Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
Menlo: delighting customers by bringing joy to staff

Menlo: delighting customers by bringing joy to staff

Richard Sheridan
May 5, 2015

INTERVIEW – At the recent Lean Transformation Summit in New Orleans, we sat down with Richard Sheridan of Menlo Innovations to discuss the ground-breaking concept of joy in the workplace.

Interviewee: Richard Sheridan, CEO and Chief Storyteller, Menlo Innovations

Photos courtesy of Menlo Innovations

Roberto Priolo: Lean IT, lean software development, agile, scrum, LeanUX… there are so many disciplines that try to improve the software industry. Has Menlo found a different way to get there?

Richard Sheridan: I certainly won’t claim to have all the answers or to have found the perfect solution, but there is no doubt that our shared beliefs system and the attitudes emanating from it are critical to what Menlo can achieve.

We take the idea of “ending human suffering in the world as it relates to technology” very seriously. There are three kinds of suffering we are trying to address:

  • That of the people who pay for software to be developed (budgets commonly run down too soon, deadlines are missed, quality is poor);
  • That of the people writing the code, who work under death march cultures and are given ambiguous directions (way too often, they see a project cancelled even before it gets out of the door);
  • That of users. For so long, the attitude of our industry has been, “You are the stupid users people need to write dummies book for.”

The shared belief at Menlo is that all those situations can be resolved, or at least improved considerably.

RP: What inspiration do you draw from lean thinking?

RS: The interesting thing about Menlo (and what makes the lean community curious about us and us curious about the lean community) is that we did not pursue lean, agile, or six sigma. What we pursued is joy, and solving as many problems as we could that are getting in the way of us delivering that joy to the world.

Along the way (we have been paying attention to lean for at least a decade) we have found that improvement methodologies can teach us a lot, but we have deliberately avoided defining our approach using the guidelines of one philosophy or another.

I personally don’t think you can put the spirit and essence of lean in a box, just like you can’t the human soul. Every organization has to pursue lean (or joy, for that matter) their own way.

RP: What do you think of the lean startup movement?

RS: Lean startup people get out there seeking problems. What problems are there in the world? Who has these problems? What can we possibly do to help with those problems? What value would people receive if we did help? The only way to do this successfully is having a direct contact with the people you are trying to serve (the idea of going to the gemba) and studying them, much like our High-Tech Anthropologists do. So that is definitely something that resonates with us at Menlo.

And then there is also the iteration part of the conversation. Experiments produce surprise results and it is in them that we make the greatest discoveries. I find the agile idea of quick feedback-adjustment cycles, which the startup movement embraced fully, to be the essence of experimentation.

RP: In your opinion, what is the most groundbreaking practical innovation to the way people work that Menlo has introduced?

RS: I think it is the idea of pumping fear out of the room.

Let’s talk about fear for a moment. There is healthy fear (like being scared of crossing the street because we don’t want to get run over), and then there is the fear that we manufacture in our organizations to motivate people.

This type of fear has a physiological effect on us: our body generates adrenaline and cortisol, sending the oxygen and blood supply to our extremities to make us ready to either fight or flee. That oxygen is taken away from our brain and as you can imagine, in a team in our organizations, this can result in the loss of something great. But if we pump fear out of the room, people start to feel safe and to trust one another (which is what makes pairing possible at Menlo). This enables real teamwork and makes people feel comfortable enough that they can ask for help from their partners or teams if they need it. Suddenly, you get what every company in the world wants: creativity, imagination, innovation, and human energy. That’s the Menlo magic right there.

Sure, there other things we have done that make us unique (like pairing, High-Tech Anthropologists or our crazy paper-based management system), but all of that comes from working in an environment where people feel safe.

RP: Can you gauge the impact of joy? If so, how?

RS: Sometimes the best measurements are the ones you cannot put a number on, those where leadership really comes in. When you walk into the Menlo office, for example, the room feels full of energy. It is palpable.

But let’s get practical for a bit. When we focus externally and want to delight the people we are serving, we can certainly measure whether that is working or not: if a product actually provides value, it will take off in the marketplace.  

There is more. Pumping fear out of the room also means having a different system of accountability. We certainly do at Menlo, where we hold people accountable but also look deeply into the difficulties they encounter whenever there is a delay. I have been challenged on this many times. A manager once told me: “In my company, if you say you are going to be done by Friday and you are not, you are going to stay the weekend and skip your kid’s birthday if necessary.” I asked the man what would happen if I changed to his system, and he replied: “Well, people would probably start lying about being done. Quality would suffer, and that would negatively impact morale in the team as you get a bad reputation in the marketplace. Eventually, some of your best people would leave.”

These things might be difficult to put on a spreadsheet, but they are real nonetheless. You were number one in the market, now you are five – that is definitely measurable.

If you provide a product or a service that truly delights people and solves their problems, you are going to succeed. Just look at companies like Apple!

RP: What is the thing that lean people struggle with the most when it comes to understanding Menlo Innovations?

RS: I don’t know about struggling, but the pairing is certainly very interesting for everyone. They see it and are fascinated; we then tell them that we switch the pairs every five days, and it sets them off. “How can you afford it?” “Doesn’t it cut your productivity in half?” With two people at a computer, productivity would go down if it were true that programming quality software is related to the speed of typing. But it isn’t. It is related to the speed at which you solve problems, and two people are always better at that than one.

RP: In Joy Inc, you talk about “situational leadership.” Can you explain this concept please?

RS: I once took my 8-year-old daughter with me to work for Take Your Daughter To Work Day. At the end of the day, while she was packing up her stuff, I asked her what she thought about what she had seen. I will never forget her answer: “Wow, dad, you are really important here.” She was so little and I couldn’t possibly figure out what she had seen that had made her say that. She then told me that nobody could make a decision around there without asking me first. She was very proud of me, but I was mortified because I had just realized that in that hierarchical model I was the top of I had created an organization that could not move faster than me. It was a watershed moment for me, and the beginning of a journey that led to the realization that I was the first person who had to change.

When you are a VP, you keep telling yourself that you need to be the guy with the answers, the smartest one in the room. You know in your heart that you are not, but the world expects you to be.

If you learn to push that leadership down and to trust your team instead, then you get amazing results. People will step up if you expect more of them, so long as you do so in a polite, respectful and caring way.


Richard Sheridan photograph
Richard Sheridan is author of Joy, Inc and CEO and Chief Storyteller of Menlo Innovations, a software company that has proved there is an alternative to traditional organizational design and processes, one that is based on the pursuit of joy on the workplace

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