That Elusive Management Spark

May 19, 2004

Four Thwinkers at Campfire with sparks

Four thwinkers at a campfire in the Congaree Swamp

There is a certain intangible, invisible, elusive "spark" that is the essence of management. If it's not present in an individual or organization, neither can possibly hope to manage anything well. They are forever doomed to incompetence, frustration, and failure. They can only achieve excellence if lady luck comes their way. This forces the probing mind to ask itself a single guiding question:

What is that spark?

That is the question each of us needs to ask ourselves, because if we cannot instantly and confidently say what that spark is, we probably don't have it. We are not a keeper of the flame. Someone has not passed that spark on to us, and so even though we might try as hard as we can to "manage," we can never do it well. If the spark is still new and weak, it may take more effort to express it.

For example, one person might say the spark is "The ability to quickly appraise a situation and pick out the factors that matter most, and then proceed to use those insights to come to a solid conclusion." Another might describe it as "Great instinct that most of the time leads to great results." Yet another might put it as "When you're up to your neck in alligators, they always know what to do."

But even those who answer that question must answer it right. There are far too many people and organizations who think they know what the answer is. But the results of their actions prove otherwise, because they are continually bumbling and stumbling their way through personal or business life, and failing to achieve their full potential.

What is that spark? Those that have it are all going to see it differently. Ask them what it is, and they may start talking in generalities, and then in specifics, as they slowly circle around it, trying to say just what the spark is. Put ten people in a room and ask them the question, and you will get eleven different answers.

But deep down there is some raw essence that must be the same. It never changes. So the question is really this: what is the essence of good management? What is it that all good managers of themselves, others, or responsibility areas, do well? Conversely, what is it that all bad managers do not do well? We feel the answer is very simple:

The essence of management excellence is getting the right things done well.

The Management Maturity Model

Within that answer are two key factors: figuring out what the right thing to do is, and getting it done well. For simplicity we model this as doing the right thing or the wrong thing, and doing it well or poorly. This gives us the four levels of the Management Maturity Model:

Level 4 - Does the right things well.

Level 3 - Does the right things poorly.

Level 2 - Does the wrong things well.

Level 1 - Does the wrong things poorly.

Management excellence is thinking at level four as a matter of habit. Your company, your department, a project, or your personal behavior may not be at level four, but you are thinking in those terms and trying to get there.

Notice how we did not define managment and then say the spark is knowing or practicing the definition. For example, a reasonable definition of managment is, "Seeing what the best things to do are, developing a plan to achieve those objectives, and then managing that plan." Why does this fall short? Because it describes how to get the right things done well, rather than the goal of getting the right things done well. It also does not imply the four levels, which are an extremely powerful model to guide one's thinking, as we will soon show. Instead, it is a rote procedure. It is a less powerful, but more easily learned, approach to becoming a good manager.

The four levels may also be conceptualized this way:

Right Thing
Wrong Thing
Done Well
Level 4
Level 2
Done Poorly
Level 3
Level 1

Or this way:

The Wrong Thing Right Grid

This second grid is how Leading Strategic Change, by Black and Gregersen, 2003, page 11, models this concept. As good as this book is, it skips discussion of level one, does not use the concept of levels, and never quite gets to stating what the spark of good management is. However, it strongly emphasizes the importance of changing a person's mental model to change their behavior. The above grid is that model, which is used over and over in the book. The book also presents a very good discussion of the cycle of a company moving from one state to another and the various forces involved. For that cycle we are indebted to these authors.

A Causal Flow Diagram Perspective

Probably the most powerful way to show the four levels is a causal flow diagram, because this best shows the way system state changes dynamically. And that is exactly what a good manager is trying to do: move the system state from a lower level to a higher one. They try to stay in level four as much as possible or better yet, all the time. Here's the diagram:

Cycle of Change

The system can go from one state to any other one, but for simplicity we are only showing the most common state transitions. We will also only consider business management as we discuss this cycle. However it is also applicable to anthing that requires management. Now let's take a walk through the diagram. (Note - You may want to open another browser window so you can see the Cycle of Change while you read the rest of this article.)

Level One - A business usually starts at level one. They have a vision, but it's probably not quite the right one. Because the company is trying to do something they or no one else has done before, it cannot be done well at first. And so most businesses start at level one.

But if they have seasoned leadership they can start at any level they want to, including level four. Deep analysis of customer needs, competition, the history of the market over time, and such, can lead to doing the right thing from the start. Similarly, they can launch a carefully planned R & D effort to perfect how to do things well. Because what they are doing during startup is R & D, and not production, they are doing things right from the start.

But most businesses start at level one. Because they are invariably specializing in something, by doing the same thing over and over they get better and better at it, until one day they are doing it well. At that point they are at:

Level Two - But they are still doing the wrong thing. This is because figuring out the right thing to do is much more difficult than learning how to perform a task well. Why is that so? There are many opinions on this. Ours is that figuring out the right thing to do requires understanding a much larger portion of the system than figuring out how to do a task better.

Eventually the firm figures out the right thing to do, and they start doing it. Now an interesting state transition occurs. They are now doing the right thing instead of the wrong thing. But because that is a new thing to them, and often to everyone, at first it is done poorly. This may be unexpected. It may even be unnoticed or denied. But this is a classic transition, due to the forces involved. It tends to be exactly what happens as a business climbs up the steps of the Management Maturity Model.

So they are now doing the right thing poorly. This takes them to:

Level Three - Anyone who achieves this level deserves a pat on the back. It is not easy, especially in a highly competitive world, to spot the right thing to do. That's because everyone else is too. If everyone one spots the same right thing to do, then it is no longer right, because everyone's going to be doing it and none will have a competitive advantage. This is a bit of a paradox. The only way out is to see what others cannot see before anyone else sees it. In that sentence lives a large kernel of the spark of management excellence. But keep it a secret, and don't tell anyone I told you this.

Once you have reached this level, moving to level four is easier than getting to level three. Why? Because it is harder to determine the right thing to do than to do things right. So, much of your time is spent in level two, trying to move to level three. But once you are in level three, movement to level four can occur much faster.

And so, by doing the same right thing over and over, you learn how to do it well. This leads to:

Level Four - This is where you want to get to and stay. This is because doing the right thing well offers the highest rewards possible. There is no higher level.

We have called this the Cycle of Change. But what is changing here? You may think it is the company, as it matures. But that is not what "change" refers to. It is the ecological niche that is changing. Because corporations can be considered living entities, their markets are all unique little niches, spread out over the globe. Just as the biological environment continually changes, so to do markets. And so sooner or later your market niche changes so much that what was the right thing is now the wrong thing. When this occurs, you are now back at level two, and the cycle begins all over again.

The Passing of the Spark

Let's bring this model of behavior to life with a few examples from my own business management and consulting career.

How did I get the spark? Long ago, back in 1971, I dropped out of college. It seemed to have no relevance to what I wanted to do. Of course, I didn't know what I wanted to do, but that didn't matter. So I got a few odd jobs and enjoyed life.

One day a friend, who knew I'd dropped out of the Georgia Institute of Technology, a good engineering school, told me a friend of hers was looking for someone to help him start a business. I jumped at the chance and went over to see Marty Rubin, a lawyer. By extraordinary coincidence, it was already named Jumping Jack Flash. Then again, may be it was not a coincidence.

Marty wanted me to manage design and production. He would take care of sales, finance, and everything else. The business was hand tooled leather belts and purses, which was then a fad in the United States. He soon sold me 10% of the business for $2,000 and we became partners.

Now here's how I got the spark. I didn't know anything about management at first. I'd been just an employee all my life. Marty knew that. He also knew I had aptitude and motivation. So every morning, on his way to work, he stopped by Jumping Jack Flash and spent anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours with me. After about two years of this I had the spark, although it took me another 20 years to realize what had really happened then....

A common exercise, which he seemed to enjoy greatly, was going through the morning mail. He would pick up an envelope and say, "Ah, a letter from customer A. We haven't heard from them in three weeks. I wonder what they have to say?" I had no idea. And then, guess what? He didn't open it. Instead, he said something like, "They've been ordering about once a month. They seem to be on a regular order cycle, wouldn't you say? But if that's the case, why are we hearing from them a week early? What does that mean?" I didn't know of course, so Marty would continue with, "It probably means they have run out and this is a rush order. Because they ran out of a few sizes, it's just an order to fill a few gaps. Later we will get their usual order after their monthly inventory. So this is probably an order for two or three dozen belts."

And I would nod my head wisely in agreement, all the while looking intently at the letter he held in his hand. I expected him to now open it, confirm his guess, and then we would move on the the next one. But what did Marty do? He wasn't finished yet. He would say something like, "But you know Jack, our most popular size in the resort towns like the one customer A is in is medium. So they probably ran out of mediums." More nodding of the head on my part. "And lately they've been selling more of our new owls and trees design, plus they seem to be getting out of blue tones. So I'd guess they have ordered a dozen medium owls and trees, and a dozen assorted brown tones."

And then he would open the letter, and about half the time he would be right! I was amazed when this first happened, and continued to happen. But after a few months, I was making predictions of my own, and looking at clues on my own, and bit by bit thinking on my own. What was I thinking? About what was the right thing to do, from the customer's perspective. I was tuning into the world around me and deciphering it's buzzing, blooming confusion into an orderly, predictiable model of behavior, so that I could more easily decide what was the right thing to do.

Marty continued his morning drills. He would go over the previous day's phone call log, giving me similar displays of his marvelous deductive powers. He would discuss problems I had encountered, and determine, from what seemed to me to be almost no evidence at all, what probably caused them. Then, working backwards from that, he would show how the problems had followed inevitably. His analysis was usually so clear, so right, and so simple the solution was obvious.

I managed design and production at Jumping Jack Flash for three years. Sales soared as the fad curve went up and up. And then sales took a nose dive as the fad collapsed, as all fads do. About a year after I left, we closed the business down. That auspicious chapter of my life was over.

The Growth of the Spark

The whole Jumpin Jack Flash experience was such a dizzying rise and fall, and so novel compared to what came before, and I had learned so much, that I was in somewhat of a state of wonderment when I left. I traveled a little, read a lot, pondered the mysteries of the universe deep into the night with my friends, and so on. (At this point I might have had some of the spark, but it had not yet been fanned into flame. After all, Jumping Jack Flash was a boom and a bust. It was not that successful.)

It was then that I heard about Diversitech. One of my buddies, Mickey Chaffin, worked there. He said I might be interested in it. It was only half a mile away, so I rode my bike over one day and looked around. I didn't think much of it. Diversitech manufactured precast lightweight concrete pads for air conditioners and heat pumps. This involved mixing up concrete, pouring it into metal trays, putting in some reinforcing mesh so the pad was stong, striking off the top with a stick so the pad was flat, letting it cure for awhile, tapping the pad out of the tray, and then cleaning and oiling the tray for the next cycle. It looked like hard, dirty work. About 15 people worked there. The lightweight concrete was a novel formulation. It was so light it would almost float in water, but looked just like normal concrete. I expressed mild interest and went home.

A few days later we were having a party and George Turner dropped by. He was one of the three founders of Diversitech and current President. All three were PHDs from Georgia Tech. He asked me what I thought of Diversitech and implied he wanted to offer me a good position there. It's been a long time, but I said something like, "I think what I'm going to do is to just start at the bottom, and see how far I can work my way up." That must have put a sparkle in his eye. I started the next week as a laborer, carrying buckets of concrete from the mixer to the trays. What a start....

Thinking back on it now, it was silly to do it that way. But then again, how else could I have learned every inch of the business so fast and so deeply? First I carried buckets. I soon learned not to fill them so full. Soon I got in shape and could carry two at a time, one in each hand. And then I became good friends with the mixer man, Toby Whitney. He was a good fellow. His dream was to turn pro someday on basketball, but due to a knee problem, that was just not in the cards. So here he was, a bright, big, strong fellow, lifting 96 pound bags of cement up, cutting them open, and pouring them into the mixer, along with sand, water, polystyrene beads, and some chemicals. During lunch he and the guys would get up a game of "hoop." They'd shoot baskets and joke, and some would dream the dream about going pro someday. One slender fellow, Slim, at 6 foot 7 inches, had the makings a real player. Every morning he'd come walking in, and someone would say something like, "Hey Slim. You still here? I thought you were going pro!"

So I learned mixing. And I learned "striking," the fine art of using a stick to strike off the excess concrete and smooth out the surface after the concrete had been poured from a bucket into a tray. At first it took several minutes. After a few months, it took about 15 seconds.

And so it went. In a few months I could do all the jobs and knew all the people, even Anne and George, the only two "office people." Everyone else was in production or delivery, which was done by our trucks to dealers in Georgia.

It was hard, dirty work. I'd get so much concrete on my pants that I would go home, take them off, and if I was careful, I could get them to stand up by themselves!

Bit by bit, I began making improvements in production. Some were little, obvious things, like arranging materials and tools so that work would be more efficient. This was the low hanging fruit. I kept making small improvements every day, even getting to the point of listing the changes that might be possible, and checking them off as I got to them. It wasn't long before I got to the non-obvious changes, like quality.

Diversitech had long had a problem with pad breakage. The concrete pads would develop tiny cracks as they cured. (This took a few days.) Or they would just seem weak. The result is many were breaking up while still in our yard, or worse yet, in the dealer's yard, or the ultimate tragedy, in the installer's hands. All in all, breakage was running 5% to 10%. And it was giving the product a bad reputation.

I didn't quite know all this when I started working on the problem, since I was still just in production. But I could see it was a problem that must be solved. So I read up on concrete and started taking samples every day. After they cured in a few days I'd check them for strength. When I found a weak one(s), I'd talk it over with Toby, the mixer. What might have caused this one to be weak? He'd think back a few days, and so would I. Very soon a pattern developed: It was an improper mixture of some kind. Too much water, not enough, the sand was too wet, the mix was run too long and so the air entraining agent started bubbling too much, and so on.

Bit by bit, day by day, week by week, we worked on quality. I ordered a special concrete compression measurement tool. We began sampling every mix. I began analyzing data series for patterns. We also started breaking up good pads to look for problems inside. All this led to the need for tight, repeatable production processes. (This is nothing new to the business world, but it was new to me and Diversitech.) The mix had to be accurately done. The pads had to be cured not too fast. The mix formula was refined substantially, even to the point of experimentation with new ingredients to reduce tension failure, the physical reason for breakage. In about 6 months breakage was so low as to be no problem any more. It was indeed a pleasure to see the trucks returning empty almost all the time now: they were not backhauling any broken pads for credit and disposal. Somewhere around this time George made me Production Manager.

Quality was not Diversitech's only problem. There were many more. I was reading books on production, management, and all sorts of things by now. To think like a businessman I was reading Business Week cover to cover. I did a workflow analysis and tightened up the production process. But I was stuck on one thing: we were still carrying buckets of mud (as we called it) around. We were also standing around waiting between mixes. This was insane! There must be a better way. So I got bold and designed a 10 foot high platform with a roof to put the mixer on. It would empty into a steel hopper with jaws at the bottom. A tray would be slid underneath. The jaws would be opened just a bit, and concrete would flow out into the tray. When it had the approximate right amount, the jaws were closed, the tray was struck off, removed, and the next tray was slid in. It was a promising design. But would it work?

I built it myself out in the yard with occasional help, while production went on around me. It took about two weeks. And then the big day came to test it. We temporarily moved the mixer up on the platform with the forklift. Then we lifted up some sacks of cement, buckets of sand, barrels of beads, and we were ready. We did the first mix as everyone watched, using our same proporations, accurately measured. The mix "looked good", as we say, and so we poured it into the hopper. Then we eased the steel jaws open and poured the first pad. Disaster! It was too runny. You could see the excess water dripping out of the jaws, and coming to the surface when striking off. Scratching our heads, the cause turned out to be the fact that when you dump an entire mix in the hopper, if you have paid your gravity bill the extra pressure at the bottom of the hopper causes the water to be forced out of the saturated cement. The solution was simple: less water. A few more mixes, and the pads started coming out perfect! Happy days!

It was a big success. Production immediately switched to the new process, and the old mixing area was abandoned. Now, every time I walked by it I would think, "That was the old way. Why did everyone do it for so long?" That was a question that over the years, evolved into a more proactive one: "This is the old way. Is there a better way?" As simple as that question is, it seems few ask it. And fewer still answer it right.

In about two years production per manhour tripled. By now I was acting general manager. George left to start another business. I was on my own.

I wasn't satisfied with the usefulness or the timeliness of our monthly financial statements (prepared by an outside accountant), so I taught myself double entry accounting and did the books myself. Soon I had instant, accurate data. Better yet, I understood where that data came from. I now knew every speck of what composed an Income Statement and a Balance Sheet. I totally redesigned both. Now where to look for further improvement was far more obvious. The data spoke to you loudly.

Early on, while still in production, I had started my "daily key indicators." These are daily figures like total production, rejects, breakage, average compressive strength, number of workers that day, and so on. You could glance at it and instantly see how things were going. Trends and patterns were easy to spot.

So when I moved into the financial area, I just added more data to the key indicators. I started a weekly key indicators. It had total pads ordered, total shipped, total on backorder, etc. It had dollars for sales, receipts, expenses, receivables, payables, etc. It was not hard to calculate a rough net profit from this, and so we now had instant feedback on how well the business was going. Since production (and hence costs) was under control, it was now time to work on the other side of the net profit equation: sales.

So I did up a sales strategy, hired Diversitech's first salesman, and off he went to start selling accounts outside the state of Georgia. He turned out to be a bad salesman, and we had to replace him, but it was a good decision. Sales started climbing and quickly doubled. And so for the first time, Diversitech was now firmly in the black.

This story should not go on any longer than it takes to show how the spark grew. I've taken the time to write it down, so that you can see how highly motivated I was, and how I struggled, learned, and used what I learned to learn even faster and better. Something was there, and it was growing. That something is what I call the spark.

After three years at Diversitech, in 1976 I left and went into small business consulting. Many of my friends were starting or running all sorts of fascinating businesses, and they needed advice. George Turner came back to take up where I left off at Diversitech, and to make even bigger and better improvements. Diversitech went on to become "North America’s largest manufacturer of air conditioning condenser pads and a leading supplier of components and related products for the heating, ventilating, air conditioning, and refrigeration (HVACR) industry." They are even cultivating further radical improvement through their "Invention Portal." (See the menu selection under Unique Products.)

One crucial improvement I made over the years was to increase wages an average of 50%. This attracted better people and retained them longer, because they could now treat a job at Diversitech as a career, or at least a long term proposition. The better the people, the better the results.

But What Is the Spark?

I refuse to say, until you, the reader, try to answer that question first. In a few sentences, what is the spark?

I said before that anyone with the spark can effortlessly say what it is. But they will each say it differently. There is no universal description. From this we can conclude that one person with the spark cannot describe it to another without it, because each of us sees the same world so differently. This presents us with a quandry: How can we say what the spark is to anyone but ourself?

Speculating perhaps more than I should, I would say evidence of the spark is the ability and the motivation to spot and solve problems with a high success rate. But that is well known to some. What is the source of the spark? What is happening inside the mind?

Just as there are many ways to physically solve most problems, there are many ways to think about solving them. Indeed, there is a nearly infinite number of paths the 10 to 100 billion neurons in the brain can take to getting the right things done well, which is the same as spotting and solving the right problems with a high success rate. Because we live in a very complex world, there is seldom a perfect solution to anything. There is only an approximate, good enough solution. Some solutions use exact algorithms, such as addition and division, but most use non-exact approaches known as hueristics. A hueristic is a rule of thumb that tends to give good enough results on the average. For example, if it's cloudy outside, we might take an umbrella with us when we next go out. What we don't do is go outside first, scan the sky, check the temperature, humidity, and barometer, and then go back inside and check to see what the top five weather reports are. Instead, we settle for a quick good enough solution, one arrived at with a hueristic. As we grow up we learn millions of these little useful rules, principles, laws, correlations, witty sayings, or whatever other form they may come in.

And so it seems that when the growth of the mind reaches a certain "critical mass" of the right hueristics, it crosses an invisible threshold and now has enough little automatic rules to have the spark. On the average, when faced with a problem, or faced with finding out what the problem is, that mind can perform well. It runs through its collection of high quality hueristics at lightening speed, and out pop the insights that lead first to figuring out the right thing to do, and then to doing it right.

Once the mind first crosses that threshold, certain new positive feedback loops appear. These loops are built from heuristics that work together in tightly coupled structures. The mind can now learn certain things better and faster. The more it does of that, the better it becomes at doing it. And so on. The result is that once you get the initial spark, which means you have crossed that threshold, your inner development changes gears to exponential growth, and the mind zooms to heights that were impossible (and often incomprehensible) before.

Therefore the spark is a critical mass of the right heuristics, structured into positive feedback loops that greatly accelerate further learning of more of the right hueristics. What is a "right" hueristic? It is one that contributes to right action, such as getting the right things done well.

Is it not so?


Carl Cox: "The figure with weather imagery confuses me some. From my perception, as well as from the text of your article, knowing the right thing to do is more important than doing the wrong thing well. So why is it that doing the wrong thing well is partly cloudy, when doing the right thing poorly is dark and ominous? I may not be following the visual analogy well."

Jack replies: "Excellent observation. I can only guess why the authors of Leading Strategic Change did it that way. Rereading a portion of the book gives no clue. I'd guess they were not thinking in terms of the proper four levels.

But that is neither here nor there. It seems to me that anyone who can spot that sort of thing probably has, at the very least, the beginnings of the spark. You are doing what I call 'challenging your inputs.' This is the skeptical aspect of critical thinking. It is an incredibly useful skill."

Carl, who saw this article grow, has more to say: "As to the spark - it cannot be something that contributes solely to management. It must be something that applies well to management, but influences all other aspects of life. The closest thing that I can place in myself that may be this spark is manifold, and written in the context of managing a theatre production (theatre is a hobby of mine):

- The ability to see from many perspectives: mine, directors, designers, volunteers, etc.
- The ability to balance perspectives. A better phrase may be the
ability to manage perspectives. What I mean is that certain decisions
must be made, none of which will please everyone. You must know or predict which will be the best and present them in such a way that
perspectives can continue to work with them.
- Willingness to take action, to make these decisions.
- Willingness and ability to communicate and convince others, especially those who's perspectives matter, that the decisions make sense.

Naturally, there's more than that. I think the important aspect is the ability to percieve, and the willingness to act."

Jack replies: "There is no longer any doubt. You've got it!"

Martha looked over this article and had this to say: "The spark is a strong desire to understand the process and improve it. In understanding the process, you become less event oriented. You see things differently.

Maybe it's a desire for complete understanding. People with the spark see below the surface of things. They have a fully dimensioned view. It's like most people see the Earth as flat, but those with the spark see it as round."