Excerpts from Chapter Four: Leading with Blockbuster Ideas


I spent a couple years working in an architecture business in Boston. As the CFO of a design firm, I watched the numbers while the architects designed hospitals and labs. I was in awe of their ability to juggle multiple dimensions so that from their floor plans windows, plumbing, and safety features landed in the right places. Their designs were also simply beautiful to me. I began to dream of a day when I could live in a house that had been designed to be our home.

Five years later, that is exactly what we were able to do with a small property we bought in Annapolis, Maryland. An architect took our ideas and created a marvelous home. The additional expense of the architect meant we had to forego some details in the construction. Our budget, for example, could not cover built-in bookshelves in the living room, so we delayed that project for later.

After living in the house for a couple of years, we noticed two things. First, we really missed our books, which had been relegated to dozens of boxes in the basement. Second, we were puzzled about how to decorate the dining room. It was a dramatically long rectangle, designed to accommodate two tables. I had installed one table for meals and another for all of our family projects (sewing, homework, jigsaw puzzles). Placing furniture along the walls did not look right. China cabinets or sideboards would interrupt the clean, striking length of the room in an unsatisfying way.

One day, staring at the dining room yet again and wondering aloud if painting the walls a different color would help, my husband and I realized something. A dining room is the only room in the house in which all of the furniture is effectively pushed to the center of the room. That was Insight #1.

Conversely, in a living room the furniture is pushed against the walls. That was Insight #2. It took almost no leap to arrive at Insight #3. The dining room walls, therefore, were a much better place for the library shelves. We had a new plan in an instant. We built bookshelves in the dining room.

In short, we had been looking at the dining room and not seeing it as a library.

I love ideas that completely transform a person’s thinking. In an instant everything changes. I call such ideas blockbuster ideas. They bust up blockheaded notions. They turn the meaning of something on its head. A blockbuster idea can have great impact by redirecting everyone’s vision, perception, or cognition.

Blockbuster ideas abound. They can be as mundane as the concept for a dining room or as revolutionary as changing our view of the world from geocentric to heliocentric. We changed everything about math and money with a zero. We took down the tollbooths at one end of tunnels and bridges and doubled the price. The world—or our assumptions about a part of the world—can suddenly and simply change.

As a leader, I look for blockbuster ideas. It is a great thing to find an idea that sparks a metamorphosis in a person’s thinking, and it is the same with an organization. When blockbuster ideas are introduced to employees, everyone’s thinking is rearranged. The ideas act like large magnets, attracting everyone to them. Fresh approaches and startling new ways of thinking grab attention. Employees are intrigued, even startled. The ideas spread as others are also tickled by the new approach. Soon people are energized, galvanized, and paying attention.

Importantly, the magnetic quality pulls everyone in the same direction, just as in the wake of a magnet, filings align themselves in an orderly, symmetrical pattern. In organizational terms this alignment is a coveted outcome. When everyone is facing the same direction, the organization is more immediately a team, capable of shared synergy. A common cause can be a powerful thing.

Blockbuster ideas have formed the centerpiece of my tenure in leadership positions. Here are a couple of GSA examples.

Zero Environmental Footprint: Our Pull Metric

Once upon a time, we did not have radar, global positional systems, or other sophisticated navigational technology to steer our way across the high seas. Instead, the captain of a ship relied chiefly on a sextant. He (never a she, I gather) used it to take directional angles from two points: the position of celestial objects and the horizon. Steering a ship was about finding its relationship to the stars and the edge of the world.

To me this is how leaders need to steer their organizations, fixing on points that are part of the large and long view. While it is easy and all too common to get caught up in quarterly earnings and budget cycles, we need to be about steering with vision and targeting a destination point beyond the curve of the earth.

How do we find that point? What sextant can leaders use in our modern world?

Early in my career I was part of a transformation anchored in a single and simple metric. Our goal at Cummins Engine Company was to produce a perfect diesel engine, one of absolute unassailable quality, or to be specific, with no defects. There was a lot of philosophy and technique attached to this program, but the core direction, the magnet that pulled us all, was the goal of a perfect product, produced again and again ... without flaw.

I call that magnet a pull metric. It created a force, a pull for change, by describing a single point on the horizon. Everyone grasped its merit and importance. People cared about it and joined in the effort. Employees stood tall because they were engaged in the effort of producing something extraordinary, repeatedly. Taking each step with the same goal in mind, we figured out how to head toward that point on the horizon together. The work produced results, built an organizational reputation, and spawned an upward spiral of excellence. It also pulled all of the activity of the organization in a specific direction.

As the commonly appreciated and priority value, it had the power to affect the thousands of decisions, processes, routines, and adjustments that occur each day in an organization. People were willing and energized to review and adjust each element in the mix so that it would support the pull metric. If it did not, it was ignored or discarded. In effect, each activity was performed against the reference point of the pull metric. Our activity was reverse-engineered from it.

Specifically, at the Cummins Jamestown Engine Plant in upstate New York, we had to learn not to feed the iconic American assembly line from the front end, line-setting blocks and hoping for the best. It meant moving beyond the chaos that is parodied in the I Love Lucy episode in the chocolate factory. She could not sort and pack fast enough, and soon she was stuffing candy in her pockets and mouth to keep them from cascading off the belt.

We had to solve problems for good instead of kicking them down the assembly line. The “pull” of the customer expecting a perfect engine drove us. We had to throw away old crutches, such as the expensive dependence on racks and racks of inventory for any eventuality. We could not expect engines to make it through production and out the door without assuring that pacing, tools, training, and parts were absolutely synchronized.

Suppliers formally agreed to an uninterrupted flow of quality parts. Engineers reconfigured the assembly line so that parts arrived closer to the assembly workers and in smaller quantities. A team of metal workers set up a workshop to fabricate all kinds of tools, gimmicks, and equipment that would help assembly teams do their jobs with fewer steps and less movement. And more. Much more. The culture and discipline that formed have been further honed and nurtured in that Cummins plant to this day.

The pull metric revolution has been happening across American business for more than four decades. It has inspired a reinvention of processes, rework of the supply chain, re-education and reinvigoration of the workforce, and a shift in the role of leadership. The result has been a performance revolution across America. It has also been transferred as a management concept into government, education and other arenas.

Examples of Other Pull Metrics

I have been collecting examples of pull metrics for some time. All of them have DNA that goes back to the ancestral pull metric, Total Quality Management (TQM) introduced to the United States by W. Edwards Deming. He first helped Japan reboot its industrial base in the 1950s.

Japan eventually demonstrated its new ability to produce products repeatedly at high levels of quality and transformed its reputation on the international economic stage. Its dramatic improvement and performance became a huge gauntlet thrown down to challenge American industry.

Many organizations jumped on the Total Quality bandwagon. Soon, though, other American enterprises adopted pull metrics that were better fitted to their own needs and circumstances.

Alcoa, for example, chose to focus on perfect safety. In some industries such as mining or metal processing where work could be quite dangerous, employees were deeply concerned about safety. Like poor quality, a poor safety record will cost an organization a great deal in resources, time, and reputation. Total safety became another huge magnet for transformation. Organizations would reverse-engineer all of their processes to guarantee that excruciating carefulness was routine. Such attention to detail improved products as well as safety.

Service industries have evolved their own versions of the pull metric. The hotel industry has reinvented processes as well as empowered employees to make decisions on the spot to assure the absolute best customer service.

The Ritz Carlton, for example, adopted as its pull metric a demanding exquisite service standard: “we are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” The Ritz aimed for a “Wow!” from both customers and staff. To get there they changed systems, processes, training, selection, and more.

Enterprise Cars has done an exceptional job of placing its customers truly in the driver’s seat by reverse-engineering its services from that single point and relying on a measure of how much the customer promotes Enterprise to others.

Fewer examples of the pull metric exist in government. While the Total Quality phrase has been embedded in the language of many federal bureaucracies, it has not been used as a powerful transformational tool for changing the entire organization. That is not to say that it cannot happen. Its promise, however, has not been exploited.

Nevertheless, I have been inspired by the snippet of a story I heard from a consultant over a decade ago. It illuminates how a government organization could think in pull metric terms and realize a great deal of improvement as a result. The story was about the Human Resources department within one of the military services when the nation was engaged in the Gulf War. The detail around the story made me think it was a bit of an urban myth, but it makes my point.

The Human Resources group in the story wanted to change to become more effective. They decided to focus on a surprising pull metric: to aim for a perfect bereavement call.This is, of course, the call paid to a family to inform them of the death of a loved one. Difficult and tragic as that duty is, the goal was perfection: no bureaucracy, accurate scheduling, completely clear and sympathetic communications, accurate information, and timely staffing assignments. Viewed through the lens of a pull metric, anyone can see how employees would be motivated by this goal. To achieve it, they would easily support the reverse engineering of processes and become engaged in wringing mistakes out of their system.

I Wanted a Pull Metric at GSA

When I was sworn in at GSA, I knew I wanted a pull metric for GSA, to support the transformation it needed, and additionally position it to help the government transform. I knew the deep and lasting power of the pull metric from my experience at Cummins.

It had been extraordinary to see a system completely transform itself under extreme competitive pressure and with a deeply inspiring vision. It gave me absolute and complete confidence that massive, resource-intensive, highly skilled organizations can turn on a dime with the right leadership and ideas.

I also knew that the pull metric was a godsend because it deals with the vision thing. Organizations do better when employees have a shared vision. It helps if they are aiming for the same point on the horizon.

It is not easy to agree on or crystallize the vision, however. I have sat through too many visioning sessions in organizations not to know that they can wallow in two things: the endless activity of wordsmithing and a conversation that is heartfelt and aspirational but does not connect to useful plans and action. The pull metric is a terrific bridge between the jargon stratosphere and the day-to-day world. It creates a direct line from vision to employee engagement, better performance, improved processes, efficiency and effectiveness, improved partnerships with customers and suppliers, and more. What’s not to like?

No one could be surprised that, with this as my history and experience, I started looking for a pull metric the minute I walked in the door at GSA, but the answer was not immediately obvious. Government is a messy business. GSA was not a linear production line. It was more like a laundry list of activities. How could a pull metric work in such a crosshatched, widespread, apples-and-oranges enterprise?

Furthermore, what particular pull metric would work? Total quality had in some respects run its course. Plenty of people understood its power, but engaging in a total quality metric effort would mean remembering and revisiting GSA’s TQM process that had petered out in the 1990s.

Did perfect safety make any sense? Not much of what we did had the edge of hazard to it. Perhaps in parts of our construction work it might make sense, but safety was not a priority in an organization full of contracting officers.

In the wake of September 11, the government had obsessed about security. Would there be any benefit or value in naming complete security as our pull metric? If we linked it to cyber security, there could be some interesting possibilities for parts of GSA. However, perfect security would not be a pull metric that would inherently engage all people across the organization.

Much of GSA’s work involved providing services. Should we shoulder a pull metric that embraced our customers in the manner of Enterprise Rent-A-Car? Some of our services were practically at the retail level. Our building managers were in constant communication with tenants in response to their needs and questions. But many of our services were so embedded in large contracts (financial services, for example) that the notion of exquisite service became lost in the legal language of the deal. Moreover, it was contractors, not GSA staff, who were in customers’ immediate line of sight.

None of the pull metrics used successfully by others galvanized us. When we considered them for GSA, they were pedestrian ideas, not blockbusters. Fortunately, within weeks of my arrival, our pull metric simply fell into my lap. This is how it happened.

I entered the Administrator’s job as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was unfolding. GSA was already hard at work channeling funds to enhance building performance by installing photovoltaic panels, changing out inefficient windows, replacing lights, mounting better sensors, programming computers to adjust temperatures, and assessing energy usage in buildings.

One intention of this effort was to help support the flailing construction industry. However, another intention was to stimulate job growth, particularly in new green businesses where innovative ideas were being turned into reality. An environmental focus meant innovation.

There were other green activities elsewhere in the organization. We were improving the fleet’s efficiency, creating policies to encourage more environmental choices in purchasing, assessing the energy impact of our own data centers, and more. In these cases, an environmental focus meant efficiencies and costs savings.

Green was a twofer. If GSA worked on environmental and energy projects, we could help the economy by stimulating innovation and creating jobs. We could also reduce waste: wasted energy, wasted fuel, and wasted resources. Green was about innovation and no waste.

It worked. The pull metric could be about environmental impact. Every corner of GSA was either about efficiency (reducing waste/cost) and/or about innovation (helping the government into the future). All we needed to do was to bake this into a single unifying metric.

What environmental metric was right? I briefly entertained a discussion of the kinds of numbers and dates that would be stretch goals. How about reducing our environmental footprint by 40 percent by 2025, for example? Each goal formulation was challenging, but ultimately random.

What sealed my thinking was reminding myself that a pull metric is not a stretch goal. It is the horizon and stars. It is the farthest you can go. It defies possibility in its most extreme. It is about perfection. In our case it had to be zero. The logic unfolded rapidly. GSA would adopt, absolutely and audaciously, a pull metric of Zero Environmental Footprint. We immediately shortened it to ZEF.....