Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Can You "Toyota" It? Lessons from the Factory Floor

One hallmark of a creative organization is the ability to look outside your usual realm.  Guest blogger Trevor Jones, Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Kentucky Historical Society, shares his team's learning from the world of automotive manufacturing.  Read this, and consider where your team could go to learn something new:  a plant, a restaurant, a farm, or ?  It's probably right next door, wherever you are.

Have you ever worked on a project and noticed a problem but you were afraid to speak out? Perhaps you were junior team member, or the change would have been expensive, or the boss clearly didn’t want to hear about any flaws.  I’ve been there, and it stinks. Feeling unable to speak out leaves you frustrated and angry and also leaves the organization with a poor project. However, if you worked for Toyota, you would have been expected to speak out and propose a solution.

The Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky is massive. They churn out 500,000 cars a year and you can tour the plant for free. The operation is a well-oiled machine where team members rotate jobs every few hours to avoid fatigue and boredom. As you move through the plant, a worker occasionally notices a problem and pulls a cord running above the production line. This action triggers a pleasant little song and the line stops. A team leader or supervisor runs over to address the issue and then the line starts again. The idea is that workers are expected to find small problems and fix them before they become big ones. Toyota’s entire corporate culture is built around the idea that quality is everyone’s job. Employees are not only encouraged to solve problems, but also discover ways to make the operation more efficient. If you work for Toyota and want to streamline a process, they’ll give you the time to build what they call a “cardboard and duct tape” version to see if it works. This is a low cost prototype to see if your idea actually has merit. The prototype is tested and evaluated, and if it’s successful it becomes standard practice and the person who generated the idea is rewarded with a cash bonus.
If you’re a management nerd like me you can read any of a dozen books about how Toyota developed this corporate culture and how other companies have tried to copy it. 

But, the real question is how does Toyota apply to the museum world?  The point is not to simply try to copy Toyota’s methods, but rather to use their culture as a springboard to get your staff to think about museum work in new ways. In their book Leadership Matters, Anne Ackerson and Joan Baldwin write that one of the dangerous myths of museum leadership is that “we are the source of our own best ideas.”  Looking outside our industry exposes us to new ways of thinking. My example is Toyota because they have a successful corporate culture and their plant is nearly in our backyard. A couple of years ago I convinced our leadership team to take the entire staff on plant tour so they could see the operation. This was followed by followed by lunch and a meeting with Toyota’s leadership to discuss their corporate culture. 

I’d studied Toyota, and my hope was their concept of “stopping the line” when a problem was spotted would become part of our museum’s culture. Our visit to the plant helped a little with that, but looking back at it a couple of years later, speaking up was not the concept that stuck. Instead, our employees latched onto Toyota’s concept of testing ideas with “cardboard and duct tape.” Our museum culture had been focused on producing polished “professional” products. As an accredited institution, the common belief was that we had to do things perfectly and that sharing something that looked unfinished or cheap was a professional affront.  We produced some really attractive things, but our culture created huge barriers to evaluation. Once you decide that a product is “perfect,” it becomes very hard to change it based on visitor feedback! Touring Toyota changed this view. We started doing “cardboard and duct tape” versions of exhibits and programs. We created draft labels and put them up with pushpins, and created freeform programs that could change easily based on visitor feedback. Our employees began using “Toyota” as a verb – when evaluating a proposal, people would say “That could be a good idea, but let’s Toyota it and see if it works.” 

As with cars, your mileage may vary, but looking outside your industry is a good place to find the catalyst to inspire your teams. Find a company that does something well, expose your staff to those ideas, encourage change and then reward the behaviors you want to see. Museums can rarely give out cash bonuses for good ideas like Toyota can, but we can single people out for praise, reward success with parties (our team likes cupcakes) and encourage people to constantly point out mistakes and suggest new ideas. It seems simple, but the folks at Toyota will tell you that there’s a lot of thought that goes into creating an organization where people feel that everyone has a responsibility to make things better. 

Images:  top, from;  center, temporary prototype labels courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society, and bottom, Captain America cardboard template via  And just a note, you can't believe what googling cardboard and duct tape turns up!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Break the Rules: Hands-On Tours that Really Do

In our book, Creativity in Museum Practice, Rainey and I highlight an AAM session from several years ago that asked participants to make a list of all the museum rules and then to think about how they could creatively be broken.   What's the biggest museum rule?  The one we tell school children and probably every adult would mention if asked?  Don't touch.

Last week at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, I got a chance to break that big rule, not just with grudging permission, but with enthusiastic encouragement from staff.  The Rosenbach is best known for its incredible manuscript and rare book collection--everything from the manuscript of Joyce's Ulysses to a list of enslaved people written by Thomas Jefferson;  to the entire collection of Maurice Sendak's work to poet Marianne Moore's living room. So you imagine a hushed, white-glove kind of place, where archivists and curators jealously guard access to their precious materials.  Wrong!
The Rosenbach's hands-on tours are not tours with reproductions.  They are small group (less than five people) hands-on tours of the real thing--and the real thing is everything from some of the earliest printings of Shakespeare to Marianne Moore's letters.   The cost is $5 in addition to museum admission and you can sign up in advance or join the tour on the spur of the moment if there's room.
Last Friday, along with other tour participants, I carefully washed my hands, and then Farrar Fitzgerald, The Sunstein Family Assistant Director of Education, led us upstairs, into the Rosenbach brothers' library on the top floor.  It felt secret in a way, and as Farrar unlocked a library cabinet to take out a box, it felt even more special.   Our tour was about the sea, and so we embarked on a journey, both practical and metaphorical.
Over the course of the next hour, we looked--and yes, touched!--a handwritten manuscript by Joseph Conrad, a first edition of Moby Dick;  a fine art edition of Joyce's Ulysses with illustrations by Matisse;  and a lovingly hand-printed edition of the Wreck of the Hesperus.   We held the books and manuscripts in our hands, feeling the weight of the paper, the press of the hand-set type, even smelling that old-book smell.  We each read a bit aloud,  and I remember closing my eyes and listening to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, imagining the scene.  Farrar introduced each item, linking it to the sea, and drawing our attention to details.  She carefully handled each object, but didn't hesitate to say, "go ahead, you can pick it up!"

Upon reflection, I was struck not only by the power of objects and the power of words,  but the power of the experience itself, of bonding with a small group of strangers as we embarked upon our own voyage of discovery. 

The best thing for you, museum readers?  It's that every single history museum or historical society, no matter what your size, could do exactly this same program on the same budget--pretty much zero dollars.  I've used literally hundreds of history archives, large and small, well organized and not, and although Joseph Conrad's manuscripts don't exist in every one,  incredible stories do.  So, next Monday morning, go first thing to your archives and consider what stories you can tell, what voyages you can take your community on. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Why Even Ask the Question if You're Not Listening?

On crime shows like Law and Order, it’s accepted wisdom that a prosecuting attorney should never ask a question of a witness that she or he doesn’t already know the answer to.  But in planning, it’s exactly the opposite.  A few weeks ago, I was asked to participate in a planning focus group, as somewhat of an outside stakeholder,  for a largish organization.  We received materials in advance including a set of four goals.  “Hmm, I thought, I guess they’re farther along in the process than I thought.  They  already have goals in place.”  I go to the meeting, sit in a room with a group of immensely talented people from various arts and humanities disciplines.  We’re introduced to the process by the organization’s outside facilitator who says, in passing, that the organization hasn’t had a strategic plan in almost ten years; but they’re required to by a source of funding support, so now they’re doing it.   I thought, “Hmmm, a bit of a red flag. As a grant reviewer, a statement like this always caused me to look hard at an application.”  The facilitator and the director talk about these focus groups, about an upcoming survey, about delivering a draft, and so on.
The conversation begins, with a note-taker taking notes projected on the screen.  As we near the end of the meeting, we’re asked to react to the four goals.  There’s a silence, and finally I say (they asked for my opinion, right?) that I thought the four goals were old-fashioned, that they sounded like they could have been written ten years ago.   There’s another silence, when I wonder whether I should have spoken up, but then all of sudden the conversation blooms, with questions and lively talk from everyone around the table:   why are goals are already in place at the start of the process?   Do these goals reflect current realities and thinking?  How can the process should be a more open one? 
Great, right?  We were asked for our opinions and perspectives and we delivered them.  I left the meeting thinking that those opinions and perspectives had been recorded, noted (I could seen them projected on the screen)  and perhaps even appreciated.  After all, it was a great, thoughtful group of people in the room.
But, a week or so later, the notes of the meeting were distributed. I’m astonished to see that the entire discussion about the goals has been deleted.  Because we were critical and questioning about the process, it feels like it was taken as a direct challenge to the organization.  Rather than think about the questions we raised, it was easier to just erase them and pretend they didn’t exist.
Every museum evaluator I’ve ever worked with has always reminded me at the beginning of the process of the essential need to embrace the data, to be ready to really listen and be prepared to make change.  That doesn’t mean making every change a focus group suggests;  but to be serious about the process and the learning that occurs.  This organization demonstrated, from start to finish in this part of the process, that these focus groups were just a dog and pony show;  that decisions had already been made.  
Think about your own work.  Are you prepared to listen to the answers, or, like those Law and Order folks, only asking the questions you know the answers to? We’re not district attorneys,  we are, at our best, explorers of arts, of life, of new ideas.  So be prepared to listen.  Otherwise, why even bother to ask the question?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Take a Friday Listen!

Tune in to The Museum Life online tomorrow, Friday, April 4 at 10 AM EST  join host Carol Bossert and me as we talk about building creative cultures in museums.  Museums do creative work, but is creativity relegated to the exhibit designer and art curator? Can the registrar and operations manager be creative in their work? We know what a creative culture looks like at Google and Apple, Inc., but what would a creative culture look like in a museum? How will we know it when we see it?   And how can we build one, from wherever we work in a museum.

Can't make the live show?  It, and other shows with other amazing guests, are always available streaming online.