Interview with Neil Ackerman, Head of Advanced Technologies, Global Supply Chain, Middle East and Africa for Johnson & Johnson.
“I see broken processes in my dreams.”
Those were the words that made me know that my interview with Neil Ackerman would be an interesting one, and he said it straight out of the gate when I had a chance to talk to him. Neil is Head of Advanced Technologies, Global Supply Chain, Middle East and Africa for Johnson & Johnson and has previously worked in different positions in Amazon.
At Amazon Neil worked on getting rid of friction to make it possible to send small, cheap items (we are talking less than 10 ounces and below $10 in value) to customers at a profit. At Johnson and Johnson his work includes predicting where inventory will be needed in the future and make sure it gets there with as little friction as possible.
“I look to see where the friction is”, he said to me. And that was when I knew that friction would be the topic I wanted to discuss with Neil.
Because in many ways’ innovation is about reducing friction. Come to think about it, business itself is very much about reducing friction.
Find something that annoys someone and find a way to smooth out that experience.
Reduce the friction of getting a quick meal? McDonald’s.
Reduce the friction of connecting with friends? Facebook.
Reduce the friction of meeting over a distance? Zoom.
And so on.
Focus on reducing friction and you are halfway to success already.
Places infamous for lack of innovation (let’s say certain government entities) are also full of friction. (Sad fact: It takes 230 days (!) to set up a company in Venezuela, 173 days in Lao and 99 days in Cambodia, while it takes 1 (one!) day in New Zealand and 2 days in Hong Kong and Singapore… All those extra 228 days in Venezuela are friction.)
When I was listening to Neil discuss his passion for identifying and reducing friction, I realized that there are different kinds of friction: Visible Friction and Invisible Friction. As well as Accepted Friction and Unaccepted Friction. Let’s look at the four different types of friction, because by putting names on them they become clearer, and when they become clearer, they are easier to understand.
Visible Friction are places where people see that there is a problem.
Invisible Friction are things that annoy the users, but the users are not aware of it.
Delayed flights: Visible friction. (People will very quickly vent their frustration if a plane is delayed.)
Having to pay for a taxi ride when you have arrived: Invisible friction. (Until Uber came along and showed us how utterly frustrating it always was to have had arrived at our destination and not be allowed to leave right away…)
Unaccepted Friction is when the customer just cannot accept being frustrated.
Accepted Friction is when we somehow accept that there is friction.
Waiting to check in to a hotel: Unaccepted Friction
Waiting to pass immigration: Accepted Friction
(Most people would get annoyed after queuing for just 5-10 minutes checking in to a hotel while they will nicely accept waiting 20, 30 even 40 minutes in line to show their passport in immigration. Well, most people would. Personally, I get annoyed in virtually any queue I am in.)
So, the two sets of parameters are: “annoying – not annoying” and “aware of it – not aware of it”.
But we could add a third dimension: Because sometimes we find something so annoying and we are fully aware of it being annoying and STILL we accept it. Let’s call that “heavy friction” vs “light friction”.
I asked Neil what creates these islands of heavy friction where it seems everyone agrees that there is huge friction and it seems everyone also agrees that it must be fixed – and yet we see no action to fix it.
Neil thought for a while and then said: “When we see that it is usually because of three reasons” and then he said:
“1) follow the money –
2) follow the culture
3) follow the government.”
There is either someone making a lot of money as long as nothing changes. Or there is a culture in the organization about keeping the status quo. Or it is – frankly – just a government organization not willing to change.
Now, do not get me – or Neil – wrong. Sometimes there is a reason for friction. Sometimes it makes sense to throw some sand into the machinery. But most of the time it does not.
I asked Neil: “So, what is the opposite of friction?” and his answer hit me like a brick. He replied: “The opposite of friction is harmony.”
I love it.
And then he added something that I liked even more. He said: “You know the opposite of friction is when you see it.”
And it is true. When things just move smoothly and effortlessly., you just know it’s right. Like Amazon.com one-click buy. When your computer remembers your password. When a bartender knows your favorite drink. When a hotel has put in your favorite soft pillow in your room. When traffic lights are programmed to stay green if you drive the legal limit.
When it takes one day to start a company.
So how do you build a culture of wanting to reduce friction? My final question to Neil Ackerman was to give some practical advice. His reply:
“1) Be obsessed with inspiring people. Inspiration is the antidote to friction.
2) Share examples and tell stories about other ways of doing things.
3) Encourage a pragmatic mindset. By being pragmatic you are more open to changing your mind about what you do and how you do it.”
Remember: Look for friction everywhere. Both the invisible kind, and the frustratingly obvious kind. Then reduce it.
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