Saturday, February 07, 2009

Reflections on Another BGI Weekend

I am mentally drained, yet feel the ideas from this weekend's classes at BGI sloshing around my cranium begging for someplace to go. Well, I guess that means they'll be jettisoned into the interweb to be idly consumed by those that just happen to stumble upon this little blog.

What did we cover this weekend? Well, we spent more time in entrepreneurship class updating each other on the progress of our projects and where we expected to need help. From my perspective, we are weak in the financial model because we have not defined the market well enough to start making reasonable assumptions to drive the process. We're working with Green City Growers in Boston, a business that just started back in June 0f 2008. They come to your home to build and maintain raised bed vegetable gardens. They also do the same with schools, providing curriculum material and teaching services. It's an interesting idea, something I first learned about in Seattle when someone told me about the Seattle Urban Farm Company. I remember thinking "what a great idea! Let's start growing food right where we it used to be." So we're working on the model, imagining a brand that represents a movement from dependence to independence, starting with elements of the food people eat. What will it shape up to be? How will we anticipate the operational challenges involved with maintaining gardens spread around the metro-Boston area? Will it make sense to scale? How might we maintain integrity in local community relationships?

Jim Poss, founder of BigBelly Solar (formerly Seahorse Power) came to visit us and talk about the real-world challenges he faced starting the company, including product problems, selling what you don't have, understanding financing, the power of negotiating (saying "no"), and the value of perseverance. He's on BGI's faculty now, teaching the other 1/2 of our cohort in the Pine weekend. It was a pleasure to have him visit and share his experiences. It always helpful for me to learn about examples of what's happened to people...not in the abstract.

We went on to Sustainable Operations...and dove right into the contradictions that go with running any kind of an operation. The main focus of our studies is the Toyota Production System, the premier example of pull/customer driven manufacturing in the world today. We've been forging through Jeffrey Liker's "The Toyota Way" and adding on selected readings, including one this week entitled "Lean Management and True Sustainability" from Lean Manufacturing. This was the one that put us on the track of attacking and discussing the contradictions inherent in the term "sustainable operations". Are there any operational systems in companies that are environmentally & socially sustainable now? No. Will lean manufacturing or following the Toyota Production System make a company sustainable? No. Will it make it "less bad"? Maybe. So, what are we to do? The conclusion that we came to as we hammered it out was that moving from a push to a pull manufacturing process was a step in the progression from linear and environmentally harmful systems to regenerative and closed-loop systems; in other words, people/companies may not be ready to make the quantum jump from what we have now to (phase 1.x) to regeneration (phase 3.x). Lean manufacturing (phase 2.x) may be the bridge to phase 3.x...we shall see.

We also spent some great class time on the concept of "Black Box" Accounting (see the photo above). What we're talking about is keeping the "tyranny of management by numbers" out of the manufacturing or value creation process. The abstraction of accounting if banned form the manufacturing floor at Toyota; they count what goes into the plant and what comes out, but are not concerned with what happens inside. It is driven by the Toyota principles of standardized work, kanban, andon cord, and pull to name a few. It was interesting to sit with the apparent contradictions between what we were learning about business planning (five year projections based on educated assumptions) in e'ship and here in operations. Ah the uncertainties...

For those of you thinking of something else form the term Black ya go.

We ended the weekend with some heavy discussion in Organizational Systems focusing on the metaphors of organizations as political systems and psychic prisons. Sound heavy? It was...and amazingly powerful tools to have when thinking about organizational behavior. I was honored to lead a portion of the day's class with a "lecture" on power and the forms power takes in organizations. Our fine instructor Russ provided the materials and I took the reigns of this intelligent, passionate, & engaged group to help guide me through the material and answer some of my own questions. The five forms of power as defined by French & Raven that we talked about are:
  • Coercive power - The power to force someone to do something against their will. Other forms of power can also be used in coercive ways, such as when a reward or expertise is withheld or referent power is used to threaten social exclusion.
  • Reward power - Reward power is thus the ability to give other people what they want, and hence ask them to do things for you in exchange. Rewards can also be used to punish, such as when they are withheld. The promise is essentially the same: do this and you will get that.
  • Legitimate power - Legitimate power is that which is invested in a role. Kings, policemen and managers all have legitimate power. The legitimacy may come from a higher power, often one with coercive power (army as branch of the gov’t, police force for a town). Legitimate power can often thus be the acceptable face of raw power.
  • Referent power - This is the power from another person liking you or wanting to be like you. It is the power of charisma and fame and is wielded by all celebrities (by definition) as well as more local social leaders.
  • Expert power - When I have knowledge and skill that someone else requires, then I have expert power. This is a very common form of power and is the basis for a very large proportion of human collaboration, including most companies where the principle of specialization allows large and complex enterprises to be undertaken.
The most interesting thing to remember is that the power emanates from one being influenced.

We ended the weekend with a group discussion of the Nike Women's Fitness case study followed by another classmate leading us through the concepts associated with looking at organizations as psychic prisons . This was some heavy stuff, digging into some psychology (Freud and Jung), suppressed urges resident in the unconscious that come out in strange ways as well as the origins of personal behavior in the archetypes we are familiar with (the shadow lurks in the background in this construct as well). It was interesting to note the negativity associated with this metaphor; clearly a prison connotes detention against one's will. Yet, in these cases, we are complicit in the creation of the prison as it is our beliefs that create it. What kind of psychic constructs have you created around "work"? One of the most powerful comments I heard in this part of our discussion was "If we work in an organization in which we do not bring our true selves, who do we bring?". Would you like to dig into psychic prisons some more (who wouldn't?), check out

John Thackara joined us for a portion of the class, sharing some of his work on sustainable food infrastructure in India and the need for dry toilets in developing countries (and in the industrialized world) given the amount of water used for flushing toilets (I believe he said something like 20%). I was most interested to hear him mention the work he is involved with to create new ways to measure the economy...maybe getting to something like what Herman Daly wrote about here.

I look forward to the continuation of my studies and the endless challenge of integrating this new knowledge in my work and life.

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