Take a Chainsaw to Speed Barriers

Take a Chainsaw to Speed Barriers

“You own the accelerator for the speed of your own work and the work of those that you lead.”   — Immutable Law of Speed #1 From “Lead With Speed”

There was a tree down across the road. Speed limits were suddenly irrelevant. The engine power of any of the cars waiting had also been made irrelevant.

We have had many storms in the area recently, and trees down across trails and roads have been a more frequent experience than usual. Road workers have become the leaders who own the number one key to speed in this situation. They have chainsaws.

Over the years, and especially recently, I have worked with numerous leaders who encountered various types of metaphorical storms that put multiple barriers in the way of speed. These barriers have ranged from the impacts of the pandemic to events like significant changes in tools that affect everyone’s workflow.

The best leaders I work with are on the constant watch for anything from a speed bump to a roadblock impacting their teams. These leaders walk around with their own ‘chainsaws’ to clear those barriers. They do and say things that are different from those said by less attuned leaders. For example, these exceptional leaders say things like:

  • “Put in a purchase request for the things you need.  I will ensure they are funded.”
  • “I see what the technical issue is.  I don’t know how to fix it, but I know who can.  I will ask person X, and you will be flying again.”
  • “I understand the policy I put in place is negatively impacting your ability to get things done. I will modify it to address your issues.”

The most extraordinary thing great leaders do is give people their own chainsaws and teach them how to use them. 

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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Experience Leads to Better Designs

Experience Leads to Better Designs

“I was startled to learn that I didn’t have 20 years of experience. I had one year of experience repeated 20 times.”— Anonymous

When I first started playing the beautiful strategy game of go, otherwise known as baduk, I was encouraged to play many games very fast.  My mentors wanted me to finish whole games with other students in fifteen minutes.  This was a high contrast to the master players I watched who took fifteen minutes for just the first ten moves of their games.

Understanding the difference between those stages of learning is critical to “leveling up” your wisdom at any difficult skill.

The masters of the game encouraged me to play many games fast, not just so I would lose many games fast, although that was part of it!  What they were really doing was putting together rapid feedback loops so I would start to see which moves led to problems and which moves led to better outcomes.

Indeed, by playing many games quickly, I began to get better. Those games helped improve my play a little bit at a time.

True learning came after the games were played. The key was the Go-Master taught me how to review my games lost and won and learn from them.  It was then that I learned that the opening of my games had such flaws that even if it looked like I was significantly ahead of my opponent at the start, things fell apart in the endgame.  The flawed foundation collapsed.  

The rapid learning loops needed the addition of analysis and expert guidance.  With that, I rapidly improved my game.

Often the engineers I work with have had the first part of the learning equation. They have done many engineering projects.  However, they have not been trained in the skills of how to learn from their experiences.   For example, when I look at some experienced people’s programs, they look the same as a beginner’s program.  No matter how many programs they do, they are repeating the same experience over and over again. 

I have two suggestions for those looking to improve their skills.

  • First, start by looking at the endgame results of your project and consider the early stages.  How did the early stages contribute to the results?  If the project is late, look back at the planning and consider what could have been done better.  If the project has quality issues, what was lacking in the design?
  • Second, learning on your own is much slower than learning with someone who is a master at not just the game itself but the learning process.  Find a master who can not just review your work but review your process.

Doing these things will lead to the rapid improvement you seek.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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Bring in the Team for Support

Bring in the Team for Support

“It is support that sustains us on the journey we started.”— Marci Shimoff

 A mini-drama was unfolding before me. It was a familiar scene, but I was noticing it in a new way.

We were at a baseball game for the first time in over a year, watching the home team the “Binghamton Rumble Ponies” play on a gorgeous Friday evening. It was a bit cloudy, there was a light breeze, and it was just the right temperature.

The home team’s pitcher was starting to struggle. The catcher stood up from behind the plate and let the umpire know he was taking a time-out. He walked out to the pitching mound to talk things over with the pitcher. Soon the rest of the team came in to join them on the mound for a mini-summit.  

The mound visit is a method used to clarify communications between pitcher, catcher, and the rest of the team.  It is also a way to support the pitcher and show that the whole team is rooting for his success.  

That need for support should be obvious because for any team to win, everyone has to work together for success. However, I have seen that in many of my clients’ teams the team doesn’t seem to realize the need to support each other.  In those situations, each team member is focused on their own “impossible” task. They don’t take their eyes off it to even notice if others are also struggling. Those teams, more often than not, fail.

Exceptional leaders create a culture where the metaphorical mound-visit happens without any intervention from the leader. When it is clear someone struggles with their part of the overall mission, the other team members will gather around. They will work together to figure out a strategy to help everyone be successful.  

In our game, the mound visit broke up after the umpire told them to get back to playing baseball.

The pitcher struck out the next batter. A little support goes a long way.

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Soon after watching the sunrise in a city very near Death Valley in California, I was talking with one of the residents.

Fleeting Delights

It was startling, unexpected, and… great. I was rushing from one place to another thinking of the far too many things I had to accomplish.
I heard a “wooossshh.”

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Do You Need Noise Canceling Headphones to Work?

Do You Need Noise Canceling Headphones to Work?

“All that noise! Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!”— Dr. Seuss, The Grinch

I just went three days (long weekend) without reading most of my emails and now have 312 waiting for me.  (Wait, now it’s 318 and growing.)  This is not unusual for me and most likely not for you.

Just walking into a grocery superstore provides an abundance of visual noise. Walking down the aisles, it seems there is an infinite number of choices all calling for my attention.

Meanwhile, Netflix has an array of distracting choices, all just a click away.  And Netflix is just one in an abundance of streaming services to choose from.

You get my point. There are many, many things vying for our attention. Some of them are contained in the vast amount of external pressures, such as those 323 (current count) work emails waiting to be sorted and addressed. Some of the distractions are self-created as you are tempted to watch the latest videos your friend sends you or yearning to read the last few chapters of that book you started.

Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!

But there is hope.

In chaotically loud environments, noise-canceling headphones reduce ambient noise so the listener can focus on the soundscape of their choice, and there are similar mitigations for metaphorical noise.

The following are noise-canceling strategies to help you focus on your goals and lower the distraction factor of all that other noise.

Start your week with a clear set of focused goals.
Without a clear target for the week,  it is easy to be trapped into reacting to everything that occurs and ending the day with the question, “Now, which way was I actually going?”

Focus not on the tasks you do but the value you provide.
Your task list itself can be noisy if you allow the list to dictate to you. Instead, focus on the value and impact you are working to provide. With that focus, you’ll find simple, fast ways to accomplish the value the task list aimed to achieve.

If you can’t say no, say later.
We often have a strong desire to be helpful. When distractions come up, it is often that others have requested help from you. Yet, we need to remain focused on the long-term greater good for the organization and our clients.  Practice saying no, or at the very least later.

Practice “noise prevention”.
There are some types of noisy problems that come up over and over again. If this is the case, find the source of those noises and seek to resolve them.

Optimize for joy. 
Do the activities you engage in increase your joy? The best noise cancellation technique is to identify what is noise to you. If the activity you engage in increases your feeling of joy and worth in the world, it is like pure music.

The more you can focus on these types of tasks; the more noise disappears into the distant background.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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Without Data, Talk About Quality Is Just Talk

Without Data, Talk About Quality Is Just Talk

Immutable Law of Speed #4:
The higher the cost of rework, the slower you are going.— From Alan Willett’s book, Lead with Speed

This old picture I found well represents what I am talking about today. That broken axel has disrupted everyone’s workday. This disruption removes everyone involved from any creative work they were doing to advance the goals of their organizations.

Now consider some of the headlines I have collected about defects that escaped into the world, disrupting people and organizations.  

Two years ago:  Fiat Chrysler recalls 4.8 million US vehicles for a cruise control software defect.

Last year: GM is updating a brake controls recall they originally issued in December of 2019 because the first recall caused additional problems.

This year: Southwest Airlines cancels 500+ flights after a computer glitch grounds their fleet.

I have collected hundreds of headlines like these over the years. Each of these issues represents problems with customer loyalty. It cost hundreds, even thousands, of hours of lost productivity in the organization. Sometimes it even cost lives.

There is a problem I see consistently across many organizations. Quality is typically assumed. Leaders ask a lot of questions about dates. They want to know when the project will be done. They also have many requests for more features.  

However, there are typically few if any questions about quality. But those questions must be asked. And the answers to those questions must be based on data.

Here are a few examples.

  • Our quality levels in system test show 0.05 defects per thousand new lines of code compared to the average of 2 defects per thousand lines of code we found in our previous releases.
  • Our inspections had a defect removal efficiency of 42%.  58% of the defects escaped into testing or out to customers.
  • Our economics of quality numbers show that the defects captured in the system test are costing the organization an average of 125 hours per defect.  The smallest cost was 30 hours, and the greatest cost was over 1,000 hours.
  • Only 27% of product features were delivered to our customers within our criteria for high quality with no critical or level 1 defects. This is unacceptable. We are taking action to address the root causes.

You may not know what these data descriptions mean, but you should.

Claiming quality without knowing data like this is just talking.

And if it is just talking, the results you get will be talked about just like in the headlines I mentioned.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

Find a list of quality questions you should ask in this free download.  100+ Questions That Lead Teams to Build Smart, Aggressive Project Plans.

Contact [email protected] to learn more.

Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

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A client wrote to me recently with a note that said simply “I need a win.” Have you been there, where it feels like you have faced a sudden losing streak and quite simply there is a need for a win? I have. I expect Elon Musk is looking for one with Tesla.

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