In the early 90’s I worked for a national computer services company that had a problem we needed to solve. Our usual approach would have been to pull together some of the honchos to develop a plan and then get the front-line employees to make it happen. This time we went a radically different direction, we decided to try to change the culture using an experiment we called MASH which stood for Making Alternative Solutions Happen. Here’s the story.
The beginning of the story was passed on to me from others since I was on vacation, but apparently it began with our largest customer sharing some serious complaints about our service. And when the honchos from our three major functional units attempted to go into emergency mode, they ran into scheduling problems. The delay in getting together to talk about the problem became the new problem. Having your biggest customer mad at you is bad. Not being able to get together to talk about your biggest customer being mad at you is worse.
Upon my return from vacation, my boss told me to pack my cube because we were moving to the other building. Can’t say I was crazy about the idea because this move would add 10-15 minutes to my commute. Also, I was moving from the headquarters building out to what I thought of as our support building. It seemed like I was moving away from where the action was, and that didn’t strike me as a good career move. Little did I know how wrong I would be.
On the day of the move, I arrived at our new location and could immediately see I was in for something different. Instead of the usual sea of cubes, I saw a large room with a big open space in the middle. In that space were several conference tables. The space was surrounded by cube pods each containing 4 work spaces without walls. Not only was I losing privacy and space, I was mixed in with people from the other functions who I didn’t know. The most interesting thing I noticed was that while there were some private offices beyond the cubes, they were empty. The honchos would be sitting in the pods.
While I wasn’t crazy about the physical layout, my interest and excitement ramped up quickly when I heard the vision for what we were trying to accomplish with this experiment. We were taking people who normally worked independently in pursuit of their own goals and putting them together to work on common goals. We were going to win together or lose together. We were no longer going to point fingers and blame others for problems. As the co-leaders responsible for MASH introduced their ideas, we all had a chance to start making the room our own.
Over time, the key operating principles began to emerge.
- We were all going to focus on just three key metrics, those most important to our customer and those related to the health of the business.
- We were all going to play an equal role in taking great care of this customer, symbolized by everyone sharing the same (extremely small) work spaces.
- The room was equipped with two stop lights. If anyone saw a serious problem they were told they had the power to change the light and call a “Red light meeting.” We were making problems extremely visible.
- Meetings were going to be held in the center of the room, where even those not in the meeting could easily overhear the conversation. Secrecy was out. Candor and transparency were in.
- We would all meet every Friday morning to report progress and problems. It would also be a time to celebrate our successes together. And if customers were visiting, we would let them see this meeting, even if we had warts to expose.
I remember feeling proud to be part of this new group and this new way of doing business. It was fresh and exciting. We had some big wins around process and service. A reporter stopped by to hear the story. We also had plenty of challenges, some of which we just couldn’t solve.
MASH wasn’t some sort of organizational nirvana, but it was very different. And that was the point, doing something different to generate different results. Sometimes incremental changes just aren’t going to cut it. You need to get people’s attention. Interestingly after about a year, it all started feeling normal and routine. It had become the new business as usual. Maybe another change was in order. It was for me, as I moved to another job within the company.
What constraints are keeping your organization stuck in place? How might you do something radically different to break free and create a new set of results? The only limits we have are the ones we have put on ourselves. Maybe it’s time to release ourselves from those limitations and try a new approach.
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