By Kevin Meyer
I'm not a big fan of Fast Company magazine – I once was, but then I grew up and realized there's a lot of fluff masquerading as management and leadership. However I still peruse the rag while waiting for my apparently multi-year subscription to end. How did I get roped into paying for so many years??
But I'll give them some props for an interesting article a couple months ago on "cloning bright spots" to solve problems. I really don't believe in the overall premise of the book being promoted, which sort of aligns to why I no longer like Fast Company itself, but the one anecdote described has other interesting ramifications.
Find a bright spot and clone it.
That's the first step to fixing everything from
addiction to corporate malaise to malnutrition. A problem may look
hopelessly complex. But there's a game plan that can yield movement on
even the toughest issues. And it starts with locating a bright spot — a
ray of hope.
Yeah, well, whatever. That's why this is fluff. So let's get on to the actual story and learn something.
When we analyze a big, complicated problem — like malnutrition in
Vietnam, or a married couple nearing divorce, or a business on the verge
of bankruptcy — we seek a solution that befits the scale of the
problem. If the problem is a round hole with a 24-inch diameter, our
brains will go looking for a 24-inch peg to fill it. So, naturally, the
experts on malnutrition in Vietnam wanted to talk about poverty and
education and sanitation systems.
Ok I'll buy that. Big problems don't necessarily need big solutions. Big education problems don't necessarily need big education spending, but perhaps a small tweak in behaviors that drive outcomes. Malnutrition in Vietnam doesn't need massive amounts of aid, but an analysis of what's going on – and perhaps just a small change in behavior. Back to our story.
Ignoring the experts, Sternin traveled to a local village and called
together all the village's mothers. He asked for their assistance in
finding ways to nourish their kids better, and they agreed to help. As
the first step, they went out in teams to weigh and measure every child
in the village. Then, they pored over the results together with Sternin.
He asked them, "Did you find any very, very poor kids who are bigger
and healthier than the typical child?" The women, scanning the data,
nodded and said, "Có, có, có." (Yes, yes, yes.)
He said, "You mean it's possible today in this village for a very
poor family to have a well-nourished child?"
"Có, có, có."
"Then let's go see what they're doing."
So they visited the gemba.
Sternin's strategy was to search the community for bright spots. If some
kids were healthy despite their disadvantages, then that meant
something important: Malnourishment was not inevitable. The mere
existence of healthy kids provided hope for a practical, short-term
solution. Sternin knew he couldn't fix the thorny root causes. But if a
handful of kids were staying healthy against the odds, why couldn't
every kid be healthy?
So what was happening?
The mothers then observed the homes of the bright-spot kids, and,
alert for any deviations, they noticed some unexpected habits. For one
thing, bright-spot moms were feeding their kids four meals a day (using
the same amount of food as other moms but spreading it across four
servings rather than two). The larger twice-a-day meals eaten by most
families turned out to be a mistake for children, because their
malnourished stomachs couldn't process that much food at one time.
The style of eating was also different. Most parents believed that
their kids understood their own needs and would feed themselves
appropriately from a communal bowl. But the healthy kids were fed more
actively — by hand if necessary. The children were even encouraged to
eat when they were sick, which was not the norm.
Perhaps most interesting, the healthy kids were eating different
kinds of food. The bright-spot mothers were collecting tiny shrimp and
crabs from the rice paddies and mixing them in with their kids' rice.
(Shrimp and crabs were eaten by adults but they weren't considered
appropriate food for kids.) The mothers also tossed in sweet-potato
greens, which were considered a low-class food. These dietary
improvisations, however strange or "low class," were doing something
precious: adding sorely needed protein and vitamins to the children's
Small differences, major changes in outcomes. Now what? Tell them what to do? Not exactly.
Sternin refused to make a formal announcement. He knew that telling
the mothers about nutrition wouldn't change their behavior. "Knowledge
does not change behavior," he told us in the spring of 2008 (Sternin
passed away in December of that year). "We have all encountered crazy
shrinks and obese doctors and divorced marriage counselors." The mothers
would have to practice it. They'd have to act differently until the
different started to feel normal.
The community designed a program in which 50 malnourished families,
in groups of 10, would meet at a hut each day and prepare food together.
The families were required to bring shrimp, crabs, and sweet-potato
greens. The mothers washed their hands with soap and cooked the meal
together. Sternin said that the moms were "acting their way into a new
way of thinking." Most important, it was their change,
something that arose from the local wisdom of the village. Sternin's
role was only to help them see that they could do it, that they could
conquer malnutrition on their own.
Real learning must be owned. This is also why bringing in a bunch of "kaizen in a box" consultants won't change a company. Real transformation takes time, with the leader guiding the people to new knowledge, not edicting or shoving it down their throats.
Dozens of experts had analyzed the situation in Vietnam, agonizing
over the problems — the water supply, the sanitation, the poverty, the
ignorance. They'd written position papers and research documents and
development plans. But they hadn't changed a thing.
Six months after Sternin's visit to the Vietnamese village, 65% of
the kids were better nourished — and they stayed that way. Later, when
researchers from Emory University's School of Public Health came to
Vietnam to gather independent data, they found that even children who
hadn't been born when Sternin left the village were as healthy as the
kids Sternin had reached directly. That provided proof that the changes
Sternin's success began to spread. "We took the first 14 villages in
different phases of the program and turned them into a social
laboratory," he said. "People who wanted to replicate the nutrition
model came from different parts of Vietnam. Every day, they would go to
this living university, to these villages, touching, smelling, sniffing,
watching, listening. They would 'graduate,' go to their villages, and
implement the process until they got it right… . The program reached
2.2 million Vietnamese people in 265 villages. Our living university has
become a national model for teaching villagers to reduce drastically
malnutrition in Vietnam."
Go to the gemba, figure out what's really going on. Make small changes and help the people change behaviors. Share the success. Real kaizen.