Designed for success

2014-09-09 00:00

HARVARD medical school faculty psychologist Jeff Brown has been looking at the brain activity and life stories of highly successful people in order to try to identify what sets them apart from everyone else, and the research has yielded some interesting results.

We all know that successful people think differently, but according to Brown, people who are successful have “learnt to optimise their brains”. He has identified strategies that he calls “brain power tools” that he believes successful people employ to achieve their goals. Each of these tools is a way of thinking that affects decision-making and direction. The combination of this hard wiring allows people to identify opportunities, to build mastery, to work through challenges, overcome failure and to excel.

According to Brown, successful people seldom take the conventional route to get to where they are going, because they have a knack for recognising non-traditional opportunities. They tend to invite and be open to criticism, and are well-aware of what’s in their skills arsenal and what their deficits are. They are able to focus on a single goal and to pursue it without becoming distracted, which boosts their ability to think and execute. They operate at the edge of their comfort zones, where there is enough risk for it to be exciting, but they don’t take terrifying risks. They are self-motivated, work tirelessly towards their goals and, according to Brown, their drive is persistent rather than pushy. They embrace the process along the way, building stamina and resistance. And they improve continuously.

Over the years, I have become very interested in productivity improvement, in particular, in lean manufacturing.

I find industry absolutely thrilling. I love to walk through factories and hear the busy buzz and clatter of things being made. It’s exciting to see finished product coming off a line. All the hissing and clanking makes me feel like the economy is ticking over. It’s a very reassuring sound.

Lean is a workplace philosophy and production practice that focuses on preserving value while eliminating waste. It is based on the Toyota Production System (TPS), which is an integrated socio-technical system developed by Toyota, comprising its management philosophy and practices.

In South Africa, like in many Western societies, lean implementation tends to be tool- and system-focused, but it is important to understand that the philosophy and thinking play a critical role. One practitioner describes the primary aim as “drawing out people’s capability and motivation”, which is very different to driving out cost.

Quite interestingly, a little while back I spent a very good day with an organised labour leader at a local factory that successfully employs lean. The thing that most impressed him was the fact that not a single labourer had anything negative to say about his or her employer. It was a first for him, and why?

Because the workers at this factory are empowered and respected, which are integral elements of effective lean implementation. It’s important to note that respecting your workforce doesn’t mean getting all soft and sappy.

John Shook, Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) chairperson and CEO, clarified it nicely when he said: “Respect for people is often mistaken for establishing a democratic workplace in which everyone is treated with great deference and politically correct politeness. Respect really means that we challenge each other to be the best we can be by fully developing our uniquely human capability to solve problems.”

I am very excited about the fact that renowned lean specialist Dr Michael Ballé, who is based in Paris, will be spending a day doing two “gemba walks” at Pietermaritzburg factories on September 17.

A “gemba walk” is when a learned teacher or master (a sensei) takes top management to “the gemba”, which is the place where value is created, i.e. the shop floor.

He leads managers through the factory, asking pointed questions, discussing various approaches and new ways of thinking and identifying opportunities for productivity improvement. Criticising with improvement as a goal, leading and teaching. Ballé will lead a limited delegation of 30 executives from various companies through Somta Tools and Pfisterer. It’s important to note that while lean was born out of industry, it is as relevant in any work space.

Ballé is an international speaker and the author and co-author of several books on lean manufacturing (Managing with Systems Thinking, The Lean Organisation, The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager). He has recently co-authored a new book titled Lead With Respect , which has been published by the Lean Institute. Its aim is to “vividly and powerfully show business leaders how to use lean management to develop people and the business simultaneously”.

I have had the privilege of hearing Ballé talk and have attended gemba walks with him, and I have no doubt that immense value will be gained from attending.

The 30 available places are being snapped up, but if you’re interested in “going to the gemba” and challenging your way of thinking, contact me for details at

• Melanie Veness is the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

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