Joseph Paris on State of Readiness: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris 

Joseph F. Paris Jr. is a thought leader on the subject of operational excellence, a prolific writer, and a sought-after speaker around the world. Although he is an expert in the more granular facets of the discipline, he places a special emphasis on the keystone for success: the engagement of people.

His vehicles for change and delivering the promises of operational excellence include the following:

o The XONITEK group of companies, a consultancy helping companies around the globe

o The Operational Excellence Society, a think tank serving the operational excellence ecosystem

o The Operational Excellence LinkedIn group

Paris currently serves on:

o the Advisory Board of the Systems Science and Industrial Engineering (SSIE) Department in the Watson School of Engineering at Binghamton University

o the Advisory Board of the Department of Industrial Engineering & Management and the RV College of Engineering (Bangalore, India) 

o the Editorial Board of the Lean Management Journal

o the Advisory Boards of the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE) Industry Advisory Board and the New York Chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG).  And he was previously an Adjunct Professor at Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management.

His book, State of Readiness: Operational Excellence as Precursor to Becoming a High-Performance Organization, was published by the Greenleaf Book Group Press (May 2017)

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Before discussing State of Readiness, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

There are countless people who made an indelible and positive impact on my personal growth.  I was fortunate to have had many superb teachers in grade-school and my experience in the Boy Scouts of America also significantly formed who I am today.  But without a doubt, the person who had the greatest impact on my personal growth was my father.  He instilled in me a very strong work ethic with the main lesson being that I am not entitled to anything in life.  If I want it, I have to earn it.  He also helped me to grow my leadership and decision-making skills.  If my friends and I were just sitting around and could not decide what to do, I was usually the one who made the decision and got the ball rolling.

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

The single person who made the greatest impact on my professional development was Francis “Pogo” Paolangeli.  He owns a construction business that specialized in heavy excavation and masonry in Ithaca, New York.  He is a very intimidating man who expects people to keep their commitments.  But, if you do, he is very generous with his time.  Businesswise, he never gave me anything that I did not earn, but he was an invaluable mentor to me.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

I started my business in 1985.  It was not so much an epiphany as it was a necessity.  At the time and where I lived in Binghamton, New York, the job market was very tight.  I did not have enough of a nest-egg to seek work elsewhere (plus, I didn’t know much about the ways of the world).  But starting a small business from my bedroom in my parent’s house was low-risk.  Over the course of time, my business never “popped”, it grew slowly but steadily.  It has gone through several transformations over the decades; starting off as an assembler of IBM-PC “clones”, then evolving into a systems integrator, followed by consultancy specializing in the sale and implementation of Enterprise Requirements Planning (ERP) systems, then to Industrial and Systems Engineering, until today, helping companies become high-performance organizations by building their own capacity and capabilities across their business smokestacks so that they achieve a level of operational excellence.

One thing I did recognize early, perhaps it was instinct more than anything else, was that; first the offerings become commoditized and then the services become commoditized – a red ocean.  I was always able to see this and knew I had to evolve my business into something new – something where the ocean was more blue.  To paraphrase Jack Welch, “If you are not #1 or #2, you need to grow or go.”

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Geeze, that’s a tough one.  I have had a regular job since I was 13 and working at a nursery for plants – and I have never been without a job since.  I started my first business around the same time (buying candies in bulk and selling them at a stand in the neighborhood with Cool-Aid).  From then I delivered newspapers, was a dishwasher, short-order cook, flipped burgers, worked retail.  All along the way, I learned.  So, when I started my business, there is nothing that stands-out that I didn’t know – but there were certainly a lot of things I didn’t know (and still don’t). 

I guess, the one big thing that I have learned is; in the beginning, you think you know a lot more than you do – and as time passes, you realize you know less and less.  But at the same time, you are actually learning more and more.

Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

I don’t like to be cliché, but I believe one of the best business films of all time is The Godfather series.  Certainly, I don’t advocate violence as a means to an end in the business world, but you have to look through the violence to see the real dynamics of what is occurring.

From the very beginning, Don Vito Corleone sets his “True North” as being the guardian of the family.  I map that to a business person knowing the importance of knowing what is important.  He stays true to this throughout his life.  Early on, he has a small cadre of people he trusts and upon whom he counts on for that trust.  In turn, they know they can count on the Don for his protection and support.  The Don’s partnerships and alliances with outsiders of the family come and go over time as mutual interests appear and fade.  But the Don never waivers from his “True North”.  

Most important for the Don’s success, though, is his ability to see the nuanced relationships and motivations that exist and to see beyond the immediate and obvious to the that which is hidden from view.  In reality, the Don’s success is found in his empathy – his ability to put himself in other’s shoes and discover what truly motivates them and why.  In understanding this, he always has the advantage.

But, with the passing of Don Vito, the leadership of the business is passed to his son, Michael, a person to whom Don Vito didn’t want to pass the business and Michael didn’t want to have.  But the circumstance of life made this the case. 

The big difference between Don Vito and Michael is that Michael tried to hold on too tight.  He was uncompromising and any deal that was done was win/lose not win/win – and Michael had to win, always.  As such, Michael ends-up eliminating everyone who he feels is a threat.  But like with many things in life, if you hold on too tight, bad things happen.  Think about tennis or golf; if your grip is too tight, nothing good will come of it.

And, in the end and one way or another, we all die – and we die alone.  It is not about what you have, but your family, what you have built, and what you have left behind – your legacy.

Of course, there is much more – in what I have written here and what I have not.  A person can do an entire Doctorial on The Godfather and business.  But I just finished writing one book and have not the energy (now) to write another.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

There is an old maritime saying when there was a change of the watch, “Don’t change the set of the sails for 30 minutes.  You don’t know why they were set that why and need to understand before you make a change.”  If you are new, shut up and learn.  Understand the circumstances the context.  You need to know what is required, what is available, and what is not.  Then you need to know what the desired outcomes are and align the efforts to those outcomes.  But you can only successfully accomplish all of this if the people upon whom you will rely are engaged and able to align themselves to that desired outcome – are materially involved and share their wisdom. 

To me, a true leader takes all the hits for the team and deflects all the glory to the team.  After all, if there is failure, it is a failure of leadership to not have done something that needed to be done.  And if there is victory, it is because everyone did what they were supposed to do.  If I ever need to be reminded of who the “top dog” is, all I have to do is look at the title on my business card.  I don’t need to flaunt it or to remind others of who I am.

From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

It is so true.  I have owned my company, XONITEK for over 30 years.  During that time, I have had to redefine our core offerings several times; we started off as an assembler of IBM “clones”, then evolved to systems integrator, then on to implementing Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, then to process consulting (Lean Six Sigma), then evolving to Operational Excellence.

In each and every case, what forced the transformation was that I saw the “tools” being commoditized.  And once the tools are commoditized, there is only a few short years before the services are commoditized.  And, as Jack Welch famously said, ”At GE, “strong” meant a business was No. 1 or No. 2 in its market. If it wasn’t, the managers had to fix it, sell it, or as a last resort, close it.”

From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Absolutely!  But, being a person who looks to improve processes and systems all the time, I have to say, it can be a giant pain in the posterior – we are always saying, “that’s odd” or, more likely, “why do they do it that way?”  Why a giant pain?  If you are a carpenter, at the end of the day you put down your tools and go home.  Or if you are working retail, or the warehouse, or, or, or, when your time is done, you go home and don’t to do it anymore. However, a process engineer is always wondering “why do they do it that way?  What if…”  It doesn’t stop, ever.  And that might be all well and good until you come home and start rearraigning the kitchen (though you are not the primary cook) or the workbench (though you are not the primary wielder of tools).

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Great quote.  I grew up in Endicott, New York.  It’s the birthplace of IBM.  Back in the day (60’s and 70’s) my father worked for IBM and every piece of corporate tchotchke – even the company headquarter building – had the company’s motto on it, “Think”.  And I used to believe that was a very powerful motto, that is until I realized that a person can think all the thoughts they can possibly think but nothing gets accomplished until you execute.  That’s why I now like Nike’s motto, “Just do it!”

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Could not agree more.  Think of laws and regulations that have outlived their usefulness (if they were ever useful at all), yet are still on the books.  Or the tax code which has become so complex that you need accountants and lawyers to complete.  And even then, if you file a Schedule-A and a Schedule-C and gave the same set of books to five different accountants, you would end-up with five different returns.  We make the mistake of assuming something is necessary because it’s always been there.

Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be closely associated for an extended weekend of one-on-one conversation? Why?

Odysseus from Homer’s Odyssey.  Although Odysseus was a physically strong man, the primary source of his strength was not in brawn, but in his ability quickly evaluate a situation (whether opportunity or threat) and to devise and deploy decisive responses – often having to think outside the box.  Although he certainly made mistakes, his ability to think-though the mistakes and not become paralyzed is something I admire a great deal.  And, of course, his adventures appeal to my masculinity.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”  We all have our interests, our perspectives.  The best way to overcome resistance in an individual (and you have to work at the individual level) from embracing the old way to embracing the new, is to help them with something that is dear to them using the “new way.”  Assuming the new way is a success (and it better be), you will have gained an advocate (or, at least, eliminated a resistor).  The second is to ensure there is recognition of this success and “pride in ownership”.  Every student likes to get a gold star.  Give them one when they are successful, and don’t give them one if they are not.  There are no “participation trophies.”

Respect.  The ability for everyone to listen to ideas and engage in healthy debate, regardless of rank.  The ability to own everything you do and, if a mistake is made, have the confidence that sounding the alarm will not result in punishment, but rather looked upon as a learning opportunity.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem? 

Communication – along with respect as mentioned previously – are the keys to engagement.  People need to know what is expected of them.  They need to know what they are fighting for and believe it is a just cause.  They need to feel a part of it, that they have ownership – not just a sense of ownership, but real ownership.

In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?

Two things; build what can be built and cut what needs to be cut.  By that, I mean we need to reinforce and support those who are engaged and productive.   We need to build those who need nurturing, mentoring, and investment to become engaged and productive.  And we need to be able to identify those who cannot be built, or where the investment requirements are excessive, and release them.  There is only so much energy, resources, and time.  We cannot afford to take from those who can and give to those who can’t.  We can’t bring our companies down to operate at the lowest common denominator.  Nothing good will come of it. 

I was at a conference once, and the speaker instructed everyone in the audience to close their eyes and imagine the worst performing employee – the one who was bringing the performance of everyone else down.  Then he asked everyone to open their eyes and fire that person.  Some wisdom there.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the single greatest challenge that CEOs will face?

Accelerating the decision-making process.  Everything is fluid and moves so fast.  Time is the enemy of the 21 st Century company.  Therefore, to stay ahead, the CEO will need to be more focused on strategy development and delegate strategy execution to those who are capable and trusted.  But unless those who are capable and trusted are known to the CEO, it will take time to identify, on-board, and establish the trust.  Fortunately, most companies face similar challenges.  So the playing field is even – at least for the time being.

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Joe invites you to check out the resources at this website:

“You can find me, with links to me and all of my platforms, by clicking here.” 


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