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Layering human intuition onto the
“bytes and bolts” of today's technology

While Matt Weilert, the founder and principal consultant of Rock Eel Café was working for Battelle Pacific Northwest Labs, he was one of only 17 people selected out of 3300+ PNL staff for a special Leadership that shapes the future week-long coaching series. It was a watershed event. Not only did a torrential storm hit the Seattle area, that Wednesday, it loosed the floodgates of creativity in Matt's mind: the original Acme story, the basis for the “folklore management style” that has become the Systems Thinking Solutions (Systhink) hallmark, was written out longhand over the wee morning hours Thursday following the devastating rain and wind.

Building on this conference, he developed the framework for quantum improvements in business performance that are possible if managers and workers alike use a core collection of skills to leverage some of our most basic abilities: reading, writing and talking.

Pulling It All Together

Research, both anecdotal and clinical, shows people retain a message longer and believe it more when communicated in story form. This ‘Vision article’ for ‘Acme Southwest Co.’ reflects many systems thinking concepts as you might observe them in a 1996 magazine or TV interview:

IF, on an average day, you stepped into the support offices of Acme Southwest Company without calling first, you wouldn't find anyone there! All the application engineers are out in the field “helping create and maintain a real-time, real world learning environment” as one obviously hand-drafted poster in one particularly-busy looking office put it. The office looks like there are 20 different projects about to collide at any moment. That is, until we watch a Senior Engineer, Susan Andrew, return from the field and begin weaving her report from the files downloading onto her docked workstation coupled with what appeared to this reporter unrelated threads scattered about the room. The communications equipment are very high tech (she’s talking into a headset and typing simultaneously) but the messages seem almost too simple, mostly greetings: a voicemail response to a request for a testing schedule, electronic responses to several addressees on the ‘new mail’ screen, some a few buildings away and some a few states away. This sign was common, “Out of the office? Don't be out of touch, remember your comm gear!” She explains, gesturing with her hands for emphasis.

    “Communications connect things. Dialog is the fiber we spin from human experience that Acme workteams weave into our social fabric. Like the beauty of a coffee klatch quilt, each of our teams cuts their cloth just a little bit differently, to meet their individual aspirations or their business units needs. We call them centers or directorates based on the work they do.
    “Centers are basically production, directorates basically support, but there's some of each mixed in with the other.”

Indeed, while the emphasis on ‘cutting your cloth differently’ was very evident, the whole effect is as intricately interwoven as the first prize entry at any county fair. Why such a ‘homey’ message in such a technical environment? Again, Susan explains:

    “When we were setting up the Quality Training Office back in '92 we found an overwhelmingly oral culture, there was little if any collective memory put down in permanent form.
    “Only after we got upper management to authorize some of the testing we needed to baseline peoples communication skills could we demonstrate our value-added in teaching unrelated groups to achieve marketable results in less time. Without metrics to tell us where we were we had a desire but no financial incentive to move ahead with the programs that
      have proven beneficial.”

Acme Southwest was among the first companies in the nation to leverage some of the most basic human skills: reading, writing and talking. Simple concepts applied with a twist: every Acme employee goes through a suite of tests that benchmark their personal reading speed and comprehension. Custom software and hardware tracks their progress, designing paced exercises to enhance this oft-neglected core competency. An unexpected benefit was removing the stigma from adult reading improvement that keeps nearly one-fifth of our country below and behind their potential.

Acme not only has hard data it willingly shares with other companies and school districts, it has the unbuyable commitment of staffers who once hid the problem out of fear.

Fully 80% of the Division's staff now read at over 2000 words/minute with more than 95% comprehension. In simple terms this means more work out of the same people in less time without coercion! As Susan remarked often, ‘win-win all the way round.’ These same skills (plus tuition reimbursement) are used to "mainline" four-year degree programs in selected fields into twenty weeks! Acme encourages staff members to pursue advanced degrees; when asked if this didn't result in Acme paying for another company's workforce, when the worker left for a higher-paying position, Sue gave me the look reserved for children asking directions to Mars.

    “You can't buy loyalty. Earning it is a day-by-day process. A small percentage do leave and excepting the rare bad egg, we wish them well. We treat people right and work them like there's no tomorrow. So far, it seems to have served us pretty well.”

How do these dynamos communicate with the outside world? Simple, they slow down while encouraging others to speed up. Since its commercialization in third quarter FY94, Acme's proprietary (formerly internal use only) comprehension software and complementary hardware packages have seen above 30% annual growth rate. Synergy in action: solving a problem has produced an entirely new profit center. Two-thirds of Acme's clients use it and 78 of those 2200-odd firms have requested their clients “come up to speed” by purchasing and learning to employ these new methods of bootstrapping our personal skills that we, generally around the world, overlook entirely or consider unchangeable. As we wrap up our interview, Nancy ties the pieces together.

    “We've come so far, so fast, we had to have something to retain our perspective, to recover from errors and to convince our people that this was win-win rather than a new method to keep reducing the budget. We use a very old word to convey that message: fealty. To the uninitiated, it sounds submissive and insulting. With an understanding of systems thinking principles here at Acme, it means that “Home and Family” must remain more important than the admittedly high commitment we ask of people, so we needed to a way to constantly reinforce the primacy of people over process, capital management or product.
    “To build and maintain trust we had to operate transparently. Our intentions had to be crystal clear and our actions had to reflect the priorities we claimed so we never lost the people in our focus to see the process through. Becoming better communicators is at the heart of technology transfer.”

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