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Matthew E. May

Quality Insider

The Three Best Books for Getting Things Right

Summer reading outside the business basics

Published: Thursday, July 5, 2012 - 10:14

Every day, we are bombarded with messages about how to get things done. We hear a lot less, though, about how to get things right. Most waste in business operations come not from doing the right work inefficiently, but simply doing the wrong work in the first place.

Here are three books that should be on the reading list of anyone charged with managing and improving business operations. Only one of them is a traditional business book.

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, by Atul Gawande (Metropolitan Books, 2009). Although Gawande is a surgeon—his operations are operations in the truest sense of the word—and the context of his book is essentially medical, this is a very important book about the power of a simple standard to improve any operation.

In medicine, construction, aviation, and product design, the checklist is vital. It can, quite simply, save lives. At the very least, it can make anyone far more effective and professional. Many people, doctors, and designers included, take the view that a checklist is in some way limiting. They view their work as too complex and creative for such a simple tool—which appears on the surface to be rigid, restrictive, and regimented—to have any usefulness in a demanding profession where every situation is different.

But that isn’t the case. Physicians in Gawande’s study who employed well-crafted, standard surgical checklists saw double-digit improvement in their key performance metrics, like mortality and morbidity rates. The checklist proved to be an elegant solution to a host of medical problems.

And in the best design firms, the design process is standardized. But it’s not a paint-by-numbers approach. Rather, it’s high-level, phase-driven, and allows individual style to enter into how the process is actually executed. (The goal of a standard should never be to eliminate personal style and creativity.)

A checklist functions like a compulsory routine, or kata, in martial arts. Basic movements are taught first, and they provide the framework needed to improvise as needed. It’s like driving a car: There are certain guidelines in effect and certain actions every driver takes to operate a car, but beyond that you can drive in a direction that suits you and your specific situation.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis (Norton, 2011). When Moneyball was published in 2004, I was working as a full-time consultant to Toyota. The book was quickly adopted as a nonautomotive example of Toyota’s operating principles creating competitive advantage. In fact, we had the star of the book, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, address the entire U.S.-based Toyota organization.

Every now and then someone comes up with a new way of looking at things and decides to change the rules of the game. The result is that often they end up changing the world. In baseball, that someone was Billy Beane.

Moneyball is on one level the story of how the Oakland A’s made it to the 2002 playoffs on the second lowest payroll in baseball, roughly one-third that of the New York Yankees, whose winning record the A’s tied that year. On another level, it’s the story of how to find and exploit overlooked opportunities, based on a scientific understanding of market forces. The story is a relevant one for any small business, as a baseball team is essentially just that.

Billy Beane discovered the inefficiencies in the “marketplace” for baseball players through the work of baseball aficionados and statisticians. Through their scientific insights, Beane came to understand that buff-looking players with beefy batting averages, or the ability to steal second base—both traditional indicators loved by scouts—had little to do with what actually wins a baseball game: runs scored.

The statistic with the highest correlation to runs scored was a simple but overlooked, and thus undervalued, one: on-base percentage. Based on that “aha,” Beane figured out that most ball clubs weren’t picking the highest quality players for their money.

By picking players with strong records in these new numbers, Beane was able to draft players at bargain basement prices that were undervalued, if not wholly ignored, by the rest of baseball. Building an entire team with just such a lineup, Beane’s Oakland A’s were able to win a record 20 consecutive games and make it to the 2002 American League division playoffs, while spending far less money than any of its competitors.

“It’s looking at process rather than outcomes,” says Beane’s statistician, Paul DePodesta. “Too many people make decisions based on outcomes rather than process.”

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, by Eric Ries (Crown Publishing Group, 2011). It’s a fact that the vast majority of start-ups fail. But according to Eric Ries, those failures can be prevented if you take a structured and scientific approach. “Start-up success can be engineered by following a process,” he says. And if there’s a process, that means it can be learned. Ries’ goal is to teach that process to entrepreneurs everywhere.

The Lean Startup, which is based on the principles of lean, provides a scientific approach to creating and managing start-ups, developing a new product, getting that product into customers’ hands faster, steering the start-up more effectively, and driving growth with maximum acceleration.

“Too many start-ups begin with an idea for a product that they think people want,” says Ries. “They then spend months, sometimes years, perfecting that product without ever showing the product, even in a very rudimentary form, to the prospective customer. When they fail to reach broad uptake from customers, it is often because they never spoke to prospective customers and determined whether or not the product was interesting. When customers ultimately communicate, through their indifference, that they don’t care about the idea, the start-up fails.”

Ries defines a start-up as an organization dedicated to creating something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty. “This is just as true for one person in a garage or a group of seasoned professionals in a Fortune 500 boardroom,” says Ries. “What they have in common is a mission to penetrate that fog of uncertainty to discover a successful path to a sustainable business.”

What books do you find most helpful and relevant to your business?

Reprinted with permission from http://EDITInnovation.com


About The Author

Matthew E. May’s picture

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May counsels executives and teams through custom designed facilitation, coaching, and training using four basic ingredients: strategy, ideation, experimentation, and lean. He’s been counseling for 30 years, a third of it as a full-time advisor to Toyota. He is the author of four books, the latest The Laws of Subtraction (McGraw-Hill, 2013), and is working on his fifth book. His work has been appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. May holds an MBA from The Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.


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I highly recommend Davis Balestracci's book "Data Sanity". Steve