A Story About Process Improvement - Commoncog

In our last essay we discussed a famous paper titled Nobody Ever Gets Credit For Fixing Problems That Never Happened — which describes how many companies eventually just push its workers to work harder, instead of doing process improvement. We discussed how this happens, and why; we also took a look at a handful of common business experiences to illustrate how this is a phenomenon that you’ve likely already experienced.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://commoncog.com/a-story-about-process-improvement/

How do you think you can screen for people like Byrum or the folks from the DuPont team in the hiring process?

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This is a great question. A couple of unconnected thoughts and observations:

  1. I think the best way to find folk like that is to ask for stories where they’ve done process improvement in the past. The usual caveats about doing reference checks probably apply.
  2. I’d said that people like Byrum aren’t that rare if you hang around startups long enough, but in terms of absolute numbers (e.g. if you count them and then compare them to the number of candidates/hires you make) they’re actually pretty damned rare.
  3. Some people do tend to have more of a ‘do whatever it takes to improve the process’ orientation than others. I’m not entirely sure why that is. Now that I’ve read the paper and thought about it more, I realise what you want to do is to identify folk like that and give them air cover. I haven’t done this before. (The most I did, apart from the ‘keep an engineer/intern in reserve’ was ‘build process/tooling improvement into the promotion criteria for leveling engineers’).
  4. The tricky thing about evaluating these folk is that they may have been constrained by bad org dynamics in prior roles. A possible way around that is to ask the YCombinator application question “Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage”
  5. It strikes me that Byrum (and many other early Amazon employees) may best be described as ‘relentlessly resourceful’. Which is ostensibly what makes for good founders, but then you want folk like that in your company anyway. Of course the next question is how do they (YC/Paul Graham) identify it, and I guess the answer there is ‘ask for stories’.
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Great story.

The most precious resource in an operational area is slack. You learn to protect it with your life or get burned out if you do not.