Herding Cats – Using Lean to Work Together

When Colonel Peter Newell headed up the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) he used lean methods on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to provide immediate technology solutions to urgent problems.

Today, his company BMNT does for government and commercial customers what the Rapid Equipping Force did for the U.S. Army.

Pete and I created the Hacking for Defense class (with Joe Felter and Tom Byers.) One of the problems our students run into is that there are always multiple beneficiaries and stakeholders associated with a problem, often with conflicting value propositions and missions.  So how do you figure out whose needs to satisfy?

Here’s Pete’s view of how you do it.


Unlike businesses, government organizations don’t sell products, and they don’t earn revenue. Instead, they have missions to accomplish and very hard problems to solve.  They use a variant of the Business Model Canvas –  the Mission Model Canvas – to map their hypotheses, and they get of the building to do beneficiary discovery. (A beneficiary can be a soldier, program manager, commanding general, government contractor, stakeholder, customer, etc.)  And just like in a commercial business they are trying to determine whether the value proposition solves the problem and helps the beneficiary accomplish their mission.

Discovery for both business and government is similar in that the only way to do it is to turn assumptions into facts by generating hypotheses, developing Minimum Viable Products and getting out of the building to test those MVP’s in the trenches where the customers and beneficiaries work. Early in the discovery process, teams are faced with a cacophony of personalities and organizations. Often, they struggle with understanding which person or group represents a beneficiary, supporter, advocate or potential key partner. It’s only through repetitive hypothesis testing that they begin to sort them all out.

It’s in the trenches however, where things become different.

Multiple Beneficiaries, Multiple Conflicts
Unlike their commercial counterparts, government problem solvers are often faced with multiple beneficiaries associated with a problem, often with conflicting value propositions. As these differences become apparent, teams must make decisions about the value proposition trade-offs between conflicting beneficiaries – sometimes even pivoting completely in favor of one beneficiary to the detriment of another.

During last year’s Hacking for Defense class at Stanford Team Aqualink experienced the conflicting beneficiaries’ problem.  The result was a significant pivot of both beneficiary and value proposition.

Aqualink started with a problem given to them from the chief medical officer of the Navy SEALS – they had no way to understand chronic long-term health issues divers face. Divers work 60 to 200 feet underwater for 2-4 hours, but Navy doctors currently have no way to monitor divers’ core temperature, maximum dive pressure, blood pressure, pulse and the rebreather (air consumption), or the dive computer (dive profile) data.

Having all this new data would give a diver early warning of hypothermia or the bends. More importantly the data would allow the medical director to individually assess the short and long-term health of each diver. And medical researchers would have access to detailed physiological data. The medical director tasked the team with building a wearable sensor system and developing apps that would allow divers to monitor their own physiological conditions while underwater and to download it for later analysis.

In the first week of the class this team got out of the building, suited up in full Navy diving gear and did customer discovery by spending an hour in the life of the beneficiary.

But as the students on the Aqualink team spoke to the SEAL team divers, (another one of their beneficiaries), they experienced an existential crisis. Most of the divers were “ambivalent” (read hostile) about the introduction of a vitals monitoring platform, (“If you gave to us at 0900, it would end up on the bottom of the ocean by 0905.”) Having worked so hard to get into the SEALS, no diver wanted doctors telling them they could no longer dive.

After further questioning, the team discovered the reason the divers were spending so much time underwater – they often did not know where they were. To find out, they had to get a GPS fix. This meant their minisub (called the SEAL Delivery Vehicle) had to rise to within 6 feet of the ocean surface so the GPS antenna could broach the surface. And to do so they had to surface slowly to avoid giving the divers the bends.

The divers told our student team, “Screw the health sensors. Build us a GPS sensor that can be deployed from 100 feet underwater.”

Now the team had a dilemma. They would have to decide which beneficiary to focus on – the SEAL Team medical director, who was the sponsor of their problem, or the operators of the delivery vehicle and divers within SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team One, along with their immediate chains of command in SDVT-1 and Naval Special Warfare Group 3.

When they went back to the medical director with their findings, he was surprised as they were.  “Never knew that’s why they spent all that time down there.  Heck, yes, fix their problem first.”

Understanding the Problem Context and Problem Ecosystem
As Aqualink shows, getting out of the building – interviewing the beneficiaries, drawing their workflows and mapping a day-in -their-life – will give you a more complete picture of the context in which a proposed problem exists. Talking to multiple beneficiaries will lead to better understanding of the entire ecosystem of the problem. Often this will show that the problem you have been given is merely a symptom of a larger problem, or is the result of a different problem.

The solution is to:

  1. Cross check the results of your discovery between different beneficiaries. Often, you’ll find that they seldom have a complete understanding of one another’s workflows and pain points but instead are championing the solution to a mere symptom of a different problem.
  2. Share what you learned in discovery among the different beneficiaries. This will arm you with the tools needed to get them (or their leadership) to agree on the right problem that needs to be solved first. In many cases this will lead to your first pivot!

The goal is to sort out who has a value proposition that must be addressed first.

The power of beneficiaries helping one another
While discovery with multiple beneficiaries can be confusing and exhausting, there is immense power when all the beneficiaries work together. Therefore, the goal of customer discovery is not just to understand the pains and gains of individual beneficiaries, but to find a shared purpose between all of them.

Once they understand they share the same goal, they can solve pain points or create gains for each other using the resources they already control. A “shared” sense of purpose is a very powerful step in the pathway towards a deployable solution.

When the Department of Energy asked BMNT to build a training program for getting veterans into advanced manufacturing jobs, we saw the power of a shared purpose between multiple beneficiaries first hand.

The problem we were asked to solve is that of the 10,000 veterans who leave military service every month, many remain unemployed or underemployed, yet at the same time the number of unfilled advanced manufacturing jobs in the U.S. is expected to climb to over a million by 2020. From a business perspective, obtaining technically qualified talent is among the top constraints to growth in the US.

Seems like it would be a match made in heaven, right?  Not so fast…

While we initially thought the beneficiaries of the effort were the veterans, we quickly discovered there were other beneficiaries in advanced manufacturing. We found these additional beneficiaries had different pains and gains which in turn required different value propositions to solve their problems.

Our customer discovery taught us that there were three additional beneficiaries:

  • Universities needed to grow their enrollments. Our discovery showed us universities were willing to create programming for Advanced Manufacturing, but first needed to see a business case for how it would increase their enrollment to make it a worthwhile effort.
  • Industry needed to attract and hire qualified employees. We learned that technically qualified employees within industry were in such demand that the number one way to get qualified employees was to pilfer them from others.
  • Government Agencies needed to help their communities build skilled labor pools to attract new industries.

And we learned that our initial beneficiary, veterans leaving service, didn’t need internships or low-paying jobs, but needed jobs that paid enough to support their families.

We found each of these beneficiaries had a shared purpose. And each of them had a value proposition that would create a gain or relieve a pain point for another beneficiary. These were big ideas.

We found that as these overlapping value propositions emerged, we used the results to get the beneficiaries to come together in a workshop designed to jointly create a shared minimum viable product that they could then use to test within their own organizations.

Bringing the groups together in a workshop also served to align value propositions between beneficiaries by demonstrating that there was a way to create a single program that served all their needs. And we created an environment that allowed each beneficiary to discover that the other beneficiaries were partners they could work with in the future.

What was the impact of bringing the beneficiaries together in a workshop and creating this beneficiary ecosystem for advanced manufacturing?

Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL) created a veterans’ jobs program. They teamed with a local college to create internships that allowed veterans to work during the summer.  In turn, the local college created additional advanced manufacturing classes to meet LLNL’s technical needs and the regional workforce investment board provided funding.

In Fort Riley, the Army base in Kansas, the military teamed with Kansas State University to create an advanced manufacturing program. Kansas State created a series of advanced manufacturing classes. Soldiers leaving the service can take these courses at a nearby campus beginning up to six months before they leave service.

An unexpected consequence is that today there are soldiers from Fort Riley using advanced manufacturing processes to create parts for vehicles and equipment at the Army base.

Lessons learned

  • Government problem solvers will often be faced with multiple beneficiaries with different value propositions. Share what you learn from different beneficiaries with each other to sort out which has a value proposition that must be addressed first.
  • The benefit of having multiple beneficiaries is that their strengths can be used to help one another create gains and relieve pains for one another. Creating a shared sense of empowerment from working together smooths the pathway towards scaling the right solution.

3 Responses

  1. Conflicting objectives and value propositions are common even within a single organization — think the product line that always complains that the corporate sales organization never does anything for them. Companies however can create matrixed organizations or ‘strategic market segments’ to realign efforts along common vectors to create strategies that gain corporate as well as line-level support. Both of the examples in Steve’s article show the greater challenges of doing this with external stakeholders, but also the surprising results that can come from them.

    I wonder of this is something that can be condensed down to a methodology that every team and effort can utilize, rather than the large-project, wide engagement, and extended exploration timeframe that these two examples represent? In other words, can it be the rule and not the exception on approach to project management?

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  2. This is THE key challenge in enterprise sales: asking multiple stakeholders “to find a shared purpose between all of them.” As Steve highlights, most big firms don’t communicate well internally. So asking an enterprise to make a change, using technology they don’t know, from a vendor they don’t know, with results they aren’t sure about, is very different than were most founders, especially techies, focus (features & product).

    Described well in _The Challenger Customer_

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    • It was only yesterday that I was speaking to a colleague here in Sydney Australia who deals with military veterans and commented about the high rate of suicide coupled with the inability to filter back into society as well as the lack of work done by the services to “demilitarise” the soldier leaving the services ion 6 months time. This is a program that, apart from delivering advanced manufacturing jobs also aids in reducing suicide and depression for vets who are leaving the services. Get this program downunder and quick please!!

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