If you saw a toothpick on the floor, what would you do?
This seemingly innocuous question was posed to Subir Chowdhury by one of his longtime clients, and ultimately lead him to a profound realization: good enough is not enough. The best processes in the world won't work without developing the kind of mindset — a caring mindset — that is needed to achieve real and sustainable change in both organizations and individuals.
In his compelling new book, bestselling author and globally recognized management consultant Subir Chowdhury tackles an issue that has haunted him in his work with many of the world’s largest organizations. Why is it that some improve only incrementally, while others improve 50 times that? The ideas and training are exactly the same. What is the difference?
The difference, Chowdhury explains, is the ability to nurture the skills, loyalty and passion of the people who make up an organization. It is a culture built on straightforwardness, thoughtfulness, accountability and resolve. Organizations and individuals that embrace all of these “STAR” attributes—not just one or two of them—will shine. He goes further, showing us why having a caring mindset outside of work is integral to both personal and professional success.
A powerful guide to living a successful life and career, The Difference will inspire you to be the difference — at work or home.
|Publisher:||Crown Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Subir Chowdhury is one of the world’s leading management thinkers and consultants, who works with Fortune 500 companies to improve their processes, operations, quality and performance. His clients saved billions of dollars by deploying process improvement methodologies. He is the bestselling author of The Power of Six Sigma, and The Ice Cream Maker. Chowdhury lives in Los Angeles.
Read an Excerpt
What a Toothpick Can Teach Us About Caring
You can change your mindset.
—Carol S. Dweck, author of Mindset
Subir,” a senior executive in the manufacturing industry asked me, “What do you do with a toothpick when you are done with it?” I looked back at him with puzzlement on my face. Was this a serious question?
I’ve overcome plenty of tough challenges in my life—as a child growing up in Bangladesh, I never dreamed that I would enjoy the life I’ve lived. After moving thousands of miles away to start a new life in the United States, I faced one obstacle after another—a foreign culture, a new social life, a demanding job—but I embraced my new home and became a citizen. Today, as one of the world’s most recognized experts on organizational strategy and corporate quality, I’ve helped some of the world’s best-known brands improve their processes, save billions of dollars, and increase their profits and revenues. I’ve worked with all kinds of organizations: profit, nonprofit, healthcare, government, manufacturing—large and small. You would think after doing what I’ve been doing for more than twenty years, I could figure out the answer to a perplexing problem that I noticed in my consulting work: why two companies of roughly the same size from the same industry—both of which have implemented exactly the same processes with the help of my team—have met with drastically different results. It didn’t make sense to me: one company achieved a return of 5 times their investment—adequate, to me, but hardly spectacular—while the other saw a return of 100 times their investment. I was determined to figure out the difference.
It was a nightmare morning. I was up at five thirty to make my appointment. It was snowing the kind of heavy, wet Michigan snow that piles up quickly. Traffic was painfully slow. Several drivers had slid off the road. I feared I would be late for the first of three meetings I had scheduled that day. But I kept inching forward and arrived, just in time, for my first meeting with Mark, an executive vice president in a major Fortune 500 manufacturing company.
I want to share several remarkable events that occurred on that day, events that helped me discover why one company achieved incremental improvement while the other was radically transformed. But first I would like to make two important points. One, while the events that I describe in this chapter happened in a manufacturing company, they could have happened in almost any organization.
Second, the company had hired me to help them with problems with quality. But it might just as easily have involved any attempt at changing the status quo: improving customer service, fostering diversity, retaining talents, improving revenues, cutting operating expenses, increasing profits. And although the other people I met that day were mostly senior executives, and people who report to them, they might just as well have been line managers, supervisors, or workers on the manufacturing floor. The lessons are universal.
I had experienced an anxious two and a half hours on the road, the kind of thing that can knock anyone a bit off center. I knew I needed to focus on the task in front of me—on the person who hired me to help solve critical problems at their company—rather than on my own lingering anxiety. When Mark and I met in his office that morning, he lowered his head, as if he were in pain. I knew something was bothering him deeply. It seemed pretty obvious to me that he was having a worse day than I was.
“Is everything okay?” I asked. “I know I got off to a bad start this morning. I was worried I might be late, and you know how I hate being late. But you look particularly concerned. What’s going on?”
He replied, “I am worried. Very worried.”
A J.D. Power Quality Report had been released the day before. The company had been rated “poor” for initial quality. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or quality consultant—to know that this is not good news for a company. When disheartening results like that are received, sometimes the first thing the CEO does is fire whoever is in charge of quality. In this case, that was Mark.
“Is your boss upset with you?” I asked. “Do you want me to talk with him? Those results have nothing to do with you. The issues you are dealing with are everyone’s responsibility—not yours alone.”
It was at that moment that he looked at me and asked, “Subir, what do you do with a toothpick when you are done with it?”
“What do you mean? What kind of question is that?” I asked, confused and a little alarmed. It was not a question I had ever been asked before. Mark was normally a straight shooter. I was so surprised by the question that I did not immediately grasp the significance of the toothpick.
Finally I told him, “I throw it in the trash.”
“Exactly. I do the same thing. I asked my assistant what she would do, and she said the same thing. I asked five of my colleagues, and they responded the same way. That’s what they would do. But I was here this morning, meeting my boss at six thirty despite the winter storm. I knew he was upset because of yesterday’s J.D. Power results. And as I was walking to his office, I noticed a used toothpick on the floor. Someone had tossed it on the floor instead of in a wastebasket! And it bothered me so much because I felt . . .” At this point his voice broke a little. “I felt I had done everything I could to communicate the need for quality in everything we do here. I’ve been championing quality throughout the company—and then I find a used toothpick discarded thoughtlessly on the floor. Subir, it is indicative of a much larger issue. If an employee doesn’t care enough to throw a used toothpick in the trash, but instead drops it mindlessly on the floor the way a selfish motorist tosses litter out the window on the highway . . .”
His voice trailed off. The look on his face was hard to read. “This is where we work. Normally the only people going into the executive suite are executives. But it doesn’t matter whether the person who did this is an executive or not. The point is that someone in our company did this. Now I know why our quality sucks. It is because some of the people here just don’t care. If they don’t care enough about something as basic as throwing away their trash properly, it’s clear why there is so little accountability in our operations or production or sales.”
“What did you do when you found it?” I asked.
Incredulous that I would even ask, he said, “I picked it up and threw it away.” And that was part of his point. No one was above such basic responsibility, even the senior management and the CEO.
I agreed of course that the toothpick was emblematic of a much deeper problem within the company. As is often the case with management issues, the smallest signs can be indicative of more systemic issues. The toothpick episode reminded me of what Jan Carlzon, the CEO of SAS Airline Group at the time, is rumored to have said about passengers who find their seat trays dirty. They wonder if the airline is ignoring other parts of the business, including pilot training and engine maintenance. Dirty trays, he said, meant the airline was settling for good enough.
After our talk, Mark and I went to a group meeting to discuss the J.D. Power quality rating results and other issues. Because of my long-standing relationship with the organization, they included me in the meeting. The CEO had made it clear that he wanted all functional departments and levels of the organization to share their ideas openly. The meeting included both engineers and senior management, including the COO. The COO asked Mark to talk about why they did so poorly on the J.D. Power Quality Report.
You could hear a pin drop in the room. Several people, especially the engineers, knew what the real issues were—machinery that needed upgrades, a workforce that hadn’t been trained to make quality their top priority, buggy software, unreliable suppliers—but no one spoke.
The COO, remaining composed, listened intently. He encouraged the people around the table to speak up. The problems Mark raised, he said, belonged to every member in the room—they were everyone’s business. He told them they must help one another, even if a problem affected someone else’s group or department.