What Do William Shatner, Conan O’Brien and Continuous Improvement Have in Common?

This post originally appeared on PEX Network’s Advisory Board Column May 23, 2012

Children love stories. Bedtime in my home is a flurry of bathing and pajama finding, teeth brushing and tears…then comes storytime. Stories are magical. They soothe the temperamental and inspire the dreamer. Not surprisingly, not only do children love stories, adults do too.

Stories have been used throughout human history to entertain, engage, and educate people of all ages. Fables, parables, myths, legends, epics, tragedies, and comedies. Many styles and forms all with a common thread: convey ideas.

According to Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of Made to Stick, storytelling is one of the six attributes of making an idea stick. “Sticky” ideas are those that people understand, remember, and that have the power to change opinion or behavior. Isn’t that the goal of the continuous improvement practitioner? To communicate improvement ideas that are easily understood, remembered, and act as a catalyst for behavior change. Here is one way to make continuous improvement ideas stick: Tell stories.

The classic principles of Continuous Improvement lend themselves quite well to telling tales from business, pop culture, and day-to-day life. Here are two that I use to illustrate different continuous improvement principles.

“Problems are opportunities in disguise” – the Conan O’Brien Story

Once upon a time there was a wild red haired, tap dancing, kooky kid named Conan. He liked to tell jokes. Conan spent his entire life preparing himself for his dream job: hosting the Tonight Show. And do you know what? He got it. He loved it. But less than 8 months later, he lost it all.

Now, little Conan wasn’t so little anymore, and he had a big problem. What did he do? He lived out the principle of continuous improvement: “Problems are opportunities in disguise.” He turned this career ending development into a huge opportunity. “How did he do it?” you may ask. He grew an ugly beard, started tweeting, played guitar, wore a skin tight blue leather suit, and went on tour (among many other random things). He was signed later that same year to host his own show on the television network TBS.

To what did he attribute this turnaround? In June of 2011, Conan O’Brien addressed the graduating class at Dartmouth, “It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for profound re-invention.” Conan has arguably achieved more success in his new career than had he stayed the course and filled Carson’s and Leno’s shoes.

As continuous improvement practitioners we teach others to do the same with their business problems. Turn those sour lemons into sweet lemonade. There was once a hotel chain that set out to remove all the lemons their customers were finding with a brand new Six Sigma initiative. Their goal was to give their patrons a defect-free stay. That sounds like a great plan, right? Well, do you know what happened when they started chopping down lemon trees in the customer experience? Their customers weren’t quite as happy with a hassle-free stay as they were when they had minor hassles! This may sound counter intuitive but customers who experienced a problem that was swiftly remedied were more likely to recommend the hotel than those customers who did not experience any problems at all. The hotel had turned problems into opportunities to go the extra mile and delight their customers. (For more on this story see this article.)

“Say yes!” The story of William Shatner’s success

It is important to know your audience when selecting stories to tell. I started teaching continuous improvement awareness to groups of call center technical service agents recently. Stories from the life of John Wooden and Zappos can set the stage teaching what continuous improvement is (sports and shoe shopping are fodder for all) but when teaching tech agents it doesn’t hurt to bring up a legendary sci-fi captain or two.

I like to tell a story from the life of William Shatner. (For those of you who do not know who William Shatner is, pat yourselves on the back for not being a sci-fi geek.). No, I do not compare and contrast between the leadership lessons of Captain Kirk vs. Captain Picard… (although that one is a good one in its own space and time). I let William Shatner set the stage for the principle, “Say yes we can if…not, no we can’t, because…”

Bill has learned one thing in life, and that is to say “yes.” As continuous improvement practitioners we advocate to say “yes,” too. Back in 1968, Bill said “yes” to making an experimental album called the Transformed Man (this is where he introduced his infamous speak-sing style singing). Many ridiculed the work.

A young boy named Ben, saw the album and said, “That’s Captain Kirk! I’ve got to buy this!” That boy grew up to be Ben Folds, of Ben Fold Five fame. Ben really enjoyed the work of William Shatner and said “yes” to collaborating with him on several musical endeavors over the years, including the Priceline commercial Bust a Move. (Bill speak-sings while Ben rocks the cowbell in the background.)

David Kelley, producer of The Practice, saw Bill in that Priceline commercial and exclaimed, “That’s Denny Crane!” Bill was then cast in the final season of The Practice which spun off into Boston Legal. Two Emmy’s later, as well as a Broadway show (where Bill once again performs in his signature style), William Shatner attributes his success in life to saying “yes.” From the Transformed Man to Broadway, Bill says, “No closes doors. Yes kicks them wide open.”

Stories such as these have a tremendous impact when teaching continuous improvement awareness to those just beginning their improvement journey. Awareness training is fertile ground for teaching through story.

Simple stories can teach profound lessons if we ground the ideas we are teaching in a real world example that everyone can understand. I then like to bring in a business story followed by a discussion among the students, exploring their own personal stories related to the principles you teach. Whether you’re teaching them to ask why, use creativity over capital, or attack process not people, pulling stories from everyday life will personally connect the students to the principles you teach. Let Abraham Lincoln, MacGyver, and In-n-Out do the talking. Exploring the world of process improvement through stories makes them stick in the hearts and minds of learners.

Even as the teacher, I learn through the stories my students tell. After a full day on the job teaching and inspiring others to continually strive for improvement, when I come home and tuck my kids in bed they want to hear new “work stories.”

Stories stick, just ask my kids.