Joy, Inc. – Learning Organization

Joy, Inc. – Learning Organization

Interview with Rich Sheridan, Author of Joy, Inc. – How We Built a Workplace People Love and CEO of Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Over 3,000 annual visitors flock to Ann Arbor to tour Menlo and be inspired by the unique Menlo way. Among them are Lean experts and companies like Toyota.

This conversation is part of an Interview series on Lean Transformation & Lean Culture, created by Noventa Consulting. The conversation with Rich is split into four parts.

Part 1: Joy, Inc. – Learning Organization

Part 2: Joy, Inc. – Business Value of Joy

Part 3: Joy, Inc. – Leadership Lessons and Inspirations

Part 4: Joy, Inc. – Cultural Transformation

Who are you and what drives you?

When you ask that question, the first thing I think of is my family. I think about my wife, I think about my children, I think about my parents. The reason my brain goes there first is that I thrive in healthy relationships. The word relationship is vital to me.

Menlo is an organization designed to foster healthy human relationships. The reason we built Menlo the way we did, is because of my wiring around relationships. I love to be in deep, lasting, caring relationships, and we’ve given our team a chance to do that here with each other.

Joy, Inc. Factory Tour
Joy, Inc. Factory Tour

Could you describe the Menlo way, and your core values?

When I think about our organization or any organization, it’s essential that people be intentional about their culture. To be intentional about your culture you’ve got to understand your purpose and your beliefs.

Much like Simon Sinek would say in his book Start With Why, I boil it down to three fundamental questions that I can answer easily for Menlo, but they’re generic questions that any firm should be ready to answer:

Whom do you serve?

And what would delight look like for them?

Can we deliver this delight without wrecking the spirit and energy of team?

As an organization, our culture should be focused externally towards service to others. In our case, the people we serve are the end users of the software we’re creating.

We also firmly believe that tired people make bad software. We don’t want to make bad software, so we don’t want tired people. That is why we take excellent care of our team.

Our goal is to return joy to technology. We believe the creation of software is perhaps one of the unique endeavors humanity had ever undertaken. We want to thrill the people we serve with excellent user experience and well-designed, sold-working software.

How do you scale Menlo?

Right now, we’re growing fast, so we’re bringing in new people as well. Our programmers work in pairs on clients’ projects. This idea of working in pairs is foundational to building a scalable culture. Imagine we pair our team members, and we switch the pairs every five days, and then no one works together for more than five days. For example, [Keeley and Kyler] are paired together on the [Irwin] project, and they’re going to work together for five days. One of them is going to spinoff to something else. One of them will stay and then we’ll bring new in a new person. Not new to the company, but new to the project.

Over time we keep moving people around, which prepares us for that moment of scaling. Four or six people work on an average project at a time. The pairs are switched every week, like in a square dance. If the client comes to us and says, “Hey, we need you guys to go faster.“ we can split the pairs and onboard new people. Within a couple of weeks, the project-team is producing twice as much output as before, still working forty-hour work weeks.

You might be asking, where do these people come from, they can’t just be sitting around doing nothing. I got the idea of never running a plant operation at 100% from the Lean community. We always build slack into the system, so that when we need to go faster, we’re not breaking the whole system.

A working pair reporting in the daily- stand-up-meeting
A working pair reporting in the daily-stand-up-meeting

The way we build in slack in our system is by working on fun low-stakes internal projects that can be started and stopped at will, without deadlines and critical customer waiting for them. These internal projects should use about 10% of our workforce. When a client says that they want to go faster, the internal projects are the most natural place for us to get new people into the project. The internal projects are the staging area, where we bring in new people and teach them our ways of working. The other natural means of adding new people is by transferring them from other customer projects that are slowing down or completed.


How do you build Menlo as a learning organization?

When I first heard that term „Learning Organization“ in a book by Peter Senge called The Fifth Discipline – The Art and Practice of Building a Learning Organization, my mind was blown away. The message of the book appeals to me as a system’s thinker. In my view, there are two kinds of organizations in the world; systems-based organizations, and hero-based organizations. Often, organizations, frequently here in the US, are built on the backs of heroes.

We need to create a system that doesn’t crush the spirits of our team. Culture without systems breeds chaos and systems without culture breeds bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is the opposite of clarity first. Everybody’s waiting, everybody’s living the ambiguity, and nobody can decide. If you create a system that feeds human energy and is built on human relationships, your team starts running at a speed that you can’t keep up with.

What is the role of a leader?

 I think two of the primary roles of leaders is to elevate the human energy and eliminate fear. Moreover, you know the elevation of human energy I feel is the equivalent of lighting a candle. A room full of candles inspires. If you’re in a church or a dark room with hundred people holding a candle, you can’t help but be lifted up by the light all of those candles are producing.

Also, I think the elimination of fear is what allows you to keep those candles burning because as strong as it is to be able to light one candle to another, a candle is also fragile. A strong wind that blows through can blow them all at once. Also, I think fear can do that.

In my book, I use the story of the Wright brothers building their first airplane and what motivated them. I compare them to Samuel Pierpont Langley who was similarly trying to develop the first airplane. He and his team of researchers were well-funded by the government. The Wright brothers were just two brothers in Dayton, Ohio with a bicycle shop. Langley had all these PhDs on his team and failed. I think the fundamental difference between them was that the Wright brothers wanted to fly, and Langley wanted the glory of saying I built the first airplane. I believe this is the difference between lighting fire under people or light a fire within.

If your purpose is fame and money and you don’t achieve it, you’ll quickly switch missions. You’ll change what you’re working on, and say this was too hard. When you have a passion you’re driven by the will to fly; you don’t care at all how much it cost how long it takes, and how hard it is, you’re going to keep working at it. [Part  one of four – interview to be continued]