Some of us have a strange hobby: management. Believe me, it makes for riveting family vacations.

So one recent weekend I went for a long walk with my friend Frank. His humility impels him to decline further identification, although I will say that he runs a very successful manufacturing company.

We turned to--what else?--factories, and Frank provided me one of the best lessons on site management I've ever heard.

As it happens, this lesson can be used in any enterprise with more than, say, one employee.  

It seems he was guest lecturing in a distinguished business school in Connecticut. It's in New Haven and it's not Yale but he, again, declined further identification. Anyway, he had a number of lessons he wanted to dramatize so he turned to that age-old management tool, Lego bricks.

My kid's a genius!

As all parents know, there is a certain joy to this brand. It makes every parent feel that their kid is going to be a great architect or aeronautical engineer. Some of the more complex creations take pride of place in the child's room until they themselves have kids.

And if you ever forget that one of the joys of life is having creative kids, stepping on a Lego while barefoot reminds you right-quick. More than once I've been forced to put a sawbuck into the swear jar after making a patented six-plug imprint on the bottom of my poor middle-aged dogs. 

Back to the class

So Frank gives his MBA students three packages of the same toy, each package somewhat different from the next.  The first packet is a straightforward Lego bunny, comprised of about 32 pieces and suitable for six-year-olds to make. He hands that to five students.

The second package contains the same bunny, but with no box or illustrations, and only half of the instructions. Five students get that.

And the last package goes to five students also. It has the bunny bricks but no box, no instructions. This goes to the last group.

He tells the students to come back in 15 minutes with a completed bunny.

The first group returns in five minutes with a beautiful bunny, complete with two carrots.  The second group also comes back with a bunny-like creature, but in 15 minutes.

Explain it to me like I was six

After 25 minutes he sends out a search party for the third group, which is putting the finishing touches on rabbit Frankenstein. There are even couple of extra parts left over to jump-start the Bride of Franken-bunny.

The groups were encouraged to put their creations at the front of the classroom. Group two is pretty satisfied. They got through the exercise. Group one, as it happens, is very, very satisfied. Until Frank reminds them that it took five adult MBA students to do what one six year old does for fun.  

Group three didn't want to talk about it. They were so mad, they just sat down and fumed. and they clearly had not enjoyed each others' company during the bunny-building.

Can we be Frank?

Here's Frank's reaction to all this: he brought the exercise to a business school to emphasize the importance of instructions in manufacturing.  

And in this, the exercise was completely successful. How can we succeed in manufacturing if the item to be produced is not described to those who make it?

But I think the play brick exercise goes deeper. Remember that the group with good instructions was so happy with themselves? And the group that didn't have the right instructions were fighting?

I know what would have happened if we had switched groups. The first group would now fight, and the other group would breeze through.

Cliques and clicks

So the drama that we see in the dysfunctional group came not from their own twisted  personalities, but from the lack of support in the situation.

Can we please see the importance of this lesson in our businesses?  We are often so eager to judge people as personality types, when our own lack of clarity on what they are to do creates the drama. I will be using this exercise in my consulting practice, and I suggest it also for all management coaches. The lesson is: blame process, not people.

Because our people are like Lego bricks: they just want to...click.

Published on: Jun 11, 2018
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