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I took this picture at the local office watering hole that I frequent in the mornings.  Yes, I admit it, I like my coffee … and generally the stronger the better.  No frills either, just black.

coffeeBut I’m betting you probably don’t read these posts to understand my coffee preferences, and are likely wondering what this has to do with leadership.  Good question, but first take a long look at the picture and tell me what you see.

At first glance, one observation would be that a conscientious colleague made sure a mess wasn’t left at the coffee pot.  To whomever took that initiative, thank you. But as a leader, I am going to ask you to look closer because there is another underlying observation to be drawn.

In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek shares about the assumptions we make in our everyday decision making.  For example with the picture, someone made coffee and took the coffee pot out so people could serve themselves.  The residual water continued to drip leaving a mess, so based upon the observable data someone assumed they needed to act (a surprisingly few I have found).

But in leading to the other observation, let me share some snippets from the book. It begins with a story of American car executives visiting a Japanese assembly line …

At the end of the line, the doors were put on the hinges, the same as in America. But something was missing. In the United States, a line worker would take a rubber mallet and tap the edges of the door to ensure that it fit perfectly. In Japan, that job didn’t seem to exist …

The Japanese guide replied “We make sure it fits when we design it.” In the Japanese auto plant, they didn’t examine the problem and accumulate data to figure out the best solution – they engineered the outcome they wanted …

What the American automakers did is a metaphor for how so many people and organizations lead. When faced with a result that doesn’t go according to plan, a series of perfectly effective short-term tactics are used until the desired outcome is achieved.

Every instruction we give, every course of action we set, every result we desire, starts with the same thing: a decision. There are those who decide to manipulate the door to fit to achieve the desired result and there are those who start from somewhere very different. Though both courses of action may yield similar short term results, it is what we can’t see that makes long-term success more predictable for only one. The one that understood why the doors need to fit by design and not by default.

I love the context the author offers …. perfectly effective short-term tactics. As product management leaders, we are faced with this type of story almost on a daily basis … do we take perfectly effective short-term tactics to achieve a result?  Or do we focus on what is necessary to achieve the desired long-term, sustainable results?

Throughout my career, there have been many situations where perfectly effective short-cuts were taken to achieve results … generally to meet a date.  We achieved the desired results, but the underlying problem still persisted.  The paper towel is an effective approach because it does address the mess, but the source of the problem wasn’t addressed.

The 2nd observation with the coffee pot is really quite simple.  Rather than treating the symptom, why not address the root cause?  The reason the mess was being made is because the soaked coffee grounds still sit in the canister … it hadn’t been emptied. Remove the canister, empty the grounds (and remaining water) and replace.  Thus the long-term desired result is achieved … no more mess.

Of course, the challenges we face on a day to day basis are much more complex than this.  But the thought process should be the same.  Am I addressing the opportunity/challenge/mess strategically with the desired long-term outcome in mind?  Or am I tactically achieving perfectly effective results that are short-lived?