in that and sort of the importance of leadership response and maybe that we can start diving into some of the sub elements of your subtitle because this puts it into there around the slowification, simplification and amplification elements. 

Steve Spear: Yeah, Katie, that’s great. Gene, I’ll take a stab at this and then shut up. Katie. We talk in the book about creating conditions in which people can give full expression to their ingenuity, their cleverness, let their minds be most creative. And we talk about how to move from a condition we call the danger zone, where it’s really hard, individually or collectively, to solve problems, to what we call the winning zone, where it’s much easier to solve problems. 

Steve Spear: And we talk about three mechanisms. One, slowification is to make problem solving easier. And then there’s another one called simplification to make the problems themselves easier. But then there’s a third one, which is amplification and amplification. The and on chord is to make it much easier, to make it obvious that you have a problem that needs attention and needs attention before the problem has an opportunity to become big. 

Steve Spear: In the case of Toyota, and I talk about this, whether it’s the DNA article or the high velocity edge, this fastidiousness, this obsession about creating standards around things, whether it’s the work of an individual that occurs in a 1 minute cycle time or a standard, a script, a choreography about how to do the work of hundreds if not thousands of people. And for the Toyota, though, it’s not enough just to have the script. What’s also necessary is to have the test built into the script, to call out early enough and when the script is failing, so that someone can come over quickly and say, oh, what’s the problem? How can I help? And that question, what’s the problem? 

Steve Spear: How can I help? Has both a very immediate and a slightly longer response immediately, what’s the problem? How can I help contain the problem so it doesn’t endure here and aggravate you further? But also how do I help you contain the problem so it doesn’t escape and become a systemic problem rather than a local one? But the other part, how can I help is all right. 

Steve Spear: Now that we’ve contained the problem, can we immediately start studying the problem and investigating the problem and really diving into the problem to understand what we can do to prevent its recurrence? And this is right at the heart of the combination. And on chord. And the team leader who responds immediately to when the chord is pulled and the lights flash and the music starts, and the group leader who responds. But this becomes, again, to this coevolution. 

Steve Spear: Every place we’ve looked, that is great, as opposed to not great. Best versus not best has some element of amplification as part of their core ethos, this passionate obsession to make sure that whatever they’re doing, they can see when they’re doing it wrong very, very early, before those problems have a chance to become big problems. 

Gene Kim: I’ll add on to that. I think one of the things I’m really proud about the book is Steve was insistent that just so you know a little about Steve, the word culture can be a little bit triggering for him, and I think for good reasons. Right? It’s a bit gossamer, it’s a bit ethereal, defies easy explanation. And so what we did in the amplification section is we almost did it from first principles. 

Gene Kim: We can create a system where weak signals of failure can be decisively acted upon, responded to, so that we can prevent issues, enable quicker detection and recovery. Or we can create a system where these weak signals of failures are ignored, suppressed, extinguished entirely, and that does not good outcomes. And we’re using circuitry as a metaphor, and we’re using information theory to say signals must be generated, transmitted, received, acted upon, and confirmed. And that creates a very clear language about what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for the right behaviors, the right signals, and the norms that leaders must create. Within this layer, three social circuitry. 

Gene Kim: I’ll give you a technology example that is legend in our space. One of the people who really helped coin DevOps as a term is John Osbomb. In 2009, he gave this famous presentation saying that we’re doing ten deploys a day, every day at Flickr, the photo sharing site. In 2009. When people heard this, people threw up in the aisles. 

Gene Kim: It was so terrifying. So it sounded irresponsible, reckless, sounded immoral, right? Like the notion of doing 60 line side changes per day in a manufacturing plant. It just seemed inconceivable. And so he became the CTO at Etsy, the famous small crafts ecommerce site. 

Gene Kim: And he described the story of a technical change that could never cause an outage. It’s like a CSS change. It’s like changing a font color. And most engineers would say that is a low risk change that cannot possibly take down the site. One day, someone makes one of these CSS changes, and it not only takes down the site, it essentially figuratively sets the data center on fire. 

Gene Kim: The engineers all had to run to the data centers manually, power cycle the machines multiple times because it caused some horrendous something to go wrong. Anyway, hours later, they take a hard outage. It was reported in CNBC and so forth, and they realized, okay, a CSS change can take down the entire site because of a confluence of a lot of factors that normally wouldn’t happen. So what do they do about it? They create this ritual called a three armed sweater award, where the engineer who made the biggest mistake would go on stage in their quarterly town hall and tell what happened, what they learned. 

Gene Kim: And it helped reinforce this culture that it was not only safe to make mistakes, but you share it widely, maybe on the off chance that you might help another future engineer prevent a similar horrendous bad thing from happening again. I think that’s another great thing about what leaders can do to further amplify these type of signals that create the norms in the layer three system so that people aren’t afraid to make changes and don’t hide them. 

Katie Anderson: Right. It’s okay to make a mistake. I mean, we obviously want to prevent mistakes that are going to cause harm, but how do we learn from them, certainly, and how do we do that on that faster, smaller scale as well? I’ve been thinking a lot about your word slowification, and I really love it because I find that so many of the barriers to at least the leaders I work with is that they feel like they don’t have time. We’re stuck in this world that feels like everything is. 

Katie Anderson: Five alarm fire must be happened urgently. And so maybe I know as a leader, I should ask more questions or pause, but we got to just keep doing, doing. So what were some of the things that, well, first, I’m curious about the word slowification. And then two, how does this slowing down really help enable these winning organizations and high performance? It’s sort of like the opposite of a lot of leaders think. 

Gene Kim: Yeah. So it did cause a bit of concern that we chose to make up a word and we put into the subtitle of the book, but it wasn’t from lack of searching. The word we were looking for is the notion of slow down temporarily to speed up in the long term, a short term investment for a longer term gain. Stop sawing to sharpen the saw. It’s like we have this concept in adages, but there’s no word that actually describes it. 

Gene Kim: And I think sometimes we believe that maybe the lack of a word actually inhibits management leaders from doing the right thing because they don’t have a word for it. So we chose the word slow fi to embody that concept. The worst time to improve is in the middle of an outage in production like scenarios where you can’t undo, you can’t experiment. And as Steve is fond of know, learning is inherently experimental. You can’t do that like when you’re having an urgent problem. 

Gene Kim: And so we have to do that better in planning or in know. My fondest hope is know by giving people a word saying, hey, look, we are doing very tough problem solving in exactly the wrong time, so we should slowify. And in the technology space, often it comes from this desire to ship features quickly crowding out other important activities like planning, like preparation, like automation and so forth. I really do believe, Steve, that by giving people a word saying, hey, look, do you think that slowification, we should invest some time in slow vacation that’s actually going to lead to more conversations? Steve? 

Steve Spear: Yeah, 100%. So, Katie, the theme we’re trying to get is make the distinction danger zone to winning zone. The experience we’ve had where sometimes we’re in a situation where we have to react in a very impulsive way. There’s just no time to generate a new thought or even appreciate the situation. We just have to react, react, react, react, react. 

Steve Spear: And we know that unless we’ve already hardwired muscle memory, exactly the right reaction to the situation, we could be done for. It’s kind of the visualization of this is in the movie the Matrix, when neo kind of know locks in, I don’t know what he locks in. Luke locks into the force, whatever it is that neo is locking in. Right? And the bad guys have this enormous disadvantage because they’re moving at what feels normal speed to them. 

Steve Spear: But to Neo, everything has just slowed down. Now Hollywood calls that slowing down bullet time. Cool term describes it cinematographically lousy term for a management book. What we’re trying to do is pick a word that describes this contrast in experience between where we know we’re in a high stakes situation and we just feel like, oh, we don’t have time to even catch our breath, let alone figure out our way to a good answer versus, oh, man, everything has just slowed down on us. And so we picked this word slowification to capture that element. 

Steve Spear: Now, for what it’s worth, the only time we can be ready to execute, particularly when performance is high stakes, high speed, unforgiving, is that we’ve actually allowed ourselves and the people for whom we’re responsible to step back in planning and have plans that can be hole punched, have plans that can be red teamed, war games, stress tested, et cetera, actually practice, not for the purpose of practicing to master the plan, but in part. That’s part of it, of course, but in part to find out what’s wrong with the plan, we try to put it into play. So that way when we actually go into play, we’ve already debugged the thinking and so we’re not carrying the bugs into the doing because we’ve left those long behind. Now, to your point about us feeling under pressure all the time, the irony is that when we have something to do, someone will always raise their hand and say, oh, Katie. Well, you just have to understand that we don’t have time to do this slowification and solve problems with the rigorous feedback. 

Steve Spear: And because we have to get this work done. Now, of course, what that means is that when we go to do the work, we’re ill prepared to succeed and we’re likely to fail. And what happens when we fail? Then we slow down and figure out why we failed. But of course, once we failed, all we have is like trash and scatter and debris everywhere and ruined emotions and this and that. 

Steve Spear: We can’t rebuild the thing. We’ve done exactly the same thing, right, which is we’ve performed badly and now we’re doing the slow thinking to figure out why we perform badly and what we’re going to do now, now that we’ve performed badly and we have to deal with the debris. If all we did was take that same slow thinking and put it before the doing, we’d succeed. I mean, we’re going to do it anyway. That’s like the hair pulling part of it. 

Steve Spear: We’re going to do the slow thinking. And the question is, are we going to do it as a retrospective investigation of a catastrophe or are we going to do it as a prospective preparation for a major success? But either way, we’re going to do it.

Katie Anderson:  Right, I mean, it’s just like we got to get ourselves out of that terrible, vicious cycle of feeling like we don’t have time because we’re going to do it, but in the wrong way. 

Steve Spear: Exactly. 

Katie Anderson: This reminds me of I had a conversation with an author named Eduardo Brussenho. Who works with Carol Dweck about what he calls the performance paradox. And the same thing. We got caught in this performance zone where we’re not in what he calls the learning zone, and that’s where the improvement happens. So we feel like we always have to be performing. 

Katie Anderson: And so that actually, if I link it to what your concept of the winning zone and the danger zone, if we’re always feeling like we have to be in high performance, we actually are trapping ourselves or falling into the danger zone because we’re not learning, improving, slowing down. 

Steve Spear: We’re diving into the black hole. 

Katie AndersonYeah, totally. 

Gene Kim: Can I give an example? 

Katie Anderson: Yes, please. 

Gene Kim: And this is what was so rewarding working with Steve was you take these things, these stories that I thought I understood, and I tried to explain to Steve, he’s like, I don’t get it. That’s impossible to really tease out what are the necessary and sufficient mechanisms that must be there? So in this case, it’s Google. And one of the things that they had to figure out know, how do they survive major natural disasters so that Google doesn’t go down. And so what they found, they had these things called the disaster recovery drills. 

Gene Kim: And what they found was that they were going through the motions, simulating disasters, but there was this pattern that they were relying on sort of key individuals and knowledge that wasn’t in their heads. And if that person was out sick, they couldn’t actually do the disaster recovery. And so they started this program called the dirt program disaster incident Response team that was specifically around red teaming these exercises. And they did these increasingly audacious drills where they would simulate earthquake in northern California. But to simulate this key personnel issue, they would simulate aliens invading the city and abducting the key personnel so they cannot participate in the exercise. 

Gene Kim: You must rely on things they already wrote down. And so this exposed these vulnerabilities, these latent defects, so they could fix it in a planned way in a drill, as opposed to when real disaster strikes. And so it’s these kind of amazing stories of incredible production like simulations that really separate the best from the not best or the first from the worst. 

Katie Anderson: Totally. I’ve been reflecting back, Steve, on your comment about the bullet from Neo. This is like a bad phrase of applying to management systems. And I’m just thinking back to a time when Jim Womack had said something similar, that instead of choosing the word lean, they had almost decided to call their observation of the Toyota production system the fragile system. But what kind of leader wants to implement something called know? 

Katie Anderson: But I don’t know if lean’s any better in the way it’s represented, right. 

Steve Spear: Well, a quick reference to Gene’s point about giving people the terminology, and again, I guess the encouragement there is with know that we, as people trying to capture good thoughts, express them out, is encourage the readers to actually read the definitions we gave to the words, because Lean was the definition of an outcome, the ability to do so much more with so much less. When John Krastick wrote his seminal 1988 paper about the emergence of lean production in a Sloan management review, his whole point was, on any given day there was this handful of great plants that with half the people, half the space, half the inventory, half the capital equipment, half, half, half, half had twice the output and it was much, much better. And he was trying to contrast this ability to do so much more with so much less. And he called it lean because he was looking for a good contrast with the term mass production. So he said, well, if that’s mass production, then this is lean. 

Steve Spear: But what’s happened, and this is the gene, I think. Gene, you made a point, it’s good to give people words, but it’s also incumbent on them to take the word and import with it the functional definition. So in the case of lean, lean was all the practices inside that allowed you to have half in and infinite out compared to everybody else. What happened with lean is that people misused the word and thought that, oh, lean was not half the people, half the space as a consequence of our management practices. They thought that was actually the independent variable. 

Steve Spear: Oh, well, if we want to be lean, like Toyota, get rid of the inventory, get rid. And we’ve seen the same bastardization of terms like reengineering back to hammer and champion on and on and on agile. And so anyway, I just want to say it’s very useful to have words and terms, but again, it’s incumbent on the user to know what the definition is and not use some bastardized version of know. 

Katie Anderson: One of the things I also really appreciate about your book and your collaboration together, Steve and Gene, is that you’re bringing it back to the trip they go across. And you have some nice diagrams in the book too, that show the interrelationship between what we might call Lean and Agile and DevOps and all these other sort of things that have a name to it and sometimes can get seen as something other than just great management practices that are getting back to what the circuitry of how do we create the conditions for high performance to thrive. 

Gene Kim:  Can I mention maybe one part of what it was like working with Steve. And Steve, I haven’t told you this, but I was trying to describe what it was like to work with someone who came from a totally different field of study and field of experience. So I came from software all my life. Steve started off in manufacturing, then engine design, safety culture at Okola and so forth. But what was so interesting. 

Gene Kim: But he also has a background in economics. And I felt like so many times for us to be able to find a term we access that heavily. Right? I learned about the value of creating independence of action, creating optionality. I said that these aren’t just good ideas. 

Gene Kim: We can say exactly why these are good ideas. The other thing that I thought was remarkable is that so much of our reading list was the same. So that if you have a Venn diagram of the literature view of all books and papers read, there’s actually a significant amount of overlap. And I can’t tell you just how useful that was over the last decade to be able to start converging on, oh, these things are not just similar, they are actually the same. If I could wave Maxwell. 

Gene Kim: I’m hoping that what this book will do is establish from first principles what are the three mechanisms of performance, and understand what are similar, which are the same, which are genuinely complementary, and deduce from first principles like what the extremes are. And I’m hoping it will not just be a book for DevOps people, or lean Toyota production system people, or resilience engineering people that say, oh, this is a book that explains all of the things that we’re familiar with. 

Katie Anderson: Steve, what’s something you learned through the process of writing the book? Gene just shared something like, we got more clarity on, or learned through the actual writing and collaboration process. 

Steve Spear: Yes, I’ll return the favor to Gene. One of the things I learned about Gene is that there are probably very few more curious people than Gene, with just an incredible happy energy to ask people questions and learn from them and not carry ego into the conversation like, oh, I’m Gene Kim, and know I’m doing you a no, no, just I’m going to listen and ask some very informed questions about what you do so I can understand better. So that was huge. One of the things I said this to Gene many years ago is that his behavior is atypical. And Katie, you and I know it, and I think all your listeners and readers know this, is that very often someone becomes known for something, whatever that something is, they use that to turn a spotlight on themselves and try and continually draw attention to themselves as the guru of that thing. 

Steve Spear: And to Gene’s credit, by being happily curious about what other people know, he’s made it just natural, but I think also deliberate to always turn the spotlight away and never make it about himself. So when you go to one of his conferences, if you have it, I encourage you to do. Gene is up there and he’s the master of ceremonies. But it’s never about Gene. It’s about all the people he’s brought together to share their understanding. 

Steve Spear: And so it makes Gene a rather unusual personality to begin with. But also it’s a very good lesson about how we should approach the world and spend more time turning the spotlight away from ourselves and onto other people so we can see what they’re doing. At one of these conferences, Gene and I had a chance to wrap up and say, well, what did you learn from writing the book? And my conclusion, and some, you know, shorten it here, was that whatever we do, come back to the. And it’s in two directions, both the individual and how the individual collects to things larger themselves, but also focus on the individual so they can we start the book with just a narrative, which is the day that the Apollo eleven crew started leaving lunar orbit to descend to the moon. 

Steve Spear: There was something like 650,000,000 people simultaneously watching that daring adventure. And for those young people, there was no Internet. I mean, people had to actually be in front of a tv to watch this. But not only was it the 650,000,000 people, is that where and how did they do it? They did it at train stations, at airports, in parks, in town squares. 

Steve Spear: And why is that? Because we all have this intense need to connect to something much bigger than ourselves and say, yes, I was there and I was part of it. So that’s part of the individual. And are we creating conditions in which someone every day can say, I was part of something much bigger than myself, but then it comes back in the other direction, which is, as a leader, if you want to do the pulse check on your organization, you don’t have to do these massive surveys and studies and generate all these data and metrics and reports and have briefings and presentations. Just go to the place of work and watch someone just turn the spotlight on them and just respectfully watch their experience and ask yourself the question, the Paul O’Neill question. 

Steve Spear: The person I’m watching, have we created conditions in which he or she is prepared to succeed? And if not, you know, that’s a warning that probably that’s true for everywhere else in the organization. So anyway, the big takeaway is as individuals, we want to be connected to a much larger whole. And as leaders, the way we do that is, again, focus on the individual and make sure that we’ve actually prepared, individual by individual, to have that opportunity. 

Gene Kim: Can I add one more thing just to sort of riff on the magnificence of the Apollo landing story? What blew me away as we were researching this book was that how young the people were for those hundreds of millions of people to watch, scores of people had to go out and set up a satellite network or whatever, a communications network, so that to even do that, these were 20 year olds. The people in mission control were 20 and 30 year olds. Gene Kranz was in his 30s. Just to see what they achieved with such a young group of people who were just as, I guess there were no veterans of moon landings. 

Gene Kim: Right. 

Gene Kim: But it just further amplifies just the momentous incredibleness of those achievements. And so, clearly, layer three brought out the best of everyone in that system. 

Katie Anderson: And so strongly connected to a common purpose, as you’ve been sharing here, inspired by that common purpose, or as Mr. Yoshino says in my book, set that direction. So where are we going, Steve, as you’re talking, I was reflecting on how in one of my recent Japan study trips, actually the same company that has this 100 year calendar that I have behind me, someone asked him, the leader, the executive, saying, well, what kind of surveys do you have about your employee engagement, and how do you measure that? Because they say that their company purpose is to create happiness. So our purpose is happy. 

Katie Anderson: It’s like, well, how do you measure happiness? How do you know? And he’s like, what do you mean? What surveys do I have? I mean, he’s like, I go out and I see, I go engage with my people. 

Katie Anderson: That’s how I know if they’re happy. It’s like, do you take a survey to your know, you interact with them every day? So, yes, sometimes we need to have the data, but it’s really about going to see go to Gemba, go actually interact. I want to ask you both just one personal question, and then we’ll wind up. I mean, there’s so much we could keep talking on. 

Katie Anderson: And that’s great advice, Steve, too, that you were having about what leaders can do or what continuous improvement practitioners can do. But I want to know from each of you, what is one thing that you’ve had to really change or adjust in yourselves as leaders to become more effective in wiring a winning organization or a winning team? What’s something that a behavior that’s really been a shift that you’ve made over time. 

Gene Kim: I think there’s kind of two behaviors that I have had the privilege to observe and had to overcome myself. And they seem like mutually contradictory, but I think they are absolutely both necessary. One is a total comfort in being able to say, I don’t know. And I remember this is in my last days of tripwire. I’m in a room full of lawyers. 

Gene Kim: I have one little friend and a speakerphone on the box, and everyone’s using words I don’t understand. And I feel so intimidated when I realize this whole meeting is for me, for me to create an exit, and I’m actually the most important person in the room. And I could have actually said, I have no idea if I could replay that meeting in my head. I do that many times. I could have said, and I should have said, I have no idea what you guys are talking about. 

Gene Kim: And I don’t think your goal is to bamboozle me and confuse me, to make me make a wrong decision. Could you just help me understand using terms that a five year old, a fifth grader could understand? I think that feeling of being able to say, hey, I am not tracking anything of what’s going on, but I think it’s important. And me asking you questions is my way of saying I care about the outcomes. I think that’s a behavior that I got to model. 

Gene Kim: And, Steve, you and I have hung out with many people who have this incredible ability to say those very vulnerable things like, I have no idea, I don’t understand. That’s one. And then also, I think the notion of firmness as an architect of a system, the leader also has to have high standards, high energy, high standards, great in the large, but also they’d love walking the floor. They’d love getting the details, because it’s only by doing that you can be sufficiently plugged in to know what signals need to be amplified. What are hardships that people are having that as the leader, only you. 

Gene Kim: It is your job to fix those issues, as Mr. Yoshino says, not about being nice. It’s about having the energy and having the high standards to expect greatness. And that are conditions that create greatness. How am I doing, Steve? 

Steve Spear: 100%. I think what I’m going to say is ditto, just in different words, is, Katie, the question of what I had to change, personally, I think it’s the personalization of amplification in one case is be more and more willing to say, this is the best I got. Tell me what’s wrong and do that earlier and more often than I would have ever thought. I talked to my kids about this when I was writing a thesis in college. I said, I’m going to go and do all my work and bang away at it. 

Steve Spear: And by the time I saw my advisor, it was probably December. And he looked at it and he said, wow, you’ve done a lot of work, none of it useful, but the volume is enormous. And I ended up with a c on that thesis because I just simply didn’t have the recovery time. And as I’ve gone through my career, I hope, and again, I’m not consistent on this, but I hope what I do is do the equivalent of the sketch, the draft, et cetera, and say, all right, this is what I got. What’s wrong? 

Steve Spear: All right, here’s version two, version three, version twelve, and only stop when someone is not that they say it’s right, but they can’t tell me anymore what’s wrong. That’s one part, but I think the other part is that when you start doing this amplification for oneself, you become a much nicer person to be around one because your arrogance has to go way down. But the other part is that you become much more appreciative of the effort other people are making on their way to their best effort, which may be because it’s the first best effort, may be riddled with flaws. See, I guess the short answer is what’s the maturation? Is the personalization of amplification as a way to act and treat? 

Katie Anderson: Those are great words from both of you, of your personal learnings about how to lead with greater impact, to really create these and wire these winning organizations. So, so much richness of your knowledge. Oh, Gene wants to say something more, please. 

Gene Kim: We would be remiss if we didn’t get. 

Katies Anderson: Yeah. Oh, great. Well, thanks for turning the tables on. Know, I talk about this often, but I’ve had to learn how to break the telling habit. That’s what I like to say. 

Katies Anderson: I like to say my name is Katie Anderson and I have a telling habit. My enthusiasm to contribute and to help as well as my enjoyment of solving problems can get in my way. So it can be great as an independent. You know, I told you I was trained as an academic and I was asked to get the answer. But when I moved into continuous improvement, consulting coaching roles and then as a leader and manager, me having all the answers all the time actually wasn’t my job sometimes. 

Katie Anderson: But as you just said, it was to create the conditions for other people to have their answer. And I had this horrifying situation about eleven years ago where my coach came to me and she was following me from the day and she said it was like I was like the lion overtaking my team where I was jumping in and I was interrupting them. And that’s the last thing I wanted, right? That’s not the impact I wanted, but it was my high energy and my desire to contribute my ideas was actually getting in the way of my impact. And so I have to work each and every other day, each and every day, every single day, every single minute, to really practice slowification, to slow down. 

Katie Anderson: So I’m more intentional about how I’m showing up because it’s so easy to get caught in just that doing or that trap. So really to slow down, to ask more questions, as you said, and to know it’s not always my space to have the answer, and there is times for me to have the answer, but to create an awareness for that. So break the telling habits. Mine. I love it. 

Katie Anderson: It comes from a place of genuine caring, but an overexpression. Right? That’s like our Achilles heel is always like the overexpression of a positive quality. Sheen Kim and Steve Spear, thank you so much for being here on chain of learning today. It’s been a fabulous conversation and I’ve learned so much from both of you here and in the past. 

Katie Anderson: And I look forward to having continuing to strengthen and develop this chain of learning and grow and learn together and to connect. And I really encourage everyone to read Wiring Winning Organization. There’s so much richness of knowledge in there for anyone know, regardless of what discipline you’re in or industry you’re in, it’s about how you create the human conditions that create success and impact and the win. So thank you again for being here and we’ll see you next time. 

Steve Spear: Katie, thanks for having us. 

Gene Kim: Thank you so much. 

Katie Anderson:  Katie, I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Jean and Steve as much as I did. I’ve put links to their book, wiring the winning organization, and other additional links and learning resources on the episode’s webpage, chainoflearning.com backslash eight. There is so much rich learning in this conversation, but there’s one key takeaway that really stands out to me. It’s a leader’s role to wire the organization’s circuitry to win, to create the management systems and the conditions for people to thrive and contribute their thinking in the most impactful way. And it’s in your control. 

Katie Anderson: The only difference in winning organizations of being great versus not great is that level three circuitry, the social systems, the leadership, and the management systems that enable and create problem solving, innovation and engagement. So no matter what you call it, lean, agile DevOps the Toyota production system. It all comes back to the same principles of great leadership and how we foster and enable problem solving at all levels. Make problem solving easier, slowification, make the problems easier to solve. Simplification and make sure problems are seen and solved. 

Katie Anderson: Amplification wiring a winning organization is up to you. So reflect on some of the tips shared here in this episode and what you can do to help wire your organization for winning. Consider some of the behavior changes that Steve, Gene and I shared that we’ve all had to make to become better leaders. Become comfortable with saying, I don’t know, be vulnerable. You don’t have to have all the answers. 

Katie Anderson: Be passionate, have high energy and love walking the floors to learn and show that you care so that you can fix the issues that get in your and your team’s way. As Steve said, personalize the concept of amplification by being willing to say this is the best I know how right now. And then iterate and learn faster. And as I shared, break the telling habit. Hold back from giving all your ideas all the time and instead create the conditions for others to bring forward their ideas and to thrive and help the organization make its way to greatness. 

Katie Anderson: So set an intention for what you’re going to do to help make your organization move towards great. And be sure to check out other episodes of Chain of Learning where we explore many of these other concepts about how you foster learning and create the conditions where people thrive and solve problems every day. An exciting announcement for those of you listening. 

Katie Anderson: So thanks for being a link in my chain of learning today. Be sure to follow or subscribe to chain of learning so you never miss an episode and share this podcast with your friends and colleagues so that we can all strengthen our chain of learning together. See you next time.

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