Monday, March 26, 2012

Biographies, Jobs, Apple and Lean


For some reason or other I've been on a bit of a biography kick recently. I read Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood Bones and Butter (great writing, especially in the Blood section), Keith Richards' Life (only read it if you really care about the Stones). I even got to see Harry Belafonte interviewed live by Charlie Rose about his new biography, My Song (don't miss Harry if you ever get the chance). Most recently I closed the cover on Bob Dylan's Chronicles, which has unmatched art and mood.

I also read Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. To be honest, even though I read regularly about Apple, I was wary of this book. It came bearing loads of hype, most of it for obvious reasons. There were many book reviews that focused on the personality of Jobs, especially his potent dickishness (spoiler alert! he is often a monumental asshole!). Then there's the story about his first daughter and Joan Baez and his wacky diets and yada yada yada. I feared the dirt would outnumber the diamonds. Any way I cut it, though, Jobs turned out to be a powerful book.

Steve Jobs is not promoted as a business book. I certainly didn't read it expecting to glean anything that could relate to my company. But it is and I did. (That's one of the reasons the book is so powerful—it's really several books and stories combined in one, written masterfully.)

Jobs was quoted many times as saying he wanted to create a great business, not just a great product. There are a number of examples on how he did that but two really struck me, especially as they relate to some Toyota manufacturing's lean concepts.

The first was about visioning. Under Jobs the Apple leadership team had a long term visioning meeting every Monday. Not just once a decade (what we do at Zingerman's for our ZCoB-wide vision), not once a year (as many individual businesses do at Zingerman's), but once a week. In part this was driven by the industry they were in. Technology moves fast so I guess visions should too. But they weren't talking about what was going to happen in six months or a year. This was a vision meeting for the next ten years, talking about what's way on the horizon. The meeting didn't last for a few minutes. Visioning wasn't just an agenda item where someone talked briefly. It was an entire meeting itself. It could go on for hours. They practiced visioning frequently and regularly—by reducing its batch size and interval. And they turned out machines that were many steps ahead of everyone else with fewer problems. I think the two things are very much related.

The second example was about product development iteration. Jobs had a daily check-in on product development. He visited design director Jony Ive and his team every afternoon to see how things had gone since yesterday. During this visit they didn't look at drawings or images on a computer. They held an object. A prototype of the thing they were designing. The group would play with it, talk about it, make tweaks. Then he'd come back the next day.

Now I've been designing for a long time and am fully cocooned in it. I fully appreciate that this may be one of those things where most folks will say, "Yeah, so?" But I'll just say this kind of shit just does not happen elsewhere, anywhere. A design director might see a new prototype once a month. If it's a fast moving project, maybe once a week. But once a day—no way.

Take in the sheer number of iterations. Let's say the iPhone had 3 years of development. Take away vacations and weekends (which I doubt there were many of) and you've still got around 750 design iterations for the iPhone. I doubt if any of Motorola's phones have a quarter that many. That means Apple gave itself at least 4 times as many chances as Motorola to get things right. It wasn't a coincidence that they made a great phone. Yes, they had talented people and Jobs was a stickler for detail (though to some extent I think it's overstated—every designer I know is a stickler for detail; if they weren't they wouldn't be in the business). But forget Ive and Jobs for a moment. They're not the only thing that made such an amazing device. It wasn't a hero product, one that came down from the Creator on the Mountain. It was a sisyphean labor of iterations, albeit one with better results.

In lean terms, they practiced go see — the idea that you have to stand in front of the real thing to understand problems. They also modified it frequently. To put that in lean speak, they reduced the batch size of design by going to daily iterations, not monthly. In doing so they got a better product with fewer errors. Sound familiar?

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