As we were developing our website to pay off: “Elegant Prescriptions for Leading Performance”, I stumbled upon Matthew E May and his book The Elegant Solution, and went on to read his two “Change This” manifestos:
Elegant Solutions: Breakthrough Thinking the Toyota Way and Mind of the Innovator. I was struck with Matt’s insight and unique perspective on Toyota’s ability to continually innovate and produce elegant solutions. I was instantly a fan…
Matt wrote a blog to usher in 2009 that has stuck with me since I read it a few weeks ago–so much so– I would like to share it: “2009: Don’t Just Do Something.” It flips on its ear how we often approach problems and life: …always looking for what to do, rather than what to not do.
He recounts a story told by business guru Jim Collins (of bestselling Good To Great fame). It was called “Best New Year’s Resolution? A ‘Stop Doing’ List.”
Collins told the story of how, in the throes of his early post-Stanford Business School career at Hewlett-Packard, his favorite former professor redressed him for a lack of discipline over a busy yet unfocused life. Her words rang true: at the time, Jim was aggressively chasing his carefully-set stretch goals for the year, confident in his ability to accomplish them. Still, his life was crowded with the commotion of a fast-tracking career. Her comment made him pull up short and re-examine what he was doing. To help, she did what great teachers do, constructing a lesson in the form of an assignment she called “20-10″: Imagine that you’ve just inherited $20 million free and clear, but you only have 10 years to live. What would you do differently-and specifically, what would you stop doing?
The exercise did exactly what it was intended to do-make Jim stop and think about what was important to him. It was a turning point, for three reasons: First, he realized he’d been racing down the wrong track spending enormous energy on the wrong things. Second, the assignment became a constant reminder of just how important and precious his time is. He now starts each year by choosing what not to do, and each of his to do lists always includes “stop doing” items. Third, the strategy helped him identify what factors led the companies he was studying to become “great” while others remained merely “good”. The great companies routinely eliminated activities and pursuits that did not significantly contribute to the following criteria: profit, passion, and perfection. Profit meant engaging in only the activities that would result in value for both the company and the customer. Passion meant having a sense of noble purpose beyond just making money. And perfection meant focusing on flawlessly executing each task in such a way as to make the competition irrelevant. All three criteria had to be met in order for any activity to remain in these great companies’ repertoires.
For Matthew May, this was a thunderbolt of insight:
“A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit–to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort–that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company, or most important of all, a life.”
“As soon as I shifted my perspective, the vaunted Toyota Production System became for me a study of what wasn’t there, and of how and what to stop doing. The Lexus line of cars, which had by then become America’s leading luxury nameplate, was suddenly a shining example of eliminating anything that lacked passion and perfection. The singular thought that what isn’t there can often be as or more powerful than what is presented me with a completely different view of the world.”
How often do we all look at the problem or the opportunity taking a natural and intuitive approach: looking at what to do, rather than what to not do?