Chuck Yeager Pushed the Edge of the Envelope
We can do the same with the knowledge threshold
Chuck Yeager with the Bell X-1 courtesy of wikipedia
Chuck Yeager was one of the greatest American fighter pilots. He became an Ace in one day. Post war he became a test pilot at Edwards Airforce Base and broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1...with a broken rib! As in, he had a broken rib and shouldn't have been flying and not that he attacked the barrier with a broken rib. I say this before a pedant picks me up on the syntax.
Surprisingly, despite his experience, he was unable to become an astronaut as he did not have a bachelor's degree. So he trained astronauts instead, including Neil Armstrong.
Erm, what has this to do with Lean? Hmm... bear with me. This is a tribute to the Mercury 7 and Chuck, who inspired me when I read about their incredible story in Tom Wolfe's book, The Right Stuff. I was seventeen when I read it and have remained fascinated with NASA's space projects ever since. But it's also a tribute to the ordinary people: the 'Jims' of the workplace that we come across in the work we do.
The Mercury 7 Astronauts courtesy of Wikipedia
The Knowledge Threshold
Jim, the hero in my video attached, is one lucky devil. He lives in a rarefied culture that we Leansters are striving for. He's doing the same thing as Chuck and the Mercury 7 did in their dangerous world, pushing the envelope. "Mach .96, mach .98... getting kinda wobbly there."
In our world, the edge of the flight envelope is the 'knowledge threshold' of our processes - the point at which we've pushed things as far as we can and don't quite know what will happen if we push any harder. For Jim, he loves working at the knowledge threshold. It's where he wants to be as he fearlessly works on making things perform better.
We know there are are millions of Jims in this world, all working in organisations where they don't get the chance to be Chuck or John Glenn. They are asked to clock in, manage or work the line and then clock out. We occasionally come to them for ideas that we take away, evaluate and rarely implement. Woe betide those who stray from the norm and show some initiative.
What's being asked in today's world seems to be more effort and less critiquing. More efficiency and less talking. More sweat, less curiosity. Fortunately for my Jim, this is not his world. He lives in a world that embraces failure as a good thing. A world of experimentation, development and continuous improvement - crowd rise to their feet cheering.
Be a John Glenn in the workplace.
John Glenn - Mercury 7 astronaut
Jim thrives at the knowledge threshold, the point where he and his team no longer truly know the outcome of the experiment they are about to perform in the workplace. What they do know is they are being actively encouraged to have a go. They are being willed on by their leadership team to push the envelope today, tomorrow and the next day. They are the John Glenns of the workplace. Pioneers. Pathfinders.
Jim standing on the knowledge threshold. A true astronaut of the workplace
I said Jim thrives in this environment because he walks into a workplace every day where people are excited about what is potentially in store for them that day. There is no fear. He may fail today but that might be more useful than succeeding because he and his team might learn more. He doesn't need a space suit or a capsule.
The environment is not hostile to improvement. The leadership behaviours foster a rich atmosphere of positivity. They oxygenate the improvements. Jim's leaders are like amazonian trees acting as the lungs of the enterprise, permeating every corner of the workplace with their photosynthesis, sucking in toxic airs of negativity and pumping out abundant positivity. Think I've taken this simile as far as it can go.
And more importantly, they will have another go, rather than being told to 'pack it in' by a manager. How many times have I heard those words? Jim's leadership team have managed to create an environment where people can contribute, make structured changes, experience the exhilaration of winning and become addicted to success. And they've done this because success usually leads to a better margin and a happier customer. Its not just about the jolly, its also about the lolly. But it also makes it a better place to work. People want to work there. How can this be bad for business?
Deke Slayton and Gene Kranz were instrumental in forging a similar culture in NASA. Gene Kranz, the waistcoated Chief Flight Director, made the famous 'failure is not an option' speech to his engineers during Apollo 13. Different circumstances to Jim of course. Jim's life doesn't depend on his PDCA experiment to gain a percentage point improvement in quality, but he is just as invested.
My Clarion Call
Find more Chucks, train more Jims, Jills, and Bills. Challenge your culture to be more accepting for us not to need an astronaut's outfit to make small changes.
I was in a facility in North America some years ago. I was asked if I was related to the Queen by one of the many Jims. He thought my accent was posh and loved ribbing me about it. Anyway, he had to host a visit to the site for some of the execs coming to see the progress he was pioneering. As soon as they were shepherded to his area, he took them over to the team board and asked them if they needed oxygen masks as this must be an alien environment for them. The tour lasted about 3 hours. The VP was actually brilliant. He made change happen with that visit in the most positive manner. Jim had his hands full. It was a very good day and it sparked the idea of making a video of how, more often than not, central is too divorced from the line and the reality of the work.
So here is my tribute to Chuck and the Mercury 7. It's a powerpoint with no moving parts, so forgive me. I need to acknowledge a few things along the way.
- I put Chuck into space. Thought he deserved it.
- Chris King for being a great sport as the voice of Flight Control - his American accent is as bad as mine. Actually worse.
- To John Konsolakis for the awesome music. He captured the spirit of it.
- Photos and video clips courtesy of Wikipedia and youtube
This message has been approved by Chris Jones. Not sure how I got it past him...
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