First Friday Book Synopsis

"…like CliffNotes on steroids…"

The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: A Book Review by Bob Morris

The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results
Calhoun W. Wick, Roy V. H. Pollock, Andy Jefferson, and Richard Flanagan
Pfeiffer/A Wiley Imprint (2003)

An organization’s chief learning officer or equivalent must be prepared to answer questions such as these:

What is the ROI of our learning and development programs?
How do you determine that?
If the ROI is unacceptable, what is being done to increase it?

My guess (only a guess) is that similar questions are also asked of those who lead innovation initiatives. The fact remains that in most organizations, board members and CEOs not only expect but indeed demand that every hour and every dollar be committed to helping achieve and then sustain profitable growth and that is especially true of training programs and innovation initiatives. There seems to be little (if any patience) with any costs that cannot be justified in business terms. In this context, I am reminded of a brainstorming session at Southwest Airlines years ago during which someone suggested that a chicken salad treat be given (not sold) to passengers as an expression of appreciation. Then CEO Herb Kelleher is reported to have responded, “Does it help us to continue to be the low-cost airline? If not, then chicken salad is chicken shit.” End of discussion.

What Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, Andrew Jefferson, and Richard Flanagan (hereinafter referred to as co-authors) offer in this volume is a rigorous and eloquent analysis of what they characterize as “the six disciplines of breakthrough learning.” They devote a separate chapter to each discipline, concluding each chapter with one checklist of reminders and action points for learning leaders and another for line leaders. In this context, it may be of interest to at least some of those who read this review to know that two other authors also recommend comparable disciplines. In Think BIG Act Small, Jason Jennings suggests that all high-performing companies are led by people who are down to earth, keep their hands dirty, make short-term goals with long-term horizons, let go (“when it’s DOA, bury it”), have everyone think and act like an owner, invent new businesses, create win-win situations for everyone involved, choose their competitors, build communities, and grow future leaders. In Six Disciplines for Excellence, Gary Harpst recommends these: Decide What’s Important, Set Goals That Lead, Align Systems, Work the Plan, Innovate Purposefully, and Align Systems.

Because learning and development programs are investments by a company in its workforce, the authors acknowledge that management “has a fiduciary and ethical responsibility to ensure that those investments produce a return: results that increase enterprise value.” None of what the co-authors call “the 6Ds(tm)” is a head-snapping revelation, nor do they make any such claim. However, in my opinion, they should guide and inform all performance at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise and rigorous measurement and review of performance should be based on them. Exhibit 1.1, the “6Ds(tm) Learning Transfer and Applications Scorecard,” provides a diagnostic that enables the reader to evaluate the readiness of a learning program to deliver results. There are other diagnostic exercises inserted throughout the book’s narrative.

I appreciate the fact that the authors also include a number of mini-case studies based on real-world initiatives by prominent organizations that include Sony Electronics, British Broadcasting Company, Home Depot, and Pfizer. And I also appreciate the series of brief but insightful statements by a CLO or equivalent, called “From the Top,” that provide an eyewitness account of specific learning initiatives. The exemplar organizations include the Center for Creative Leadership, General Mills, University of Notre Dame, Honeywell, and AstraZaneca.

Knowing what not to do is often at least as important as knowing what to do. Kevin Wilde offers a case in point in the Foreword: “A talented and hard-working team designed an air-tight course: activities planned to the minute, world-class external faculty and cutting-edge simulations…all grounded in specific learning objectives. But the team fell short by failing to first clearly identify how the company would benefit from having leaders attend the program. I’ve been there – so caught up in crafting the excellence of the learning event that we failed to ground everything in the real business case. When that happens, the results leave you heartbroken, far short of the learning breakthrough intended.”

The authors are exemplars of pragmatism, of “nailing the fundamentals,” when formulating and then launching learning initiatives. They also have bold and compelling visions of breakthroughs in training and development while agreeing with Thomas Edison’s observation, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” The advice with which Marshall Goldsmith concludes the book will also conclude my review of it:

“The designs for learning and development programs should be considered incomplete if they do not include plans to encourage participants to follow through, practice what they have learned, and reach out to colleagues for feed forward ideas and coaching. When those elements are in place to support well-designed and well-delivered learning, then we have all the ingredients for a true transformation. Life is good.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Six Disciplines® Execution Revolution: A Book review by Bob Morris

Six Disciplines® Execution Revolution
: Solving the One Business Problem That Makes Solving All Other Problems Easier

Gary Harpst
Six Disciplines Publishing (2008)

In his previous book, Six Disciplines for Excellence, Harpst explains the importance of focusing on what’s important (i.e. renewing mission, clarifying values, strengthening strategic position, and engaging others with a crystal clear vision as well as defining very few objectives and agreeing on what to stop); of setting goals that engage people (i.e. those that help people to remain focused on doing what must be done to achieve the organization’s given objectives); of getting strategies, people, and processes as well as systems in proper alignment; of “working the plan” (i.e. investing in each moment help build the most preferred future for the organization…and make life and work more fulfilling for each individual); of innovating purposefully (e.g. brainstorming regularly as well as recognizing and rewarding the best ideas); and of stepping back (i.e. taking a close look at what’s taking place, both internally and externally, and to make whatever mid-course corrections may be needed to ensure the organization is headed in the right direction).

In his latest book, Harpst asserts that “excellence is the enduring pursuit of balanced strategy and execution. Strategy requires choosing what promises to make to all stakeholders and a roadmap for delivering on those promises. Execution requires getting there, while overcoming unending surprises. Of the two, execution is far more difficult to achieve, but it is fruitless without sold strategy. Learning how to balance these two is the key to excellence. Excellence is a journey that never ends. It’s an enduring pursuit that requires an enduring approach.” In my opinion, the greatest value of this book is derived from the clarity, concision, and precision with which Harpst “nails the basics” in terms of how to formulate an appropriate strategy, with its primary objective to solve an organization’s most serious problem because, “if you focus on solving the right problem, the solution of all other problems will be easier (not easy).” On occasion, “all the pieces fall together, creating a leapfrog opportunity to solve old problems.” Whether or not what Harpst recommends is “a fundamentally new way” is for each reader to determine. I agree with him that everyone involved in a given organization, “top to bottom,” should remain focused on achieving long-term goals with an appropriate strategy. Meanwhile, of course, sufficient revenue must be generated and there must also be effective development of leadership and management skills at all levels and in all areas. As a farmer once observed to Ralph Emerson, “Having a vision is wonderful but you still have to milk the cows and feed the pigs.”

Harpst stresses the importance of knowing and then doing what will add the greatest value to the stakeholders involved in the given enterprise. In this context, I am again reminded of what Peter Drucker said in 1963: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” Decision-makers in all organizations (regardless of their size or nature) will find a wealth of practical advice in Harpst’s latest book. As is his custom, after acknowledging what everyone agrees is the “what” of execution, he spends most of his time explaining the “how,” guided and informed by all six of basic but absolutely essential disciplines. Harpst notes that “whatever issues an organization faces today, they will be different and bigger tomorrow. Planning and executing, while at the same time, managing the unknowns of the real world, is the biggest challenge in business. Overcoming this challenge is what we mean by solving the problem that will make solving all other problems easier. It builds an organization that is preparing for an ever increasing set of future challenges that are the natural result of overcoming today’s challenges.”

It should be noted that all of Harpst’s observations and recommendations are based on a wealth of research that he and his associates have conducted for several years as well as on their central involvement with decision-makers in hundreds of different organizations that have substantially increased the speed, efficiency, and productivity of their performance by executing the six disciplines. Correctly, Harpst stresses that change efforts must be initiated and then sustained at all levels and in all areas throughout the given enterprise.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Six Disciplines for Excellence: A Review by Bob Morris

Six Disciplines for Excellence: Building Small Businesses That Learn, Lead and Last
Gary Harpst
Synergy Press (2007)

This book was written primarily for decision-makers in established small businesses that, typically, employ 10 to 100 people. How does his book differ from others whose authors also discuss business improvement? According to Gary Harpst, “First, [unlike most other books] which focus 80% on principles and 20% on implementation, this book’s content [begin italics] is focused 20% on principles and 80% on implementation [end italics]….Second, the [Six Disciplines] Methodology is [begin italics] designed specifically for small businesses [end italics]….Third, the Six Disciplines Methodology is the first methodology to [begin italics] distill and integrate what were designed as separate best practices into one cohesive whole [end italics].”

Harpst devotes a separate chapter to each of the six Disciplines: Decide What’s Important, Set Goals That Lead, Align Systems, Work the Plan, Innovate Purposefully, and Step Back. True to his word, Harpst focuses most of his attention on HOW to derive maximum benefit from each of the six separate but interdependent Disciplines. In my opinion, he has positioned them in the most appropriate sequence, helping his reader to understand that business improvement must be viewed and initiated as a cohesive and comprehensive process. He correctly emphasizes the importance of definition, clarification, identification, measurement, evaluation, and when appropriate, modification and adjustment. Each small business really is a “work in process” which, hopefully, involves progress or improvement rather than deterioration.

Over the years, I have worked closely with hundreds of small companies and agree with the owner/CEO of one of them who confided that he viewed his own company as it were a young grandchild entrusted to his care. “I have to keep an eye on it all the time. Be alert to potential dangers. Let it wander a bit but keep it away from trouble. Make sure it is safe. Feed it. Clean it. Provide love and care and support and encouragement. But make certain that it knows what the rules are…and follows them. Let it have fun but not break anything. Sometimes it’s exhausting but I love it!”

To me, Chapter 6 (Discipline III: Align Systems) is especially valuable. In it, Harpst explains how to identify and then correct misalignments in areas such as processes, policies, measures (i.e. metrics), technologies, and people. All of these business components are interdependent. That is to say, it is difficult (if not impossible) to measure human performance accurately if competent people are not involved in the right process, guided by the right policies, following the right procedures, and provided with the right resources (e.g. hardware, software, equipment, work environment). Conversely, business improvement cannot be achieved by incompetent and untrainable people, however appropriate the given processes, policies, measures, and technologies may be. Proper alignment must include everyone and everything. Harpst explains how such alignment can be achieved and then sustained.

Earlier, I suggested that this book was written primarily for decision-makers in established small businesses that, typically, employ 10 to 100 people. That’s true. What is also true, and needs to be stressed lest there be any misunderstanding, is that all organizations (regardless of their nature and size) and all their leaders (whatever their title and extent of authority) need to achieve and then sustain the level of excellence to which Gary Harpst summons them.

Monday, August 16, 2010 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Throwing Money” At Your Training Needs Just Might Be A Very Wise Investment

“most of the research shows that when class size reduction programs are well-designed and implemented, student achievement rises as class size drops.
Intuitively, it makes sense that the more attention a teacher can focus on each student, the more the student will benefit and, therefore, perform at a higher level.”

(excerpted from here).
As business leaders, we’re voracious seekers of business improvement ideas in the form of conferences, books, blogs, and training.  We want our performance to be better, and we know it should be better.
(Gary Harpst:  Six Disciplines Execution Revolution)


It’s Saturday.  Let’s think about a big question/problem for American business.

The conventional wisdom goes like this.  When you hire someone, make the right hire. If you make the wrong hire, you’ve got trouble.

If you make the right hire, and the person you hired needs to improve in a specific area, or two or three, then provide the right training.

This I know.  It is foolish to have a good person (i.e., the “right hire”) trying to succeed at a job that he/she is not trained to succeed at.  And when the “right hire” receives the right training, and then gets the right encouragement/supervision, the person, and the company, is more successful.

So – what is the right training?  Let’s think about this training question.  This is a big issue because in these tight economic times, companies cut expenses where they can – and training is one of the areas that gets cut.  And the result of such cuts can definitely lead to more difficulties.  When training budgets get cut, people don’t get trained.  And then they don’t get better at their jobs.  And then, because they don’t get better at their jobs, companies lose more money, or, at least, don’t make as much money as they could.

So – back to the question.  What is the right training?

I suggest a simple formula:  when the skill/deficiency is a simple matter of learning — for example:  how to use a new software program; how to be proficient on Excel; how to create PowerPoint slides — then a training class of many, even very many, students can do the trick.

But the closer you get to what we call the soft skills — which are critical to a person’s success in so many jobs – then a large training class with very many students may not do the trick.  No, that’s not strong enough.  The closer you get to the soft skills, a large training class, with little one-on-one attention and follow up coaching, will not do the trick.  It just won’t.

Let me describe an underlying bias, and then give an example.

A couple of decades ago, George McGovern came to Dallas to speak to a political group.  One question he was asked during the Q & A was this:  “How can we improve education in this country?”  That qualifies as an important need.  He said something like this (paraphrased, from memory):  “People say that you can’t fix education by throwing more money at the problem.  Well, I’m not so sure.  Because hiring more teachers takes money.  And if there is one thing that we know is true about education, it is this — the smaller the class size, the smaller the teacher-student ratio, the better the educational outcomes.”

Is that true – about the class size issue?  Take Dallas.  One of the schools that is legendary for its very successful educational outcomes is the private school St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas.  Now, I know that the parents are very involved.  And the students come from families that truly prize a good education.  And the school is very demanding.  (Check out their current summer reading assignments.  This is a school with very high expectations!).  And, yes, the teachers are certainly among the very best possible.

But here is a simple fact about St. Mark’s: the teacher-student ration is 6.83 to 1  (I did the math from this page on their website).  Let me say that again – that is better than one teacher for every seven students. How does that compare?  Well, nationally, the teacher-student ratio is higher in public schools than in private schools.  And St. Mark’s ratio is substantially better than the national average for private schools.  (You can compare some of these national average numbers here).

In other words, enough money is “thrown at” education at St. Mark’s to guarantee more personal attention.  And personal attention produces more development, more correction…  better educational outcomes!  And those outcomes are better at St. Mark’s than in schools that have higher teacher-student ratios.

So, back to the business lesson.  What if you “throw more money” at training?  The closer you get to a low teacher-student ratio (trainer-employee ratio), especially for those hard to teach yet very important “soft skills,” the better the training outcomes.  It really is, to state the obvious, simple math.

Here’s one example.  Say you have an employee who needs to make presentations.  This employee is smart, qualified, knowledgeable – but not very adept at making presentations.  What do you do?

You can send that employee to a speech class at a local community college.  (I teach such classes).  That will help – a little, and it will cost very little.  But I have classes with up to 25 students.  The time I have for one-to-one, individual attention per student is practically zero.    And, as much as I hate to admit it, all I can do is “tell” the basics.  I can’t do much “coaching” in such classes.  And, I am sad to say, many of my students in these classes show little actual improvement in their presentation skills over the course of a semester.

Or, you can bring in a good trainer for presentation skills training.  (Karl Krayer and I offer that through Creative Communication Network).  And the outcome is almost utterly predictable – the smaller the group of people, the more one-on-one coaching we can provide in the training experience, the better the training outcome.

For example, we are about to lead a two-day session for a company sending 4 people to the training.  That is a trainer-employee ratio of 4-1.  We will “tell,” but then each participant will practice, over and over again, for the two days.  We will video tape, we will point out the bright spots, and then offer suggestions, and corrections.  This is very high-impact training.

And, it is possible to get even better outcomes. Say a key employee has a very important presentation or series of presentations to make, and it is important for the company that these go well.  If the employee could be more successful, and thus the company could be more successful, if he/she got substantially better, then you could hire a one-to-one presentation skills coach.  (Yes, Karl and I offer this training also).  This coach will provide some initial training, with very focused one-to-one practice and skill development, then watch a few presentations, offer correctives, point to ways to improve, and then provide periodic check-ups.

This is very expensive training.  But maybe not as expensive as continued inadequate performance.

This approach can be repeated with other skill development.  For example, Karl Krayer teaches a half day business writing skills session, then meets one-on-one with each participant, going over actual writing examples, and then provides follow up.

Why?  Because we forget what we hear/read in the training sessions.  We forget what our “coach” told us.  There’s a reason why great sports teams practice every day.  And there’s a reason why the best sports teams have very low coach-athlete ratios.  It takes a lot of work to get good, and than really good, and then even better, at anything.

Such are my thoughts for a Saturday.

Saturday, July 10, 2010 Posted by | Randy's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Which is It? Overmanaged and Underled — OR, Undermanaged and Overled? How about Undermanaged and Underled?

In Leading Change, John Kotter states that some organizations try to implement a change program which is then likely to be “overmanaged and underled.”  In The Leadership Pipeline:  How to Build the Leadership-Powered Company by Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter, and James Noel, that theme is more broadly developed.  They write:

Because of the new business realities, including ever increasing and unpredictable complexity; AND, because businesses “dramatically reduced their investment in talent development, greatly reducing or even eliminating training programs, development assignments, and time for coaching,” the famine for leaders is acute.

1.              The need for leaders has grown exponentially.
2.              There are not enough leaders to meet the demand.
3.              There is not enough “talent” from which to develop enough leaders.
4.              The inevitable consequence is that many (most?) companies are at least partly underled, thus underperforming.

Other authors, almost too numerous to mention, echo such sentiments.  Now comes The Best Leadership Is Good Management:  Too many so-called leaders fancy themselves above the messy, but crucial, work of managing by Henry Mintzberg in the latest Business Week (published on-line on Aug. 6, 2009).  Mr. Mintzberg argues that the opposite is true.  He states:

Corporate America has had too much of fancy leadership disconnected from plain old management.
We’re overled and undermanaged. As someone who teaches, writes, and advises about management, I hear stories about this every day: about CEOs who don’t manage so much as deem—pronouncing performance targets, for instance, that are supposed to be met by whoever is doing the real managing.

So – which is it?  I suggest that it is both.  I think there has been a failure in management.  This is the point of such books as Execution and Six Disciplines Execution Revolution.  Execution is all about management processes, actually getting the job done, well, and on time.  But I think we also face a failure of leadership.  It is leadership failure that keeps companies from facing an uncertain future with a strategy to survive and thrive.  How many have said that General Motors should have seen the changing landscape far before it did?  Leadership is about seeing the big picture, setting the direction—and then making sure that the job gets done.

So – I agree that we’ve got to get a whole lot better at management.  But we’ve also got to get a whole lot better at leadership.

Robert Greenleaf nailed this years ago in Servant Leadership.  He described two kinds of leaders.  His terms were different:  Conceptualizers and Operators.  But the two roles are the same – an organization needs leaders to help them see the future (conceptualizers), and leaders who can make that future happen (operators).

So, here’s Randy weighing in on the debate.  I think Mr. Mintzberg is both right and wrong.  He is right – we are undermanaged.  But he is wrong – we are not overled.  Too many American organizations are, sadly, both undermanaged and underled.

Sunday, August 9, 2009 Posted by | Randy's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Once you Decide and Plan — It’s All About Execution

Yes, plans can be tough to make.  Planning done right is hard work, and a failure to plan leads to ongoing failure down the road.  But most business failure has more to do with a failure to execute than it does with a failure to plan.

This message was stated clearly in the Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan book:  Execution:  The Discipline of Getting Things Done.  They wrote:  “Many people regard execution as detail work that’s beneath the dignity of a business leader.  That’s wrong. To the contrary, it’s a leader’s most important work…  Putting an execution environment in place is hard, but losing it is easy…  When a company executes, its people are not victims…  When a company executes well, its people are not brought to their knees by changes in the business environment.”  Here’s their definition of execution:  Execution is a systematic process of rigorously discussing hows and whats, questioning, tenaciously following through, and ensuring accountability.

A few other books have picked up and built upon the execution theme.  Notably, Six Disciplines Execution Revolution:  Solving the One Business Problem that Makes Solving All Other Problems Easier by Gary Harpst.  In this book, Harpst quotes from business guru Michael Porter:  “It’s better to have grade-B strategy and grade-A execution than the other way around.” I like Harpst’s simple reminder:  STRATEGY:  DECIDING WHAT TO DO — EXECUTION:  GETTING IT DONE. “Of the two, execution is far more difficult to achieve.”

Another volume to consider is the one by Amir Hartman,  Ruthless Execution:  What Business Leaders Do When Their Companies Hit The Wall.  He finds execution especially valuable when a company hits a tough spot:  “Ruthless execution is the method and strategies that business leaders employ to break through performance walls.”

I thought of these books in church this morning.  We had a guest preacher, the regional Bishop for the Methodist Church, Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe.  He asked a simple question:  “What is unfinished?  What unfinished business do you need to finish?”  The text was from 2 Corinthians 8:11 —  “Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it.”  The subject  at hand dealt with helping those in need.  But the underlying principle was unmistakable:  finish what you start.  Finish what you plan.  Plan — then execute your plan.

So, yes, I confess that my mind drifted to these business volumes in the middle of church.  Why?  Because the truth is inescapable — for business, and for my own life.  Starting is relatively easy.  Finishing strong, finishing well… executing.  That’s where success is truly won.

{To purchase my synopses of Execution and Six Disciplines Execution Revolution, with handout + audio, go to our 15 Minute Business Book site}.

Sunday, June 28, 2009 Posted by | Randy's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments



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