Play The Change: Improving Ops Through Gamification
Salvador Zepeda is Autolab’s Founder & COO. He previously worked as an Engagement Manager for McKinsey & Company and as a Business Designer for IDEO’s non-profit arm. He has worked in the energy, healthcare, banking, government and consumer goods sectors across the US, Latin America, Africa, Middle East and South Asia. He and Nicolás Azcuénaga, Autolab’s Founder & CEO, have formed a strong team. Under their watch, Autolab has become an important player in the traditionally informal auto-repair industry in Colombia, with 1.2M USD annual run-rate, and growing 10% monthly.
Salvador, or “Chava,” brings a strong operational toolkit and is passionate about teaching it to his team and wider Polymath creatively. By transforming methodologies such as lean operations, agile operations, and agile leadership into memorable experiential learning games, Chava has become a thought leader in the group on not only for operations, but for best practices in adult learning. We had a chat regarding why he does it and how we can improve it.
Why are these trainings important?
Trainings create awareness. Awareness is where learning starts, but not where it ends. It is the first step out of three towards becoming skillful. For instance, when you learned to ride a bike you went through this process. Before you have ever seen a bike, you don’t even know that you cannot ride one. The first step is to see someone riding a bike so that you become aware that you don’t know how to ride it. Trainings about operations can be helpful at this stage by showing the tools and their potential impact. The second step is to become consciously skilled; you learn by bike but it still requires concentration and awareness. In this step, on-the-job support works better than trainings since most adults learn by doing. And, the third step, you have biked enough so that you can do it unconsciously. This step is mostly about practice.
Trainings are an effective way to light the spark of curiosity and openness about an ops methodology.
How did the ops trainings start in Polymath?
We developed the first training, The Hospital Game, because we wanted to create an open mindset with the employees to adopt lean ops. At that point the shop operated based on the personal experience of key mechanics, but with no lean applications. Gamifying lean ops helped us engage people who may not have been in a classroom in decades, and made abstract concepts such as ops transformation tangible to them. After this success, we continued to develop other games so we could expand the breadth and depth of learning. Finally, after many people from other ventures ask for training sessions, we made the trainings group-wide.
Why is it important to generate openness with operational staff?
Because we needed to convince technical experts to change the way they have worked all their lives.They are not used to having other people telling them how to do their job, especially when they feel that they are the experts. We needed to give them assurance that the proposed methodology was going to lead to a better outcome for everyone.
Why do you use a hospital to teach lean ops to mechanics?
Hospitals are similar enough to auto-repair shops to be relevant, but different enough so that participants will not act as experts. Using a repair shop as the game theme can make people feel like they need to act as experts. A hospital is a new field for them. However, it shares essential operational features with an auto-repair shop. A hospital has beds, doctors and medical supplies. In the auto repair shop: beds are car bays, doctors are mechanics and medical supplies are spare parts. To avoid the expert mindset in trainings, it is helpful to choose a game that shares the essence of the challenges, but does not give people a chance to feel like they know better.
There are other trainings with games?
Yes, in addition to the Hospital Game for lean ops, we have a Lego Game for agile operations, and Trip to Mars for agile leadership. Even a theoretical training of ops methodologies will be peppered with short games to illustrate ops tools and identify know when to use each one. Currently we are building another game to teach financial and value management for operational managers.
Where do these methodologies come from?
It is hard to point out one single source for each methodology. They never developed in a single place; rather, the tools and principles developed in a variety of places and throughout time. Then, a group of people integrated the tools and principles into a common framework. For lean ops, Toyota was the integrator and also a main contributor by adding many tools and principles. For agile ops, a group of software development leaders did it. And, the US Military has also developed a management system for missions that is starting to be introduced in business, which we call agile leadership.
Why do you like operations?
First, there are very few things that allow an organization to have as an immediate and tangible impact as operational transformations. Results are generally observable and fast, at least many of them. Second, in operations there is more art than science. There is a great deal of science because there are innumerable number of technical and analytical tools to improve performance. However, in my experience, even more time is spent in making people change the way they think and behave. That is a world full of uncertainty where educated intuitions increase your odds of success, but nothing will guarantee a good outcome
How did working at IDEO and McKinsey shaped what you do now?
Both organizations transformed me, but each one in a unique way. Each firm has a very different philosophy on how to deal with business challenges. They both have tools, a way of approaching a problem and a determined mindset towards a challenge. I am thankful that together they provided me with a repertoire of mindsets and principles to manage a large range of the entrepreneurial challenges.
McKinsey taught me to be rigorous and practical with my logic, whereas IDEO.org taught me to develop educated intuitions cheaply and fast. Both are important and powerful. The degree of success of each approach depends on your ability to identify when to use each one or how to combine them. If I am in a situation where uncertainty is low, I will use a more logical approach with analytical tools. On the other hand, if there is high uncertainty, I will use a more intuitive approach with iterative learning tools. However, most of the situations are rarely that clean and there are elements with different levels of uncertainty. In that case, the best is to combine both approaches.
How do you think learning can be improved in Polymath?
We need to move from occasional trainings to integral development programs. As I mentioned before, trainings are just the first step towards learning. To be serious about development, we need to ensure that people get a chance to learn by doing and get feedback on that. This could take the form of on-the-job mentoring, secondments in other ventures, periodic reviews, among others initiatives. Also, beyond trainings we need to start documenting and sharing knowledge better. I hope we are able to create a knowledge platform soon to share successes and failures.
If you think this type of learning environment is what you are looking for… feel free to apply here! We are waiting for you.