Tell us a bit about yourself.
I think of myself as always curious and learning. I get satisfaction from making a major improvement in the lives of employees or performance of companies.
I started my career in physics and chemistry and then migrated through roles in applied research, development, marketing/technical sales, quality and operations. For a number of years I was the director of a 400 strong manufacturing company.
I then started consulting in Theory of Constraints to miners and manufacturers and, on moving to Australia, got involved in safety differently with Art of Work (through Collective Improvements). It has been a great fit and lots of fun. When work is difficult productivity is low. Fix productivity and you address safety.
How does your background in chemistry assist your current work?
In chemistry, the goal is to create new molecular structures or to identify structures which may benefit society. Discovering the rate at which the desired structures form and the equilibrium state that will be reached are crucial to success. To do these, scientific principles (physics) are harnessed in logical cause and effect thinking. However, chemistry also looks beyond the ordered world. Nobel chemist Ilya Prigogine showed in the late 1960s that complexity is part of chemistry and showed that chemical systems are balanced between order and chaos. Our modern organisations are no different, there is the ordered part where managers can control and manage with rules and procedures, but this world cannot be separated from the complex side where standard rules and strategies impede results. The two sides exist in equilibrium and for best results, we have to switch from the ordered to the complex for short periods.
Is working with people and processes in organisations more of an art or a science?
Depending on the definitions used it can be both, with the balance between art and science shifting. The balance will depend on the issue being examined, the organisation, and its history. Issues playing out in complexity are handled by strengthening desired outcomes and weakening undesired ones (art). Once constraints have been put in place we can use the principles of science (TOC) to maintain these in the ordered environment.
In your work across industries, is there a common thread in organisations that are lacking growth?
I would like to answer these questions with two quotes. Tolstoy, in his novel Anna Karenina, said "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." For a company to be successful, it has to succeed on several key issues. Failure in even one means that the business is unsuccessful. Warren Buffet “ When a manager with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, the reputation of the business remains intact." Having said that, if we are looking at similar companies in the same industry, with the same management capability, trying to focus on everything is a sure recipe for disaster. All businesses face bottlenecks, either internally or in the market. Efforts centred on the primary bottleneck will return multiples of the energy expended, effort on other areas will deliver nothing or negative returns (from overloading managerial span of attention). If you do not know where your bottleneck is and you start a process of cost-cutting, you will cut into the capacity of your bottleneck and reduce the volume of sales since you diminish the satisfaction of many customers.
You are known as a problem solver, what is the key to your problem-solving approach?
Managers in many businesses find that decisions over many months fluctuate between opposing policies/strategies. This prevents the business from attaining stability, which is highly conducive to achieving great results. For example: reduce stock holding in the business and after a few months sales suffer due to stockouts. Sales personnel start to scream for more stock, as the stock increases finance starts yelling about the increase in working capital. This conflict never gets resolved. Of course, after a few cycles of this, relationships are strained. When we investigate the assumptions that go into the need for more or less stock, we can usually identify an assumption which, once changed, can negate this conflict and the negative feedback loops that flow from it.
I often find solutions by looking for recurring conflicts inside the business, knowing that these can be resolved. Secondly, for the answer to take hold, results must be delivered quickly and be significant and visible. This means that we need to start with leverage points that deliver results quickly. Another requirement is to clearly show management the interdependency of their environment and how ignoring leverage points cause these to go into a negative spiral. This is perhaps the most important step.
What excites you outside of work?
I enjoy reading about how the universe works and am fascinated that in human systems the road to hell is usually paved with good intentions.