Chasing the Rabbit: How Market Leaders Outdistance the Competition and How Great Companies Can Catch Up and Win

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 02-03-09

Author: Steven Spear

Publication Date: 2008

Book Description: What’s the key message?

Steven Spear’s years of observing Toyota and his studies of other companies, both successes and failures, have led him to distill a set of principles organizations can use to be more successful. Spear indicates that great leaders seem to practice them instinctively, yet it is not easy for them to articulate exactly what they do.

Spear’s effort is to make explicit what is implicit knowledge at Toyota. As a researcher, Spear observed what leaders at Toyota and at other organizations did until he could see patterns and derive a theory to explain why they are successful or not. That process led Spear to a viewpoint of complex processes and systems and an explanation for why organizations can or can’t make them work effectively.

To oversimplify, these are the four capabilities he sees in what he calls high velocity organizations:

Capability 1 – Seeing problems as they occur.
Noticing a problem seems like a given, but not all problems are easily seen. Some have been there so long that they seem like part of standard practice. The key is to look at processes and design them to show problems. That practice to make problems obvious rests in pre-specifying how a process is supposed to work. From sophisticated instrumentation on complex equipment to mistake-proofing devices in simpler processes, mechanisms are necessary to make problems visible and surface them for attention.

Capability 2 – Swarming and solving problems as they are seen.
No workarounds! Don’t require someone to report a problem to be solved by somebody else at another time. For one thing, critical information is lost quickly—scrap or defective parts are thrown away or commingled with others, containers or remnants of materials mistakenly used in the process are lost or discarded. Swarming means that if a process crosses boundaries, problem-solvers from each area have to be ready, able, and willing to get together and share their knowledge to find a solution or countermeasure. The problem is corrected, and prevented from recurring.

Capability 3 – Spreading new knowledge.
A process improvement in one cell or one plant can be implemented in many, if the new knowledge is shared. Does the company have frequent training programs, networking or exchange opportunities, communication among leaders across functional areas? Constant attention to learning and sharing is required. It takes more than building a little-used database of best practices. Communication about them must be active. They should be tested for improvement constantly, and those new methods fed back into the loop.

Capability 4 – Leading by developing Capabilities 1, 2, and 3.
This doesn’t mean signing off on a training program. It means having leaders at the highest levels understand the work done by the organization in enough detail to communicate with the people doing that work. It also means that the leader has demonstrating exceptional skills in the first 3 capabilities so that he can teach his organization how to improve.

What are the highlights? What works?

Leaders need to be teachers themselves. They need to be coaches. The stories illustrate different forms teaching may take. It might be a regular Socratic exchange as Admiral Hyman Rickover was known for, or VPs teaching frontline workers about problem-solving and engaging with them in practicing what they’ve learned. It might be the way Paul O’Neill, as CEO of Alcoa, used a focus on safety to lead to all sorts of improvements. He was known to personally explain to visitors where to find emergency exits and what to do in case of an emergency. These examples provide nuggets for readers to develop their own approach.

What are the weaknesses? What’s missing?

The title–“Chasing the Rabbit” doesn’t sound like Steve Spear’s voice as it comes through in the book. The gimmicky title does not contribute to the concepts or their understanding.

Spear gives the 4 Capabilities different names as he moves through the book. After a first encounter with Capability One, in an introductory chapter, where it is described as “Specifying design to capture existing knowledge and build in tests to reveal problems.” The next time the reader finds Capability One, it is called, “Seeing problems as they occur.” In a later chapter, its description has evolved into “Capturing the best collective knowledge, and making problems visible.” When we get to the chapter that focuses solely on Capability One, it has become “System design and operation.”

This name changing has its positive and negative effects. It causes the reader some difficulty in recognizing the principle when it is phrased differently. On the other hand, it may develop that ever-deeper thinking needed to understand how organizations like Toyota continue to vault ahead of the competition.

It would be helpful to have an appendix with more details about Spear’s research methods and the data that led to his conclusions. The extensive endnotes are helpful and the list of references is superb. His reading has clearly been comprehensive.

Overall the book is stronger in setting a vision in terms of what kind of organization you should be building towards, but much less specific and helpful on how to take specific steps in moving towards that vision.

How should I read this to get the most out of it?

It does take several readings to absorb all that Spear is saying. Everyone may read it at least twice to gain all of the detailed understanding, particularly as their experience with improvement grows.

Unfortunately, the book may be too deep for the leaders who “don’t get it”, and therefore they are unlikely to read the book. If they do, they are unlikely to understand what needs to change in their company’s quest for improvement, if there isn’t one.