On Joy, Large Ships, and Swamps
Yesterday, I had a chance to visit Menlo Innovations, a software company in Ann Arbor, MI. I was happy to not only meet their CEO (and my recent podcast guest) Rich Sheridan, but to meet team members and get a small glimpse into this interesting environment.
Their open plan office is in the basement under a parking garage, but it's amazingly full of light and life.
The sign at the elevator:
It seemed like a vibrant, joyful workplace. The room buzzed with activity and discussion (driven by the XP paired-programming approach and other activities. People were working hard, but it reminded me of a Toyota plant or a Lean hospital lab, for example — people were working with a purpose, but nobody seems miserable or overworked. They're working because, well, they want to. They're getting paid, but you can tell when a place is more than a paycheck. When you have a strong sense of alignment, people can find joy in work.
I saw their daily team huddle, which took 13 minutes by Rich's timing. Each team member (or pair of programmers) introduces themselves (helpful for new employees and visitors) and talks about what they are working on or they make general announcements.
We talked about the open floor plan and it reminded me of a story I wrote about where a UAW leader who visited Dell Computer saw ESD protective straps and thought we had “tethered” the employees to their workstations to keep them from walking away. Ah, the power of our mental models and lenses.
Some visitors see the open floor plan and think, “Oh, that's so you can keep an eye on everybody, you're watching everybody.” No, it's so people can collaborate or communicate. This is a positive thing (like ESD straps), but it could be seen as something awful (or the open floor plan COULD be awful in the wrong sort of company culture).
As I walked around with Rich, I didn't get ANY sense that people noticed “Oh no, the CEO is here.” It's a comfortable team environment. Rich is very tall (about 6 foot 6 inches) with a deep voice. He has the perfect look to be an old school, scary, intimidating GM factory leader like I used to work with… but thankfully he seems to be the complete opposite of that – the smiling gives him away as a better type of leader.
I had some chats with people about healthcare, when they asked what I do. The metro Detroit area has some very large health systems and one person commented that a certain healthcare organization “didn't seem Lean at all.”
I said, “Well, there are probably pockets of Lean excellence, but it's a really big ship to try to turn.”
His response made me stop and think — “It's even harder to turn a swamp.”