Learning from the World’s Best Learning Organization: Book Summary of ‘The Toyota Way’

Toyota is a Paragon of Operational Excellence

Toyota is the World’s Most Benchmarked Company, and for Good Reason

Toyota’s cars are reputed for their reliability, initial quality, and long-term durability. It is the pioneer of modern, mass-production techniques and a paragon of operational excellence. Even if its reputation has taken a beating in the last few years because of the uncontrolled acceleration crisis and major product recalls, Toyota’s long-term standing as the epitome of quality production is undeniable.

Toyota measures and improves everything—even the noise that doors make when they open and close. As cars roll off assembly lines, they go through a final inspection station staffed by astute visual and tactile inspectors. If they spot even a simple paint defect, they don’t just quietly fix the problem merely by touching up the paint to satisfy the customer or their plant manager. They seek out systemic deficiencies that may have contributed to the problem, and may hint at deeper troubles with their processes.

World-Class Processes, World-Class Quality

'The Toyota Way' by Jeffrey Liker (ISBN 0071392319) As Jeffrey K. Liker explains in his excellent The Toyota Way, the genius of Toyota lies in the Japanese expression ‘jojo‘: it has gradually and steadily institutionalized common-sense principles for waste reduction (‘muda, mura, muri‘) and continuous improvement (‘kaizen.’) Liker, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Michigan (my alma mater) has studied the Toyota culture for decades and has written six other books about learning from Toyota.

Liker establishes the context of The Toyota Way with a concise history of Toyota Motor (and the original Toyoda Textile Machinery business) and the tone set by Toyota founders Sakichi and Kiichiro Toyoda. Quality pioneers such as Taiichi Ohno, W. Edwards Deming, and Joseph Juran instituted groundbreaking philosophies that shifted Toyota’s organizational attention from managing resource efficiencies in isolation to managing the flow of value generated by the Toyota Production System (TPS.)

“No Problem is the Problem:” How Toyota Continuously Improves the Way it Works

Liker devotes a bulk of his book to the distinct elements of Toyota’s foundational principles: continuous flow, minimal inventory, avoidance of overproduction, balanced workload, standardized tasks, visual control, etc. He drills down to the underlying principles and behaviors of the Toyota culture: respect people, observe problems at the source, decide slowly but implement swiftly, and practice relentless appraisals of the status quo. Liker states, “Toyota’s success derives from balancing the role of people in an organizational culture that expects and values their continuous improvements, with a technical system focused on high-value-added flow.”

Toyota mindset and the organizational discipline

Companies that have tried to emulate Toyota have struggled not with understanding its management tools but with putting into practice the mindset and the organizational discipline that permeates everything Toyota does. “Understanding Toyota’s success and quality improvement systems does not automatically mean you can transform a company with a different culture and circumstances.”

Book Recommendation: Read The Toyota Way. As Liker observes, “Toyota is process oriented and consciously and deliberately invests long term in systems of people, technology and processes that work together to achieve high customer value.” The Toyota Way is comprehensive and well organized, if tedious in certain parts. It can impart many practical pointers to help improve the operational efficiency of one’s organization. Peruse it.

Postscript: I’ve taken many tours of Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky, factories and a few associated suppliers—once as part of a lean manufacturing study tour organized by Liker’s research group and other times privately. I strongly recommend them for observing Toyota’s matchless culture in action on the production floor. I also recommend the Toyota Commemorative Museum in Nagoya for a history of Toyoda Textile Machinery and Toyota Motor and their management principles.

How to Prevent a Communications Breakdown During Crisis

How to Prevent a Communications Breakdown During Crisis

The ultimate test of a leader’s and an organization’s communication skills is how they deal with a crisis—natural disasters, crisis of confidence, acts of malevolence, strategic errors, acts of deception, management misconduct, and so forth.

It’s not difficult to see why communication is an important element of crisis management: leaders today have to tackle media that is unsympathetic to what it regards as management incompetence, shareholders and customers who are ever more demanding, legislation and regulation that is getting stricter, and competitors eager to pinch customers during times of distress.

Effective crisis communications must be able to have a consistent and clear message and present this message swiftly and regularly following a crisis.

Here are seven elements of effective crisis communication.

  1. Strategic Thinking: Think purposefully about what you want your constituencies (employees, stockholders, customers, suppliers, communities, the media) to know under the given circumstances. Many a routine problem has transformed into a crisis because too many people were told too much and the situation became exaggerated and out of control.
    • What happened
    • Who is responsible
    • Why did it happen
    • Who is affected
    • What should be done
    • Whom can we trust
    • What should we say
    • Who should say it
    • How should we say it
  2. Openness: When a crisis befalls, be prepared to talk about it internally and externally as assertively as you respond to the crisis operationally. Understand the expectations of your constituencies and go beyond what is expected or required. If you are not communicative enough, people may make erroneous assumptions about the crisis. Bad news can travel fast and sell best.
  3. Candor: If your constituencies should know about a crisis that your organization is experiencing, talk about it as quickly and as completely as you can, especially to those most directly affected.
  4. Concern: Keep the people most directly affected by the crisis updated until the crisis is completely resolved. Do not brand a whistle blower a troublemaker.
  5. Sensitivity: At the earliest possible moment, step back and analyze the impact of the crisis. Inform and alert all the constituencies that are affected. Demonstrate concern, compassion, sympathy, remorse, or contrition, whatever the case may require.
  6. Integrity: If you are responsible for the crisis or perceived as such, acknowledge the situation promptly. Be true to your corporate and personal conscience. Share the crisis action plan and seek inputs.
  7. Honesty: Learn from your mistakes and talk openly about what you’ve learned. Demonstrate your commitment to keeping errors and problems from resurfacing.

Idea for Impact: Reputation and goodwill represent a great part of business value. Protect yourself when faced with attacks on your reputation and competence. If you do not communicate effectively and frequently with your constituents, somebody else will. In the absence of information, your constituents can develop their own perceptions of the problem and its implications.

Death to Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy can suck the life out of any organization by rewarding complacency and inertia.

Efficient managers are annoyed with the speed of bureaucracy. Internal rules and policies for making and approving decisions slow down managerial undertakings. In a world where fast, disruptive innovation has become foremost, any company can ill afford the time or expense of operating with bureaucratic mindsets.

Peter Ferdinand Drucker, the father of management theory Management pioneer Peter Drucker‘s enduring condemnation of bureaucracy, formalities, and rules and regulations hit the peak with his ground-breaking editorial called “Sell the Mailroom,” first published in the Wall Street Journal in 1989 and then republished in 2005.

At a time when the great majority of businesses were engaged in making an effort to improve the efficiency of support staff, Drucker brashly advocated that bureaucratic support should be eliminated by outsourcing their work to outside contractors. Drucker observed,

In-house service and support activities are de facto monopolies. They have little incentive to improve their productivity. There is, after all, no competition. In fact, they have considerable disincentive to improve their productivity. In the typical organization, business or government, the standard and prestige of an activity is judged by its size and budget—particularly in the case of activities that, like clerical, maintenance, and support work, do not make a direct and measurable contribution to the bottom line. To improve the productivity of such an activity is thus hardly the way to advancement and success. When in-house support staff are criticized for doing a poor job, their managers are likely to respond by hiring more people. An outside contractor knows that he will be tossed out and replaced by a better-performing competitor unless he improves quality and cuts costs.

Idea for Impact: Drop unnecessary work.

Do Good Deeds Make People Act Bad?

When People Do Something ‘Good’ They Feel Licensed to Do Something ‘Bad’ Later

Ethical moral self-licensing » When People Do Something 'Good' They Feel Licensed to Do Something 'Bad' Later Being—and being seen—as moral, ethical, and principled is an important part of people’s self-concept.

Social psychologists have studied the tendency of people using their prior moral actions to license future morally questionable actions. According to these studies, prior to making morally important decisions, people may survey their previous moral actions. If they recollect engaging in virtuous moral behavior in the past, they may subsequently become less bothered about engaging in morally questionable behavior.

Prior Actions Can Affect Individuals’ Future Behavior

Past good deeds can license people to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, if not problematic—behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral. The deep-seated human tendency that makes people feel entitled to do something less moral because they’ve done something moral previously is called “moral self-licensing.”

Psychologists reason that people’s previous actions may cause them to feel more self-possessed in their own moral self-worth. As a result, this claim licenses their choice of a more self-indulgent moral choice.

Conversely, when people appear immoral or devious to others, they subsequently take up positive actions to restore their moral image. Psychologists identify this as “compensation or cleansing.”

When ‘Good’ Behavior Supposedly Counteracts Doing Something ‘Bad’

Moral self-licensing has been demonstrated in several realms of human judgment. However, in my opinion, much of the cause-and-effect narratives seem ambiguous. For instance,

  • In a set of pioneering studies, participants who established their racial non-prejudiced attitudes by endorsing President Obama or through selecting a black person for a consulting firm job were subsequently more likely to make pro-white decisions.
  • In one test, after subjects were given a chance to condemn sexist statements, they were found to be subsequently more likely to support hiring a man in a male-dominated profession.
  • One study on consumer behavior suggested that shoppers who brought their own bags felt licensed to buy more junk food.

Contribution Ethic and “Prospective Moral Licensing”

A phenomenon related to moral self-licensing is “contribution ethic” or the “moral credential effect.” When people feel they’ve done their fair share for some noble cause, they decide they need do no more. In one study, after people participated in a pro-social deeds (e.g., doing something good for the cause of the environment,) they felt licensed to behave more selfishly later (e.g., donating less to an environmental program). Another study showed that people who drive hybrid cars tend to get more tickets and cause more accidents than do drivers of conventional cars.

Some studies have suggested that just thinking about past moral behavior or writing about oneself as a moral person can decrease the likelihood of subsequently performing altruistic acts—such as decreasing contributions to charitable causes or being less engaging in cooperative behavior towards friends and colleagues.

Finally, simply planning to do good later can allow people to be bad now. Some studies suggest that when people merely plan to engage in a moral behavior in the future, they feel licensed to respond in a morally questionable way in the present. Psychologists identify this as “prospective moral licensing.”

Idea for Impact: Past Moral Deeds Could Make People Do Morally Wrong Things

Part of becoming wise to the ways of the world and getting along with people is understanding the many peculiarities of human behavior. Learning why people feel licensed to engage in potentially immoral behavior given their demonstrated moral behavior allows for a better understanding of the world in which we live.

You Too Can (and Must) Become Effective

Peter Drucker on Teaching Yourself to Become Effective

Peter Drucker (1909–2005) is widely regarded as the most outstanding thinker on the subject of management theory and practice. He was amazingly prolific—he produced 39 volumes on management and leadership and worked right until his death a week before his 96th birthday.

Drucker’s The Practice of Management (1954) played a pivotal role in the recognition of management as a professional discipline. In this influential book (see my summary here,) Drucker explained what management is and how managers do their jobs.

'The Effective Executive' by Peter Drucker (ISBN 0060833459) In his bestselling The Effective Executive (1967,) Drucker defined effectiveness as getting the right things done and efficiency as making resources productive. His pivotal message was that effectiveness must be learned because effectiveness is every manager’s job. That’s what are managers get paid for—“the executive is paid for being effective.” Moreover, “Effective executives know that their subordinates are paid to perform, and not to please their superiors.”

Five Practices of the Effective Executive

Drucker devotes five chapters of The Effective Executive to five practices that have to be acquired to be effective. Introducing these effectiveness practices, Drucker writes, “Whenever I have found a person who—no matter how great in intelligence, industry, imagination, or knowledge—fails to observe these practices, I have also found an executive deficient in effectiveness.”

  • Effectiveness Habit #1—Know Where Time Goes: “Time is the scarcest resource, and unless it is managed nothing else can be managed.” In addition, “Effective executives know where their time goes. They work systematically at managing the little of their time that can be brought under their control.” Using the three-step time logging, time analysis, and time budgeting practice, effective executives know where there time goes. They exert themselves to make certain that they invest their time in line with their values and priorities.
  • Effectiveness Habit #2—Focus on Contribution: Whatever your span of responsibilities—supervisory, managerial or leadership—you are accountable to your ‘external’ stakeholders. These stakeholders measure your performance solely by your ability to identify opportunities and get things done through the resources you have. Drucker writes, “Effective executives focus on outward contributions. They gear their efforts to results rather than to work. They start out with the question, ‘What results are expected of me?'” Effective executives have a clear understanding of their contribution and their results.
  • Effectiveness Habit #3: Make Strengths Productive: “Effective executives build on strengths—theirs and others. They do not build on weaknesses. They do not start out with the things they cannot do.” Effective executives understand and build on the strengths of themselves, their team, and their organization to make everyone productive and to eliminate weaknesses. The only weaknesses that have a bearing—and must be remedied—are the ones that hinder effective executives from exercising their strengths.
  • Effectiveness Habit #4: Live Priorities: “Effective executives concentrate on superior performance where superior performance will produce outstanding results. They force themselves to stay within priorities.” Setting priorities is easier; the hard part is sticking to the decision and living the priorities. To get things done, focus on one task at a time or two at the most; three is usually impractical.
  • Effectiveness Habit #5: Systemize Decision-Making: “Effective executives make effective decisions. They know that this is a system—the right steps in the right sequence. They know that to make decisions fast is to make the wrong decisions.” For Drucker, decision-making was a matter of wisdom and sound judgment—making a choice between alternatives but seldom between mere right and mere wrong. “The sooner operating managers learn to make decisions as genuine judgments on risk and uncertainty, the sooner we will overcome one of the basic weaknesses of large organizations—the absence of any training and testing for the decision-making top positions.”

Idea for Impact: Teach yourself to become effective. Commit these five tasks to memory and practice them. Read The Effective Executive—it will have a profound effect on your performance.

Never Criticize Little, Trivial Faults

Lessons from the Renowned People Skills of Steel Tycoons Charles M Schwab and Andrew Carnegie

The American steel magnate Charles M Schwab (1862–1939,) was a protege of the steel baron-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919.) During the course of a long and successful career, Schwab built his Bethlehem Steel Corporation into America’s second largest steel producer and one of the world’s most prominent businesses.

'Be hearty in approbation and lavish in your praise' - Lessons from the Renowned People Skills of Steel Tycoon Charles M Schwab

Don’t be “bothered with the finicky little things that trouble so many people.”

Charles M Schwab started his career as a laborer in Andrew Carnegie’s Edgar Thomson Steel Works. Thanks to his exceptional ability to cozy up to people and facilitate congenial working relationships, Schwab rapidly rose up the ranks of the Carnegie steel empire.

By the age of 19, Schwab was assistant manager of the steel factory. When an accident killed the factory superintendent in 1887, Andrew Carnegie appointed the 25-year-old Schwab as the manager of the Thomson Works. At 35, Schwab became president of the Carnegie Steel Company at an annual compensation exceeding $1 million (worth $30 million today.)

In an essay titled “My 20,000 Partners” in the 19-Dec-1916 issue of The American Magazine, Schwab shared a management lesson he learned from his mentor Andrew Carnegie:

Mr. Carnegie’s personality would enthuse anybody who worked for him. He had the broad views of a really big man. He was not bothered with the finicky little things that trouble so many people. When he made me manager, Mr. Carnegie said, “Now, boy, you will see a good many things which you mustn’t notice. Don’t blame your men for little, trivial faults. If you do you will dishearten them.

When I want to find fault with my men I say nothing when I go through their departments. If I were satisfied I would praise them. My silence hurts them more than anything else in the world, and it doesn’t give offense. It makes them think and work harder. Many men fail because they do not see the importance of being kind and courteous to the men under them. Kindness to everybody always pays for itself. And, besides, it is a pleasure to be kind. I have seen men lose important positions, or their reputations—which are more important than any position—by little careless discourtesies to men whom they did not think it was worthwhile to be kind to.

'Don't blame your men for little, trivial faults' - Lessons from the Renowned People Skills of Steel Tycoon Andrew Carnegie

“Be hearty in approbation and lavish in your praise”

Schwab’s excellent people skills and management methods are extolled in How to Win Friends & Influence People, Dale Carnegie‘s masterful guidebook on people skills. Dale Carnegie quotes Schwab:

I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among my people, the greatest asset I possess, and the way to develop the best that is in a person is by appreciation and encouragement.

There is nothing else that so kills the ambitions of a person as criticisms from superiors. I never criticize any-one. I believe in giving a person incentive to work. So I am anxious to praise but loath to find fault. If I like anything, I am hearty in my approbation and lavish in my praise.

I have yet to find the person, however great or exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than he would ever do under a spirit of criticism.

Idea for Impact: People who cannot tolerate others’ shortcomings are at a marked disadvantage in life.

'How to Win Friends & Influence People' by Dale Carnegie (ISBN 0671027034) The older you’ll get, the more you’ll appreciate the wisdom of enduring the negative emotions— skepticism, disapproval, anger, contempt, and hostility—that stem from others’ behaviors.

One of the keys to effective interpersonal skills is to know when and how to give feedback. Commend whenever you can, criticize when you absolutely must.

Remember, criticism can swiftly erode away positive feelings. Don’t nit-pick. Don’t get caught up in trivial peculiarities.

Intel’s Andy Grove on Looking at Problems from an Outsider’s Perspective

Look at Problems from an Outsider's Perspective

Fixation Hinders Creative Thinking

In two previous articles (this and this,) I’ve addressed the psychological concept of a “fixed mental set” or “fixation:” assessing a problem from a habituated perspective can prevent you from seeing the obvious and from breaking away from an entrenched pattern of thinking.

A period of rest, entertainment, or exposure to an alternative environment can usually dissipate fixation. The resulting shift in perspective can alter your point of view in a literal and sensory way, or it may change the way you think about or define the problem at hand.

A particularly instructive example of the beneficial effects of altering thought perspectives comes from Andy Grove’s autobiography / management primer Only the Paranoid Survive (1996.) Grove, the former Chairman and CEO of Intel who passed away earlier this year, was one of the most influential tech executives Silicon Valley has ever seen.

Japanese Onslaught on Intel’s Memory Business

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) Memory chips dominated Intel’s revenue, since the company was founded in 1968. In fact, Intel had a near monopoly in the memory business. However, by the late ’70s, a few Japanese competitors emerged. Grove reflected, “The quality levels attributed to Japanese memories were beyond what we thought possible. … Our first reaction was denial. We vigorously attacked the data.” In due course, Intel recognized the threat to its competitive position. (Between 1978 and 1988, the Japanese companies grew their market share in the memory business from 30% to 60%.)

At the same time, a small entrepreneurial team of engineers had developed Intel’s first microprocessor. In 1981, Intel persuaded IBM to choose this microprocessor to run their personal computers.

By 1985, when Grove was President, Intel’s executives engaged in an intense debate on how to respond to the onslaught of Japanese competitors in the memory business. One faction of engineers wanted to leapfrog the Japanese and build better memory chips. Another faction was in favor of disposing the lucrative memory business and betting Intel’s future on its promising microprocessor technology—something they believed the Japanese couldn’t match.

The “Revolving Door Test:” Getting an Outsider’s Perspective

In the middle of this intense debate, Grove was at a meeting with Intel’s CEO, Gordon Moore (of the Moore’s Law fame.) Grove had an idea for Moore; he recalled this episode in Only the Paranoid Survive,

I remember a time in the middle of 1985, after this aimless wandering had been going on for almost a year. I was in my office with Intel’s chairman and CEO, Gordon Moore, and we were discussing our quandary. Our mood was downbeat. I looked out the window at the Ferris Wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I turned back to Gordon and asked, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” I stared at him, numb, then said, “Why don’t you and I walk out the door, come back in and do it ourselves?”

Andy Grove's Revolving Door Test: Getting an Outsider's Perspective The switch in perspective—i.e. asking “What would our successors do?”—provided a moment of clarity for Moore and Grove. By contemplating Intel’s strategic challenges from an outsider’s perspective, shutting down the memory business was the discernible choice. Even Intel’s customers were supportive:

In fact, when we informed them of the decision, some of them reacted with the comment, “It sure took you a long time.” People who have no emotional stake in a decision can see what needs to be done sooner.

From the time Intel made the important decision to kill its memory chips business, it has dominated the microprocessor market.

If existing management want to keep their jobs when the basics of the business are undergoing profound change, they must adopt an outsider’s intellectual objectivity. They must do what they need to do to get through the strategic inflection point unfettered by any emotional attachment to the past. That’s what Gordon and I had to do when we figuratively went out the door, stomped out our cigarettes and returned to the job.

People in the trenches are usually in touch with pending changes early. Salespeople understand shifting customer demand before management does; financial analysts are the earliest to know when the fundamentals of a business change. While management was kept from responding by beliefs that were shaped by out earlier successes, our production planners and financial analysts dealt with allocations and numbers in an objective world.

Idea for Impact: If You’re Stuck on a Problem, Shift Your Perspective

Often, you can find the solutions to difficult problems merely by defining or formulating them in a new, more productive way.

Consider employing Andy Grove’s “Revolving Door Test” and examining your problems through an outsider’s lens. This shift in perspective may not only engender intellectual objectivity but also muffle the emotion and anxiety that comes with momentous decision-making.

Book Summary of Peter Drucker’s “The Practice of Management”

Peter Drucker (1909–2005) was the 20th century’s leading thinker on business and management. He was amazingly prolific—he produced 39 volumes on management and leadership and worked right until his death a week before his 96th birthday.

'The Practice of Management' by Peter Drucker (ISBN 0060878975) Drucker’s The Practice of Management (1954) played a pivotal role in the recognition of management as a professional discipline. Even six decades after publication, The Practice of Management remains relevant for its original, profound, and timeless ideas. Drucker’s conception for the organization as an integral part of society, his elucidation of the nature of managerial tasks, his emphasis on good governance, and his prescription for effective leadership have served managers well over the decades.

Here are some prominent insights from The Practice of Management:

  • Drucker accentuated the need for clarity about the meaning of a business. He argued, “‘what is our business’ is the most important question successful management groups have to address.” In corporate strategy, this inquiry has become the underpinning for business analysis and the formulation of mission statements.
  • A business exists to “create a customer.” Therefore, managers need to query who their customers are and what the business must try to do for its customers.
  • The Practice of Management contributed to a rich analysis of the role of business in society. Drucker proposed that a business exists at three constructs that influence each other and thus establish the organization’s performance, mission, and business definition:
    1. as an economic establishment that produces value for its stakeholders and for the society,
    2. as a community that employs people, pays them, develops them, and coordinates their efforts to increase productivity,
    3. as a “social institution that is deeply embedded in society and values and as such is affected by public interest discussion, debate, and values.”
  • “The manager is the dynamic, life-giving element in every business” who defines the organization’s mission, develops and retains productive teams, coordinates various activities, sets goals, and gets things done.
  • Leadership gives the organization meaning and purpose—leadership defines and nurtures the organization’s central values, creates a sense of mission, allocates resources, and builds systems and processes in pursuit of the organization’s goals.
  • Management entails farsighted thinking about the future state of things and taking appropriate risks to capitalize on opportunities. Additionally, “managing a business must be a creative rather than adaptive task. The more a management creates economic conditions or changes them rather than passively adapts to them, the more it manages the business.”
  • The Practice of Management by Peter Drucker Managers inculcate the dominant cultural norm in the organization through their actions. These values become evident in the decisions they make concerning whom they recruit, whom they retain and promote, the goals they pursue, and the ethical parameters with which they frame their decisions.
  • The Practice of Management popularized the concept of management by objectives (MBO) for the successful execution of an organization’s strategic plan. The MBO process ensures delineation of key objectives, prudent allocation of resources, dedication of effort on key goals, use of real-time feedback, and effective communication. MBO helps managers organize and motivate their employees, promote effective communication, develop employees, measure performance, and increase their sense of empowerment.

The Practice of Management is one of those books that his admirers tend to appreciate more with every successive reading. Drucker’s remarkable virtues as the “father of modern management”—viz., clarity, usefulness, and common-sense pragmatism—are all on display in this book.

Recommendation: Read—it’s the best book you’ll find on the responsibilities, tasks, and challenges that managers undertake. The Practice of Management will have a profound effect on your thinking.

Book Summary of “Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!” by Nicholas Carlson

Over the holidays, I finished reading journalist Nicholas Carlson’s Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! This interesting book offers an account of Yahoo’s steady slide towards irrelevance and Marissa Mayer’s early tenure as CEO.

“Complex Monstrosity Built Without a Plan”

'Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!' by Nicholas Carlson (ISBN 1455556610) Carlson devotes the first third of the book to explaining Yahoo’s beleaguered history and how years of mismanagement and strategy negligence got Yahoo into the mess that Mayer inherited as CEO in 2012.

The second third is about Mayer and her brilliant career as employee number twenty at Google. In 2010, her career allegedly stalled because Mayer got sidelined after conflicts with other luminaries within Google. Relying broadly on anonymous sources, Carlson portrays Mayer’s intense nature and her personality contradictions: in public settings, Mayer is brainy, glamorous, confident, articulate, and approachable. However, in one-on-one settings, Mayer is a self-promoting, dismissive, calculating, tardy, inquisitorial individual who avoids eye contact. “There was nothing especially abhorrent or uncommon about Mayer’s behavior as an executive,” Carlson writes. “She was headstrong, confident, dismissive, self-promoting and clueless about how she sometimes hurt other people’s feelings. So were many of the most successful executives in the technology industry.”

The last third is devoted to Mayer’s initial efforts to turn Yahoo around. Within the first year at the helm as CEO, Mayer motivated Yahoo’s beleaguered workforce, launched the redesign of some of Yahoo’s major sites, and made acquisitions to make Yahoo relevant in the mobile, media, and social realms. Carlson also describes Mayer’s bad hiring decisions, habitual tardiness, tendency to micromanage, tone-deaf style of communication, and dogged devotion to establishing the universally-despised practice of tracking goals and stack-ranking employees.

Yahoo: The Fabled Legacy Internet Company on the Slide to Irrelevance

Yahoo: The Fabled Legacy Internet Company on the Slide to Irrelevance

Anybody who follows the internet content industry understands that the principal question regarding the then-37-year-old Mayer’s recruitment as CEO was never whether she could save Yahoo. Rather, the question was whether Yahoo can be saved at all.

Yahoo has been a mess for a long time. For early consumers of the internet, Yahoo’s portal was the internet—from the mid-1990s until the early 2000s, Yahoo was the number-one gateway for early users of the internet who wanted to search, email, or consume news and other information. Then, Yahoo floundered as the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, and Microsoft redefined the consumer internet and content consumption. Yahoo’s successive managements struggled to identify Yahoo’s raison d’etre and failed to set it apart from the up-and-coming websites. Yahoo’s management also fumbled on opportunities to harness the popularity of Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Sports, and Yahoo Finance to get advertising revenues growing again.

Mayer’s Arrival Was Too Late for Yahoo

Marissa Mayer could not succeed in reviving YahooMayer came to Yahoo with extraordinary credentials, drive, technical savvy, celebrity, and charisma. Her tenure was centered on answering the single question, “What is Yahoo? What should become of Yahoo?”

The odds of Mayer succeeding to revive Yahoo as an independent internet content company were very bleak right from the beginning, because Mayer took on an increasingly irrelevant business with very little actual or potential operating value—either as an internet content company or as a media company. Carlson appropriately concludes,

Ultimately, Yahoo suffers from the fact that the reason it ever succeeded in the first place was because it solved a global problem that lasted for only a moment. The early Internet was hard to use, and Yahoo made it easier. Yahoo was the Internet. Then the Internet was flooded with capital and infinite solutions for infinite problems, and the need for Yahoo faded. The company hasn’t found its purpose since—the thing it can do that no one else can.

Since the publication of the book in December 2014, Mayer has dedicated her leadership to selling Yahoo’s core internet businesses and its patent portfolio. Yahoo is expected to then convert itself into a shell company for its investments in Alibaba (15.5% economic interest) and Yahoo Japan (35.5%.)

Recommendation: As a fast read, Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! is great. Beyond Nicholas Carlson’s gossipy narrative and his pejorative depiction of Mayer’s management style, readers of this page-turner will be interested in Yahoo leadership’s strategic and tactical missteps. Particularly fascinating are how Yahoo missed opportunities to buy Google and Facebook when they were mere startups, the rebuffing of an acquisition bid from Microsoft, a lack of strategic focus, the leadership skirmishes with activist investors, the revolving door at the CEO’s office, and an Asian-asset drama.

How Smart Companies Get Smarter: Seek and Solve Systemic Deficiencies

At Toyota, as cars roll off the assembly line, they go through a final inspection station staffed by astute visual and tactile inspectors.

At Toyota, as cars roll off the assembly line, they go through a final inspection station staffed by astute visual and tactile inspectors. If these inspectors spot a paint defect, they don’t just quietly fix the problem merely by touching up the paint to satisfy the customer or their plant manager.

As part of Toyota’s famed kaizen continuous improvement system, floor workers identify the systemic causes that led to the specific defect on the specific car. They then remedy the root cause of the problem so it won’t happen again.

Fostering an atmosphere of continuous improvement and learning

Most companies cherish employees who are watchful of problems and take it upon themselves to detect and solve problems without criticism or complaint. A software company, for example, may treasure a programmer who observes an unforeseen coding mistake, and swiftly develops a patch to keep her project moving forward.

In contrast, companies like Toyota who are obsessive about quality improvement, organizational learning, and developing collective intelligence don’t reward or tolerate such quiet fixers.

Taiichi Ohno - 'Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.' At companies that have adopted the kaizen philosophy, continuous improvement originates from the bottom up through suggestion systems that engage and motivate floor employees to look out for systemic problems, raise quality concerns, and help solve those problems. These companies encourage their employees to actively seek small, simple, and incremental improvements that could result in real cost savings, higher quality, or better productivity. According to Taiichi Ohno, the legendary Japanese industrial engineer identified as the father of the Toyota Production System, “Something is wrong if workers do not look around each day, find things that are tedious or boring, and then rewrite the procedures. Even last month’s manual should be out of date.”

Idea for Impact: To develop collective intelligence and build smarter organizations, discourage employees from heroically patching up recurring problems. Instead, encourage them to find, report, analyze, experiment, and fix systemic problems to prevent their recurrence.