You Can Change Anything You Want, Except Where the Pieces Are

You Can Change Anything You Want, Except Where the Pieces Are

Last summer, we met the nice folks from the Barry-Wehmiller Leadership Institute (BWLI), a team of facilitators who teach leadership through books, podcasts, and seminars (my favorite) at their St. Louis office.

The BWLI team invited us to their office to talk about Atomicdust’s process and approach for branding and website design. While that’s always exciting to me, I was honestly a little starstruck. You see, I’m an avid reader of business books (and listener of audiobooks) and Barry-Wehmiller’s CEO wrote a great one on leadership titled Everyone Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family. My (nerd) worlds were colliding!

Oh, and did I mention that BWLI works with Simon Sinek, author of the famed book Start with WhyBWLI takes a similar tack in their 2-day Think Like a Leader seminar, helping leaders find the “why” for themselves and their organizations.

As if just working with their team wasn’t exciting enough, Rich Heend and I were invited to attend a seminar. Perks of the job.

The seminar was great. I mean really great. And I’m not saying that because they’re a client, or to use this story as a review of the experience. (Although I will say that if you’re at all intrigued, you should check out the class.) The last thing I ever expected from the seminar was to find myself getting teary-eyed with a group of Air Force officers, thinking about how much I appreciate my wife. You just had to be there. And I’m glad I was.

Let’s Build Some Cars

Since the seminar, I still find myself thinking about one of the activities in particular. I’ve found myself sharing this story with my team, friends and family, and I think it’s the perfect example of a problem that plagues a lot of businesses and industries in general. The problem is inherited dogma.

One afternoon, all the seminar attendees were split into teams for a small-group activity. You know how much fun it is to be split into teams with total strangers, right?

We were told we represented a fictitious car company. Our job was to split into the roles of Management, Sales, Parts Management, Assembly and QA and build as many cars out of LEGO bricks as we could in one hour.

We were given our handbook, a manual of what our roles and responsibilities were. The manual explained the process of building cars, how the information and checklists flowed from one person to another, and what each person’s title and responsibility was. The handbook was very clear on who was in charge of doing what, and as the hour passed, our team often referred back to it to clarify each role and to seek guidance on how best to handle whatever hiccup came up along the way.

The sales team would manually write out the orders as they came in and give them to the Parts Runner. The Parts Runner would quickly run from our table to the bins against the wall where the LEGO bricks were kept. The Parts Sorter would take the order from the Parts Runner, sort through the bins and try to find the correct pieces to fill the order. They would then give the correct parts back to the Parts Runner to carry over to the table and give to Assembler #1.

Assembler #1 would build the first part of the car, fill out the assembly checklist and then pass it to Assembler #2, who would continue building their part of the car, update the checklist, and hand it off to Assembler #3. Assembler #3 would finish the build and paperwork, and raise her hand signaling it was time for the General Manager to inspect and improve the car. Once approved, only the Manager was allowed to take the completed car to the showroom (which was across the room at another table).

At the start, it all sounded nice and linear. Also, these were simple LEGO cars. Not exactly rocket science.

The problems arose when something deviated from the plan. The color that wasn’t in stock. The missing part that slipped through the Parts Runner. The section of the car that Assembler #2 built incorrectly. (Come on, Assembler #2!)

If I remember correctly, in one hour we built nine cars. Not exactly a world record.

Plus, the experience itself was super stressful. Imagine all these real-life business leaders placed into a seemingly simple role in front of strangers but unsure about how to deal with problems that came up, consulting the manual frantically, searching for answers.

Speaking for myself, a lot of the feelings that arose were not about building great LEGO cars, but around making sure I fulfilled my role correctly and didn’t embarrass myself in front of everyone. No one wanted to be the person that was slowing our team down, and I felt it became very defensive surprisingly quickly.

After the exercise, we had a group discussion about where each of us felt the process was failing. You could hear one department blaming another department, or even specific individuals for poor performance.

You Can Change Anything You Want, Except Where the Pieces Are

The next day, we tried the exercise again, but this time, we were told these beautiful words: “You can change anything you want, except where the pieces are” (referring to the bins of legos on a table against the wall).

Wait, we can change anything we want? Anything? The group was taken aback.

Waves of questions swirled around, like “Can the Sales Department have a better sales form, one that has check boxes instead of blanks to fill in?”

“You can change anything you want, except where the pieces are.”

“Well, how about the Parts Runner also helping find and sort the pieces of the orders?” someone on the team asked.

“You can change anything you want, except where the pieces are.”

“Can Assembler #2 help Assembler #3 complete the build when they’re overwhelmed?” was asked, and answered simply with (you guessed it), “You can change anything you want, except where the pieces are.”

“Can we all just build the cars? Do we have to have specific steps of assembly?”

“You can change anything you want, except where the pieces are.”

Anything. We could do anything. We could move the table closer to the parts. We could all build the cars. We could improve the forms, or get rid of them all together. We could build cars before they were ordered. We could all walk up and get our own parts. We could eliminate roles altogether. We could change anything we wanted, except where the pieces were.

A wave of shock and surprise crashed over the group. New ideas were thrown out, and people’s titles (and identities) seemed to melt away. Our whole team decided to pre-build as many cars as we could, even before they were ordered. One person alone could grab the pieces and assemble a car to completion all on their own. We eliminated 90% of the paperwork that was required the day before.

In that next hour, if I remember right, our team built more than 20 cars. We doubled our effort from the day before. Also, there was hardly any stress, and people seemed to actually enjoy the process and the work.

Things I Learned

This simple, simple exercise was a crash course in real-world business management. A couple key takeaways:

Once in a system, it is very difficult to imagine anything else. Even if you have complete freedom to do so. When our team was told that we could change anything about the process, the first thing we wanted to do was add checkboxes to the form. I mean, this is  an improvement, but the thinking was so small compared to the opportunity. I think it’s difficult for people who are close to a problem to see the bigger picture, and that is where a lot of mistakes are made and opportunities missed. Too often, we hold on dearly to the the same processes that we loathe. But why? Maybe we stop being able to see past them.

Another key takeaway from the exercise was that people personally identify with their role. They become it. If I’m not a Parts Runner, who am I? Who do I have authority over? What are the limits of what I can do? How do I know what I’m responsible for? And if there are no boundaries, how can I tell if someone else is performing their job well? Without a role, I had to be responsible for the entire organization, together with everyone else.

The entire exercise leans well into my own personal theories of running a creative-driven business and the delicate balance of “order vs. chaos” that I wrestle with. This simple exercise and the concept behind it, the frustrations that came with it and the self-imposed constraints (my own included) that surfaced are things that I find endlessly fascinating.

If you’re into business, innovation and improvement, you owe it to yourself to check out the Barry-Wehmiller Leadership Institute, or at least give their CEO Bob Chapman’s book Everyone Matters a read (or a listen). It might give you insight on how to design a better business – and maybe even a happier life. Because ultimately, you can change anything you want, except where the pieces are. It’s all up to you.

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Mike Spakowski

Mike Spakowski

Mike Spakowski is Principal / Creative Director of Atomicdust and is involved with the day-to-day design strategy, art direction and studio management.

More posts by Mike Spakowski