Paris Interview: Part 2 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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For those who have not as yet read State of Readiness, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. 

First, when and why did you decided to write it?

I never set out to write a book.  It was never a life ambition or on my “bucket list”.  I mostly wrote my book because I was coaxed into writing it by peers, friends, and family – especially my wife.  This was based on people reading my articles and saying, “You need to write a book.”  So, I eventually capitulated to the pressures and decided to write my book.

Once I made this decision, I took it very seriously and was determined to see it through to the end.  The thought of having started and not finishing was not an option.  However, making the decision to write a book was only the end of the beginning.  If I was going to write a book, what did I hope to accomplish?

For me, I wanted to write a book to share my thoughts, born of experiences and the lessons I learned, for the benefit of others.  Through my sharing, I hoped to help companies grow beyond Process Excellence, through Systems Excellence, to Operational Excellence where they might become a High-Performance Organization – what that all means and looks like in real terms and why it’s important.

But I am not completely altruistic – and nor were my motives – and it would be disingenuous of me to state otherwise.  I was figuring that my sharing my thoughts would resonate with business leaders and that I might personally and professionally gain from my sharing them.  Of course, only time will tell if this proves out to be true and, if so, to what extent.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

There was nothing particularly head-snapping.  The closest would probably be the misplaced reverence of Japanese management styles and Toyota over the ways of “Western” companies.  I always believed that there might be more hype than substance.  But the analysis I did was quite stark.  The Japanese companies have been poor performers compared to Western companies (as measured by the Nikkei versus the DJIA) from 1982 to today – and the share-price of Ford has tracked very similarly over this same time-period (starting and ending the same, exchanging the lead from time to time).

Of course, there are some who will claim that share-price is not the best way of measuring a company’s performance.  Perhaps.  But is it better than all the rest.  It is an arm’s length assessment of a company’s aggregate value (from all KPI’s), the vision the company has of its future, and the confidence others have in both the vision of the future and the ability of the leadership to deliver that future.

If a company makes poor products, the share-price is dinged.  Or if the company makes other miss-steps, the share-price is dinged.  If the profit margins are not satisfactory, the share-price is dinged.  If the company meets or exceeds expectations, the share-price is rewarded.  All of these individual KPI ingredients are mixed into a single share-price soup.  Anyone who looks at the recipe and claims “this is the ingredient that matters” is presenting a logical fallacy – the Texas Sharpshooter.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

The content is generally the same as I envisioned.  I thought it would top-out at 65,000 words, but it ended-up being 80,000 words.  The length was a point of debate with my mentor and my substantive editor.  Each thought the book should target 65,000 words.  The arguments were; people don’t like to read long books anymore and it’s going to cost more to ship.  In the end, I believed that people will read a book if they like it and it didn’t add much to the cost of shipping.  So, it is what it is.

My substantive editor also took me to task on the construction of the content.   My normal style of writing was more that of a play-write or novelist – where I set the stage, introduce the characters, and let the story develop from there – than an author of a manuscript.  The first thing that I had to learn was, “Don’t bury the lead.  Bring the red-meat to the beginning.”

There was a lot of cutting and pasting, moving large and small amounts of content around.  Each time, I had to rework and feather the content so that it flowed.  There were many cycles to this process – so many that I nicknamed him “The Metzger”, which is German for “The Butcher”.

And I had to drop content that was extraneous to the thesis of the book and add content where the thoughts needed to be further developed.  One of the things you will learn is to not be assumptive.  You know your content.  Your reader does not.  Take the time to step back and explain.

There is this observation by Hamlet in the final act of Shakespeare’s play: “We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.” What’s your take?

My initial take is, “whoever said that Americans and the English are two peoples separated by a common language”, was right.

[Joe agrees with Winston Churchill.]

It’s so true, “the readiness is all”.  Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”  There are circumstances that are beyond our control – some we cannot see until they are upon us.  Therefore our best chances of being successful lie in an organization’s level of readiness – to prosecute their vision of the future, but to be prepared for changes in circumstances. 

As I mentioned earlier, the enemy of the 21st Century company is “time”; that the organization that can see further beyond the horizon then their competitors, recognized opportunities and threats sooner, and be able to design, decide, and deploy a decisive engagement of those opportunities and threats, will have the advantage.  This requires that a company continually develop its capacity and hone its capabilities to engage – to be in a “State of Readiness” – such that success is as pre-ordained as possible.

For those who have not as yet read your book, please explain the most significant differences between excellence in operations and operational excellence

Let’s first distinguish between “operations” and ”operational”.  Operations are processes and are largely linear and wholly contained within the business silos of an organization, such as; production, finance, sales, and so on.  Operational is a condition.  For instance, when a carrier group of the US Navy is made “operational”, it means that the group, as an entity, is prepared to engage in the purpose for which it was intended.  Therefore, “excellence in operations” is process excellence and “operational excellence” is having a level of performance, or readiness, that at excellence. 

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture that has reached a state of readiness?

I am going to borrow from the Scout Law.  To start, some of the characteristics of a workplace culture that has reached a state of readiness include being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.  Then I will add the Scout Motto, “Be Prepared”.  And then I would add, being communicative, having alignment and commitment, being innovative, and possessing a level of awareness; not just of the capacity and capabilities of the organization and it’s many facets, but also the ability and availability of those facets to engage.

What seems to be the greatest challenge to sustaining that state?

In my opinion and from my experience, the greatest challenge to achieving and sustaining a state of readiness is communication.  It is the cornerstone.  Without effective and efficient communication, there is no alignment or commitment.

How best to avoid or overcome that challenge?

Make it a commitment to communicate, communicate, communicate.  Open, honestly, and with transparency – in as real-time as possible.

What is the relationship between a workplace culture in a state of readiness and its achievement of high performance? Please explain.

It all starts with having a workplace culture with the characteristics described above.  Without it, you will not ever be in a state of readiness and you will never be high-performance.

What are the unique challenges for those who lead such an organization?

I am not sure I would characterize the challenges as “unique”, because every company faces these challenges to varying degree.  But, in a word, trust.  Trust is not granted, trust is earned.  This takes time and often business leaders do not feel they have the time (or the need) to build that trust.  On the flip side, people are resistant to change because of the fear of the unknown.  As they say, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”  Look no further than Congress.  People give Congress an approval rating near the single-digits.  Yet any incumbent who runs for re-election is almost guaranteed of being elected again.  How is that possible? Indeed, the fear of the unknown is a powerful challenge. 

Here’s one of the several dozen passages in your narrative that caught my eye; “Defining operational excellence as continuous improvement and Lean Six Sigma is like defining a vehicle as an automobile: The latter of each is a subset of the former but does not represent the entire meaning of the term.” Please explain.

I will try to explain this a bit mathematically using “sets”.  Continuous improvement, Lean Six Sigma (and the rest of the operations management methodologies) are subsets of the superset which would be Operational Excellence.  You cannot achieve operational excellence (which is at the organization level) without having process excellence and systems excellence – with systems being a collection of processes configured for an outcome.

I certainly agree with you that those who aspire to lead a high-performance organization need a team composed of experts in a variety of disciplines. In fact, you list nine. In your opinion, which are most important to the achievement of the ultimate objective? Why?

First, that list of nine is not exhaustive.  There are a great many more.  And I don’t believe there is any one discipline which is the most important.  Each has its place and purpose.  And each is emphasized at one time or another depending upon the challenge being faced and the circumstances at the time.  For instance, many companies have an emphasis on quality and cost reduction.  But I have a client right whose primary concern is not cost.  The demand on their product is so great that they have a rolling four-month backlog (which is only getting longer).  Their biggest concerns, what keeps them up at night, is down-time and bringing additional capacity online.  They are flexing their operational excellence muscles around reliability, uptime, and health and safety. 

I think your chapter titles are brilliant. Please explain the meaning and/or significance of these. First, Chapter 4: “The Stone Age Didn’t End Because They Ran Out of Stones”

Transformation rarely occurs because the “old way” is exhausted.  Rather, transformation occurs because a “new way” is introduced, is seen as viable, is adopted, and becomes pervasive.  And, interestingly enough (but perhaps not surprising if you think about it), the source of most transformations are not people steeped in the traditions and trappings of the “old way”, but outsiders who recognizes a new way exists.  Henry Ford was an engineer at Edison Illumination Company (which became General Electric) and saw the inefficiencies of manufacturing automobiles as one-offs by craftsmen (including himself) which inspired him to create an assembly line.  Elon Musk looked at the possibility of electric vehicles being viable.  And so on.  There are many examples throughout history.

Next, Chapter 7: “Real Leaders Never Say ‘Burning Platform’”

The intent of a “burning platform”, and the reason it has made it into the business lexicon, is that it represents a place so dire and so fraught with peril to life itself, that everyone will rally to fight the blaze.  But this phrase, and the people who invoke it, are pet-peeves of mine.  There is rarely, if ever, a business situation that hold such peril. 

Leaders who claim there is a “burning platform” feel they need to inject emotion to motivate their team to do something.  What’s worse are those who feel they must create a burning platform where no sense of urgency exists to motivate their team.  These leaders are just demonstrating to me that they are in a panic, don’t understand or have control of the situation, or are otherwise deficient in their capabilities to explain the situation and the desired outcomes in rational terms that people can understand – and the only way to get the team on-board is to create some boogie-man.

I believe a high-performance team will consist of professionals.  All they need to know is what needs to be accomplished and the parameters for success.  Then they need the support and will just do what they have been educated and trained to do.  

Then Chapter 12: “Assessments: The Rally Point of the Journey”

People often have a vision of their future-state.  They know where they want to be.  But very rarely do they perform an assessment of where they are – and an honest assessment at that.  For instance; if you were to want to come to my house but didn’t know the way, was lost, and gave me a call asking directions, the first thing I am going to ask is, “Where are you now?”  The same thing in business.  You can’t get to where you want to be – certainly not easily – unless you know from where you are starting.

Also Chapter 17: “Lessons from Mount Stupid”

People often overestimate their abilities – especially when it comes to doing something new.  We pull from our past experiences and try to apply them to something new.  This might work most of the time, especially when the new is a step away.  But often we apply what we know to something that is completely unrelated, trying to make it relatable.  This is all well and good, but we need to be cognizant of the fact that we are in the unknown and there is a possibility for great peril.  If we remain vigilant, all will (usually) work out well.  But if we are arrogant in our ignorance, we climb Mt. Stupid and the lessons we learn there will be tough lessons.  After all, experience is the toughest teacher, she gives us the test first and teaches the lesson after.

Finally, Chapter 22: “It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint”

When transforming the culture of a company, then transforming the company, we need to be prepared for the long-haul.  There is no button you can push or pill you can take that will make it go any faster.  Accordingly, we need to set a pace that is sustainable – like that of a marathon versus a sprint.  If you try to do too much too fast, your efforts will spin out of control.  And oftentimes, too many in strategy development make unreasonable demands and too many in strategy execution set unreasonable expectations – they are each climbing their own “Mt. Stupid.”  Everyone must realize that transformation is going to take time, energy, and perseverance.  But, like water on the rock, the water will overcome the rock – eventually.

Here’s an excellent head note quotation from Voltaire for Chapter 21: “It’s not enough to conquer; one must learn to seduce.”

Yeah… Voltaire has a way with words.  But the meaning is pretty clear (not like Shakespeare mentioned earlier).  To gain and retain the lead, you must always be innovating and transforming.  And you will need to have all of your resources aligned to an ever-evolving “new way”.  But it’s not going to be enough to gain their alignment, you have to also gain their commitment – which is a two-way street.  You are committing to them (first), and they will be more likely to commit to you (second).

All organizations need effective leadership not only in the C-suite but also at all other levels and in all other areas of the given enterprise. In your opinion, how best to accelerate the process by which to achieve that organizational object?

You have to engineer and deploy a leadership development program.  The first step is to define, in real terms, what success will look like.  This will vary greatly from company to company.  But the basic deployment will be to; identify the young leaders in the company and enhance their communication and project management skills.  This will ensure a steady stream of capable leaders for the future.

You also have to work at building a higher level of trust than what currently exists.  This will include creating a culture where transparency, honesty, and open collaboration is the order of the day.  Finally, the organization needs to paint an easy-to-understand picture of the vision of the company so that everyone can align to its pursuit.

Simon Sinek asserts that all business initiatives should “start with why.” What do you think?

I absolutely agree that you need to “start with the why.”  To many people make the mistake of starting with the “what” and the “how,” but the “why” offers an opportunity to gain that alignment.  And the simple reason for this is that most people assume the “why” is so obvious, that everyone should know it instinctively.  I will offer an example; when learning a new language, its far better to learn from someone who was not a native speaker, but who had to learn the language to a level of proficiency where they can teach it.  They realized what it took and how difficult it was.  A native speaker will assume too much, and project that assumption on the student. 

Many of those who read your brilliant book will be even more eager to help their organization to read a state of readiness so that it can achieve operational excellence. Where to begin?

Always start at the beginning.  I can’t stress this enough.  Take the time to define what success looks like.  Then gain a thorough understanding of where you are – what existing capacities and capabilities exist and where there are gaps.  Then roadmap your way from the present state to the future state – making sure to establish waypoints along the way to determine progress along the plan and making changes along the way.  There will be changes along the way.

Then remember to crawl, walk, run.  You have to start small, gain the basic skills.  When you have some momentum, you can expand the efforts without spinning out of control.  When you have changed the native culture – gained alignment and commitment across the organization – then you can run. 

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in State of Readiness will be most valuable to those now preparing for a business career or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

The material I believe is most valuable material for those preparing for a business career or in the early stages of their business career that can be found in my book are the sections dealing with communication and debate.  Without a mastery of these fundamental skills, nothing else will matter because they won’t be able to be accomplished.

To first-time supervisors? Please explain.

For the first-time supervisor, it will be how to build trust as quickly as is possible so that you can achieve alignment to the objectives.  This will mean taking the time to explain the objectives clearly and with transparency – and having the leadership qualities of honesty, integrity, and empathy.  And you have to understand that their commitment to you depends upon your commitment to them.

To C-level executives? Please explain.

C-Level executives are at the forefront of strategy execution.  This means, they need to possess a thorough understanding of what the corporate vision is so that they can effectively communicate that vision to those who will be largely responsible for developing and deploying the tactics necessary to achieve the vision.  They will also be responsible for ensuring the logistics (time, talent, budget, apparatus) are available to support the tactics as and when required.

To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

The CEOs of companies need to have a crystal clear vision for the future of the company and they need to communicate that vision in a manner such that everyone can understand – in the simplest terms possible – so that everyone can be aligned to its pursuit.

In my book, I use the example of John F. Kennedy and is vision of the moon shot.  In his speech to Congress, is states his vision in unmistakable terms; “ I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

The deadline is set; by the end of the decade.

And the goal is simple; landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely back to Earth.

Kennedy did not go on about how it was going to be accomplished.  Maybe he had a notion, but probably not much more than a notion.  He knew his role was to define and support.  And he let those responsible for strategy deployment do their jobs – knowing they had the support they needed. 

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Ooof…  I have not the foggiest idea.!  You really grilled me!  Thank you for the opportunity!

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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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