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The business value of joy – at last!

February 21st, 2014 | Posted by admin in Book reviews | Management

“Joy, Inc. – How We Built a Workplace People Love” – ©2013 Richard Sheridan, Published by the Penguin Group

“I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.” – Thomas A. Edison

I apologize. This is not really a book review. It’s a plea. Put duct tape over the title if you must, but take Richard Sheridan’s book seriously. There may be something in “Joy, Inc.” to be critical of but I have no idea what it may be.

If you go buy this book (and you most certainly should) you’ll probably do so without telling anyone and without leaving it in plain sight on your desk for everyone to see. Rich explains why in his introduction:

“Joy in business sounds ridiculous. Perhaps that’s why, early on, I hedged on writing about building a culture of joy, why I was tempted to equivocate. Joy is a pie-in-the-sky, cymbals-clanging, music-playing, radical dream.”

But he also knows why we picked up his little book and brought it home anyway:

“It’s because you are hoping, somewhat beyond hope, to bring joy into your own workplace. Deep down you know that there is a better way to run a business, a team, a company, a department. You’ve always known it.”

Sheridan’s company, Menlo Innovations, is a custom software design and development firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The company name is a nod to Rich’s childhood hero Thomas Edison and his Menlo Park laboratory. Sheridan’s company is populated by Menlonians, a quixotic, talented, persistent, and relentlessly joyful group of presumed Earthlings. Their mission is “to end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology.” I imagine there’s a little tongue in their cheekiness, but all of us have our own stories of suffering the impertinence of bad software.

Menlo Innovations has won five Inc. magazine growth awards and was named one of 2013’s twenty-five most audacious small companies. People come from all over the world just to see the Menlo culture firsthand. In 2012 alone, they hosted 241 separate tour groups, totaling 2,193 visitors. All of which is impressive but not really the point.

As I read Sheridan’s stories and began to imagine I knew something about what Menloworld must be like to live in, I was struck by how much this narrative reminded me of my first exposure to the Toyota Production System and Lean Manufacturing: engaged people doing interesting experiments and improving their workplace. They even make good use of Post-it notes and visual management.

But I also realized that I was making the same mistake of getting caught up in Menlo’s interesting implementations and not paying enough attention to the radical thinking that gave rise to their unique structure and culture.

The fact is, if you look at John Shook’s (LEI’s CEO) YouTube video on the Lean Transformation Model you’ll see that Menlo’s creation fits right into his model. What’s different is how Rich and his Menlonians have answered the key questions of purpose (Shook’s “True north”), the role of leadership, and the fundamental assumptions that underlie their particular transformation.

And if you revisit Mike Rother’s “Toyota Kata” you’ll see that Menlo Innovations also uses his “Kata Code” to drive improvement and avoid falling into an implementation rut.

What is so beguiling about the Menlo story is they see joy as an end in itself. The fact that it has turned out to be a competitive advantage is almost regarded as incidental. One of the most telling stories in ‘Joy, Inc.’ talks about the largest bonus checks ever given to Menlo employees. The founders were feeling gratified, but an awkward conversation with one of those employees gave Rich the uneasy feeling that he was missing something. He later learned that the woman he was talking to had been promoted to a senior level by her peers on the same day that the bonus was shared. The bonus was, in her words, a “momentary thrill.” Being made a senior by the people she considered her extended family was “…the most meaningful raise I had ever been given. Joy.”

But don’t get the idea that this book is simply a collection of stories and philosophical asides. Sheridan has crafted a rigorous defense of his worldview and offers a structured way forward for those audacious enough to try.

Rich Sheridan is a wise and usually self-aware leader. We all have much to learn from him and his Menlonians. Treat yourself to a guilty pleasure, read “Joy, Inc.”, visit Ann Arbor, help spread the joy. Then do something very important and very difficult, build your own culture of joy.

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Richard Sheridan is the CEO, co-founder, and Chief Storyteller of Menlo Innovations, an Ann Arbor-based software development company. On their website  you can find additional resources, including white papers, tours, workshops, reading lists, and examples of their work. Go there. Nose around. Heal thyself.

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