Industry Insights

The 3 Ingredients to Instituting a Cultural Epidemic in Your Organization

Organizations can learn from “Inception”, “The Tipping Point” and “The Speed of Trust”

We’ve written about a few negative things organizations do in our recent blog articles, like our three-part series on “How to Fail at Communication”.  In this one, we take an alternative, more prescriptive approach and lay out an idea that’s worked for us many times over within organizations.  It combines three things that I personally like:

  1. The movie “Inception” (2010, Christopher Nolan)
  2. The book “The Tipping Point” (2000, Malcolm Gladwell)
  3. The book “The Speed of Trust” (2006, Stephen M.R. Covey)

These three things at first glance may not seem to fit together.  But, let’s look closer – and note that you don’t have to have watched or read any of these to get it.

As a consulting organization, we realize a significant number of experiences per unit time within a large variety of organizations – we are exposed to fantastic cultures, acceptable cultures and bad cultures.  We can see the patterns and attributes that relate to great cultures, and the absence of those in bad cultures.  However, it doesn’t require a Ph.D. to detect when you’re in a bad culture – you can feel it.  So, how can one begin to change the tide?  While this may seem oversimplified, there are three key ingredients needed to get started.

1. Acknowledge action must be taken and begin “Inception”

If you Google the word “entropy”, you will get a much better definition than I can give you, however, the premise is this: over time, and as a general law of energy, systems naturally lose energy.  I won’t bore you with the specifics, but scientists see this repeatedly in nature.

Organizations operate in the same way – if you don’t inject positive energy into a negative culture, it will continue to deteriorate.  The rate at which it deteriorates depends on a variety of factors, but once you recognize there is a negative culture, you must acknowledge that an action MUST be taken to offset entropy.

In Christopher Nolan’s Academy Award-winning film “Inception”, the premise is that one can “hack” someone else’s mind.  You can implant an idea into someone’s subconscious via a dream. That one simple idea can be so outrageously powerful, it can result in actions that lead to different outcomes in their lives and the lives of others.  While this notion is romanticized by Hollywood and for the sake of a film, I think there is merit in examining its utility in organizational dynamics.

We’ve seen “ideas” in organizations take rise from the bottom of the ranks, not in some top-down cultural movement sponsored by the CEO.  We’ve seen simple ideas and cultural tenants move rapidly from the hourly line worker and spread like wildfire through the organization.  Alternatively, we’ve seen the most well-thought-out, dramatic, and expensive top-down cultural turnarounds fall flat on their faces, in some cases creating an even worse culture than what existed previously.

So, the notion of inception is this – even the smallest of ideas, from the lowest in the hierarchy, can spread like wildfire throughout an organization.  Another word that can describe a phenomenon such as this, although normally used in a negative connotation, is ‘epidemic’.

2. Institute an epidemic

In Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling novel, “The Tipping Point”, Gladwell introduces the notion of an epidemic as something that can be architected with the right recipe.  He goes on to describe epidemic-like phenomena such as the dramatic rise in sales for a particular type of shoe, or how videos go viral and spread like wildfire over the internet.  These epidemics seemed to possess similar traits:

  1. The law of the few– The 80/20 rule (or the Pareto Rule), something many of us are familiar with, states that often a small number of things account for the largest change or effect. You don’t need thousands of people to introduce your epidemic, you only need the right few.
  2. The stickiness factor– Just because you have the right people or vehicles carrying your epidemic doesn’t mean your idea will “stick”. Those elements that stick may not be apparent at first but will attack human beings at the conscious and subconscious level.  They are deeply personal and relatable and possess a profoundly memorable quality.
  3. The power of context– Consider the environment your organization is currently in, its surroundings, and the external socioeconomic influences.  These are all critical factors to consider before instituting an epidemic.  A change that would spread in the 1950s may not be appropriate or even relevant in today’s age.

Once you have the right message for your epidemic (according to the traits above), you will then need to address who will carry the news of this impending epidemic.  Gladwell goes on to describe the three types of carriers you’ll likely need:

  • Connectors – These people are connected to everyone and will spread the message.  We all know there are a few people in every organization that know everyone, know everything, probably gossip, and are at the epicentre of what’s going on in the company.
  • Mavens – These are the people the Connectors go to to find out more about the idea.  Mavens will dive deep into the idea to understand everything there is to be known about it.  They pay attention to detail and immerse themselves in this activity.
  • Salesman – These are people that will convince the Connectors and the rest of the organization when they need convincing.  They are persuasive types that thrive on the success of changing someone’s opinion or perspective.

These three carriers, if drawn in a Venn diagram, will likely need to intersect strongly and serve as the militia of individuals to carry your message downstream.  Therefore, we draw a conclusion about patterns and attributes that relate to great cultures, and the absence of those in bad cultures.

3. Pay attention to trust

Stephen M.R. Covey’s book, “The Speed of Trust”, is the final piece to this puzzle.  It adds in a multiplier effect to this epidemic equation, which relates to the ripple effect the notion of “trust” undertakes.  Does your organization trust itself?

Covey goes on to describe trust as a series of ripples with the epicentre starting with self, branching out to relationships, then organizational, then market, and finally societal.  This forms a ‘quasi-trust’ hierarchy.

If you don’t trust yourself and struggle with trust in your relationships, then how can those relationships (the three types of carriers in this case) trust you?  How can the organization trust your relationships to carry the correct message?  Alternatively, if you trust yourself and your relationships but the organization doesn’t trust itself, either via a series of failed cultural improvements, failed turnarounds or leadership turnover, can the epidemic spread quickly?

These are not ‘cut and dry’ situations in most organizations.  We have seen many iterations where organizations experience ‘trust’ breakdowns.  Most ride on an organization’s inability to trust itself and the people within.  We’ve also seen dramatic improvements to organizational cultures simply by getting an organization to adhere to a set of ground rules that work to build trust.  No fancy consulting, strategic plans or statistical models here; simply focus on establishing trust and adhere to basic commitments.


Now that you’ve thought through and deployed your perfectly crafted epidemic, the final step is to monitor carefully to learn how this idea or change spreads through the organization.  Did it work?  Or, did it get stuck somewhere?  Observe its path, understand the bottlenecks, choose when to re-engineer the message, utilize different carriers, or focus on building trust.  This final step will ultimately help your intended idea or message to multiply.

An idea is like a virus, it is resilient, and often highly contagious. The smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.

— Inception, 2010.


It’s Not Rocket Science: Teamwork Takeaways From An Aviation Consulting Internship


In June of 2016, having just finished my second year of Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto, I donned my best guess at ‘business casual’ and went in for the first day of my engineering internship on an aviation consulting team. I was already apprehensive about my lack of knowledge with respect to aviation, which wasn’t helped by the fact that everyone on this team had completed at least as many degrees as I had years of university.  When my supervisor (a literal rocket scientist) told me I’d be ‘fine’, I took it with a grain of salt.

The months that followed taught me a lot about myself, teamwork and about the professional world. Here are 3 takeaways that have stuck with me since then:

Embrace Simplicity, Trust Yourself to Learn

The project I was focused on over the ensuing 3 months centred around optimizing an airport’s existing resources in order to delay a $500 million expansion project for as long as possible. To do this, we had to use projected flight data to simulate future flight schedules. This analysis incorporated accounting for each flight’s size, point of origin, destination, wingspan, passenger capacity, loading and unloading durations, and a host of other factors.

This was a typical problem that many clients faced and outsourced due to its apparent complexity and multifaceted nature. I felt quite overwhelmed when I was first presented with a flight schedule for a large municipal airport. Seeing this, my supervisor smiled a little and told me to “keep it simple, focus on what you understand, and clear away the complicated stuff for later.”

I did just that, only accounting for a small number of variables in my initial analysis, and asked for feedback often over the following weeks. Slowly, and then all at once, I got into the swing of things and was able to make decisions with the data that would have mystified me at the start of the internship. I wasn’t great off the bat, but because the people around me trusted me to learn and improve, I was able to pick up on what I was missing and start doing meaningful and impactful work.

When Others Flail, Leaders Emerge

From my first day on the job, I could tell that the team had a great deal of respect for its leader (let’s call him James), but I couldn’t put my finger on why. He wasn’t the hardest worker on the team, he didn’t make fewer mistakes than everyone else, he hadn’t been there the longest, and he very openly spent at least an hour a day following every form of professional soccer on the planet. Sure, James was smart and personable, but so was everyone else on the team. Maybe James worked hard, but so did everyone else. I kept wondering about this, and then crunch time hit.

Suddenly, our team of 8 had to do the work of 20. Everyone started putting in 12 hour days. Tension started to build, and for the first time, the possibility of not delivering the work on time loomed. Bags appeared under eyes, voices were raised, tempers flared, and as this storm threatened to sink the ship, it was James who got it to shore.

What came across to me as a nonchalant style of leadership revealed itself to be focused and selfless. When everyone else was losing their minds, James was always cool, collected, calm and considerate. He focused not on activity but on results, he made sure to take care of the members of his team when they forgot to do so, and he redirected any fire from the company or from clients to himself, all to allow his team to deliver valuable work on time.

In a word, James was thoughtful, at a time when everyone else was finding it hard to be. He showed me that a true leader is toughest when the chips are down, and his example has been one I’ve recalled many times since.

Remove Blockers First

Twice a week, no matter how busy it got, the team had a meeting to discuss one specific thing: ‘blockers’. We would say openly, without judgement, what (if anything) was preventing us from working as we’d like to, and what could someone else do to remove said blocker. Barring any previously scheduled client-facing priorities, we would prioritize removing these blockers.

On the surface, this activity resolved situations that force you to wait on someone else to perform a trivial action before you can continue with your task. We’ve all been there – if only they would check their email and just forward you that file, or if only they would take 5 minutes to review this document that you’ve spent 3 days on so that you can publish it – then your productivity would be so much higher, right? Focusing on eliminating obstacles removed that communication gunk that clogged our pipes and increased our effectiveness. It also served what was perhaps an even more important function: building trust.

Taking time twice a week to commit to actions that helped each other was a big part of what made this team as tight-knit and effective as it was. Even when my teammates were inadvertently blocking progress, knowing that we were on the same side and had each other’s best interests at heart let us resolve issues quickly. Everyone on the team could trust that the person beside them was working for the betterment of the organization and the achievement of a higher goal. This simple (but by no means easy) practice turned 8 individuals into one of the most effective teams I’ve ever been a part of, and completely changed what I see as value-added work.

Over a year later, and having absolutely nailed ‘business casual’ since then (if I do say so myself), I’ve learned to embrace simplicity, to stay calm under pressure, and that working together to remove blockers will make me a more confident and effective leader, professional, and teammate. If nothing else, I can confidently say one thing about whatever I tackle next: at least it’s not rocket science.


Interviewing Black Belts – Sifting through Candidates for Gold

interviewing black


Having interviewed dozens of black belts for positions in the past, I know that finding legitimately trained and competent Lean Six Sigma black belts is a challenge in the U.S. and Canada.

“I have gone through over 30 interviews to fill one black belt position and still haven’t found one.”

When I heard this statement come from a Lean Six Sigma black belt acquaintance a few weeks ago, I was not surprised. While I admire the quest to find the right corporate fit from a personality perspective, I knew this person was not referring to that, but rather to the challenge of finding a black belt who was truly technically qualified (and therefore capable of helping his business achieve process excellence, cut costs, and bring more money in).

What does it mean to be a qualified Six Sigma black belt?

For those of you unfamiliar with the belt structure and nomenclature, the most common and consistently acknowledged belts are as follows:

  • Green belt – trained with one project completed realizing financial benefits
  • Black belt – trained with two projects completed realizing financial benefits and ability to train green belts

The elusive high caliber black belt – why are they so hard to find?

The problem of finding competent black belts boils down to two issues:

  1. Unfortunately, many programs certify individuals for just going through training or completing a group project (multiple green belts on one project)
  2. There are no internationally recognized standards for training or certification body in the Lean Six Sigma community

I was very fortunate going through my Lean Six Sigma black belt training because my trainer and certifier was extremely rigorous to ensure integrity of his program. His certification rate was just over 50%. You were not automatically certified just going through the training, you had to earn it by also completing the individually managed projects successfully.

Step 1: Ask these two interview questions to sort through the applicant pool clutter

When I interview potential candidates, I always ask two questions:

  • “Can you walk me through one of your projects?”
  • “What sort of statistical analysis methods you have used in the past?”

In order to assess their credibility through their answers, you have to know a little about the project framework for Lean Six Sigma. Most projects will follow the D-M-A-I-C framework (pronounced duh-may-ick) because this method is utilized to repair business process failures causing an undesired state.

Step 2: A real black belt will be able to walk you through their DMAIC framework and how they used it to complete their project

  • Ask them what their “Primary Y” or primary metric was. All Lean Six Sigma projects rely on moving a primary metric from a current state to a desired state
  • As they wrap up their answer, really press for what the primary metric or primary Y moved from and to during the course of their project
  • Ask them what the business benefit was

If their answers do not make sense or they dance around the questions move on to the next candidate.Your cheatsheet: DMAIC stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control

From a high level, the Define stage is used to identify your project charter and scope, form your subject matter expert team and initial business case, and identify metrics that will assess success of the project.

The Measure stage forms a measurement plan to understand the business process, value stream map it, and quantify the areas that may be causing the undesired outcomes.

The Analyze stage is used to do detective work and perform statistical tests to find your root cause(s) to the undesired state.

The Improve stage is as simple as it sounds: design solutions that eliminate the root cause(s).

The final stage, Control, is forming a control plan to sustain your solutions and success as you transition away from the project.

Step 3: If your candidate does not know common statistical terms, pass on them

Next, move on to questioning them about their statistical knowledge. One of the main factors that turn people away from learning Lean Six Sigma is the application of statistics. However, if you are a black belt, you have to know a series of different statistical tests and applications in projects. Hypothesis testing is almost always used in any project – t-tests, regression (f-tests), z-tests, chi-squared tests, etc.

Ask them if they know how to do Statistical Process Control (SPC) charting, Design of Experiments (DOE’s) and Process Capability Analysis.

Using these three simple steps in interviewing, you can easily sift through candidates to find the right one for your organization. Keep sifting, like my colleague, and you’ll eventually find gold.

What questions do you have about interviewing and identifying knowledgeable black belts? We’ve helped companies like yours find and keep talent. Leave us a comment below, or contact our team of cross-functional performance improvement specialists today for personalized support.


Epic Photos, Personal and Career Lessons from my (solo) motorcycle ride across North America

Author: Yussef Hafez (2018)

Last year, I took a break from work — a long one — traveling over 31,000 kilometers through 30 cities across North America and over 100 days on a motorcycle – alone.  I left my home in Toronto and headed across Canada, up to Alaska, down to Arizona, across to Louisiana, and back up to Toronto – with a few extended stops in between.  It was epic in every sense of the word.  Let me tell you, in that time I had come to see the connection between travelling solo and work.

Though I enjoyed it immensely, travelling on my own, like any life path you choose, had its trade-offs.  On the plus side, I was the master of my own schedule; I saw what I wanted to see, did what I wanted to do and stayed as long as I wanted to stay.  I decided where to sleep, what to eat and which direction to go.  But traveling solo, for all its inherent freedoms, also entails some hardships. I missed having someone to share in the adventures, or relive the actions of the day with.  I lived and could have died by my own sword, so to speak.

I realize now, that travelling solo provided experiences, lessons and personal skills that are also invaluable at work — experiences I had not learned in a boardroom.  Here’s what my epic road trip taught me.

Seek The Counsel of Others

Taking stock of your skills and experience or lack thereof may be a sobering task, but understanding what you can and can’t do on a solo trip is imperative.  I wanted to camp at many of the gorgeous national parks this continent had to offer, and as you can imagine, there is limited space on a motorcycle to pack for a 100+ day road trip.  I needed to educate myself on solo camping, so I enlisted the help of those more knowledgeable than I.  The result meant, I only brought the equipment necessary (tent, sleeping bag, stove, camera and laptop), eschewed the unnecessary pieces (like a portable camping kitchen sink? Really? I wouldn’t need one?), and after a few great nights under the stars, gained the confidence I needed.  And the reward was more than worth it.

After a self-assessment, seek out those that have greater experience and leverage their expertise.  In the workplace, finding those that can further a project based on their experience and skill set is a must.

Change Is Inevitable

Although I planned every detail of my trip, things still went awry from time to time. Having a solid plan still requires flexibility in order to adjust and embrace unforeseen circumstances – this adaptability can set you up for success when you least expect it.  Like the time I passed up the chance to stay at a hotel and instead slept under a gas station canopy — in a camp chair, wearing a mosquito net and rain suit.  Why?  Because my bike was low on gas and the station (the only one for another 150 km) was closed until 7 am.   Predictably I slept little, but I awoke that morning to have one of the best diner breakfasts ever!

Successfully adapting to change builds your resilience.  Creating successful personal experiences from unfortunate situations is something you will draw upon – to remind yourself that you have the courage and ability to overcome adversity and succeed (and thanks to my mosquito net) relatively unscathed.

Pay Attention to the Little Things

Big picture thinking is necessary, sure.  In many cases avoiding the ‘weeds’ can really maintain your sanity, while at the same time allowing you to focus on the destination.  But, when you’re on your own, pay attention to the details since there’s no one else to do it for you.  As you execute on the day–to-day of your job, you have the dual role of maintaining the course (big picture thinking) while requiring the occasional dive into the weeds (seeing the detail) — for the details make up the big picture, and it’s imperative to understand both.  Had I missed the little clues along the Merced River, I’d never have found the small trail that led me to capture this beautiful shot of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

There were times along the trip, like in the Yukon, where I appreciated having packed my telephoto. It was comforting to see that this fella was otherwise occupied, when I happened upon him in Brooks Falls, Alaska.

Ignite the Fire Within

Taking time off to indulge in your passions outside of work can reignite your passion for work.  Unplugging the phone, disabling email notifications, and truly embracing your passions, can leave you more energized and focused when you do return to work.  It can stimulate how you approach things, and change your perspective — thereby making you a more effective contributor.

My trip allowed me to merge two of my passions into one. My love of photography and my motorcycle collided here with the Milky Way backdrop in Big Bend National Park, Texas.

And – mine was magnificent!

Having survived this incredible solo experience, and happily back at work for the next while, the only decision I have now is – where to go next?

For the complete story, click to see my photography for more inspiration:

Alaska Volume 1

Alaska Volume 2


Industrial Engineering: The Business of Minimizing Costs

industrial engineering


The key goal of industrial engineering is to save businesses time, energy and money by using a toolbox full of principles and methodologies like Lean, Six Sigma, and Operational Excellence.

Industrial engineering optimizes the interaction between people, machines/assets, and their environment to reduce costs, eliminate waste, and minimize defects. It is now starting to become one of the fields in highest demand, and for good reasons.

The unique goal of industrial engineering: Minimize cost

In all other engineering disciplines, the focus is to generate revenue for companies by creating new products or services. For instance, mechanical engineers are prevalent in the auto manufacturing industry to help design cars, which are then sold for a profit.

In contrast, industrial engineering is the only field in engineering that focuses on the other side of the profit equation for companies: Cost.

This is done by eliminating waste through Lean principles, minimizing defects through Six Sigma implementations, and other related strategies.

Save money with these 3 key areas of industrial engineering

There are three primary areas studied in industrial engineering:

  1. Human factors.This focuses in areas such as ergonomics – the scientific approach to optimizing a human’s well-being in their work environment – and cognitive design – the harmony between how humans use products and services in their optimal design
  2. Process and layout design. This is the scientific approach to calculating the optimal steps to perform work with the lowest headcount possible and the highest amount of quality
  3. Operations research. Scientific techniques (including simulation and statistics) are used to arrive at the optimal solution. An example would be someone finding the optimal routing pattern for UPS drivers to ensure they are traveling the shortest distance and using the least amount of gas

The language of industrial engineering in the corporate world

Today, the corporate world is saturated with buzzwords that have trickled in from the field of industrial engineering. The everyday language of industrial engineers is now being spoken by more and more non-manufacturing businesses around the globe. These terms include:

  • Six Sigma
  • Lean
  • Operational Excellence
  • Total Preventative Maintenance (TPM)
  • Continuous Improvement
  • Business Process Management

The list of terms goes on, but the underlying science that links all of these buzzwords is industrial engineering.

The key to growing profits and your business is process excellence. For that, choose the right employees

What this all boils down to is this: If you’re in need of a way to take your organization’s money-saving strategies to the next level, it’s time to start looking to hire an industrial engineer.

Think about it this way: If you were a CFO, would you want an accounting department manager who went to school for history? If you ran a law firm, would you only employ those who majored in economics? It’s simple: Hire people with the right credentials, and watch your processes improve.

If you want a team that’s fit to help your business optimize costs and save valuable company dollars, you probably want a team of industrial engineers. It’s ideal for a reason – it works.

Looking to take your business to the next level by leveraging these tools from the world of industrial engineering? Leave us a comment below, or contact our team of cross-functional performance improvement specialists today to learn more.