Simply Better

Strategy Facilitation

I guide teams through the Roger Martin play-to-win cascade of strategic choices.

Innovation Coaching

I help business teams turn design thinking ideas into elegant solutions.

Lean Training

I teach the authentic Toyota lean thinking principles of continuous innovation.

sessions

Strategy

Strategy

What is strategy? The best definition on the planet is the one given by mentor Roger Martin: strategy is an integrated cascade of five critical choices, at the heart of which are two key questions: Where will we play? and How will we win?

Strategy sessions produce the answers.

Ideation

Ideation

Winning ideas are rare. Asking people to "be creative" won't produce them. Neither will unfocused brainstorming. You need a sound method designed to let people see things in new ways, and break free from old thinking patterns.

Design thinking ideation does just that.

Experimentation

Experimentation

Even the best idea is just a guess, an hypothesis, to be quickly prototyped and tested through simple, frugal experiments that yield proof of concept and foster an ethos of lab-like curiosity.

Rapid experimentation sessions turn creativity into creation.

Lean

Lean

Lean is a method for banishing waste and radically simplifying your most valuable systems and processes. Built on tenets of the Toyota Production System, lean demands continuous innovation.

Lean sessions deliver an authentic Toyota experience.

books

Speaking

Strategizing To Win

Strategizing To Win

This keynote draws on my close study of strategy under the mentorship of Roger Martin, as well as my daily facilitation work. I deliver three key insights, a clear framework for making strategic choices, and a process for developing strategy that is simple, fun, and effective.

The Laws of Subtraction

The Laws of Subtraction

This keynote draws upon my book The Laws of Subtraction. I outline six simple rules for standing out and staying relevant, built on a single yet powerful idea: When you remove just the right things in just the right way, something good happens.

Mind of the Innovator

Mind of the Innovator

In this provocative and interactive session based on a chapter from my book In Pursuit of Elegance, I reveal the obstacles to innovative thinking, then illustrate how to neutralize them with the powerful creative method used by the world's best innovators.

Innovation Zen

Innovation Zen

This talk draws from my success in applying wisdom gleaned from nearly a decade of working with Toyota, as found in my books The Elegant Solution and The Shibumi Strategy. I offer the ten key practices critical for fostering a culture of continuous innovation.

Articles

The Gremlin Strategy, or How to Ward Off Disruption

It takes a special kind of person to be inspired by a mandate riddled with risk and having little margin for error, such as the one issued in the early 1990s by NASA to its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California: “Take risks but don’t fail.”

Such a person is Brian Muirhead, who at age 41 in 1993 accepted the job as flight systems manager of the Mars Pathfinder project and with it the NASA challenge to land a cutting-edge, remote-controlled robotic all-terrain rover on Mars that would reliably beam back images, collect samples, and return scientific data on the red planet.

The only catch: he was given just three years and $150 million to do it. The immediately preceding Mars Observer, which carried a $1 billion price tag and had taken 10 years, had just been lost in space, an embarrassing failure for the U.S. space program. No one in his or her right mind would want to manage the next Mars project, if indeed there was one.

Brian is a quiet, cerebral, and unassuming rocket scientist. Now chief engineer at JPL, he has a significantly bigger title, significantly less hair, and significantly more white in his beard than when I first met him, undoubtedly as a result of his almost 35 years of intense involvement with high-profile missions in pursuit of JPL’s mission to push the outer edge of space exploration.

Brian was a frequent visitor to Toyota’s Los Angeles campus during my tenure there as an advisor from 1999–2006. After reading his 1999 book High Velocity Leadership, we invited Brian to guest speak about the Mars Pathfinder project, and he soon he became a regular fixture in the University of Toyota’s “lean” leadership curriculum. Through the sessions I became quite familiar with Brian and his saga.

One of my all-time favorite stories is the one he told about the Pathfinder team’s approach to a “don’t fail” strategy. Brian would begin his story with how he was personally disrupted, in fact blindsided, by, of all things, one of his daughter’s kindergarten projects. The teacher gave the class an assignment right up Brian’s alley: design a package that would protect a raw egg from being dropped off the school roof. It was an annual event, affectionately referred to as the Great Egg-Drop Challenge.

It was right up Brian’s alley for two reasons: not only is he an expert on momentum, but the radical solution enabling the successful landing of the rover on Mars on July 4, 1994 addressed essentially the same problem. (If you don’t know, they used large airbags to “bounce” the rover on the surface of Mars, because the sparse budget precluded a rocket-powered solution.)

Brian had an answer in a snap, and coached his daughter in a rather conspiratorial way in order for her to arrive at the same solution, which involved a milk carton stuffed with newspaper.

Together they cut up newspaper, wadded it in the carton, put the uncooked egg in a plastic bag and set it on top of the loose packing. They tested it several times of their home’s high balcony to find just the right amount of padding to allow the egg to land untracked.

The whole school gathered for the event. But it was not the teacher who did the testing. It was the school principal, who tested the designs not by dropping them straight down, but by throwing them in what Brian described as a “big, high, looping arc.” Get the visual?

Needless to say, Brian’s daughter’s egg was crushed, as was his daughter’s morale. Brian himself was devastated: here he was building a spacecraft to travel 300 million miles to land safely on another planet and he couldn’t even help his daughter design a landing device to protect an egg.

Call it assuming, call it blindspots, call it oversight, call it taking unknown forces for granted. Brian realized a valuable lesson from the kindergarten experience, and applied it to the Pathfinder project: inevitable, unforeseen and disruptive forces could be the ruin of the project, so there had to be a way to mitigate their potential impact.

Enter what I call the “Gremlin” strategy.

Now, in space projects like the Pathfinder mission, it’s the job of someone called the fault protection engineer to look at possible failures of the spacecraft, understand how to recognize them, how the spacecraft would react, and what the consequences might be. But the focus of the job is on “what is true now,” rather than “what must be true” for things to go as planned.

Interestingly, the Pathfinder team had just lost their fault systems engineer, so Brian asked another team member to fill the spot. His name was Dave Gruel, but he eventually was nicknamed “Cruel Gruel,” because he was the ultimate Gremlin.

The term “Gremlin” was popularized during World War II, and referred to an imaginary creature that creates problems in normally reliable hardware.

With the kindergarten experience fresh in his memory, Brian tasked Dave with duties beyond fault protection: he asked him dream up all sorts of challenges to throw at the team. It turned out that Dave Gruel had a real flair for the role, and spent his days and nights devising ways to disrupt the project. The tests were, as Brian told it, “cruel and almost pathological.” Dave “the Gremlin” Gruel regularly ruffled the feathers of engineers and controllers alike, by coming in at night while the team tucked in bed and monkeying with the rover or booby-trapping supporting equipment. Cruel Dave Gruel had an uncanny and rather Machiavellian ability to conjure up the most surprising ways to take the team by surprise.

For example, in the final preparation phase utilizing a sandy, rocky, imitation-Mars environment, the team was to test the ability of the rover to drive off the lander ramps onto the surface of Mars. There were two ramps, one in front and one in back of the landing module. From the control room, which utilized stereo 3D-view cameras to monitor the testing area, everything looked good, and the team was all set to drive the rover down the front ramp.

Brian urged them to be cautious, to think things well through, and to make sure they were making the right move. His words of warning went unheeded, though…the team was certain they had analyzed the situation thoroughly, and were ready to roll.

Except…the Gremlin had come in during the night.

As Brian tells it High Velocity Leadership:

They were certain but entirely wrong. Cruel Dave Gruel had created a monster of a challenge — building a mound of sand in front of the lander, and creating a pit behind it. The rover team recognized the real danger of driving off the front ramp, leaving the rover to negotiate down a quite steep sandy hill on which it would have little traction. That meant they had to use the rear ramp. Because of the pit Dave had created, tho stamp was sitting at an extreme angle, but at least the rover’s unique metal wheels were designed to give good traction on the ramp.

We would later discover that the software program created to determine the steepness of the ramps had an error in it, and was giving the rover people incorrect data, making them think the angle was within safe parameters — shallow enough an incline for the rover to use.

Running a couple of available calibration checks had shown something wasn’t right. Yet the attitude of some of the rover people, so cocky, so certain of their judgment, kept them from stepping back and questioning their decision.

I see this attitude all the time in my role as a strategy advisor.

In the end, the Gremlin strategy was extremely effective in enabling the Pathfinder team to learn how to ferret out and deal with uncertainties in a way that positively neutralized disruptive forces. It allowed the team to build robustness, speed, and flexibility into their implementation.

The application to business should be clear. If you have a successful business, the chances are very good that somewhere someone or someones are dreaming up strategies that may just throw you for a loop.

So why not beat them to the punch?

Take a page from the Mars Pathfinder story and set up a Gremlin group in your company. Charge them with putting you out of business in new and innovative ways. The goal is not to break or undo anything that’s working well, it’s come at the business problem you’re trying to solve from an entirely different perspective. Done right, it will not only ward off disruption, it will do more to build innovation capability into your organization than any highfalutin innovation program some big name firm sold you on. Mars Pathfinder didn’t need such a program, and neither do you.

I recently worked with one company to set up a Gremlin group, and it has resulted in some brilliant strategies…ideas I doubt would have ever materialized otherwise. We rotate people through the Gremlin group, and it’s become a highly sought after assignment, even a badge of honor. It’s a great place for recent hires, after they familiarize themselves with the company but before they stop asking, “why do we do it that way?” And on an ongoing basis it’s a great place for the “lunatic fringe” ranks of the company to flourish.

What’s amazing to me is the level of passion, verve and vigor I see inside the Gremlin teams. The level of engagement is a full click above their engagement in their “real job.” I’m not quite sure I can draw an intelligent or meaningful conclusion about corporate cultures from this, because I simply don’t have enough evidence. But the early indications are that this may be a wonderful new wrinkle to the trend toward internal innovation and startup mechanisms like incubators and accelerators, which have replaced the older “skunkworks” approaches.

It certainly worked for the Pathfinder team: a successful template for innovation resulted, and the entire project from concept to touchdown was completed in 44 months, less than half the time of the previous Viking mission to Mars, using only 300 team members, versus the over 2000 assigned to the previous mission. And, they did it for less than it cost to produce the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster “Titanic.”

As for Brian Muirhead, an individual fond of dramatic destinations, I have no doubt that he’s hard at work on his favorite answer to the “what’s next?” question he was often asked: “I’m working on a project that will attempt to land a spacecraft on an active comet and analyze it.”

So, if the word “disruption” is being uttered in the halls of your company (as it seems to be almost every firm I visit), gather ye Gremlins, and go to work!

(Warning: brave heart, strong will, and intestinal fortitude required!)

Toyota Needs A Strategist

No, this is not an opinion piece or in any way a critique. It’s more like a public service announcement for business professionals in the job market, looking for a strategy position with market leader.

Like most regular users of LinkedIn, I constantly get pushed notices about “Jobs I Might Be Interested In.” Even though I’m not looking for a job, I do find these notices interesting. Sometimes they’re even insightful, from the perspective of giving me a look at how companies are thinking about strategy. The words they use to describe roles and responsibilities tell me a lot about whether a particular organization “gets” strategy.

Which is the exactly the case with a notice I received about Toyota needing a “Senior Foresight & Innovation Strategist.

Read More

Boot Your Root (Cause)

Process improvers the world over rally around root cause analysis as if it were the Holy Grail of all things organizational. But is it?

Understanding the root cause of a problem certainly makes sense in the context of a present day situation carrying the potential for a correct answer or solution. In the process improvement world, problems center on reducing some form of excess, which comes in several traditional flavors…all of which center on something not working as well as it should be in a perfect world.

But the one critical place in business where root cause analysis has no real place is in strategy formulation.

Read More

Do Your Internal Functions Have A Strategy?

A significant portion of my strategic facilitation work is with internal functions, a click or two below corporate and business unit strategy: marketing, human resources, purchasing, and even internal strategy groups.

There is good news and bad news in this. The good news is that internal functions have recognized the need to be strategic, even if it is because higher level strategies demand supporting strategies. The bad news is how many internal functions don’t think strategy applies to them.

When I ask internal functions to show me what guides their department’s work, I’m more often than not handed a plan, which is a budget in disguise. It is rarely explicit in laying out a winning aspiration and clear where-to-play and how-to-win choices.

Read More

What Appears To Be Strategy…Isn’t

I regularly engage in hansei (reflection) after each of my facilitation engagements. It’s a simple learning mechanism, essentially an after-action process of asking: what I expected to happen (my hypothesis if you will), what actually happened, and what explains the gap, if there is one. And there invariably is. The gap is where learning and insight live. It creates new knowledge. It’s how I improve. I know no other more effective way.

I do what I call a “rollup” of those individual after-action reflections a few times each year, to identify important patterns. Peter Drucker called this the “Feedback Analysis.” I do what he suggested, which is to layer my reflections with input from others…clients, session participants, etc. I’ve experienced exactly what Drucker did when he wrote, “I have been doing this for some fifteen to twenty years now. And every time I do it, I am surprised. And so is everyone who has ever done this.”

My most recent insight runs along the lines of:

  • What appears to be the problem, isn’t.
  • What appears to be the solution, isn’t.
  • And what appears to be strategy, isn’t.
Read More

The Art of Strategic Observation

I am nothing if not a consumerist. Meaning, I am constantly impressing upon companies I work with to make sure they have a deep and empathic understanding of their customers…past, present, and future, especially if they are contemplating a strategic shift that entails repositioning or refocusing their efforts to target new and different segments.

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"I would not give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity."

OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES JR.

milestones

Winning Strategies
Elegant Innovations
Lean Improvements

me

I coach companies on matters of strategy, innovation, and lean. I’ve been at it for over 25 years, nearly a third of which were spent as a fully-retained creative advisor to Toyota, an experience which culminated in my first book. I now have four, and I’m working on my fifth. Meantime, I write and speak widely to audiences interested in rethinking their businesses.

Winning The New Yorker cartoon caption contest is my favorite achievement.

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May

Author
50%
Speaker
75%
Coach
100%

Longer Story

I was the only member of the Wharton Graduate School of Business’ graduating class of 1985 to decline lucrative investment banking, management consulting, and corporate strategy job offers in favor of starting my own educational consulting company.

Crazy, right?!

As a solopreneur, I worked for the next thirteen years, first in New York City and then Los Angeles, for companies looking to build effective performance improvement programs and initiatives: companies like Lehman Brothers, Pfizer, J.D. Power & Associates, Sandy Corporation, Maritz Performance Improvement, Nissan Motor Corporation, Infiniti, Harley Davidson, Mitsubishi, and Hyundai Motor America.

Then in 1998…

…I met Toyota. Specifically, the University of Toyota, one of Toyota’s seven “New Era” strategies designed to accommodate the unprecedented global growth the company was experiencing, charged with keeping sacrosanct the principles, tenets, and practices of “the Toyota way.” From an initial project involving the design and facilitation of the new organization’s first strategic offsite, my involvement grew to a full-time engagement, a journey of over eight years, during which I gained mastery of kaizen (continuous innovation) and kaikaku (radical change). During my last two years with Toyota, I led the University of Toyota’s external Lean Thinking program, which taught other organizations Toyota’s winning ways, and caught the eye of The Wall Street Journal.

My partnership lasted until 2006, when I decided to take the show on the road. I took what I had learned from my Toyota experience and published my first book, The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation. Thanks to Simon & Schuster, it was a 2006 Wall Street Journal bestseller and the recipient of the Shingo Prize for Excellence.

Cool beans!

At the heart of my worldview is the concept of elegance, which I think of as a 3-word mantra: less is best. Elegance is the special breed of simplicity that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. referred to when he wrote, “I would not give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side complexity.” It’s the ability to achieve the maximum effect through minimum means.

And it ain’t easy.

It took me a while to “get it,” and I almost gave up. I wrote about the turning point in the Preoccupations column of the Sunday edition of The New York Times in an article entitled The Art of Adding By Taking Away

I’m still chasing elegance.

Thank you, Toyota, for rewiring my brain.

 

EDUCATION

I hold an MBA in Organizational Design and Marketing from The Wharton School (1985) and a BA from Johns Hopkins University (1981). I received my training in design thinking from The Stanford d school (2010).

Writing & Media

WRITING

I’ve published four books:

THE ELEGANT SOLUTION: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation (Free Press, ©2006). Wall Street Journal bestseller. Winner, Shingo Prize for Research.

IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing (Crown Business  ©2009, 2010). Named to 2009 BusinessWeek Best Books in Design and Innovation list.

THE SHIBUMI STRATEGY: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change (Jossey-Bass,  ©2011). Gold medal winner, Axiom Award for Best Business Fable.

THE LAWS OF SUBTRACTION: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything (McGraw-Hill, ©2013). 800CEORead bestseller.

I’m a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review blogs, Fast Company Design, ChangeThis.com, Strategy+Business, AMEX OPEN Forum, and University of Toronto’s The Rotman Magazine.

There are dozens of other contributions out there, and you can view my writing portfolio on the very cool site CONTENTLY.

MEDIA

In addition to my editorial contributions, my work has been featured or mentioned in Harvard Business Review, The Globe & MailThe New Yorker, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, LDRLB, Fortune, USA Today, 99U, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, The Dallas News, Time, Forbes, INC magazine, Fast Company, Wharton Leadership Digest, CIO Insight, American Enterprise Institute, The Miami Herald, and The Los Angeles Times.

I have appeared on numerous radio shows, television, and online shows, including MSNBC, NPR, CNBC, and ESPN.

Speaking

SpeakerMedley

I don’t fancy myself a “motivational speaker” or “business guru,” but rather a practitioner of business strategy, innovation, and lean thinking with powerful lessons learned and war stories to tell from years in the trenches with companies ranging from small startups to companies as large and multinational as Toyota.

I try to blend my frontline experience as a creative catalyst and innovation strategist with case studies and stories I’ve researched and written about in books and articles, in order to deliver useful concepts with immediate application.

I aim to achieve four things in every address:

  1. 1. inspire new thinking
  2. 2. share a unique perspective
  3. 3. tell compelling stories
  4. 4. deliver practical takeaways

 

I am exclusively represented by Katrina Smith, President of Keynote Speakers, Inc., headquartered in San Francisco.

New Yorker Contest

NewYorkerCartoon

March 2008

reviews

CONTACT