6 Reasons to Combine your Toastmasters Division and Area Council Meetings

As the Area Governor for Area S56 in the South Suburbs of Chicago, I just came back from a combined Division and Area Council meeting for Toastmasters International.    It was such a great experience, I almost forgot that, according to the District Leadership Handbook from TI, you should have both a Division and an Area Council meeting, but it doesn’t say anything about combining them.

It was the idea of our Division Governor, Cassandra Lee, for the South Division of District 30, to combine them so that the Division Governor, the Area Governors, and the Area Councils for each area (the President, VP-Education and VP-Membership for each club) could gather together and share inspiration, and helpful tips on how to achieve each of the goals each Club and Area is setting for itself within the Division.   Here are a half-dozen reasons why the combined meeting approach works well.

1.   Information Flow from District Downwards

There are some upcoming events which affect the entire District, either in the short-term, such as the upcoming Fall Speech Contest, to the preparations for the new and improved Educational Program, which are occurring throughout the coming year.   By having all of the leadership of the Division at one meeting, the District can disseminate important information in an efficient way.

2.   Information Flow from Areas to Clubs

After the part of the meeting where the Division Governor mentioned some announcements regarding District-wide events, she broke up the meeting into separate meetings for each Area.    Each Area Governor has been spending the week looking at the individual Club Success Plans received from the clubs in their area in order to come up with an Area Success Plan.    This involves initiatives that will help either individual clubs, a group of clubs, or even better, initiatives that heave individual clubs help each other.    Certain clubs, such as newly chartered clubs, will have needs that are different than clubs that have been around for decades.    So you can explain initiatives that help only clubs that are facing unique circumstances (unique in that Area, that is).    You can explain initiative that help clubs that are facing the same problem, not just because it is efficient to address multiple problems in a single initiative, but also because at some point, the leadership in these clubs may eventually look to each other, rather than to the Area leadership, for assistance.

3.  Information Flow from Clubs to Areas

After talking about the initiatives that I came up with that addressed the clubs needs, I opened the floor up to the clubs.  Did they have any initiatives that they thought should be started to help their clubs?   Well, it turns out they had a couple of ideas that I had somehow missed.    They were all great suggestions and I plan to include them in my Area Success Plan.   For example, all of the VP-Education members of the Area Council who were present complained that members were having no trouble advancing on the communication track of the educational program towards their Competent Communicator award, a number of them were having trouble advancing on the leadership track towards their Competent Leadership award.   Since we were all facing common problems, we decided to spend 10 minutes brainstorming about ideas to encourage members to achieve their CL award.

4.  Information Flow from Areas to other Areas, and Within Areas

Rather than the vertical flow of information either downwards (paragraphs 1 and 2) or upwards (paragraph 3), the meeting also affords another important dimension of communication, that of horizontal communication between peers, either between the Area Governors, or within each area between the Area Council members who have similar positions within clubs (all those who are VP-Education for their clubs, for example).     This is important, because Area Governors, for example, can act as judges for each other’s Area Contests, thus eliminating the need to conduct a long search for Area Contests judges.   Hey, search is over, they’re all here in the same room!    Similarly, if all the VP-Education members of the Area Council are facing the same problem getting people to bring their CL manuals, why not brainstorm and have them come up with solutions that they can all use in their clubs?    It’s often the easiest information flow, because you and the other person are in similar positions in the organization, and so you know what problems the other is facing–most likely because you are facing them yourself.

5.  Information Flow from Past to Present

Cassandra Lee invited former Area Governors, Division Governors, and even District Governors to join the meeting, and those that did added a lot of perspective on how far the Division had come in the past few years.    Sometimes when you are struggling up a certain stretch of a mountain, it’s important to look back at the “base camp” and realize how far you’ve actually been climbing.

6.  Information Flow from Present to Future

When we talked about the new educational program being rolled out in the next year or so, we talked about the needs of young people, who are much more technically savvy than the previous generation, but who still need a lot of help when it comes to communication and leadership skills.    We talked about how many people no longer have a 9-to-5 job, and for whom making it to a regular Toastmasters meeting it increasingly difficult as they juggle their regular job with its increasing demands to be available during the evening and on weekends, their new role as entrepreneurs or consultants, not to mention their home and family life.    We realized that the new educational program is trying to address many of the needs of young people who are facing a much different prospect in the job market than existed for the previous generation.    So rather than clinging to the old ways, and avoiding change, we should embrace it, because we will also make ourselves thereby more attractive to the new marketplace, and will be better leaders for those young people who are entering it.

All of these reasons, the flow of information upward, downwards, sideways, and through time both forwards and backwards, are reasons why the combined Division/Area Council meeting makes a lot of sense.   If you are a Division Governor, you should try it for your next Council meeting, or if you are an Area Governor, suggest it to your Division Governor.   It’s worth trying, believe me!


The Toyota Way: Cultivate Evolution

In this eleventh chapter of David Magee’s book “How Toyota Became #1:  Leadership Lessons from the World’s Greatest Car Company”, he tackles the subject of kaizen, or continuous improvement.    This applies not just to processes, but to principles.    If conditions change, then adapting to those conditions will necessarily require flexibility and change.    One of the most misnamed epithets for evolution is “survival of the fittest“, whereas a better term would be “survival of the fitting.” An organism which is fittest in one environment will get wiped out if the environment changes and it does not.   Only the organism which adapts to the new environment will have a change of surviving.

This can be illustrated by the arrival in the U.S. of Toyota’s first manufacturing facility, a joint venture with GM called NUMMI which started production in 1984.    In order to blend in with the more informal environment that the American workers came from, the managers from Toyota abandoned suits and ties in wore a standard company uniform.   The aim was to avoid autocratic leadership, and reduce the distance between management and the workers in order to create the maximum opportunity for communication between them.   Some of the common practices that were done in Japan such as morning calisthenics were dropped because they were alien to the American plant workers who weren’t used to them.

By reducing the psychological distance between management and workers, Toyota, although its values remain deeply rooted in traditions, is able to cultivate its corporate evolution in order to develop a system that empowers employees and allows them to work  more harmoniously with management.   The philosophy is that management approaches their positions more as teachers than as managers.

1.  View Change as an Opportunity to Learn

The Toyota Way: Let Failure Be Your Teacher

In the tenth chapter of David Magee’s book “How Toyota Became #1:  Leadership Lessons from the World’s Greatest Car Company,” he talks about the fact that one of the strengths of Toyota is that it has learned to take past failures and turn them into the raw material for future successes.

A lot of the visual and verbal signals on the production line such as the line-stopping andon cord are related to the detection of manufacturing problems.   Rather than being the beginning point of finger-pointing and conflict between individuals, the identification of these problems starts a process where team members focus not on the “who” but the “how”.   In other words, the process of how to solve the problem engages the entire team and takes the focus off of personalities.

1.  Parley Mistakes into Success

The first example of Toyota’s way of learning from its mistakes is the identification by the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) of a major safety defect in its second-generation Camry that was launched in 1989.

An electrical malfunction of the system that powered the windows and door locks prevented doors from being unlocked, even by hand.   After CAS told Toyota officials about the problem and nothing was apparently done in response, they took the story to Consumer Reports, which created a lot of negative publicity.

In response, Toyota recalled 500,000 of the 1989 Camrys.   They improved the quality and engineering of the third-generation Camrys that were launched in 1992, and the episode faded from the public’s memory.    It didn’t fade from Toyota’s memory, however.    They analyzed the problem as being larger than just failing windows and door locks; the reaction to the original identification of the problem by CAS was also inadequate.

As a result of their analysis, it was not just an engineering problem, but a communication problem.   There was poor communication between engineers in Japan, and the  manufacturing managers and sales executives in the United States.   Cross-company communication lines needed to be opened up and feedback from the field was now given the highest priority.

When there was quality problem with the fourth-generation Camry, due to a problem with the car’s side mirrors, there was extensive dialogue between the North American sales team and the manager of Toyota’s Georgetown plant where the Camry was being built.    Although there was mounting pressure from dealers for a timely delivery of the highly anticipated new cars, the decision was made to push back the on-sale date by 60 days in order to replace the defective mirrors on the the 2,000 already-built Camrys.   It was better to address a bad situation aggressively and openly than allow to just allow the situation to continue, which would have resulted in even greater embarrassment for the company.

2.  Make Problems Top Priority


Snowpiercer: An Unequalled Portrayal of Inequality

Ever since I saw the trailer for Snowpiercer, I had wanted to see the film for several reasons.   First of all, it is a film independently made outside the mainstream Hollywood production system, and involves international collaboration.     Secondly, it deals with a subject of economic inequality, which is listed by the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Risk Report has the 4th highest risk of global concern.    Thirdly, it is told through the medium of science fiction, with a bold visual style that stems from its origins as a French graphical novel rather than the more traditional science fiction novel.

This evening, I saw the film and, although I think it is unequaled in recent portrayals of the same subject matter, there are relations between it and other science fiction movies that have dealt with the same subject of economic inequality, and these relationships are the subject of my blog post.

1.  Snowpiercer and the Time Machine

H.G. Well’s was an ardent socialist, and his book was written with the background notion that the gap between the working class and what we would term today as the 1% was widening, with the middle class threatening to disappear from that gap.    He postulated about what would happen if the gulf between the two became so wide as to create, in the space of evolutionary time, two distinct post-human species:   the Eloi, the descendants of the aristocracy, and the Morlocks, the descendants of the working class.   The Eloi devote all their time to leisure and none to the pursuit of knowledge, which irks the time traveler from the 20th century.    There is another race, the Morlocks, have evolved or perhaps it would be better to say “devolved” into an underground civilization that does have some of the technological knowledge from its forebears, but has lost all of its moral values.    The plot uncovers the symbiotic relationship between the two:   the Morlocks provide the food, clothing and shelter for the Eloi, but the Eloi provide food for the Morlocks–in the form of themselves.     This shocking revelation forces the time traveler to try to break this symbiotic relationship in order for the human race to evolve once again.

In Snowpiercer, the different classes are represented by the different cars on a train.    The world has become uninhabitable due to an engineering solution to global warming which has the unintended affect of triggering an ice age.   The remnants of humanity crowd onto a train which is fueled by a perpetual-motion engine and takes humanity in a never-ending circuit around the world.    At the beginning of the film, the protagonist named Curtis (Chris Evans) starts a revolt of the working class who are in the rear of the train, and the film proceeds as they make their way towards the front to confront the “conductor” of the train, Wilford (Ed Harris).    As a closed ecosystem, the train could be seen as a metaphor for the larger ecosystem of the planet.    By defending themselves against a revolt among the masses, the “1%” of the film think they are protecting their own privileged position in that ecosystem, but they somewhere along the way have forgotten that that everyone is actually is in the exact same position with regards to the survival of that system.   If it dies, so do they.

2.   Snowpiercer and Cloud Atlas

In Cloud Atlas, which was released in 2013, the six interlocking stories that make up the film all have a common theme of economic inequality, but manifesting differently in different ages.    In the first story that takes place in 1849, the inequality is between whites and blacks via the institution of slavery; in the fifth story that takes place in 2144, the inequality is between “purebloods” or natural genetic humans and the “fabricants” or clones through another form of slavery.    In that story, the heroine, a clone or fabricant named Sonmi 451 discovers that the “cruise ship” that the fabricants are sent to after 12 years of indentured servitude is actually a slaughterhouse.    The bodies of the fabricants are used as a food source for the womb tanks which will give birth to the next generation.    In other words, the workers are forced as a class to cannibalize themselves in order to maintain the privileges of the dominant class.    This theme of cannibalism is also present in Snowpiercer, and is a metaphor for the “divide-and-conquer” strategies used to keep the workers in today’s society fighting each other to prevent them from combining their energies to challenge the system that is exploiting them all.

3.  Snowpiercer and Elysium

Another film that came out last year was Elysium, a story about the 1% who have retreated from the decaying ecosystem of the Earth and have set up a space station where they can maintain their luxurious lifestyles.    This is another story that has the protagonist, Max (Matt Damon) do a break-in into the space station from the planet’s surface in order to try to bring equality to the worlds.    However, in that movie his sacrifice has a more positive ending in that the equality is more or less forced upon the system.    In this movie, equality is forced upon the system, but in a much more negative and stark way.

4.  Snowpiercer and the Day after Tomorrow

In Snowpiercer, the ending is at once more pessimistic and more optimistic.    (SPOILER ALERT!)   The ecosystem of the train literally crashes at the end of the movie, but there is hope that humanity will be able to survive outside of it.    The metaphor for our own times is the threat of global warming, which just happens to set up the backdrop of this movie.    If global warming destroys civilization, the 1% may imagine themselves as being “at the front of the train”, but if that train crashes, they, like the rest of us, will be off the rails.

In the movie The Day after Tomorrow, the ice age ironically triggered by global warming (by the altering of ocean currents and jet streams) also causes a collapse of the North American government, but not of civilization itself, so it ends on a more positive note.    In Snowpiercer, civilization ends but humanity may live to see another day.    The message is clear, a system that extracts all of the energy from its components will not survive, because those components are what fuel the system in the first place.

As the lyrics of the song Eclipse go in Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon.

All that you touch
All that you see
All that you taste
All you feel.
All that you love
All that you hate
All you distrust
All you save.
All that you give
All that you deal
All that you buy,
beg, borrow or steal.
All you create
All you destroy
All that you do
All that you say.
All that you eat
And everyone you meet
All that you slight
And everyone you fight.
All that is now
All that is gone
All that’s to come
and everything under the sun is in tune
but the sun is eclipsed by the moon.

5.   Snowpiercer and Aliens

This is why economic inequality is perhaps one of the most important problems to solve.    The lifecycle of the parasitic wasp is a good metaphor.   The wasp paralyzes a caterpillar, but does not kill it.   Why?   Because it deposits its eggs in the live caterpillar, and the eggs when hatched literally eat the caterpillar from the inside out.    This life cycle is the background for the movie Aliens, where we have become the host of a parasitic species of aliens who treat us like the wasps treat the caterpillars.

In my country, the 1% are trying through local instruments (ALEC at the state level) and international ones (the TPP) to paralyze the government regulations at the national level that might keep them in check, and the international corporations that they are enabling to grow are eating the substance of the commonwealth of those governments.     In the real world, if the caterpillar is weakened to the point that it dies completely, the parasitic wasp and its progeny will die out as well.

And this is the fatal flaw in their scheme.   As the authors of the book When Nations Fail point out, those nations which are led by institutions that extract wealth from their members rather than building up their wealth have always failed, either because they lead to a political revolt against the system, or because the society is left weakened and unable to cope with some catastrophe that befalls it (invasions, plagues, etc).   In the case of the global civilization we have today,  the international corporations and their backers among the 1% that are attempting to weaken national governments will leave them unable to cope with the catastrophe of global warming by making them unable to implement measures to mitigate or adapt to the consequences of global warming (rising sea levels, extreme weather events, etc.).   These consequences comprise #5 on the list of global risks of highest concern on the 2014 Global Risk Report mentioned above, right after concern #4 (economic inequality).    And the fact that these two risks appear next to each other on the list is symbolic of their causal proximity as well.    If we do not cooperate on a global scale to solve the problems created by global warming, the entire economic system and the physical ecosystem underlying it will collapse, along with who derive sustenance from it, meaning individuals and corporations.

It is important to keep the train running of the economy, yes, but in a way that strengthens all of its parts, and does not weaken some members in order to keep others stronger.   The model here is of the geodesic dome invented by Buckminster Fuller.    The individual rods which make up the geodesic dome are not in and of themselves very strong, but when they interlock, they can withstand hurricane-force winds, whereas more traditional forms of architecture which concentrate strength in only certain sections will be blown away by those same winds.

The movie Snowpiercer in its bold visual style and memorable film sequences, is an unequaled portrayal of the inequality that underlies our global economy at this point.    It is a warning about global warming, but also of a system that may become politically overheated if is stressed too far.     We are all on the same spaceship Earth, after all, and any ideas of escaping it if it damaged beyond repair are not in the realm of science fiction, but of fantasy.


Food for Change: A Story of Food Coops in America

Last night, at the UUCC Church in Park Forest, there was a screening of the documentary Foor for Change:  The Story of Cooperation in America.   This blog post is about the movie and also about local reaction to the movie from people who are members of the local South Suburban Food Coop.

1.   The History of Coops

A lot of the movie was taken up by the history of food coops in America, which was affected by various movements of economic and social upheaval.

  • 1930s–In the shadow of the Great Depression, food coops were born, which led to growth of coop banks, and even coop energy production.
  • 1940s–With the ramping up for war production and the rationing of food, growth in coops was superseded by the growth of the war economy.
  • 1950s–Growth in coops resumed after World War II, but was stymied by political attacks on coops as being associated with communism.
  • 1960s–Coops grew again, this time not born out of a time of economic upheaval, as much as social upheaval.   The need for coops was more ideological than economic in white suburban areas, but the economic needs of  rural and inner-city areas, the areas bypassed by the growth of the middle class in the 1960s, started economically driven coops in those areas.
  • 1970s–The nomination of the consummate corporatist Earl Butz as Secretary of Agriculture in Nixon’s cabinet through the support of the U.S. Government behind agribusiness, thus accelerating the decline of the individual family farm.
  • 1980s–The Reagan Revolution, promoting an economic divide-and-conquer strategy in the disguise of “individual freedom”, reduced the demand for cooperatives.
  • 1990s–The so-called Free Trade agreements like NAFTA championed by the Clinton administration accelerated the decline of family farms in Mexico, leading an unprecedented wave of illegal immigration into the United States.    The decline of family farms in the U.S. continued as well.
  • 2000s–Corporations involved in producing and controlling food distribution in the U.S. flocked to China where the environmental and food safety regulatory system was practically non-existent.
  • 2010s–The collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008 is creating conditions comparable to the Great Depression in many areas of America, as the middle class once again teeters on the brink of extinction.    Coops start filling the economic vacuum once again.

One of the first comments after the movie by the audience was how the time was closest to the 1930s than we’ve ever been, and in the absence of any leadership in the White House comparable to that of FDR in the New Deal, the American people have gone from “the ownership society” to the “you’re-on-your-own-ership society”.    Food coops are thriving as more Americans focus on local food consumption and production and turning food into an engine of wealth creation rather than wealth extraction.

2.  Two Ends of the Hourglass–How Coops Work

If you look at the hourglass above, imagine the top half being the “2 million farms” that supply the food and the bottom half being the “300 million Americans” who consume the food.    The purpose of supermarket chains is to be right in the middle, and to create a stranglehold on the supply of food so that they can extract as much money from both ends.    The coop usually starts on the bottom as a group of food consumers get together and organize a “buyer’s club” which concentrates their economic power.    Since the profits of the coop then get funneled back the owners of the coop, i.e., its members, there is a slow but steady economic engine of change.

The second stage of coop growth is, having achieved a certain modest but measurable about of buying power, they then get the food from local growers, like farmers or even community gardens, who can thrive because they are being given a fair and stable price on which they can base their business.    Farmers that supply to supermarket chains can have their price cut at any moment, forcing them to lose money and eventually go out of business.     There is literally no profit to made by coops in doing this, and in fact, it is against their interest to do so, so they on the contrary have an interest in keeping the supply steady and secure.

The third stage of coop growth is in the connection between the two halves of the hourglass, that is, the distribution of food from the farmers to the coops.    In Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, which has the highest concentration of coops per capita (somewhere in the neighborhood of 5% of food stores, if I remember correctly), several coops are cooperating to run warehouses and other distribution centers.

The fourth stage of coop growth is yet to happen, and that is the stage achieved in the 1930s by the involvement of coops in the financing of the entire system.   It remains to be seen whether that will be recreated in the wake of the second Great Depression, called the Great Recession in the mainstream media.

3.  Local Reaction

Many members of the local food coop, the South Suburban Food Coop, stayed after the movie and gave their impressions.    We were treated by a woman in her 70s named Dorothy who had been one of the founders of the coop back in the 1970s, and who just now retiring from the board.   She said it started as a buyer’s club, and has slowly built itself through word of mouth to the point where recently, it is now open to the public (i.e., non-members).    One of the other board members mentioned some new initiatives, many of which were echoed in the portrayal of modern day coops in the film, such as

  • Community Gardens–community-sponsored gardens that grow food for the coops and the community in general
  • Education Initiatives–trips to the coop by groups of young people like Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts troops, to educate them on the importance of nutrition
  • Sponsoring of Local farmers–the economic buying power of groups in the suburbs is having a salutary effect on growers in the surrounding rural communities.

I can testify to this last point.   It wasn’t at the coop, but at a local farmers market where I encountered, at a booth sponsored by a local baking company, a series of high-quality but unusual jams and jellies with combinations like raspberry and jalipeno, and I asked if they produced these as well.   They said no, they were produced by Amish communities in Illinois and Indiana who sold to the bakers, who then sold them on to the local farmers markets and food cooperatives like South Suburban Food Coop.    So my purchase from a local baker had an effect of keeping an Amish farmer in business who lived in another state!   It was the first time I felt the power of personal connection in the decision to buy locally from a farmers market.

4.  Conclusion

The first call to action I am going to do this weekend is to visit the South Suburban Food Coop and become a member.  Don’t ask me why I’m doing it.   My answer to you would be, “if you saw this film and saw how exciting it is to be a part of such a movement, why wouldn’t you want to do it?”

5 Tips Preparing for the PMP Exam On a Budget

I recently became the Director of Certification for the Chicagoland chapter of the Project Management Institute (PMI).   I posted this on LinkedIn, and within a few days, someone who is a member of PMI Chicagoland asked me the following question.    “How do I prepare for the PMP exam if I am on a budget?”

In other words, if you don’t have the $1,000 or thereabouts that a class may cost, but only say, one-tenth of that amount, around $100, what would I recommend for studying for the exam?    I thought I would post my answer to the question online because others may be in a similar situation.

1.  Join PMI

Even if you are not certified, joining PMI is a good idea.   It costs $139 to join the national organization, with the local chapter fees varying from chapter to chapter–PMI Chicagoland charges $35.   One of the benefits you get is that you can download a copy of the PMBOK Guide.    Now you can get that on Amazon for about $40 (even an e-Book version).

However, having a downloadable version makes it easily searchable for terms that you are looking for.   When I was a reviewer of questions on PMBOK for the International Knowledge Measurement company, this feature turned out to be invaluable for quickly finding what I was looking for.

2.  Joined PMI Chapter Group on Linked In

Not only the PMI organization as a whole, but the various chapters have Linked In Groups that you can join.   If you can’t afford a class, but don’t want to study by yourself, then put in a comment in the PMI chapter LinkedIn group asking for people in your area who may be studying for the exam and want to get together or arrange conference calls to study on a periodic basis for the exam.     All good PMP exam prep classes should arrange study groups for their students to get together between classes and help either other review for the exam.   You can have a study group without a class, but the most likely place to get fellow study group members is … your local PMI chapter, and the LinkedIn Group is one of the best ways to set one up–for free!

3.  Get Rita Mulcahy’s PMP Exam Prep (8th Edition)

When I was organizing study groups for the Orange County, California Chapter of PMI, back when I was helping run the PMP Exam Prep classes there, the study groups could choose the text they wanted.   The one that consistently was rated highest by the students was Rita Mulcahy’s PMP Exam Prep book.   Right now it sells for about $70 on Amazon, but it is definitely worth it.   It is great for study groups, because there are interactive exercises to practice the material, and the exam questions are great discussion points for groups as well.    If you can answer the questions at the end of the chapter at a 80% rate, you know the material well enough to move on to the next chapter.

4.  Get Free Exam Questions

Once you have learned the material, how do you know if you are ready for the exam?   By taking mock exam questions.

There are many sources for PMP Exam questions that are free–the best list I have found is on the following article on the PMP Exam Simulator Site.


The recommendation that was used the most when I was out in Orange County, CA was


The important thing is to get a site that will allow you to get questions regarding a specific chapter of the PMBOK Guide.  That way you can make a little matrix of the chapters and your percentage of questions in each chapter that you’ve gotten correct.    I used to go with 80%, but I agree with the author of the PMP Exam Simulator site that you should probably aim for 85%, so that you are sure that you know the material in each section.

5.  Get Free Exams

Many of the places you can get exam questions will also give you mock exams.   The rule of thumb I told students when I was out in Orange County, CA was, if you can 85% on exam questions from ALL chapters of the PMP, then SIGN UP FOR THE EXAM.    Once you do so, you will have between 2 and 4 weeks before the exam (depending on the exam provider), and you can then work on taking mock exams.   This is not just a matter of knowing the material; it’s a matter of being able to gauge your time and skip questions that are taking you too much time on your first pass, so that you can come back and review them later.

If you can pass the entire exam at the 85%, then relax.   The night before I took my certification exam, I went and saw a movie.   Why?   So that I would not overload my head and short-circuit what I had already sufficiently learned.   But I could do that with confidence because I had received a 90% on a mock exam.   With that, I knew I had a good chance to succeed on the real thing–and I did on the first try!

It takes more ingenuity to study for the PMP exam when you are short on the resource of money, but if you have the resource of time, you can still do it!


The Blog as a Sacred Space

This blog post is the result of an epiphany I had literally in the middle of the night.

1.  Background–Getting Lost

I had to get up around 3 AM in order to drive my brother to the train station so that he could go into the city for a medical appointment that starts around 8 AM.    On my way back home, I realized that I had forgotten to write in my blog the night before.    I have been writing a daily blog post for a little over two years now.    I did it at a time when I was looking to change careers, and trying to create a brand for myself as someone who is a subject matter expert on project management, or at least the theory of project management as taught in the guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge or the PMBOK guide for short.

Starting in July, my life has gotten incredibly busy because

  • The project I am the Chief Project Manager for, which is to plan the Professional Development Day event for the PMI Chicagoland Chapter, is ramping up its execution starting this month in anticipation of the event which takes place on October 24th (three months from now).
  • I have started my position as Director of Certification at the PMI Chicagoland Chapter.
  • I have started my position as President of the Homewood-Flossmoor Toastmasters Club, the Vice President Education of the PMI Chicagoland Toastmasters Club.
  • I have started my position as Area Governor for Area S56 in the South Suburbs of Chicago.
  • I have started my position as Board member for my church (UUCC Park Forest).

As a true project manager, I spend the weekends planning out the various moving parts of my life so that the plates I am spinning in the air don’t crash into each other, to use a circus metaphor.    However, one of the things I vowed was that, if I became employed as a project manager, I would not lose the passions that got me the job in the first place.    One of those passions is studying foreign languages:   I use the Duolingo app to study a half-dozen foreign languages every day.   I do this the first thing in the morning after breakfast and coffee, and before I start the day’s work.    And the other passion is blogging.  In the past, I would do the blog at the end of the day.

The problem is that, with so much to do, I am working from 9 AM to 9 PM or beyond.   Two weeks ago, there was a power outage which not only knocked out electrical power, but also knocked out the internet service that came to my home through a cable TV provider.     I skipped blogging on a daily basis for 3 days.    I enjoyed the freedom of just letting my mind unwind with a book rather than trying to concentrate on putting out a blog post.

I noticed that when the electricity went on, my blogging did not return.   It has bothered me increasingly since that day.

2.  Solution–Found Again

When I was coming back home at 4 AM from having dropped my brother off, I was thinking about how much I missed having the passion of writing about various topics, and how that passion had somehow been temporarily lost.   The real problem was not love of blogging, it was logistics, I argued.   My life is a lot busier now, and rather than blogging after dinner at 7 PM, I find I have to blog later and later as my schedule fills up and I have to work later into the evening.

Forgetting about the time of day and the logistics of it all, what was the passion I had started the blog with?

I don’t consider project management, the profession I have chosen after having done other types of management such as litigation management for Japanese manufacturing companies, as a job.   It is more than that, it is a calling.   The reason is that I have asked myself what kind of jobs I was attracted to, and those jobs invariably had to do with manufacturing, first of all, but they also dealt with working on teams with others on projects.   However, I had through the course of my career relied on the companies I worked for to steer my career, and they put me where they thought I was most useful to the company, not necessarily where I most wanted to be.

After having been liberated from these companies as a result of layoffs, I now had a chance to network and ask people, given my background, my work experience, my interests, and my personality, what would you recommend?    I got the answer from several independent people at around the same time, saying “Project Management.”    When I went to New Horizons and then a community college to take introductory courses on project management and the software tools used therein (Microsoft Project), I became more and more drawn in.   This is fascinating, I thought, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn.   I had found the passion that has fueled not just my blog, but most of my activities the past two years.

The blog started as a result of this passion, but also as a practical means of getting information out to my team.   In this case it was not a project team, but a team of people studying for the project management certification exam, either the PMP or the CAPM for those like me without significant project management experience.    I was the head of a study group, and for those that couldn’t make the weekly study group meetings, I put the notes online that went over the part of the PMBOK Guide we had studied the week before.    The notes were not only visible to those in the group, but … literally, to the rest of the world, and I got more and more people reading the blog and in some cases responding to it by giving comments or (thankfully) in some cases making corrections.    I remember I was so excited when I reached 10 hits per day after a month or so of blogging.

Since then, I have reached 1,000 hits per day and am closing in on having 250,000 hits from readers around the world in over 180 countries.    But that is not just because of the content, but because of the consistency with which I produced it.  I was afraid I had lost the passion because I now had a two-week gap in my blogging.

But on the way home from the train station, I realized that I still had the passion, but I needed to put the blogging on the other end of the day, in the morning before I started work.    This is also the time when I do the foreign language studying, and there I didn’t have a break even with the electricity haven gone out.   So that’s when I’ll do my blogging, when the morning is fresh and so is mind.

Problem solved!

3.  Blog is a Sacred Space, an Open Mode

Why is blogging so important to me that I would sacrifice every morning to it?   Well, it is what Joseph Campbell called a “sacred space” meaning a time of day and/or a place in one’s home or life where you devote yourself to a creative activity.    If you do this on a consistent basis, you will find that when you enter that sacred space (in my case, at my computer the first thing in the morning after breakfast), your mind will automatically get into a creative, or open mode.

The open mode is a concept which John Cleese explores in a video on creativity, which I have summarized in three blogs posts called “John Cleese on Creativity”, which I recommend you refer to.   In it, you have a definite time of day for the beginning and end of your “open mode”, and a place where you are sealed off from the ephemeral concerns of the day (i.e., no peeking at news blogs, e-mails or Facebook).    Once you have entered that space, you take with you an attitude of confidence, and non-self-censorship.   Just write what’s on your mind–you can edit later.    He recommends using a sense of humor to promote spontaneity and creativity, so just because the space is “sacred”, doesn’t mean that it is “solemn.”   It is rather a playful experience, and through this play, comes the greatest creative work you will achieve.

This blog reopens that rich vein of experience that is lying in wait, untapped and waiting to reveal its secrets.   To close, let me quote a story told by the British actor Stephen Fry when he quoted Noel Coward who said that when your work involves doing what you are passionate about, then “work can be more fun than fun”–because there is a creative product that is a result!






The Toyota Way: Take Time to Study, Then Implement with Speed

I like the way that David Magee, the author of “How Toyota Became #1:  Leadership Lessons from the World’s Greatest Car Company”, opened the ninth chapter of his book with the statement “making decisions is not nearly as important a making the right decisions.”

This statement is an encapsulation of the theme of the chapter, which is a description of the typical Toyota decision-making process.   It is based on collected facts, which take time to gather and properly assess.   This means that its decisions are not hastily made based on individual opinions.   However, this does not mean that Toyota is a conservative company that moves slowly.    After all the time is taken to gather facts and reach consensus, Toyota moves more quickly to implement those decisions than its competitors do.

1.  Move Forward Step by Step

Although Toyota entered the American market in 1957, it was only when it introduced its first vehicle designed specifically for the American market, the Corona, that the company starting becoming recognized for its well-built and reliable cars.    The Big 3 American car manufacturers took notice of Toyota as perhaps carving itself a niche in the American market, but they didn’t consider them as serious rivals on the same par as themselves.

However, by 1975, Toyota had passed Volkswagen to become the leading U.S. import.    Political pressure from the U.S. government to the Japanese government about the Japanese trade deficit with the United States led to pressure in turn on Japanese manufacturers to start building their products in America.    Toyota was not sure if its practice of kaizen or continuous improvement, which was nurtured in the national character of Japan and the regional character of Toyota’s headquarters in Toyota City, would translate to manufacturing facilities on American soil that were manned by American workers.

The way that Toyota researched and implemented the decision to create manufacturing plants in America can serve as an illustration of Toyota’s decision-making methods.

2.  Gather Facts Firsthand


The Toyota Way: Learn the Customer, Live the Customer

In the ninth chapter of his book “How Toyota Became #1:  Leadership Lessons from the World’s Greatest Car Company,” David Magee talks about always aligning a company’s strategy with the business case, meaning the fulfillment of customers’ needs.    One of the ways to do this is not to presuppose that you know what the customer wants:   you have to actively listen to the customer.

1.  Avoid Hubris

The nineteenth-century self-help expert Samuel Smiles, who inspired the original founder of Toyota, Sakichi Toyoda, believed in “business through humility.”   Another inspiration for the Toyota family, W. Edwards Deming, believed in management principles that were focused on the customer.

If you look at Toyota’s vehicle lineup, it’s pretty stable with new models occurring infrequently, but improved upgrades of the existing models occurring frequently.   This is because products are developed with direct customer research and input.

One of the times Toyota departed from this strategy was Project Genesis, where it developed models intended to attract more youthful buyers, based on Toyota’s internal beliefs about where the market was going rather than on marketplace research.   All three products within Project Genesis were canceled within five years.   The company ended up retooling Project Genesis as an independent brand called Scion that was launched in 2003.    This time Toyota learned its lesson, and recognized that significantly more market research was needed to better understand young buyers, in the same way that it had done significant market research to understand its original mainstream customers and then its luxury customers with the Lexus brand.

2.  Take to the Streets and Observe

The Toyota Way: Favor Long-Term Strategies over Short-Term Fixes

In this seventh chapter of his book “How Toyota Became Number #1”, David Magee talks about a key element of Toyota’s success, that of favoring long-term strategies over short-term fixes.   The pursuit of short-term goals is hardwired into management when their bonuses are tied to increased stock prices and quarterly profits.

1.  A Tale of Two Strategies

Now, you can say “well, it’s easy for a company like Toyota to eschew short-term fixes when they’re sitting on a mountain of cash.”   My answer to that is, “well, how do you think Toyota got that mountain of cash.  By favoring long-term strategies, that’s why!”

GM pursued unprecedented dealer incentives to meet short-term sales goals; Ford flooded heavily discounted products into unprofitable fleet sales.   And Chrysler?   I can say from my experience at Mitsubishi Motors, where I worked from 1990-2004, that they decided to follow Chrysler rather than Toyota and Honda in going towards the profitable SUV market rather than the less profitable market of hybrid vehicles.    The result?    Mitsubishi launched its new version of the SUV at a historical turning point, right before the invasion of Iraq.   When oil prices soared as a result, the market shifted away from gas-guzzlers towards more economic cars, and Mitsubishi lost the bet it had made.    There were waves of layoffs, and I ended up losing my job in the 3rd wave.    Mitsubishi bet on the wrong horse, the SUV, but the larger mistake was following the Big 3 in their pursuit of short-term profits.

Toyota has favored long-term strategies, which is not just part of their company, but is a trait of Japanese business.  For Toyota, however, this is part of the company’s cultural foundation.   Their stability comes from a long-term approach.

2.  Make Daily Decisions That Benefit Long-Term Plans