Nearly 40 year later, I’m still convinced I got screwed out of thousands of dollars.
I was a new machine operator in a plant that produced millions of books each year, spread across tens of thousands of titles; each new run required adjustments for length and width, thickness, materials, etc. That made job changeover times (we called them “makereadies”) a key factor in overall productivity.
From what I heard a few supervisors say, reducing makeready times was about to become a major focus.
So for a few weeks I spent my off time creating a comprehensive plan for reducing production line makereadies. I did experiments on idle equipment at night. I spent a couple weekends making sure my ideas worked.
The end result was over fifty pages of specific changes to processes, equipment, materials flow, and job sequencing. No fluff. All actionable.
Keep in mind I wasn’t just taking one for the team. The current suggestion system paid awards in two ways. For intangible improvements, a supervisor could award from $25 to $300. For productivity or waste reduction improvements, the award was set at 25 percent of the first year’s savings.
So yeah: My 25 percent would be a considerable sum, but the company got the other 75 percent. (Ain’t nothing wrong with enlightened self-interest.)
I turned it my plan. Weeks went by.
Whenever I asked, I was told my plan was still “under review.”
Then one day a department-wide makeready reduction initiative was announced. Teams would be created to focus on different production lines, different pieces of equipment, and different inter-dependent processes.
What happened to my plan? When all the department supervisors met to discuss my plan, one of them — the most senior — preempted the discussion. He said the effort was too important to not involve every person in the department. He said he had often seen “solo ideas” destroy overall morale. He said awarding a new operator like me thousands of dollars went against the spirit of the suggestion system.
He said that my ideas needed to be shelved in favor of a high-profile, department-wide initiative.
“Your plan was just too much,” my boss told me later as he handed me a $300 award certificate for “intangible” improvements. “Especially from a brand-new operator.”
“But it’s not too much for a couple hundred people to work on?” I said.
He rolled his eyes, shook his head, and flicked a wrist to shoo me away.
(And clearly never forgot.)
You probably know by now how Amazon runs some of its executive meetings. According to Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets From Inside Amazon, in 2004 Jeff Bezos required Amazon employees to write a six-page, narrative-driven memo that describes new ideas, processes, or businesses. (In short, to “sell” a project.)
Meetings start with attendees silently reading a hard-copy document containing the information needed to discuss the issue.
Why written narratives instead of presentations?
According to an essay by Edward Tufte the authors say Bezos et al relied on for inspiration:
For serious presentations, it will be useful to replace PowerPoint slides with paper handouts showing words, numbers, data graphics, and images together. Handouts allow viewers to contextualize, compare, narrate, and recast evidence. In contrast, data-thin, forgetful displays tend to make audiences ignorant and passive.
Memos contained ten times as much information as presentations. Memos better addressed all sides of complex issues. Memos give everyone a chance to think.
And then there’s this: Charismatic presenters can better sell ideas — even poor ones. So can presenters with real or implied authority.
While great ideas often fall flat if the presentation is poor. Or if the presenter is a junior member of the team.
Stop Presenting and Start Writing
If you’ve adopted the six-page narrative approach to run your meetings, great.
But don’t stop there. Start using written narratives whenever you — or the people who work for you — want to propose new ideas or describe new processes.
Because if it’s worth doing, it’s worth explaining.
Provide facts. Provide figures. Provide reasoning and logic. Follow the old “state, support, conclude” format.
Rely on clarity of thought — on support and justification — rather than charisma, or authority or, the time-honored tradition of “winging it.”
And expect others to do the same.
As the authors of Working Backwards write:
Six-page narratives are also incredibly inclusive communication, precisely because the interaction between the presenter and audience is zero during reading. No biases matter other than the clarity of reasoning.
This change will strengthen not just the pitch, but the product — and the company — as well.
Less bias, greater clarity, and stronger ideas, projects, and products.
And a lot less wasted time.