Simple Solutions within the Complex

Last year I posted several Leadership Minutes about Proficiency and Competence in which I spoke of a leader’s need to work to the point where one knows their craft so well that their proficiency is based in the subconscious, that is, that they are unconsciously competent (a UC). You can review those videos online or at [ Video 1 ] [ Video 2 ]

That being said, I recently heard a story that ties into this same idea of so deeply knowing what you do that the answers come quickly and easily, at time bewildering your direct reports. Simple answers come to the proficient leader that is always practicing, studying, and thinking about her craft.

The story was widely circulated in the early 2000s. It appeared online and in emails in many different versions. It goes something like this.

A philosophy professor gave an unusual test to his class. As they watched him, he lifted his chair onto his desk and wrote on the board: “Prove to me that this chair does not exist.” The class went to work, composing long complex explanations related to perception, existentialism, epistemology and the like. However, there was one student who took less than thirty seconds to answer and handed in his paper before many of the students even began to write. This obviously attracting surprised glances from his classmates as well as his professor. The following week the class received their grades for the test. The student who took less than thirty seconds to answer the test received the only “A” grade in the class. His answer was simply, “What chair?”

The story is one of a multitude of similar urban myths which poke fun of high-minded academia, in which an apparently very difficult or impossible question is destroyed by a terse comprehensive answer.

As a leader, proficiency in your craft comes only with long term, repeated exposure to the decisions, the systems and the circumstances with which you deal. The highly proficient leader can see the simple, encompassing answer within the complex. For the committed leader, proficiency — that is being an unconscious competent — is attainable if he or she is willing to put in the time.

I made a quick video related to this post. You can view it HERE. If you like it, please share it.

Harmony in the Universe and Bob the Destroyer

Until a recent remodel at Los Angeles International Airport, adjacent to American Airlines Terminal 44 was a Burger King. Sequestered in the corner of that restaurant was a small stainless steel shelf with an even less obvious label affixed upon it. It read Coffee Lids. I wrote this one morning as I was seated no more than 100 feet from that very label – and I was thinking about the strategic implementation of processes.

What follows were my observations on that morning.

If you are reading this you are a member of the small percentage of people who care, people who are driven to refine the less than efficient processes in their lives. You are a leader. Most, however, are not. Most do as they are told and in fact, are somewhat content to exist and live in the status quo.

You are not.

You want to make a difference. You understand that things can be improved. You abide by principles of excellence and streamlining of the process.

Let me tell you about Bob. The first fact you need to know about Bob is that Bob is not his real name. I am watching Bob right now. Early 50’s, probably a great father, a hard worker and dedicated to the task that provides for his family. Bob works right there, next to Terminal 44 at the Burger King. I know he is a hard working man because I am observing him as I write. Besides, it’s just after five in the morning and only Bob knows what time he had to get up this morning to be here on time. Though I only just rubbed shoulders with him ten minutes ago, I like Bob… Now back to you.

You understand that the tasks of the day can be draining. You engage in the tactical events of the day without complaint because your eyes are on the process and you are always looking for strategic opportunities to better the system. You realized that the tactical responses yesterday have a common thread with ones that you performed last week and that those correspond to what you will be doing this afternoon. Deep in your mind, you are already thinking about the commonalities of the tasks and how they can be combined into a streamlined effort to produce a better, simplified, process. You see, that’s what you do! You streamline systems by finding simple solutions to common problems. You identify a bottleneck or repetitive tasks and you streamline them by revising the process. And it works.

So, let me tell you how I rubbed shoulders with Bob. To properly convey this, I need to give you the layout of our infamous Burger King, its drink station and the little tiny label marked Coffee Lids. You see, there are actually two drink stations about 10 feet apart there at Terminal 44. Both stations serve customers with a soda machine and a coffee dispenser. Both have both! However, the soda cup lids are on the stainless steel shelf over the leftmost drink station, and the coffee lids are over the right. So, regardless of which station you get coffee at, you have to force your way into a crowded corner of the restaurant to get your lid. The process is broken. While I am trying to get to my lids, I am swimming upstream against the flow of people who just filled their sodas and are coming my way to get their soda lids. I ask myself, how many years has this bottleneck been here and why can I see it so quickly and no one in all these years, not even management, has noticed? Then I realized, it’s the label: “Coffee Lids.” This mayhem has been created by a misaligned attempt at organization.

I still have not met Bob.

So here you sit. Surrounded by process. Have you asked yourself what bottlenecks you live in? Just look for the confusion. You’ll see it. Then look deeper, into the bottleneck. If you cannot see it, ask someone in your organization. Ask them about those things that, to them, do not make sense. Bring in an outside observer to see what you don’t see. Unlike Bob and his managers, there are those who are gifted to see logistical problems and less than ideal systems. Strive to be such a person. Identify and remove the misaligned attempts at organization. Remove the labels.

Ok, so I just met Bob. I pushed and shoved my way to the coffee lids. I grabbed one of the lids and placed it on my cup, but before leaving, I grabbed a handful and carried them to the stainless steel shelf above the leftmost drink station, the one without the label. FINALLY, for one (and only one) millisecond, the multi-year dysfunctional process of cup lid gathering at Terminal 44 was solved. The masses, as if they were a school of fish, naturally flowed under my power in directions that for the first time in perhaps years made sense. The sky opened, rose petals fell at my feet and a choir of angels sang the hallelujah chorus (though I was the only one who could hear it). I smiled. I had changed my world. I was responsible for happier people, less missed flights, pleasant flight attendants and passengers. In that moment, I was the center of the universe! Then, over my bumped shoulder (this is where Bob and I are acquainted), I see Bob pick up my stack of coffee lids and return them to the place of origin. Back to where they were supposed to be. Back above the label! Good Ol’ Bob was doing what he knew to do, and in his hard-working diligence destroyed the peace and harmony of my new universe. Back to square one.

The point? Look past the label! See beyond the way things are “supposed” to be…

Great!!! I got so inspired by this whole thing that my coffee is now cold. Here I go, back into the mayhem that Bob has unknowingly recreated…