Archive for the ‘ Management ’ Category

Learning From Plantations

Oak Alley Plantation

Learning from Plantations:  Transportation, Innovation and Sustainability

Nine city planners.  Three vehicles.  Twenty-two pieces of luggage.  

We are off on the adventure of our traditional post-conference trip.  After 4 ½ days at the annual American Planning Association conference in New Orleans, we’ll tour Louisiana plantations and soak up the Old South.  What surprised us was how many of the principles of operating a successful plantation would provide useful planning principles for right now. 

Laura Plantation is our first stop, built in 1805 in the traditional Creole style.  The photo below shows that Laura was built above a raised basement, which was used for storage.  Second floor living and business quarters were elevated to avoid the inevitable flooding from the nearby Mississippi River. 

Laura Plantation

Our second stop is the nearby Oak Alley Plantation, shown at the top of this page.  With its majestic alley of 300 year old oak trees and its colonnade of 28 massive Doric Columns, Oak Alley is the archetypical plantation of movies. It has, in fact, been featured in Interview with the Vampire and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, among others. 

The third stop on our plantation tour was Oakley Plantation.  Oakley was founded in 1906, when Louisiana was part of Spanish West Florida.  The founders were wealthy enough to hire tutors for their children.  John James Audubon stayed at Oakley for 3 ½ months and painted 32 of his Birds of America series while he was there. 

After our plantation visits and over a glass of wine, we talked about the planning lessons we had learned during our tour.  We agreed on three principles:  transportation, innovation and sustainability.  Here’s more detail on what we learned. 

 Transportation.  All the plantations were platted in a rectangular form—long and narrow—and had frontage on the Mississippi River.  The Mississippi was the prime route for shipping and receiving goods.  A five foot dike provided some protection from flooding.  The River Road ran parallel to the Mississippi and was used for local traffic. 

Innovation.  Each plantation was a self contained unit, with gardens, livestock and a metal/blacksmith shop.  The workers of the plantation, were of course, slaves.* The skilled slaves invented tools and machinery to make the plantation function more efficiently.  They constructed the plantation houses and created beautiful, decorative cornices and ceiling decorations out of local materials:  Mississippi River mud and horsehair.  An Oak Alley slave is credited with propagating the paper shell pecan tree, which simplified harvesting the pecans.  It is a true testament to human nature, that, in the midst of inhumane living conditions, the slaves were able to draw on their creativity. 

Sustainability.  The plantation homes were designed to work with the humid south Louisiana climate and the Mississippi River floods.  The first floors were elevated.  Interior and exterior walls were 18 inches thick and made of brick to provide insulation.  Houses were surrounded by verandas and trees to provide shade.  Doors and windows were lined up parallel, from the front of the house to the back, to take advantage of breezes by using cross ventilation.  All the plantation homes were built facing the Mississippi River, not just to take advantage of the view, but to catch the breezes coming across the water.  

Water conservation was an essential part of plantation life.  Rain catchment barrels and cisterns were critical.  And to further conserve water, the plantation families bathed only once a week! 

The plantation homes were built to work with nature.  With the invention of air conditioning and value engineering, we have forgotten about the simple principles that make for affordable living, not just affordable housing. 

*Most of the plantation tours included tours of the slave quarters and explained the duties of the slaves.  Oak Alley, however, did the best job of addressing the injustice of slavery, has a monument to slaves and highlighted the innovations made by slaves.
April 19th, 2010  in City Planning, Management 1 Comment »

Journey to Excellence: Excellence for Managers

Journey to Excellence: Excellence for Managers

As managers, we’ve learned that as part of our job, we should take advantage of those impromptu coaching moments that arise during the course of our day to day activities. When those spontaneous opportunities to help our staff grow professionally pop up, we use that time to reinforce good work or push our staff in the right direction.

Let’s expand that coaching maxim and add that we should watch for learning opportunities. Watch for those learning moments that arise when we least expect them.

Here’s an example of how I have turned my workouts at the gym into a learning experience. My first thirty minutes I spend lifting weights. For the next thirty minutes, I ride the stationery bike. To make my time on the bike go by faster, I take out my cell phone and play a video game.

Now you may be among those who think that cell phone video games are a waste of time or just something to do—very discretely–during a boring meeting. But whether the game designers have done it on purpose or not, I’ve had a lot of management lessons reinforced while playing my game.

Here is what I have learned:

Look at the big picture—the whole screen—before you make your first move. Take time to plan your strategy and then make the moves that are in line with that strategy. At the same time, watch for the low hanging fruit and claim it, but check back regularly to make sure you are following that big picture goal. Be flexible enough to modify your strategy when you need to.

Rewards are much more effective than reprimands. My game doesn’t have an “undo” feature. If I make a poor choice, I just don’t get as many points. If I make a move that isn’t allowed, all I hear is a little blip. On the flip side, my game gives me so many positive strokes when I do something right, it is addictive. Every time I score a point, I get a reward because I hear the sound of points scoring. When I score particularly well, a deep voice encourages me by saying GOOD! A few more points and I hear EXCELLLENT!! And when I make a really good move, INCREDIBLE!!! Those words of praise teach me how to play the game even better.

It takes a team to reach the goal. When I arrange the symbols in a certain order, they turn into stars. When correctly aligned, the stars are worth more points. But there are only a few stars on the screen at one time, so I have to work with the ordinary symbols to score points. As managers, we can’t rely just on our stars to help us reach our goals—we have to make use of all the players. That’s why team building is so important.

Don’t give hints too quickly and when you do give hints, make them subtle. My game tells me when there are no more moves. Sometimes, though, I search the screen and just can’t see the obvious move. At a timed interval, one of the symbols will twinkle at me, which is the hint I need to make my next move. But it is much more gratifying if I beat the clock and find that right move on my own.

Having fun makes work go faster. The thirty minutes I spend on the stationery bike fly by because I am distracted by the fun of playing my game at the same time. Having fun at work has the same impact, especially during these challenging economic times. Celebrating achievements and birthdays, establishing fun annual traditions or having an after hour’s get-togethers brings about that sense of camaraderie and enjoyment that strengthens work groups.

Measurement is important and leads to continuous improvement. How do I know when I am getting better at my game? The answer is simple—it keeps track of my score for me. I’m always trying to beat my best score. I have gotten as far level nine and am working to see just how many levels there are. If your organization participates in a performance management program, you know the value of measurement, meeting service targets and making process improvements.

Every level of the game gets more challenging. It requires more points to move from one level to the next, and that number grows exponentially. As the levels get higher, strategy becomes more important. The same is true in our organizations. As managers, we can’t just “show up” and be effective at our jobs. As we have moved up the organizational ladder, strategic thinking becomes more and more critical to our jobs

Luck helps. And as in real life, the more I practice and the harder I work, the luckier I get.

A closing thought: I can multi-task, riding away on the stationery bike, even pushing myself to go faster and faster. But my game improves the most when I focus on it alone. The management lesson is to spend some quiet time thinking about your game—your job—and how to improve your performance.

February 26th, 2010  in Management, Uncategorized 3 Comments »