In praise of a blank page

A friend just sent me a book he worked on. It’s a terrific book, but it has an astonishingly mediocre (if that’s possible) cover. I can just see how the cover came to be. There were proposals and meetings and compromises and a deadline.  As the deadline loomed, the compromises came more often, until they ended up with a cover that didn’t match the power of the book.

They should have just shipped a cover that was blank.

Knowing that you need to ship a blank cover if you can’t come up with something great focuses the mind and takes the edge of the conversations about compromise. If ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough, and if the alternative is certain failure, people will dig in and come up with something better.

It’s not just book covers, of course. Ethanol is the equivalent of this book cover. It feels like it might be a good enough solution to a range of energy problems. And once embraced, it serves as a bandaid, making the problem less urgent, "oh, we already took care of that," and allowing people to move on to something else.

Every quarter, your company ships new products or services. And every quarter, someone says, "under the circumstances," or "given the deadline" or "with the team we had available"… it’s the best we could do. I say ship nothing.

In a few of my seminars, I’ve encouraged marketers to refuse to market mediocre stuff if that’s the best the folks in R&D and production can bring you. The first time, they’ll be shocked. Your job will be at risk. But then you’ll notice something… the stuff gets better. Fast.

In Japanese car factories, this is called kanban. You trade production efficiencies for quality. If a part isn’t perfect, the worker refuses to install it. And the entire assembly line stops. Detroit was horrified by this idea. Keeping the assembly line going is the holy grail. Guess what? The line doesn’t get stopped very often. Things get better, fast.

[Ralph Bernstein, at Productivity Press, knows his stuff about Kanban. He writes:

In your posting, In praise of a blank page, your use of the word kanban is incorrect. Kanban refers to a type of visual control that signals an upstream operation to deliver what is needed. (The Wikipedia description to which you linked touches on aspects of the concept, but doesn’t get it exactly right.)

What you probably meant was andon.

An andon is a device that calls attention to defects, equipment abnormalities and other problems, or reports the status and needs of a system by means of colored lights. Typically, when a worker on a line encounters a problem, he or she will pull a cord that lights up the andon board and stops the line.

Also, it’s a little misleading to say that in such a system, you trade production efficiencies for quality. It’s a lot more efficient to stop and eliminate a defect immediately than to repair a finished product (or dozens of finished products) containing the defect. But you are right about one thing: with this kind of system, things do get better fast.

You may want to obtain a copy of the LeanSpeak dictionary, available on our website.

My response, which you’ve probably already guessed, was that this is what they taught us at business school!]