Sounds of Operational Science*

I know there's already a blog that relates Hip Hop lyrics to leadership topics, but bear with me a moment.  This afternoon I was listening to Paul's Boutique by the Beastie Boys while mowing the lawn and thinking of blog ideas.  In the song "Sounds of Science" the Beasties name drop Sir Isaac Newton (over one of the only oboe samples that I've ever heard).  See if you can stay with me on this stream of consciousness trip:

What am I going to write about this week?...

Sir Isaac Newton...

Isaac Newton was a physicist and mathematician...

Who wrote Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy...

Which contained his three laws of motion...

How can Newton's laws of motion be applied to operations?

An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

This one is pretty straightforward and easy to apply.  We all know inertia when we see it.  Inertia is why my wife grabs for the door frame when I make a right-hand turn.  It's why coffee glugs out of the cup when we pull away from a red light.

It's also why we keep doing the same things we've always done in operations.  Why, if we're not careful, our process flows might read "© 1978".  Inertia is the law of "because we've always done it that way."

Thankfully, the unbalanced force needed to start something moving or change its direction comes in the form of one simple question:


Why does our process look like this?  Why have we always done it this way?  Why should we keep doing it? 

We already know that sitting still is not an option, but moving in one direction at the same speed can be just as deadly.

The acceleration of an object as produced by a net force is directly proportional to the magnitude of the net force, in the same direction as the net force, and inversely proportional to the mass of the object.

This one is all about momentum.  Think billiards - or bowling.  Roll the ball straight up the middle and end up with a 7-10 split.  Hit the ten pin perfectly on the right side and slide it across to take out the seven.  Then, think about how hard you'd have to roll a billiard ball to move a bowling ball even a little bit, and you get the idea of force, mass, and acceleration.

So, maybe your team is big and really set in its ways.  Or it's small but needs to take off quickly on a different path.  How do we apply enough force?  Just as in beating inertia, the necessary force is supplied by a question:

What if?

Within those two words are all of the mass and acceleration needed to apply force to the largest organization - or to send a smaller one flying in a different direction.  Especially when the mass of that question is coming from not just one person, but your whole team.  With everyone asking "why?" and "what if?", there is no inertia.  There's only momentum.  And in the direction that you want to move.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

At first read, this seems to say something about the personality of teams.  That for everyone advocating for change, there's an equal number fighting against it.  While that my be true in groups that aren't built for change, Newton's third law is actually much more exciting.

This is the law behind how our car moves forward when we hit the gas- the road pushes as hard forward as our wheels do backward.  It's the law behind only needing to make contact with a hard-throwing pitcher to send a single to the opposite field - the pitcher is supplying the power.

It's also the law that says the more that we push against the old ways of doing things, the harder they must push back in the opposite direction.  It's simple physics (ok, there's no such thing as simple physics).  If your team is pushing away from an outdated process, that process cannot pull you back.  It has to push back with the same force that you are exerting against it. 

But, if you're pulling those processes along by not asking the questions, they will be pulling you back just as hard.  Break away with "why?" and "what if?" and even your old ways have to propel you forward.  It's the law.

And when that happens you and your team will be:

"Ponce De Leon
Constantly On"

* In case you haven't figured it out, Newton was a physicist.  I'm not.  Even if I've taken some liberties with the science, I do believe that Why + What If = Progress.