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What’s up with that Yellow Dot?


Prahalad and Hamel wrote about monkeys in a cage undergoing operant conditioning as a lesson to the development of corporate culture in the book Competing for the Future. Researching this on the internet for factual basis led to several articles and blogs denying the events ever took place. It is a fascinating story and if the reader has not read it, it is worth a few minutes. Whether the Prahalad and Hamel monkey experiment is indeed factual, I do not know. But I have seen this played out in real time on consulting engagements with clients.

There is a particular occurrence to note. One day while touring one of the plants with a new client. He was proudly showing me the machinery, the dedication to continuous improvement processes and really showing off his people. Bragging wherever he could. And let me say, this client had a lot to brag about. This plant was one of the most productive plants, with engaged employees. I was encouraged to stop and ask randomly about important financial results of the company and what they meant. The employees seeing the pride in the client were only too happy to oblige in this play.

While reviewing one of the production lines I stopped and asked an employee who was placing yellow dots on completed units “What is the purpose of placing those yellow dots on the units?” He didn’t know. His response was “When I started here three years ago, I was trained to place them there.” The client sensing the visiting consultant had stumbled on one of those precious veins of opportunity quickly jumped in. He asked “Where do you get these dots?” “From the shift supervisor.” Good, the shift supervisor was someone we were going to see soon. Meanwhile, we asked downstream in packaging and shipping, “What is the purpose of those yellow dots?” No one seemed to know. What was more, the yellow dots did not serve a purpose or contribute to meaning of anything to anyone. So off we went to the shift supervisor. Hopefully going upstream back to the headwaters of the issue we would find answers.

The shift supervisor did not know the purpose of the dots. But added that when he was trained here seven years ago, it was pressed on him to make certain the front office supplied him with enough of them. He even commented that the front office held on to them as if they were vital raw material inventory. The plant manager did not know the purpose of those dots. As you can imagine now we had a retinue of employees all asking the question “What’s up with those dots?” Back to the shift supervisor “Who supplies those dots to you?” It turned out one of the front office employees was the supplier.

We all walked to her station all curious looking for the source of those dots. She, sensing possibly a village revolt was nervously answering “I don’t know how the dots get used, or what their purpose is.” She only knew from the lady who trained her in her role twelve years ago that she better never run out of those yellow dots. So each week she would open this large metal cabinet drawer dedicated to warehousing these seemingly important yellow dots and count them. Further, if they ran low, her mission was to run out to the office supply depot and purchase more on her lunch break. Sometimes as the plant seemed to use up some colors more than others, she found herself in fire drill emergencies rushing out to resupply dwindling supplies of dots. She commented about the constant struggle with the plant consuming the dots without her knowledge and the vital stock running low jeopardizing the entire enterprise.

By now we are all laughing with tears running! Some of us had trouble talking and breathing! She was aghast and didn’t appreciate this, I’m sure. It was after all an important duty for her. The retinue of the yellow dot curious were otherwise entertained with the idea that for a minimum of twelve years the company had dedicated resources to processes that no one can remember how they were begun nor why. Further, no one ever questioned “why are we doing this?”

The client walked around the rest of the day with a dot on his glasses hoping others would ask “What’s up with the dot?” His response “YOU TELL ME WHAT”S UP WITH THE DOTS?”

So, I do not know if the monkey cage experiment is true, but I have seen what Prahalad and Hamel were referring to the development of corporate culture.