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Mary and Tom Poppendieck: Keeping Your Team Together During the Great Resignation

In this episode, Richard interviews Mary and Tom Poppendieck. Richard’s Agile heroes, the Poppendiecks have written highly influential works on lean software development, including Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit, The Lean Mindset, and Leading the Lean Software Development: Results are Not the Point. Richard tackles with them one of the burning problems of today’s business world: how to retain an increasingly independent workforce? When you finish listening to this episode, visit their website at: http://www.poppendieck.com.

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Richard 00:11
Hi friends, and welcome back to “With Great People,” the podcast for high-performance teams. I’m Richard Kasperowski. Our special guests today are Mary and Tom Poppendieck. The Poppendiecks, I’m going to embarrass you a little bit maybe, I don’t know. The Poppendiecks are two of my biggest Agile heroes. They’ve been a huge influence on me and my work, thanks to the books they’ve written on lean software development, and I mention them every time I teach a class about Agile Product Development. I am super happy to have you guys here as my guest today. Thanks so much. And listeners, viewers, remember to support this podcast. Just visit my website kasperowski.com.

Richard:

Hi Mary and Tom. Thanks so much for being here today.

Tom:

Hello.

Mary:

Good to be here.

Richard:

Is there anything else you want to add to that intro?

Mary:

No, that’s okay, as short as possible.

Richard:

All right. So you heard we were talking before we pressed the record button. This is a podcast about teams, and I have a really, really simple definition of what is a team, any group of two or more people aligned with a shared goal. So it could be a work team, could be a non-work team, any group of two or more people aligned with a shared goal. That’s a team. What’s the best team you’ve ever been a member of in your life?

Mary:

Well, I’m going to go back a while because I am going to talk about work teams, and when you’re a teacher or writer or consulting with companies, you’re not really part of the team, and it’s actually a pretty good idea to remember that. But once upon a time I was on teams, and I’ll talk about I worked with two really amazing high-performance teams while I was at 3M. And I’ll talk about the second one. It’s the Light Fiber team. So this team was formed to commercialize a product or basically to figure out a market for a product and then commercialize it, and it was a plastic highly pure acrylic with a coating on the outside which would reflect light, and when you put different colored lights down it with a color wheel, you could in fact imitate neon, and it could be any dimension, you know, from very thin to very wide. The Japanese part of our team actually first commercialized it for use in Toyota cars. And so this team was formed and was together for three years. And I was working in an organization. I reported to an amazing guy. His name is Roger Appledorn. He’s behind many, many of the lighting specific products in 3M from, you know, very reflective traffic signs to film that covers CPU and directs the light so that you can see it better and afford privacy, lots of stuff like that. And he was interested in a company that had a process for taking some plastic and making a very clear fiber and then projecting light down it. And interestingly enough, for us at 3M, because we did plastics all the time, the hard part was the light, because we don’t do hardware, and because the interface between any light that is high enough to go a long distance down a tube and the tube itself has got to be very, a lot of heat. So Roger had me form a group of people to see if we couldn’t investigate some technology that had been developed by a company in California and see if we wanted to buy the technology from them and commercialize it. And this team was together for three years and it was just the most amazing team. It was really cool. The team was mostly, I’d say 80% volunteers. I had three people reporting to me and they were working on it, and then there were probably, I don’t know, somewhere between 20 and 40 people at any given time working on it, and every one of them that wasn’t actually in my department was a volunteer. Now 3M was set up to allow people to volunteer up to 20% of our time on something that they found really interesting and something that would further their technology. And because it was really tricky technology that we were working with, we were working with lighting, we were working with heat, we were working with ultrapure plastics, we were working with a production process, that was not really one that we knew how to do yet. And so we had all different kinds of folks on the team and they got together every Wednesday morning. We had a meeting at 9:00. No, excuse me, we had a meeting that was always over about 8:00. So because everybody worked in other places for other jobs and couldn’t really be interrupted. So I called a meeting at 7:30 every Wednesday, and I brought donuts and coffee because you know that cause nobody would have had breakfast if they actually into work that early. And for three years, many, many people up to 30 would come in every Wednesday morning early and have donuts, and we would have go around for an hour and we would talk about what interesting things were happening. Basically everybody reported on what they were doing, what they needed help with, and then we basically spun off into side teams to do something before the next week because we couldn’t get anything done at that one hour meeting, but we coordinated at that one hour meeting. And we coordinated all kinds of stuff from displays in our technical demonstration area at 3M where we put up this fancy light with all kinds of colors, to working with vendors, to seeing if we could deal with the heat problems, just, it didn’t make any difference, to figuring out how much the material would cost to stealing material, to finding customers. Everything was talked about in the team and people helped each other out. And the reason I know it was successful was because people just kept coming every Wednesday. And it was just a whole lot of fun. And it was my job to make it a whole lot of fun, because remember nobody had to be there except the two or three people reporting to me. And they didn’t actually even have to be there either, but so they came because they enjoyed it, and the way I got stuff done was I had to make it fun for, you think about people that do two or three things at the same time, and when they sit there and they have 10 or 15 free minutes, the idea is you want them to think of you, your project, okay. So I tried to make it engaging and fun so that when they had a few spare minutes, they couldn’t wait to try out some new thing or do something. So if you have basically volunteers, you have to have a different way of thinking about how you pull that team together, and I discovered through lots of experiments that what people really wanted was bragging rights. So they wanted to be able to brag to their bosses about what cool stuff they were doing and to their peers. And so at the Wednesday morning meeting, people were sort of bragging about what they’d done over the last week, but every quarter I had a meeting and I invited all the bosses of everybody who is maybe two levels up, you know, whatever, and we would put on some fancy display of whatever our, remember this is light with color and movement. So we could make a nice, exciting display, and people would work on the display. And then I would get up and I’d say, “Well, guess what we’ve been doing for the last quarter?” And then I would have 5, 10 people get up and brag about what they’d been doing, what kinds of inventions they’ve made, what kinds of movement in the chemistry or the process had been made, and, you know, or added customers, they got to brag, and they got to brag with their bosses right there, okay. And so I discovered also that, you know, teams like this never always agree with each other. So I had to have like areas where people got to make decisions and they knew they own that area. And it was pretty clear who owned which technology. So in areas where somebody was that person in that technology, they got to make all of the decisions, and as we were starting to commercial, we had five or six people from Japan on our team that were there many, many, many months. And in the end, they actually commercialized this in Japan and they sold it for quite a few years. But anyway, as we were trying to get the process working and actually make it in our pilot plant, so the chemist would argue with the process folks about what was wrong and why, of course they would, right, because it’s like pointing fingers. I had this wonderful guy who started working for me a few months earlier and he was an older guy and he was just the most wonderful QA guy. And he, I would send them over to the press, to the pilot plant, and I’d say, “So, you know, just go over there and see what you can do.” And he would go over there and he would say, “You know what? We don’t have to argue about this. We can get data.” And then he would propose a way to collect the data to solve the argument, always. And he understood the concept of who gets to own which decisions, if it’s your technology area, you get to make the decision, and so everybody felt ownership of their area. Everybody enjoyed, you know, the great displays we could put on and the quarterly presentations to increasingly senior management. I mean, we ended up in the annual report one year about how cool our team was, and we had an article on our neat team and stuff like that. And what I found was that it’s really easy to work with volunteers, and when you’re managing people who are not volunteers, if you want to know how to manage them, just pretend that they are.

Richard:

Okay, I was going to ask.

Mary:

And pretend that anybody that’s there could choose to not show up tomorrow, could choose to work on something else, okay. And it’s their choice to work on your area the area that you care about, and it’s your job to make them want to.

Tom:

That used to be a hypothetical, but with the great resignation in process around the world today, it’s no longer hypothetical. Everybody’s a volunteer, whether they’re paid or not.

Richard:

Yeah, and everybody, I don’t know, most, state by state, country by country, it varies, but I always think people are in Massachusetts where I am, we call it employee at will, right? You can leave anytime you want, and jobs, or jobs in tech and bio jobs, are plentiful around here and in many parts of the country, and many parts of the world, so everybody can leave anytime they want.

Mary:

So as team lead, I spent enormous amount of my cycles, my mental cycles, imagining for everybody that was involved, what they liked, what would make them, and it’s different for different people. So you got to know the person and you got to know what they care about and watch what they brag about, right? Because you’re, you know, you give them bragging rights. Watch what they talk about and then give them opportunity to do more of that stuff. And if you figure out what engages people, what they’re excited about, what they care about, and can shuttle that kind of work in their direction, they’re going to work on it because they love it. And if they’re doing stuff that they are not good at, then your job, my job was to find somebody else who’d be interested in picking up that slack instead. So they would get to do what they wanted, but they wouldn’t have to spend cycles working on what they didn’t care to work on. And they, you know, they just kept coming back, week after week because they had a lot of fun. It was hard work. And I don’t know that anybody would say fun until we put on our fancy displays and stuff like that, but it definitely was something that made them feel proud of coming to work, and they wanted to spend time doing it because they got a lot of feedback of benefit. And as I said, I spent a lot of time making sure that their bosses got to see, got to hear them brag about all the very cool stuff that they were doing and their colleagues. So that was the way that the team worked. And we eventually, the guy that hired me, Roger Appledorn retired. And in the US, the product never did get commercialized after he left, but the team that we had working with us from Japan went back home, and I can remember one day I was in my office and one of the guys from Japan came in and sat down, and he was very nervous because it’s very hard for somebody in Japan to talk to a senior person in a critical way, but he had apparently been delegated by the entire team to tell me that they needed to build a pilot plant in Japan, because he said, we can’t come over to the US and use your pilot plant and learn. So if you want us to figure out how to make this commercial in Japan, you need to help us get the money to build a pilot plant in Japan. And I had been saying, “No, no, it’s not necessary,” because it felt like a lot of money, and he just looked me right in the eye and he says, “It won’t work unless we have a pilot plant.” I said, “You’re right.” Okay. And I proceeded to make a huge case for the pilot plant to be built in Japan. And it was, and actually that’s the pilot plant that commercialized the product and got it going. So I felt really good about that, but I was not inclined to do that, but then you have to listen to somebody who comes in and, you know, confronts you and says, “You’re wrong and this is the way it ought to be.” And if you’ve got somebody with enough courage to tell you that, then they’re probably right, so.

Tom:

A key dimension that you didn’t mention explicitly is the need for leadership to have a good team.

Mary:

Oh yeah.

Tom:

You were product champion, which is a very ubiquitous role for every product at 3M, that every product has a champion, somebody who is responsible for the creation and the success and the evolution of each of the products that they offer. And there are many, many products.

Mary:

Yeah, so the concept of product champion is the concept of somebody who cares a lot about the product and makes it easy for people to work on that product and makes people feel like their time is not wasted, that it will be a good product, that it will be commercialized, that somebody is leading the group in the direction that’s going to be successful, because if you are in a group where it isn’t clear whether or not things are going to be successful, you don’t necessarily have the same kind of commitment. So we always thought, and I continue to think that leadership is really important and responsible for making sure that everybody on the team feels like they’re on a team that they want to work for the common goal and that they want to be successful, and that you’re heading in a direction where success is, you know, within everybody’s perspective. And it’s that concept of leadership that I’ve always argued is a really important thing when you’re trying to get products done. Now, this is not a leader who tells somebody, the team, what to do. I surely wouldn’t. Remember, I have volunteers. I couldn’t tell them what to do. That was like not an option, and I had to make sure that people were, you know, completely free to do their own thing in their own domain, but I could definitely constantly say, “Well, here’s the trade-offs here,” and if we don’t figure this out, then you know, what’s going to happen to the overall product? I can remember we wanted to, I had a different team and we wanted to show it in the show. No, my marketing guy wanted to show it in the next show and we went into a team meeting, one of our weekly team meetings, and the quality person said, “Oh, no way. You’re not going to show this in a show.” But he says, “But this show is in like four months, it happens once a year, and if we don’t show this product this year, it won’t be shown for well over a year to the public, and that’s just too late.” And I said, “Yep, that’s true.” So I said, “Okay, so here’s the deal. You know Karen who’s in quality, she’s going to make the final call on this because the QA gets to say if what we’re doing is high enough quality to go on a show. Now, Karen, so you get to make the choice, right? But remember what Dave said is absolutely correct. If we don’t hit the show, the product has got a very long lead time and might just die. It’s really a bad thing not to make the show.” So Karen, with a confidence that she got the final say, and Dave with a confidence that everybody was listening to his case, had a detailed discussion and argument, not on who got to make the decision, but how to make something work. And it changed the conversation from I want to get to make the call to, okay, Karen gets to make the call, but how are we going to resolve the problem? And so they resolved the problem with something that was in the show that Karen eventually approved of, and everybody worked to make work because they knew Karen had to approve it. So it’s that you have to make sure you have a way to solve arguments that everybody feels like their perspective is taken into account. Otherwise you lose volunteers. And if you’re going to, as Tom said, if you’re going to think about the workforce is it’s fundamentally volunteers. It’s a really interesting way to think about leadership.

Richard:

Yeah. You’re making this so easy for me. I just think I’ve only said one thing so far, what was your best team, and we’ve heard all about it. I do want to hear if you, you’ve been taking us back to that best team, and it’s a really awesome team. Could you share one single word to describe what it felt like to be part of that team, or one single word that would just describe that team?

Mary:

Which would describe the team, I’d say enthusiastic. The team itself was very enthusiastic. They love the product. The other thing I think that they felt was freedom. That is they got to make their own decisions, whereas this was remember no more than 20% of their time. When they went back to work, they had to do what their bosses said. They had to do what their bosses thought was important. And here they got to make their own mind up about what was important and what they got to do. So the freedom that they felt was good too.

Richard:

Also, this was a large group of people, the three people working for you and 20 to 40 volunteers, this is good.

Mary:

And depending on when and what processes we’re working on, and you know what, for example, I had a pilot plant in the end and there was a whole entire crew led by somebody that was in the engineering department that was basically build designing and building the pilot plant. And so he had his own team and sometimes they would all come to the meeting if it was a really important issue with the pilot plant, or sometimes just the one person that was the sort of leader of that group would come to the meeting. It would all depend, but I always had plenty of donuts and everybody knew they could come.

Tom:

That’s something that is being realized more and more in the software world. For decades, the software has thought of teams as seven plus or minus two, and that is really grossly inadequate. The complexity that seven plus or minus two can deal with is roughly what fits in a container or two, a service or two, and a service or two is not enough to achieve customer outcomes that justify all of the effort. Customer outcomes require a whole bunch of effort in the operations and marketing, business decisions, policy decisions, the testing, the customer support, just like the Light Fiber project did. You have to be able to support the customers. You have to be able to do the production. You have to be able to do all of that, and all of that needs to be coordinated. So the real team that’s responsible for the real outcome, which is a positive impact on the people that are using the end product, is never plus or minus two from six plus or minus two, and that that is not a team. That’s not enough to accomplish anything meaningful.

Mary:

Well, sometimes.

Tom:

In the kind of world where you’ve got much higher levels of complexity, much higher levels of interaction with multiple dimensions. So I think that’s an important thing about the size team that Mary was describing. We’ve encountered that size team many times.

Mary:

Yeah, very successful ones.

Tom:

For example, we encountered one in Oslo that was roughly the same size, and they were doing video conferencing. Anytime there’s hardware involved, there’s no choice but to have much larger teams. Now they broke down into sub-teams, but they all coordinated in very much the same fashion that Mary described.

Richard:

Right, I want to know more about coordinating all these individuals and sub-teams. You talked about like everybody has freedom, everybody’s a volunteer, people want bragging rights, people have the freedom to do whatever got them the most excited. Okay, but how did they all stay aligned on what the goal of the project was?

Mary:

Well, first of all, at 3M, the goal of any product development process is to put a product on the market that has decent margins, okay, and everybody knows what those margins are. And everybody has to work to have something that their team can put together that will be successful on the market, and it doesn’t have to be successful the first year, but after about three years, it has to be making a good profit in the first year. It has to be reasonable. We’re not after high sales, we’re after good margins. Everybody knows that. That goes without saying, and if you happen to be on a team that puts a successful new margin product on the market, that’s like gold stars for you for your career, okay? So that, if you were on this team, you wanted to be working on a product that was going to be successfully deployed into the market and have a successful market. So in the end when, for example I remember when I had this, there was this product we were working on and I had this argument, the quality person didn’t want it to go to the show and the marketing person did. Well I said, “If we don’t make that show, Dave is right. We lose a year and we probably lose the product in that year.” And everybody understood that. I mean, I had to point it out that this was the crux of the issue, but when they had arguments after that, the arguments were over how do we not lose the product, right? How do we make the product successful? So you have to steer the discussions and the arguments and the disagreement towards long-term overall success that everybody agrees they’re trying to head for and point out how this particular decision makes that happen. But when you’re talking about coordinating a lot of people, so I worked mostly on big process control systems, okay, and we had multiple people on teams there too, and we had a project manager of sorts, but the big hardware is broken into pieces that are logically relatively independent. Just as you look at a spaceship rocket, same thing. It’s broken into pieces that are as far as they can make them independent of each other, the components and sub-components, and within any of those pieces, you basically have a sub-team that is responsible to the main, at least the leader of that sub-team is responsible to the overall, you know, say project manager, whoever is in charge of the overall project. So if we’re starting up a new factory, then there is a project manager in the engineering department for the factory, who worries about the architecture, who worries about the building, who worries about the process equipment, and what we worked on was control systems. So I almost never saw the project manager because my boss was responsible for delivering to that project a process control system that worked. He did not work on it. He assigned a team to work on it, maybe five of us, and we designed and built the process control system, and he made sure that if we had trouble, we got the engineering help that we needed. But in the end, if that process control system didn’t work, and it always did, because if it didn’t work, it was my boss’s problem. You know, it was not I did something wrong. It was he did not structure the team so that it could create a successful control system for that product. And that was his job. So there was for every sub-component somebody who really bought the responsibility to make the whole system work. A process control system does not want to be optimized for itself. It wants to be optimized for what it’s controlling, for the overall process, and for the product coming out so that the product coming out is as high quality as possible. And you’re always thinking about the product coming out and what can you do to reduce waste, to improve precision, to you know, to use less materials, that sort of stuff. So as you build the process, you have to think about that, but my boss had to think about we got to make this deadline because it’s really expensive not to bring a plant up when it’s scheduled, not to bring a line up when it’s scheduled, and to make sure that we had proper staffing and to have a few extra people in reserve in case he had to throw them at emergencies, because anytime a process control system anywhere in the company went south, it was his job to figure out how to get it up as fast as possible. And so he was not in charge of the whole system, just that subsection, but he was a true expert control engineer who knew a whole lot about control engineering. He was, he didn’t know, he was not a manager who knew nothing about control systems. He could do whatever we did, and he had done it when he was younger. And his responsibility was to make sure that he properly staffed and organized his folks towards the various systems he was responsible for so that they got done on time and were done really well. And if you take a look at any large system like that, you will have it divided into sub-components, and the sub-components have a job as part of the overall system. And at least the leader of the person working on that sub-component, if not the whole team, needs to understand not just this component has to be good, but this component has to do this job, okay, and what is the job of a control system when it’s making a product in a manufacturing plant? You know, it has to make really good product. It has to not waste materials. It has to be really easy for the operator to use. It has to be possible for the plant engineer to maintain it because nobody else is going to, and you knew all those things, you didn’t even have to be told, and so you designed your piece not so that it was the best control system in the world, but so the plant engineer could maintain it. So the operators loved it and didn’t try to defeat it, because if they didn’t like it and tried to defeat it, it was your fault for not understanding what the operators wanted. That’s what our vice president told us. He says, go out to the plant, understand the people that you’re trying to build systems for, because if they don’t like them, you screwed up.

Tom:

There’s one key idea that you missed earlier, and that is how do people know that what they’re doing is the right thing to do? How do they know it’s the right choice? And the key person on the team that helped them with that was the finance person. Every, almost everything 3M did, was a small-ish product. They sell lots and lots of different things, and each one had its own profit and loss statement.

Mary:

Each one.

Tom:

And the team was responsible for optimizing that profit and loss statement. So if they’re doing the manufacturing work, if they’re doing the customer support work, if they’re doing any of the marketing work, any of the things that go into making a product successful, it would be related to this profit and loss. Now, while they were doing the work, it would be a predictive one, one that would be expected based on the experience of the people and how those translate into numbers. And they would make trade-offs based on the impact on the P&L that they were all striving to create what would be measured by that P&L when it actually got on the market as a successful product. So the finance people were actually key members of the team, which I think is rather unusual in the world. Usually the finance people are not members of the team. There’s some kind of ogre who makes life difficult, but in this case, they were people that actually made it possible to make data-driven decisions based on the best estimates that the people on the team were able to make and the experience of the organization.

Mary:

So let me give you an example, say it’s a time to do a presentation to the operating committee of the division that’s working on this product, maybe every three, six months, something like that. So it works like this. First of all, the boss of the product champion makes sure that everybody has got their act together and that it’s on the schedule. And then the first thing that happens is that the product champion gets up and says, “Boy, have we got a story for you? Let me turn it over to Joe the controller.” That’s it, that’s all you say. And then Joe the controller gets up and shows the pro forma P&L projection for the work that’s been done so far. Okay, and then you have a series of maybe three more people getting up and saying here’s the status of this particular aspect of the product right now. Because in order to make our next goal, you know, move to the next phase, we need to do these five things. I might’ve even said that at the beginning, that’s about it. And then each person that’s getting close to their completing their piece on the phase. Like you have to have a manufacturing study. You have to decide whether or not you’re going to need warranty support people, and if so, you have to have them engaged and they have to be thinking about how they’re going to get the manuals written, all that kind of stuff. So all those things have to happen, and whoever is responsible for that area gets up and talks about the cool things that they’ve done in that area and why their area is ready. But it’s always led by the controller, showing the pro forma P&L of how come this thing is going to make money. It’s really interesting, and remember, we’re not worried about revenue, we’re worried about margins.

Tom:

The project manager, or the product champion is not a project manager, because the product champion has P&L responsibility, and that changes everything. It’s not just a matter of specifying something and doing whatever the scope is that you had got approved. It’s a matter of discovering what’s going to generate a effective set of margins on the P&L of the work you’re doing.

Mary:

So our product development teams were like many divisions. They had all of the aspects of any product division from marketing to development, to manufacturing, to tech service, you name it, because the product champion was like a mini business leader.

Richard:

Yeah, you’re starting up a new line of business.

Mary:

I mean, think of a startup company, okay. You’ve got an entrepreneur with a great idea who hires like five various people to put together the team necessary to put that thing on the market. That’s what every new product at the company was structured like, like an entrepreneur with a cool idea, and you know, somebody that worked, oftentimes if it was within a division, the director of each like marketing and the director of manufacturing and stuff would assign somebody onto the team. If it was a volunteer one, then you would recruit somebody onto the team in each one of those areas, and you had to have somebody in every area or otherwise you weren’t commercializing.

Richard:

Okay, and the product champion is like that entrepreneur founding a new company.

Mary:

Like an entrepreneur, absolutely.

Richard:

Yeah. Cool, cool, cool, cool.

Tom:

No champion, no product.

Mary:

Right, that was what we always were told, product doesn’t have a champion, you don’t have a product.

Richard:

Cool, now what about, I mean you’ve shared a lot of stories about what you did and how things worked. How about advice for listeners? How could listeners reproduce some of the success?

Mary:

To me, the most important thing is to think really hard, not about yourself, not about your product, but the how everybody on the team is thinking about the product and engaging in it. You have to have your mind on each person and their issues, their perspective, their problems, that sort of stuff.

Richard:

And this is all 20 to 40 people?

Mary:

Well, sometimes I would have like for example if I were building a process, there would be a process leader who would have a team of say eight people working for him. Maybe I didn’t worry about all eight people, maybe I just worried about the process leader, okay. It would depend, but anybody who would come to the meeting and make a presentation, and everybody was engaged in doing that, I would make sure that they had, they were hurt, that nobody interrupted them, that we didn’t try to solve problems, that we had plenty of time for everybody because everybody needed a voice. Everybody needed to be engaged. If they didn’t get a voice, if they didn’t get engaged, then how could I tell, you know? So you need to pay a lot of attention to each individual and how they are engaging in making stuff happen, and you need to get in their shoes and think like they do. And they don’t think like you, they are different, there are different kinds of people. So if you can get into their view, their perspectives, their issues, and find out what is likely to make them engaged and interested and then pay attention to that, then you’re much more likely to have a very successful, engaged person. And that’s what good teams are made up of, engaged people, people who care about what’s going on, and that doesn’t happen by accident. It doesn’t. You need to have somebody that thinks about how to make sure that everybody who’s involved gets the attention and gets the things, the problem solved that they need solved and gets the, you know, gets… Some people don’t need anything like the same attention as others. It is very different. Junior people are different than senior people and people who are extremely busy with other projects that only have a little bit of time have a whole different perspective than people who this is pretty much the only thing that they do. So you have to pay attention to every person, understand, think in their shoes, what it is that will get them engaged in making this successful. If you care a lot about it, then you need to care about the people, because there is no way one person can put something on the market that takes 70 people. So if you’re leading that, you have to figure out how to make all those 70 people put their best into the product, and if you’re focusing on how to get all those 70 people to do their best work on this thing that you’d love to see on the market, that’s the way to make it happen, and that doesn’t happen by accident.

Tom:

The key word in what Mary just said is market. And what’s a market? A market is a collection of people who have a problem or an opportunity that they want to address. If you aren’t going to understand the market, you need to understand the people. You need to go visit at least the sample of the people.

Mary:

Oh yeah.

Tom:

And that’s not just the champion that has to do the visiting. It’s many members of the team need to actually go and speak with and understand the situation of the people and what their goals are, because if their goals are not the goals that your product is designed to meet, it doesn’t matter how devoted the team is to the product’s goals, it’s the customer’s goals, the people that are going to benefit from it that matter, and that is the key unifying piece.

Mary:

That’s true. We spent a lot of time bringing people who were engaged in thinking about and designing the product to talk to people who might like to use the product, and whose life might change and whose job might be easier done because of the product. And that was like the magic. You get, you show people here’s what we’re attempting to do, and it’s always on the level of here’s the person that’s going to benefit from your work, and here’s the kind of person that’s going to really love it, and then they talk directly. And there’s nothing like having somebody who’s making some decisions about a product have direct contact with people who are going to have some impact from that product. And we have too many proxies in between people who are developing, designing, making products, and people who are using them, too many proxies, and the job of a leader is to get rid of all the proxies, put them together.

Richard:

Beautiful, I love it. And I totally agree. The best work I’ve done in my past was when I could go and work with the customers directly. And I just knew what to do. It was easy.

Mary:

Same like when the VP of Engineering said, if those plants, you know, those operators in the plant, remember I’m talking in the late ’70s now, early ’80s, computers are kind of new, especially in manufacturing plants, and he said to us, you know what, those guys in the plant, you know what the operator’s job is? Their job is to make product, okay. Now let’s say you bring in a fancy computer and they perceive that it gets in their way of making product. You know what they’re going to do? They will defeat it.

Richard:

Unplug it.

Mary:

Guaranteed, ’cause they’re going to make product. Now, if they go ahead and defeat your product, your new system, then you haven’t done your job because you don’t understand what their job is and what will help them. So he made it really clear to us that our job was to get into the plant and understand those operators that were operating the computer, the equipment that we were designing, and make sure we had in our head what they cared about.

Tom:

His leadership action.

Mary:

Yeah. So he made that real clear to everybody in the whole engineering department. And therefore, you know, we designed some pretty cool processes. Almost every single new, every single line that’s re-input in in that whole period of time required completely new technology because computers were developing so fast. You would never use the same thing you’d use a year earlier. You’d always use, and that’s still true today, right? You’d never use what was good two years ago. So you have to have people that can make design decisions based on a really good idea of what it is that the people that are going to use it care about and need and want, what their problems are and what might and might not solve them, and they don’t get to guess, and they don’t get to pretend that they know because they don’t. Yeah, so this concept of projects with a project manager giving a list of things to deliver, and then if they deliver that on time, it’s good. I don’t think so. If you deliver something and it works and it makes great product, it’s good. On time is pretty critical in our business, so it always happened, but it also has to make good stuff. And the product, say a product that there’s a point need for a product leader, but not for somebody who tells the team, here’s your priorities and here’s what you do next. You know, if I would ever tell that to my team, they would never come back. If I would ever dare to set priorities for my team, they set priorities for me for heaven’s sake. You know, if I would have dared to set priorities for what the team ought to be working on, nobody would come to the next meeting. They wouldn’t. They don’t want to be told what to do. They don’t want to be told what’s important. They get to argue about it amongst themselves and they get to come up with solutions to that, but I sure as heck don’t get to tell them. That’s like I’m pretending I know how to make the product. And I certainly don’t. So they have to figure that out and I have to help them to figure it out and help them to ask the right questions, but I don’t get to tell them the answers.

Richard:

If listeners want to learn more about you and your work, what’s the best way to do that?

Mary:

I have a website, it’s www.poppendieck.com. Only thing is you’ll have to spell Poppendieck right. So I assume you’ll have it written down somewhere where they can figure that out.

Richard:

Oh, we absolutely will, and a QR code and whatever other magic we can offer.

Mary:

Contact us there, or our emails are mary@poppendieck.com and tom@poppendieck.com, really tough to remember.

Richard:

All right, Mary and Tom, Mary and Tom Poppendieck, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m super grateful that you could be here with us. Thank you.

Mary:

Thank you.

Richard:

And listeners, remember to support this podcast. Visit my website kasperowski.com.

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