When I was asked whether I’d like to read Wiring the Winning Organization, I immediately said yes. The reason behind this was that I noticed one of the authors’ names; Gene Kim. Hw wrote The Phoenix Project and The Unicorn Project. Two books that unite the forms of novels and technical books. Two books that I absolutely loved.
Wiring the Winning Organization doesn’t follow that novel style, yet, it’s a great book to read. It uncovers three strategies that even on their own can make a difference between winning and losing organizations, but if they are combined, success is almost guaranteed.
These 3 strategies are slowification, simplification and amplification. The others explain these concepts both through an imaginary hotel renovation project where furniture has to be moved and walls have to be painted and also through detailed case studies. These case studies vary starting with historical contexts of army improvements, through the Apollo project to modern software development/deployment practices.
Let me give the gist of three of the studies while I briefly explain what are these different strategies that help win the organization.
How the MIT Sloan School Sailing Team slowed down to be the fastest
In 2013, two experienced sailors joined MIT’s Leaders for Global Operations program. They wanted to keep sailing, they wanted to keep competing and they secured a spot in a regatta which was only a few weeks away. Teams of eight sailors from more than 20 leading business schools were expected at the race.
As the race was not far away and the other members of the team had little or no experience, their defeat was guaranteed.
What could they do?
The two experienced sailors shared as much knowledge as they could before the race, but of course, they didn’t have the necessary time to practice in real life. They mostly practised on land. That was not ideal, but at least it was something.
On the other hand, there was a very interesting element in their practice. Whenever any problem occurred, even a small one, they paused. They stopped so that solutions could be developed and practised before they resumed. They didn’t simply make these pauses during practice. They did it even during the races!
The regatta had several small courses of two laps.
They stopped after the first lap to review what went wrong and how to adjust.
They stopped whenever they thought it was needed.
They were dead last in the first two courses.
Then they started to win. The slowification paid off.
They didn’t advance to the finals as their cumulative time was not good enough due to the first two courses, but next year, despite the attrition of graduated members they won by far because they captured everything they learned in a diagrammed playbook.
This strategy worked so well that they kept winning even after the original two sailors graduated and therefore left the team.
How NASA won the space race by simplifying it
NASA programs appear often on the pages of this book, though not always as a positive example. The combination of Mercury, Gemini and Appolo programs were such a success that they obviously serve as a positive example. In fact, as a collection of positive examples.
These programs exemplify different simplification techniques such as incrementalization, modularization and linearization.
When the space race started in the 1950s, the USSR had a significant advantage. They sent the first man to space, they orbited first, they were the first to spend a full day in space and they had the first joint mission of two spacecraft years before the US could do it.
But they lost their advantage.
While NASA made small well-calculated steps forward on top of the other, the Soviets tried to make giant leaps and they failed.
Let’s get back to the terms I just introduced; incrementalization, modularization and linearization.
In the NASA space program, each new step added something small to an already-established foundation instead of doing everything at once. Going to the Moon, landing and coming back to Earth was partitioned across three programs (Mercury, Gemini and Appollo) and even inside, these programs were organised with an incremental approach. The first missions were based on rockets already validated by the military and new ones were designed based on the information gathered there and they were suborbital. They didn’t shy away from sending people several times for 15 minutes to an altitude of about 185 km with the same rocket, just to try different windows to establish a stable space capsule design that could serve as a basis for the next experiment.
Winning the space race was the result of about three hundred thousand people working on these programs. To allow parallel experimentation, the programs had to be modularized on different levels. Different teams could work on navigation, communication, life support, etc. For different parts, often different booster rockets were used, but the different space capsules and rockets had a common boundary (a common API if you want to think in software design terms), so that these modules could work together relatively easily. For example, the lunar landing module was developed as a separate component from the command and service modules and partially by different companies.
Several different modules didn’t only mean easier development, it also meant more often and more difficult integration between the parts. Procedures, processes and routines had to be developed to be able to linearize the work and decrease the chance of failure due to miscommunication. The case study in the book gives some examples on what techniques NASA used to make interactions clear.
For amplification, the book uses the example of the mass cancellations of Southwest Airlines over the 2022 Christmas Holiday season. I leave the details out from this book review, I rather concentrate on defining amplification. “Amplification is the act of calling out problems loudly and consistently enough so help is triggered to swarm them.” With that, problems are contained locally and prevented from systematic spread. This helps to find root causes to take corrective actions and prevent recurrence.
Unsurprisingly, the Southwest case study is not a positive one.
Let’s close this review on the other hand by summarizing a positive case study.
All together combined by Toyota
At the end of the book, you can read a case study about one of the most sophisticated Toyota plants, TMMTX (Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Texas). In modern manufacturing plants, simplification is a given, everyone is responsible only for small tasks. On the other hand, a visitor could observe interesting aspects of slowification and amplification.
The plant can operate as smoothly and successfully thanks to its feedback-rich culture. If something is not working correctly, if someone is in difficulty, a stoppage of the line is the routine. This might remind you of the slowification process of the MIT Sloan sailor team and rightly so. The team gathers and the team leader joins and helps figure out what’s the problem and how to solve it. Only then the normal course of work can continue.
In such a complex plant, this process of slowification wouldn’t be worth much without amplification. Compared to software development organizations, the hierarchy is much deeper at TMMTX. The reason is that a leader has fewer direct reports. Four or five people is perfectly normal, if the workstation is more complex, there will be even fewer reports. The reason is that leaders are supposed to be very closely following the operation and be able to jump in and help with tricky events whenever there is a need. Then processes have to be adjusted so that the same problem doesn’t occur. If problems are solved early enough and they don’t spread and recur, the leader served his or her purpose. If the problem cannot be solved or contained locally, they immediately have to transmit the feedback and work with the problem on the next level. Again, the job is well done.
While disruptions cannot be completely avoided, TMMTX works extremely well. It stands out even in a such well-oiled manufacturing organization as Toyota. While implementation details would be different for other industries, how they use simplification, slowification and amplification can serve as a good example for other organizations as well.
Wiring the Winning Organization by Gene Kim and Steven J. Spear is a good read for anyone interested in how to make a dysfunctional organization good or a good one great. Its main idea revolves around the triad of simplification, slowification and amplification, but the book goes much deeper than I could present in this review.
Something that was completely missed on these pages is about the three layers of an organization where these techniques will help, such as the technical objects being worked on (layer 1), the tools and instrumentations being used (layer 2) and the social circuitry of an organization (layer 3).
If you are interested in these thoughts, I highly recommend reading Wiring the Winning Organization.
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