The Smith System as an Allegory for Successful Living

Media274The Smith System as an Allegory for Successful Living

Occasionally the team at Decision Strategies comes across an essay or editorial that we think might be of interest to you. We will use this as an opportunity to feature guest bloggers on the Decision Point Blog. The purpose of inviting a guest blogger is to get another person’s perspective and have them tell their story. I am pleased to introduce to you Dave Charlesworth, Decision Analyst Professional and my publisher for “Why Can’t You Just Give Me the Number.” I can always count on Dave as a sounding board for ideas for blog posts, and his expertise as a Decision Analysis (DA) practitioner has made for some pretty intense “beer conversations.” Dave has recently authored “Decision Analysis for Managers – A Guide for Making Better Personal and Business Decisions” (Business Expert Press).

We invite you to read this entry and please let us know your thoughts in the “comment” section after the article. Additionally, we welcome you to post topics you would like to learn more about in a guest blog post – Pat Leach

Featuring Guest Blogger: Dave Charlesworth

When I was in college, I had a summer job driving a truck – I drove a tanker, picked up milk at dairy farms, and hauled it to a processing plant. Our trucks were old, underpowered, and had marginal brakes, so I learned how to drive defensively. Many times a small car would pull out in front of me and then drive slowly (and receive a blast from my air horn)!

When I went to work for DuPont, they taught us the Smith System of defensive driving: Aim High, Get the Big Picture, Keep Your Eyes Moving, Leave Yourself an Out, and Make Sure They See You, [1] which codified what I learned while driving the tanker truck. My current employer, Chevron, requires every employee to take the Smith System course (and with our traffic in Houston, we need it!).

One time I had to pick up a pallet of books with my pickup truck at the Yellow Freight terminal in Houston. As the 18-wheelers leave the Yellow Terminal, they see five large black and yellow signs: Aim High. Get the Big Picture. Keep Your Eyes Moving. Leave Yourself an Out. Make Sure They See You. Yellow Freight wants to keep their big rig drivers safe!

However, I want to talk about more than defensive driving. Life is a lot like navigating rush hour traffic in Houston: many obstacles, lots of people, great speed followed by slowdowns and stops, occasional detours, variable weather conditions, and no guarantee that you’ll reach your destination. Smith defensive driving principles can apply (with a little help from DA thinking) to life as well as to driving.

First, “Aim High.” In driving, monitor the horizon, not just right in front of you. In life, we need goals. As Zig Ziglar used to say, “You’ve got to have goals.” [2] Goals are essential for productive living, and the higher the goal, the better. It is all too easy to get caught up in daily life and lose sight of our goals!

In DA, we help teams understand their objectives, beginning with their top objective. When I coach people on career decisions, we find out the primary objective – what does a person (or a family) really want? The Objectives Hierarchy is an excellent tool to help with this.

One pharmaceutical project team I facilitated noted that their top objective was to provide a new product that would really help the people who needed it – profit was a lower level goal. David Skinner [3] notes that if you focus your business on quality and usefulness, profits will be the result. Aim High! Don’t let what is right in front of you make you lose sight of your goals.

Second, Get The Big Picture. In driving, this means staying aware of the entire panorama around you – what is happening way ahead, behind, and to the side. Rob Kleinbaum in Creating a Culture of Profitability [4] noted that the first piece of “cultural infrastructure” is for a company to maintain an external (rather than internal) focus so that they are not surprised and left behind by technological and cultural changes.

As individuals, we are easily distracted by daily living and can lose sight of what is really important to us. Richard Carlson credits Dr. Wayne Dyer for the key quote that spawned a whole series of books: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff … and it’s all small stuff! It is difficult but very important for us to get and try to keep The Big Picture! [5]

Third, Keep Your Eyes Moving. In driving, this is critical – staring ahead at the road increases our chances of an accident and/or falling asleep. In life, we need to keep our eyes moving in order to see what is going on around us and things (including our own behavior) that can prevent us from reaching our goals. Kleinbaum notes many “Forces of Entropy” that degrade a company’s culture. [6] In similar fashion, forces of entropy in our lives can wear us down. It takes discipline and energy to keep our eyes moving.

Fourth, Leave Yourself an Out. In driving, as your eyes are moving, always be thinking, “if something happened, where could I escape?” This happened to me one time while I was driving the tanker truck. On a two lane road, the cars ahead stopped suddenly for a car waiting to make a left hand turn (no signal). The other lane was full, and all the cars ahead of me quickly braked. My “out” was a front lawn, as there was no way I could stop. I squished the person’s mailbox and had to replace it, but this was far and away the best “out” that I had.

In life, this is tied to keeping our eyes moving and seeing the big picture. If things don’t work out the way we plan, what would we do? If the company we work for goes bankrupt, what is our back-up plan? My friend David Skinner expresses this well – one of his favorite sayings is, “There are always alternatives.” In DA, we frequently have to help teams to come up with creative alternatives and contingency plans which they otherwise would not have considered.

Fifth, Make Sure They See You. In defensive driving, this entails tapping the horn or using the emergency flashers. In life, this has two implications: being ready to state your thinking clearly and concisely, and maintaining your personal network.

A reporter once asked Winston Churchill a difficult question. Churchill answered with clarity and insight. The reporter expressed surprise at the response. Churchill replied, “I’ve been thinking about this for twenty years.” If you were to get onto the elevator unexpectedly with the CEO of your company, and he or she asked you what you were working on, would you be ready with a credible and coherent response? If a friend asks you what your goals in life are, can you concisely and clearly articulate them?

The second aspect of being seen is nurturing your personal network. My wife and I are friends with a couple we see infrequently, but we value the relationship and make sure that we do see them. We invited this couple to our son’s wedding last year, and we were delighted that they were able to attend. Our second son, Michael, the best man at the wedding, gave the traditional toast at the reception. None of us had ever heard Michael speak before (he’s studying engineering at UF), and we were all amazed – his toast was delivered with the polish and aplomb of an experienced (and tasteful) comedian. Afterward, our friends told us that they were going to help him get an engineering internship for next summer, and sure enough, they did! This unexpected outcome was a result of both aspects of this principle.

Therefore, Aim High (you’ve got to have goals), Get The Big Picture (and don’t get distracted by the mundane), Keep Your Eyes Moving (which takes discipline and energy), Leave Yourself An Out (there are always alternatives), and Make Sure They See You (be prepared and nurture your relationships). And, especially in Houston, may you always drive safely!

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