Innovation & Insights

Practically Radical (Review)

Sam Frentzel-Beyme Follow Managing Parter & Strategy Director

The Short of It

  • Bill Taylor's book Practically Radical offers insights into how organizations tick.
  • New techniques can have knock-on effects that have real potential for overcoming organizational roadblocks like confirmation bias.
  • Like a rock climber whose life perspective is irrevocably changed after seeing the world from the top of El Capitan, once a new methodology is infused into an organization, the potential for paradigm shifts increases exponentially.

Having grown up during a time when the word “radical” was only used ironically, I’m a bit leery of any book that uses the word in the title. But having been a subscriber to Fast Company for a while, I thought it worth hearing Bill Taylor’s perspective and picked up his latest book Practically Radical: Not-so-crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself at my local library.

I’m glad I did.

I suppose reading something by someone who took his editorial skills at the Harvard Business Review and turned them into a $350 million dollar exit, the second in largest in US magazine history, when Fast Company was sold to Gruner+Jahr in 2000, would be a must read for anyone with entrepreneurial aspirations. But Bill Taylor, and his co-founder Alan Webber, aren’t exactly household names. I mean, how was I to know that Tom Peters, the consultant/guru was one of their original 11 investors?

In terms of the book, the first thing one notices is that it is, like Fast Company, written for the reader. Taylor’s engaging style reveals a true zeal for not only understanding what makes highly effective organizations tick, but how to reduce those stories to their actionable essence.

One story that pops to mind is about the Virginia Mason Medical Center, a ninety-year old hospital in Seattle, Washington, with four hundred doctors and nearly 5,000 employees. Despite the institution’s rich history, the center had been doing poorly in terms of quality, which of course was directly reflected in the institute’s deteriorating financial condition.

To counter quality issues, CEO Dr. Gary Kaplan decided to use Japanese-style quality management tools. Using the Toyota Production System, which blends “just-in-time” (kanban) with continuous improvement (kaizen) and front line employees who fix problems in real time (jikoda), Dr. Kaplan believed that this new system would usher in new perspectives to turn things around.

After a number of years following the Japanese practices, Taylor recounts a story taken from Charles Kenney’s book The Best Practice about one doctor’s trip to Japan to study with a Japanese master (sensei).

One of the projects the doctor was working on was dealing with space usage for operating rooms, so he showed the sensei the layout of the hospital. After looking at the layout, the sensei pointed to one area that caught his eye and asked the doctor about the open space.

The doctor explained that the room he was pointing to was the waiting room where people waited for about 45 minutes to see a doctor. The sensei asked the doctor if that was the only room of its kind. The doctor replied that there are actually hundreds of those rooms throughout the entire institute.

At this point the sensei “lowered his gaze” and spoke directly to the doctor. “You have waiting areas where patients wait an average of 45 minutes to see a doctor,” he said… “Aren’t you ashamed.”

The idea of using Japanese-style management techniques is not necessarily new. But what makes this story interesting is that new techniques can have knock-on effects that have real potential for overcoming organizational roadblocks like confirmation bias.

Like a rock climber whose life perspective is irrevocably changed after seeing the world from the top of El Capitan, once a new methodology is infused into an organization, the potential for paradigm shifts increases exponentially.

Taylor writes, “…the real impact of Virginia Mason’s exposure to the theory and practice of Japanese quality management was as much about fueling the imagination as it was about transferring methodologies.”

Lastly, to help fuel your own imagination, here are 10 questions that Taylor says every game changer must answer.

1. Do you see opportunities the competition doesn’t see?

2. Do you have new ideas about where to look for new ideas?

3. Are you most of anything?

4. If your company went out of business tomorrow, who would miss you and why?

5. Have you figured out how your organization’s history can help shape it’s future?

6. Do you have customers who can’t live without you?

7. Do your people care more than the competition?

8. Are you getting the best contributions from your people?

9. Are you consistent in your commitment to change?

10. Are you learning as fast as the world is changing?

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