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Shoveling Manure

September 29, 2011

I live on a horse farm in southern Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. Life at Celtic Springs, as it is known, revolves entirely around the horses. They are fed, groomed, led to pasture, and return to their stalls on a fairly precise schedule that rarely varies. If you don’t follow their schedule, they are quite vocal in expressing their discontent. Horses take service quality very seriously. And so it is that every evening I am to be found in the barn mucking out stalls.

I have shoveled an enormous amount of manure in my life. Literally, not metaphorically, though some might argue otherwise. Shoveling manure gives a man plenty of time to be alone with his thoughts. And, perhaps for that very reason, the application of Action Learning has, for me, begun in the barn.

The premise behind Action Learning is that the program attendee (me) brings new knowledge from MIT back to their host company (Disruptive) and somehow applies these newly  learned lessons to improve the company’s performance. The goal is to see immediate, positive changes in the company. The unstated problem for the attendee is to make the transition from student (at MIT) to both student (doing my homework) and teacher (teaching the management team) while at work.

Action Learning is forcing me to think about the reality of creating positive change, which is already affecting the way that I study. I’m seeing the need to: (i) evaluate relevance and create connections between MIT lessons and company challenges, and (ii) learn in a way that enables me to mentor and teach others. In my earlier graduate programs I was a knowledge vessel. I went to class and filled my brain with new expertise.  At MIT, I seem to be part vessel, part pipe. I’m learning, but I’m also trying to learn in ways that help my organization to learn as well.

It’s changing my behaviors at work. I find that I’m spending more time listening to my management team’s challenges specifically so that I can look for relevant solutions in my studies. This focus on “active listening” is making me a little more passive in my management style. I think that I’m listening more, directing less, and coaching more than I was a few weeks ago.

Shoveling manure is a very meditative experience. No mental energies are required, a few basic motions are repeated over and over. A relaxed mind seems more capable of making connections between work challenges and MIT lessons.

As one example, BluPanda is in the process of leasing new space. I’ve always hated leasing space for start-up companies, as it always seemed like an enormous expense with relatively little value, or at least I never had a good way to think about extracting economic value from leased space. One of our Microeconomics readings focuses on the value of relative scarcity. One of the themes of the paper is that the value of a scarce input to an economic process, such as land or leased space, is driven by the economic value that it creates for the lessee. As one case in point, the author cites that Starbucks willingly pays high rents to place its coffee shops at strategic locations near points of high, early morning traffic flow. It passes these increased rental costs onto its customers in the form of higher coffee prices, which the consumers willingly pay because they receive the value of coffee served conveniently along their commute. The rental price is thus driven, in part, because of the scarcity of such locations along commuting paths and, in equal part, by Starbucks’ business model’s ability to convert convenience into premium pricing.

The question for BluPanda is how work space contributes to the value of our products and services. What is the value of this factor of production? The Starbucks example really intrigued me and forced our management team to think more deeply about space. We determined that our business model really calls for rapid innovation among a fairly diverse team of skilled technologists, where collaboration is key to driving the pace of innovation. Within this business model, space contributes to value to the degree to which it contributes to decreasing our product development cycle time.

Our reading on the Wal-Mart Effect, where the ripple effects of ruthlessly focusing on a single performance metric (in Wal-Mart’s case, price) made us question whether we could find our own single performance metric to ruthlessly focus on. Cycle time became that metric for BluPanda, together with the realization that we could look across nearly every component of our value chain and find ways to make small, but meaningful contributions to cutting cycle time. In the case of leasing space, it was all about using that space to foster faster (and possibly higher quality, as per Dr. Van Maanen’s lecture) group decisions at each stage of product development.

Our VP of Operations made a study of modern methods of laying out collaborative space in software oriented environments. She suggested eliminating private offices for managers, and adopting break out spaces for teams and quiet zones for programmers or individuals trying to work through detailed problems.  I won’t have an office at all, as she determined that most of my interactions with others tend to be in group meetings in a conference room. When I work individually, I tend to do so in my home office where I’m free from distraction. The space that would have been my luxuriously appointed corner office will be a conference room instead.

We determined that the value of the space could be measured by its contribution to cycle time reduction. We are approaching the new space as an experiment, where we fully intend to make changes to the layout based upon both hard measurements, like product development cycle time, as well as soft measurements such as employee surveys focusing on how the space does or does not meet the needs of their workflow. We expect that cycle time reduction should follow the patterns suggested by yet another reading, “Learning Curves in Manufacturing” and we hope to discover in the data that we’re collecting some new insights into spacial designs that contribute to or in some way interfere with improved group productivity.

I guarantee that we would not have approached this issue in such a structured fashion absent the MIT EMBA program. It’s a very straight forward example of the immediacy of Action Learning and one that we expect will have measurable impact on the business.

This component of “learning to teach” is also terribly important. I can’t really overemphasize the degree to which shoveling manure contributed to this process. The horses and the ritual of their care forces me to spend a significant amount of time each day in quiet reflection. That opportunity to reflect is key to making the connections between the business challenges in your own organization and the lessons that you are learning in your personal MIT experience. Perhaps you have your own opportunity for daily reflection. Perhaps you should create one if you don’t. If you run short of ideas, you have an open invitation to visit us at Celtic Springs. We always have plenty of manure.


One Comment leave one →
  1. September 29, 2011 11:47 pm

    This post was by far my favorite. Looking forward to following you on your journey at MIT!

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