In this interview, Joseph F. Paris Jr., Author of the book “State of Readiness – Operational Excellence as a recursor to becoming a high-performance organization,” shares valuable insights from over thirty years of international business and operations experience.
According to Paris, to achieve a state of readiness in today’s challenging environment, operational excellence is critical, yet to gain a decisive competitive advantage, an organization needs to focus on building an engaging company culture, organizational design, decision making, and communication.
Joseph F. Paris Jr. is a thought leader on the subject of operational excellence, a prolific writer, and a sought-after speaker around the world. Although he is an expert in the more granular facets of the discipline, he places a particular emphasis on the keystone for success: the engagement of people.
Who are you, what do you do and what drives you?
I like to think of myself as a student of the world you know. Like you I’ve had the opportunity to travel, and I find people fascinating. Most of the things that we’re dealing with whether it’s lean, culture, or leadership are not laws of nature, like gravity. These are laws of men who were made by men and can be bent and broken by men. What is today, might not be true twenty years from now. Discovering “why do people do the things they do?” is what drives me.
How do you describe the State of Readiness?
That’s a great question. To me, an organization is in a state of readiness if it could see further beyond the horizon than the competition, recognize opportunities or threats quicker, be able to devise and deploy the size of responses to meet those opportunities as your threats, all the while engaging in the pursuit of the company’s vision.
In one of your interviews, you described the state of readiness in an example of an American Football team. Could you elaborate on the state of readiness in team sports?
In a team that is well prepared, everyone knows what each other is capable of doing. Before setting foot on the playing field, they have a clear plan on how to defeat the other team. As soon as the players touch the ball for the first time, the plans go out the window. Now, the fluidity of the situation takes over, and the team must revert to what they have learned in training.
Why did you write the book The State of Readiness?
I have been writing for a long time on the subject of operational excellence and the human endeavor of leadership, but it was never on my bucket list to become a published author. I wrote the State of Readiness mostly because my wife and a couple of other people encouraged me to write a book.
My articles formed the foundation of my book. In the last third, I delve into my experience into building capacity and capabilities of an organization and to accelerating the decision-making process.
What are the key success factors for building an engaging company culture?
To build an engaging company culture there must be a want, not just a need. Without a want, you’re wasting your time.
In the introduction of my book, I’m blunt; ” I’m not going to say it’s easy. There is no button to push or pill you can swallow that’s going to make it easier or faster. It’s damn hard work, and it’s going to take time, effort, investment, gumption, perseverance. If you think it could be otherwise, you need to put this book down right now and walk away because it’s not for you. It’s not my company; it’s not my project, it’s your company your project. I can help you, I can mentor you and help facilitate, but you’ve got to do the work. If you’re not willing to do that, then I head out of the door.”
How can a company culture become a force multiplier instead of a hindrance?
It could be a multiplier because everybody understands what is essential and what’s not essential.
For instance, you and I have never worked together on a project before in our entire lives. So, the first time we work together I’m going to be evaluating you and you’re going to be evaluating me, and the decision process is going to be a little bit slow because we don’t know what each other is capable of doing. Fast forward three or four projects. Now, we built up a level of trust, and we understand each other’s capabilities. Company culture is a force multiplier because it allows an organization to understand what it can do and will act as an accelerant of what the company’s vision.
If the culture is not built on trust and respect, it can be a source of friction, and slow things down. That’s why if you look at companies that have low employee turnover, they’re usually higher performing because they understand what the people are capable of doing.
In the case of a new CEO, people say that he is replacing all the people with his buddies. And, they think that’s cronyism, but it is not cronyism. I’ve been involved in C-level quite a bit over my thirty-some years in business. You must understand, that the board hires the CEO because they believe in his or her vision of the future for the company, and that he can deliver on the vision. The CEO doesn’t own the company unless it’s a family company of course. So, two things must exist for the CEO to get hired; the board has to believe in his vision and in his capability to deliver.
When the CEO is hired and leads the boardroom, the stopwatch starts ticking. Every second that goes by is one second less the CEO has, to meet the three-year objective. Hence, the CEO does not typically have six to nine months to figure out what his team can do. Therefore, they hire the people that they have worked with in the past. It does not matter if they are better or worse, what counts is that the CEO can understands and trust their capabilities, and thus accelerating the decision-making process.
What are the toughest challenges that leaders and organizations are facing today?
A major challenge that I see is the inability to make decisions quicker since everybody has to come to a consensus before deciding, resulting in a mediocre decision that is made too late. Let’s take a car builder as an example who has a metallurgy problem. There is a team of six trying to figure out this problem with their skill-set. Now, I’m not a metallurgist, so I have the foggiest idea about metallurgy; therefore I’m going to want a very conservative solution because I want to make decisions based on my comfort zone. I’m not going to put my name to something and say it’s a great idea unless I’m convinced that it’s a great idea. I’m going to cause a delay in the decision making. Because it’s a conservative decision, your ability to innovate diminishes.
I believe that the approaches of Lean Management and Six Sigma are essential for quality and process improvement, but I don’t’ think it is enough to have a competitive advantage today. You must have it to be competitive, but it’s not enough of an advantage to accelerate you beyond your competition. I think for that an organization that wants to succeed, you need to emphasize on organization design and communication.
One of the things that I like about Elon Musk, even though I don’t necessarily think that Tesla is a well-run company, is that he gives people the authority to pick up the phone and call somebody to get help, and not follow the chain of command. That makes communication quick and disruptive.
I mentioned the metallurgy problem because a few months ago I read in Bloomberg that Tesla had metallurgy problems that they couldn’t solve. However, the people of SpaceX are experts in metallurgy, because space technology is infinitely more complex than the car industry. So, the Tesla team called the metallurgy experts at SpaceX and said: “listen we got a problem, please come over and help us to solve it.”
I will share with you a personal example; In the 1990’s my company implemented a lot of ERP systems and had to cut a lot of code to meet customer demands
We had this one project where we had cut some code, and the client was getting anxious because we were running late. The lead programmer couldn’t figure out one coding problem. I told him: “Robert, why don’t you post your challenge on the internet, and keep on working on the problem, and maybe get some help. He said “Well, I think if I need another day or two to figure it out.” I said, “Listen, Robert. The client is not hiring you to figure out the problem. He’s hiring us to have the problem figured out.” He reluctantly posted the problem online, and about an hour-and-a-half later, he got a response to solve this problem. I’ll never forget the guy’s e-mail address; it burned into my brain. It was [name redacted]@rocketranch.nasa.gov – And I said, “See, Robert, it took a rocket scientist to solve your problem.”
How did your leadership style evolve in your career?
You know it’s always evolving. When I was younger I was more impetuous; I wanted to get things done quickly. It never crossed my mind that I was the best at anything, but I had the attitude, that I needed to get things done myself. This behavior made me the bottleneck. I’ve come full circle now, almost becoming too collaborative. At the end of the day, the leader must make a decision. General George S Patton said; “A commander commands, that’s what he does.” Patton also talked about the importance of counseling all your fears before making a decision; get all the information from your advisers, but once you make the decision go like hell.
Leadership thoughts have ebbed and flowed over time, but I think now I’m at a point where everybody must know the vision, and what success looks like, but then somebody must make the decision.
When I was working as a programmer twenty years ago, we had a project meeting where I made a decision based on the inputs of the team. One of the programmers was so upset about the decision that he threw his coffee cup at me and stormed out of the meeting. He came back to my office a couple of hours to apologize.
My reaction was, “George, let’s sit down and tell me what I’m missing here.” If somebody is emotionally invested in a decision, this might mean that I missed something critical. We went through his concerns, and I didn’t have to change the decision, but it allowed me to become more aware of that threat, and how to engage in case it would materialize. As a leader, you must cut through the emotions, get all the necessary information and decide.
What’s your favorite leadership quote?
The former President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, had a saying
“Do what you can with what you got from where you are.”
This quote stuck with me for quite some time. Then there’s a quote from Mike Tyson that’s always in my mind too “everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Thank you so much for taking the time for this conversation and your valuable insights.
Thanks a lot. Bye.
– OpexSociety.org: https://opexsociety.org/
– SpaceX: www.SpaceX.com
– Tesla: www.tesla.com
– Joseph Paris: https://josephparis.me/