Summit keynote Chip Heath talks ‘Decisive’ lessons, misleading gut instincts

Less than a month from now, bestselling author Chip Heath is heading to Ohio State University to deliver the featured keynote address as part of the Center for Operational Excellence’s Leading Through Excellence summit April 9-11. To shed some light on Decisive, the latest book he wrote with his brother, Dan, here’s a recent Q&A the Heath brothers participated in, posted here with the permission of BrightSight Group. Here, the Heath brothers explain why we still make decisions like teenagers, why the “gut instinct” isn’t always to be trusted, and why your ‘Devil’s Advocate’ is probably entirely too angelic.

Chip Heath

Why did you think the arena of decision-making was worth another look beyond the current literature?

People have been studying decisions for a very long time. But most of the emphasis, traditionally, has been on the problems with people’s decision-making: the biases and irrationalities that we’re all prone to. So our approach was to flip that and ask: What are the solutions here? We know people tend to fall into certain traps, so how can they avoid them? How can they make better decisions?

Why aren’t we, as leaders, specifically taught good decision-making habits?

In corporate America, we’ve got this mythology of “the gut.” Great leaders should trust their gut! Rely on their instincts! We all seem to like this kind of swashbuckling image of an executive who can make a multimillion-dollar bet just because it feels right.

Unfortunately, there is very little reason to believe that we should be trusting our guts. We need to put our trust in a good process, not a smart “gut.” I’d draw an analogy to health care – great surgeons have phenomenal instincts, but they are also surrounded by systems and processes that bring out the best in them and minimize the chance of error. Those guardrails are what we need in decision-making, too.

Does time taken to reach a decision add to its quality?

Not necessarily. Often the best advice is the simplest, for instance, the suggestion to “sleep on it.” That’s great advice—it helps to quiet short-term emotion that can disrupt our choices. But it still takes 8 hours, and it doesn’t always resolve our dilemmas. Many other powerful decision aids require only a simple shift in attention.  Doctors leaning toward a diagnosis are taught to check themselves by asking, “What else could this be?” And colleagues making a difficult group decision can ask, “What would convince us, six months down the road, to change our minds about this?” Those are great tools, and they take minutes rather than months.

You write that “organizations often make decisions like teenagers.” How so?

A defining trait of teenagers is that they tend to make decisions without a thorough weighing of the consequences. That’s what makes them teenagers. But organizations often do the same thing. In our experience, leaders often spend a lot of time assessing a decision but very little time preparing for the possible outcomes of that decision. One smart technique we cite was created by the psychologist Gary Klein. He created a process called the premortem, where you say, “OK, team. We just made a decision. Let’s imagine that it’s a year from now, and it was a disaster. What went wrong?” Everyone assembles lists of fiasco scenarios and compares notes. Then you say, “Given what we’ve foreseen, how can we forestall as many of those outcomes as possible?” A premortem makes you humble enough to think, If I’m wrong, what then?

The ‘Devil’s Advocate’ approach seems too often delivered with a smile – not with the authenticity, relish and depth needed to ensure a profound consideration. What should this genuinely look like?

Here’s a real tough dilemma: We know that decisions are better when multiple points of view are aired out. Sometimes that means surfacing new perspectives, and sometimes that means disagreement. But of course there is an array of factors that tend to suppress those alternate points of view: politics, politeness, timidity, and so on. So one of the most important duties of a leader is to build a culture that allows people to raise objections or concerns or to flat-out disagree. There’s a great quote from Alfred Sloan, who was CEO of General Motors decades ago. He interrupted a committee meeting with a question: “Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here?” All the committee members nodded. “Then,” Sloan said, “I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what this decision is about.” That’s the right spirit.

You recommend a “playlist” in the chapter “Find someone Who’s Solved Your Problem.” Do we struggle with this one because it’s hard for leaders to publicly acknowledge we have a problem that can’t be solved right away?

We came up with this term “playlist” to describe a concept that’s so simple that we can’t believe it’s not used by every organization in the world. The idea is no more profound than this: Leaders repeatedly make the same types of decisions, so shouldn’t they learn from the strategies used by previous leaders who faced those same situations? For instance, every manager will struggle at some point with an underperforming employee. How do you handle it? Wouldn’t it be great to have a “playlist” with a dozen reliable strategies for handling that situation? That way, as you build up the playlist over time, you’ve got concrete proof that your organization is getting more diligent about decision-making.

Where there any surprises in your research?

One of our biggest surprises was the research on narrow framing. Some Carnegie Mellon researchers published a study showing that when teens make decisions, only 30% of the time do they consider more than one alternative. They’re making “whether or not” decisions. I.e., I’m deciding whether or not to go to the party tonight. And that’s a real trap—it makes them overlook other options that are available to them. But here’s the twist: Organizations do the same thing! In a study of decisions authored by Paul Nutt, he discovered that only 29% of organizations considered more than one alternative. They were making decisions like teenagers! And of course all of us do the same thing in our personal lives. We get stuck thinking “whether or not” and ignoring the spectrum of options that are available to us.

Want to hear more from Chip Heath? Join us for our April 9-11 summit!

This article appears in the March 2014 edition of COE’s Current State e-newsletter. Have a colleague who should be receiving this e-newsletter? Contact Matt at

Originally conducted for the American Society of Association Executives

Leadership development, innovation lead roster of April summit’s breakout sessions

With less than four weeks to go before we kick off our second-annual Leading Through Excellence summit, we’ve unveiled the full list of breakout sessions you’ll have the chance to experience throughout the day on Thursday, April 10, and Friday, April 11, in Columbus, Ohio.

The full list is available at our website, but here’s a quick look at some of the sessions available:

leading through excellence logoBehind the scenes at GE Aviation – It’s tough for many organizations to keep a fresh pipeline of leaders with the right problem-solving skills and cross-functional capabilities. Rick Guba, a Master Black Belt at GE Aviation, will offer an inside look at the company’s successful accelerated development process, which links skills and hands-on experience for a best-in-class learning model.

Kaizen 101 – Looking for a crash course in hosting a kaizen event week? Whitney Mantonya, owner of Collaborative Lean Solutions, will walk attendees through the purpose, flow, and structure of one, offering up a primer on basic tools and concepts applicable to all such events.

Leading from the middle – True lean success needs support from the top, but few organizations start out with this luxury. Ted Stiles, a partner with lean executive recruiting firm Stiles Associates, examines how creative mid-level leaders can navigate this landscape and the skills they must employ along the way to boost leadership engagement and influence without authority.

‘Buying’ a lean culture – Harvard University’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center was showered with 90,000 employment applications annually, but they needed a new, efficient way to determine which potential hires would thrive in a lean environment and be an integral part to its ongoing success. Alice Lee, vice president of business transformation at Beth Israel, will share the pre-employment assessment tool that was developed and implemented.

Innovation and the element of surprise – Award-winning Fisher professor and researcher Aravind Chandrasekaran will share his research with more than 30 high-tech organizations into the “disruptive innovation” that has dealt a blow to some companies (Polaroid) and, with the right strategy, allowed others (IBM) to thrive.

Paper or plastic? – Through an interactive game that challenges preconceived notions about the environmental sustainability of products in our everyday lives, Fisher Asisstant Prof. Gökçe Esenduran will introduce the concept of the life-cycle assessment (LCA), a powerful tool to evaluate a product from the cradle to the grave.

And there are a dozen more where that came from. Register now before pricing increases April 1!

Giant Eagle, Marathon Petroleum leaders: To get better, learn from the best

The two speakers for the Center for Operational Excellence’s Feb. 14 seminars couldn’t have been from two more different companies, but both emphasized a crucial truth about the journey of process improvement: You’re never too good to learn – or borrow – from others.

John Lucot
John Lucot

Take Pittsburgh-based grocery chain and COE member Giant Eagle Inc., whose President and COO, John Lucot, spoke to our crowd of more than 100 members and guests. The company has been in existence for more than three-quarters of a century, but Lucot said recent years have marked “the most exciting time in the history of our company.”

Emerging from an economic downturn in which consumers tightened the purse strings, Giant Eagle has developed new formats and transformed the customer experience. For proof, look no further than its Market District location a few miles from Ohio State University, which has become the unofficial epicenter of its neighborhood in a few short years. This has happened all while the company has aggressively maintained focus on health and safety and implemented lean principles throughout the supply chain. Lucot told the crowd that Giant Eagle has drawn inspiration from organizations ranging from the Cleveland Clinic – a gold standard in patient experience – to Alcoa, a fellow Pittsburgh company whose safety centric turnaround under former CEO Paul O’Neill is the stuff of legend.

And while Giant Eagle started down its road to operational excellence with an eye on removing cost and boosting efficiency, the balance sheet doesn’t rule the day, Lucot said.

“We never, ever talk about the financial impact of the things we do,” he said. “We are unwavering in our commitment to health and safety, and no one in our organization has the right to put money or anything else above those efforts.”

It’s that same focus on Giant Eagle’s employees and its customers that underlies a comment Lucot made that’s destined for the whiteboard: “We have no right to ask people to do things that don’t add value.”

George McAfee
George McAfee

Speaking later in the day, George McAfee, marine logistics manager at Findlay, Ohio-based Marathon Petroleum, shared the challenges posed to knowledge management and transfer in a work force with a widening generation gap and a growing share of over-55 workers.

With those dynamics, McAfee said, it’s even more crucial to develop standard procedures to capture and communicate processes so a company’s mission, vision and values don’t get muddled over time.

And echoing Lucot, McAfee said benchmarking – even outside one’s industry – is key to finding the right path.

“You must be willing to admit someone else might be better at what you’re doing,” he said.

This article appears in the March 2014 edition of COE’s Current State e-newsletter. Have a colleague who should be receiving this e-newsletter? Contact Matt at

COE opens registration for second-annual Leading Through Excellence summit

Four months from today, the Center for Operational Excellence will kick off its second-annual Leading Through Excellence summit, a three-day experience designed to develop and sharpen the leadership and problem-solving skills crucial to any organization committed to process improvement.

We’re thrilled to open registration for Leading Through Excellence today, kicking off a three-week window where registration for COE members and non-members is discounted by 15 percent. So what are you waiting for?

In case you missed Leading Through Excellence ’13, we hosted Charles Duhigg (pictured), a New York Times reporter and the author of bestseller The Power of Habit in addition to Jon Waters, the director of the Ohio State University Marching Band. For Duhigg, the summit marked his last stop before winning a Pulitzer Prize. Waters at the summit briefly discussed a new program in the works where band shows would be organized and taught using iPads, an initiative that brought international attention to TBDBITL. That’s in addition to a wide range of breakout sessions hosted by top Fisher College of Business faculty and plant tours to Columbus-area companies practicing operational excellence.

We’ve set the bar higher for 2014, bringing in Chip Heath, a Stanford University professor and co-author of the books Switch, Made to Stick, and Decisive. The first two books have become key organizational behavior biz books in recent years, and Decisive presents a compelling framework for making smarter decisions inside and outside of your professional life. Heath will be joined on our keynote roster by Helen Turnbull, a renowned expert in diversity and inclusion, and Lawrence Funderburke, a one-time Buckeye basketball and NBA star who started his own Columbus-area nonprofit.

And that’s not even the end of our list – or the beginning of all the other programming we’re set to offer. Leading Through Excellence is expanding its plant tour offerings by adding full-day, out-of-town trips, and running a pair of half-day workshops on the first day of the summit.

This is a low-priced, can’t-miss opportunity to bolster your leadership and problem-solving skills and meet hundreds of others around the country committed to doing the same.

You can learn more about Leading Through Excellence and register by visiting our website.

See you in April!

COE-sponsored panel gives Fisher grad students a deeper look at lean

The first- and second-year Fisher College of Business graduate students who attended last Friday’s third-annual Link Symposium didn’t have to wait long to hear sound advice from our panel on lean implementation.

From left: Georgia Keresty; Asst. Prof. Aravind Chandrasekaran, Fisher College of Business; Chris Dillinger, Cardinal Health; Bill Michael, Huntington Bank; Reshma Pathare, Nationwide Insurance.

Moderating the event was Georgia Keresty, vice president of science, technology, and quality at Johnson & Johnson’s Advanced Sterilization Products. A 30-year veteran of the health-care industry, Keresty made the case for an enterprise-wide approach to lean in the opening moments of her remarks, kicking off a wide-ranging discussion on how lean is driving lasting, transformational change at a wide range of organizations.

“For companies to be successful with lean, it has to be end-to-end,” she said, adding that a more myopic approach to implementation can mean a company is “missing out on huge opportunities.”

The ensuing pair of panel discussions reinforced Keresty’s comments with a look inside manufacturers Greif and Emerson Climate Technologies, health-care product distributor Cardinal Health, Huntington National Bank, and Nationwide Insurance. Fisher professors Peter Ward, Mike Tanner, and Aravind Chandrasekaran also were on hand to share their research-based insights at the symposium, which the Center for Operational Excellence sponsors each year. View a slide show of the event here.

Teaching the tools and behavior that bolster lean thinking and leadership isn’t anything new for Fisher, which has been teaching lean in its MBA program for 25 years running, Ward said. To put that in context, the landmark lean text The Machine That Changed the World hit bookshelves only 23 years ago.

Notable insights from the panels, which focused on lean in manufacturing and services, respectively:

Lean leadership can be a career game-changer. One of the panelists, Geoff Merchant, serves as the manager of global commercial excellence for Delaware-based Greif, a member of our Center for Operational Excellence. He’s also an alumnus of Fisher’s MBA program. “The lean skillset I developed at Fisher was key to me getting a position at Greif and doing well in the organization.”

Lean can’t survive on an island. Bill Michael, a continuous improvement consultant at Huntington, told students that the bank has come a long way from a more siloed approach to lean, a series of “little embedded random acts of continuous improvement. This needs to be one cultural force.”

Lean can help organizations build quality in. This strategy has helped Cardinal Health successfully manage a wide range of challenges in the heavily regulated health-care space. It has even helped panelist Chris Dillinger, a director of operational excellence, view regulations themselves differenty. “A regulatory requirement is a voice of the customer,” Dillinger said.

A lean culture has many ingredients. Five of those pinpointed by the services panel: Respect, trust, empowerment, end-to-end application, and teamwork.

“Lean is a systematic way of showing respect.” – Peter Ward, chair, Department of Management Sciences; co-director, COE

Toyota presentation highlights lasting impact of lean transformations


That’s the best way to describe how our Center for Operational Excellence members and guests left our seminar this past Friday following a rousing, inspiring presentation from Jamie Bonini, general manager of the Toyota Production System Support Center.

Bonini, speaking at the Sept. 13, 2013, seminar.

Bonini powerfully made the case to a crowd of nearly 150 that the guiding principles of operational excellence can make a lasting impact anywhere – and at COE, that’s what we’re all about.

Bonini illustrated the Toyota Production System implementation strategy TSSC has thus far used with more than 200 organizations, which range from manufacturing – a classic setting for lean implementation – to the more unusual nonprofit realm. Roughly 40 of these projects are under way in a normal year for TSSC, which has been around since 1992.

A deeply compelling case study that attracted attention earlier this year in the New York Times involves TSSC’s work with the Food Bank for New York City, where wait times for meals have plummeted and efficiency at the food pantry has skyrocketed. Check out a video of TSSC’s work with the food bank here.

What resonates from this, and other videos from TSSC, is not only the success of the transformations but the passion that spreads like wildfire throughout the organizations they work with. My favorite part of the Food Bank video comes about 11 minutes in, when Teisha Diallo, program director Project Hospitality unguardedly voices the thrill of seeing the food pantry line running much more efficiently.

“When I come around that corner, the line is gone, and I’m like, ‘Yes!’” she exclaims.

Not that getting there is easy – and that’s where Bonini imparted some valuable takeaways on starting a transformation at the right time, in the right way, and with the right leaders on board. His most compelling advice came when he said it’s not a crime to reschedule a lean rollout if the time isn’t right. Often, Bonini said, the lack of an underlying drive to have a problem-solving culture can be a holdup – or a deal-breaker if it isn’t resolved.

“If you’re not willing to build an organizational problem-solving capability, then don’t bother (with an implementation),” Bonini said. “It’s often a very difficult missing element from what I see (with organizations).”

Check out more photos from Friday’s seminar here.

Are your meetings a waste of valuable time?

itln crowd

McKinsey & Co. Partner Krish Krishnakanthan shared a number of sharp insights about the application of lean principles to the world of information technology, but what seemed to resonate the most were his thoughts on how we view two very important features of any organization: Meetings and managers.

krishnakanthan mckinseyMeetings, Krishnakanthan (pictured) told a crowd of 80 at last week’s IT Leadership Network forum, often serve the function of an all-hands-on-deck “firefighting” session. Here, issues that could be resolved on individual team members’ time instead are tackled en masse, contributing very little value or eroding what value there is.

“Staff meetings truly have become problem-solving meetings, not status-reporting meetings,” Krishnakanthan said.

Check out photos from the event here.

Where organizations often fail to contain much-dreaded waste in processes, he said, is in firmly establishing objectives among individual team members and leveraging “huddles” or meetings for valuable communication – not triage.

This same attraction to firefighting, Krishnakthanthan said, has seeped into the role of managers. These leaders, he said, should find themselves coaching their teams to develop the skills they need to solve problems – not solve the problems themselves.

“Most managers, though, would love to just solve the problem,” Krishnakanthan said, “and they get rewarded for this. A reward system must be built to reward really good problem solvers, not crisis managers.”

The key, he said, is to be a leader who knows how to ask the right questions, not jump to provide the answer.

Krishnakanthan was the featured speaker at COE’s sixth forum in its IT Leadership Network series, which began with a visit from Lean IT co-author Mike Orzen in April 2012. Check out for a look at past speakers and our upcoming events.

COE women ‘lean in’ at book discussion

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book Lean In didn’t so much create buzz in the biz-book world as it did a jet-engine roar. Nearly six months after its release, Lean In seems still as talked-about as ever – so much so that at least a few of our member companies are hosting ongoing discussions centered on the blockbuster.

Sandberg’s manifesto and its subtly powerful stance – that in a male-dominated world, women unwittingly hold themselves back too – resonated with us at the Center for Operational Excellence. And like some of our member companies, we decided to do something about it.

lean in women
Topics at COE’s “Lean In” discussion included “The Search for 50/50” and “Are You My Mentor?”

Last week we hosted an experimental “book club” discussion on Lean In featuring more than 50 women from COE member companies. Instead of a panel or a “breakout” into small groups, we decided to make a cocktail out of them both: Eight tables, eight topics, eight facilitators, and 15 minutes for a group to share their thoughts before the next rotation.

Click here for a look at photos from the event.

We’re thrilled with the results of our round-robin book club, which provoked some provocative discussions on topics that are crucial to our professional and personal lives, but not always easy to talk about: Self-doubt, career mobility, finding balance with a partner, parental guilt, and a number of others.

Some of the women who attended wrote down their thoughts during the discussions, and we thought we’d share some of the best:

“Accept that there will be guilt” – This, from our table on “Raising Future Leaders,” echoes Sandberg’s own struggles with being a working parent.

“Expectations are an invitation to resentment.”

“Are you an arsonist at your own fire?” – This, at our table on finding balance with a partner.

“Have difficult conversations now!”

And, an audience favorite: “Laundry is always a problem.”

‘You are a virus!’

When our Master of Business Operational Excellence health-care students spent some with Kathryn Correia, chief of Minnesota’s HealthEast Care System, she brought up a great point about the things that slow us down. Most of the interruptions that impede the flow of care, she said, aren’t surprises. If a machine breaks down, we know that somewhere we missed out on the preventive maintenance. If patients, providers or staffs are waiting for too long, we know that we have not really designed our processes to meet the demand. Defects occur because we have long been fixing symptoms but not the root causes.

This was one interesting insight in a busy week for the students, who heard from a number of instructors.

art byrne
Lean expert Art Byrne, speaking to our MBOE cohort.

Bill Boyd, director plan development at Wisconsin’s ThedaCare, spent some time with students explaining how the company has adopted the value stream approach to enhance the patient experience and quality and efficiency of care. He emphasized how important it is to stop working in silos and come together as a team to address the care needs of patients.

Post-lunch, the health-care and industry cohorts spent three hours with Gary Butler and yours truly in an emergency department simulation. They applied their learnings in understanding the wastes in the process and improving the efficiency and quality of care the patients received. The simulation is designed to help understand how lean principles apply to a non-manufacturing process.

The day came to an end with a visit from Art Byrne, an expert in lean strategy, and Tom Mooney, manager of Lean Transformations at Goodyear. Byrne has been implementing lean from the position of a President, CEO or Chairman of the organizations he worked with since the last 20 years. He shared his perspective on the role the leaders have to play to successfully implement lean and sustain the gains. He left the students with a thought his sensei Chihiro Nakao once said to him: “Byrne San, if you don’t try something, no knowledge will visit you.” Lean is all about trying out ideas. If you don’t try, how will you know about the process you are improving?

Mooney gave a different twist to the challenges of a lean practitioner. He said to the students, “You are a virus!” He emphasized that the change agents always get resistance from almost everyone. The resistors are like the antibodies who are trying to dissuade and destroy the change agents. He urged the students to keep going, coach others and multiply the lean knowledge rapidly to bring change in the organization.

A vandalized car and some leadership lessons

Our car was vandalized. We don’t know when it happened but we found it a couple of days ago. It was a shocking sight. The glass on the driver’s side of the window was broken and the shards were all over the seat and below. The center part of the dashboard was ripped apart and insides of the dashboard were hanging below. We do not know who did it and why they did it but the fact is that we felt violated. No one has the right to even touch let alone destroy what belongs to us.

Anyway, we called 911. Our first surprise was that 911 does not deal with vehicle break-ins. They gave us the number to call the Columbus police department. Surprise number two: The police department is closed on weekends! There was an option on the voice recording to stay on the line if there is a need to dispatch a police officer. We stayed on line. After a really weird ringtone, a lady spoke. We explained her what happened. Our biggest surprise followed. She said this is an unsolvable problem. It could be anybody who could have done this. It is impossible to investigate such cases. So go ahead and file that report. We asked her what happens after filing the report. Her response was, “Well, you inform your insurance company and they take it from there.” Bewildered, we asked, “So are you saying that the police will do nothing about this? No investigation at all?” Very condescendingly, she replied, “Ma’am, all I am saying is that you file the report. It is really a small problem.” First let me just tell you I hate it especially when they ‘Ma’am’ me. The word is respectful but you don’t feel any respect because the tone of their voice is degrading and anything but respectful. But think about how scary such a response is coming from someone we rely on for safety, security and assurance!

You are probably wondering, where exactly I am going with this? Well this goes back to leadership and how we respond to our associates when we implement changes. We go out to the gemba, teach people how to look for problems and encourage them to solve the problem. How do we actually respond when they do bring up the problem? The associates are in a vulnerable state of mind. Firstly, they fear losing their job. Secondly, they are afraid to bring up problems because until now they have survived because they hid the problems or fixed on their own. Guess what? It is not easy to handle change. Now what if they bring up a problem that has been there for a while and is “unsolvable” like above? The issue is too sensitive or political? What do you tell your associates? That you really cannot do anything about it? Do you tell them to focus only on a certain kind of problems? Or do you listen to them, go observe the process and understand the difficulties they are actually experiencing while doing their job? Do you or associates gather the data (observations, measurements, taking pictures or shoot a video of the process), asking other associates if they are experiencing similar difficulties and bring it to the attention of the senior leaders? You may get a no for an answer from the leaders but do you at least try? Do you ensure that your associates feel safe to discuss problems? Do you assure them that you will take actions and actually do it? Are you consistent with your words and action that they feel secured about their jobs?

There are lots of tools and methods of process improvement. You can open the tool-box and implement any tool when you want. However you cannot rely on the tool box to exert leadership. As a leader, you have to be out there. You encourage, listen, observe and empower under all circumstances unlike the above incident where they shrug off the responsibility labeling it as an intractable problem.

Share with me your experiences as you are implementing changes in your organization. What is your approach? What are your challenges and ‘aha’ moments that made you grow as a leader?