top of page

What "The Three Little Pigs" Can Teach Us About Flow-Based Leadership

Updated: Jan 31

In the classic tale about the three little pigs, the three pigs each build their own house: one of straw, another of sticks, and the third and wisest of bricks. When the wolf arrives, he blows down the houses of the first two pigs, but they manage to escape and seek refuge with their clever older brother, as the wolf cannot blow down his brick house.

What can we learn from this story about flow-based leadership? Here are some suggestions:

Sweep under Your Own Doormat

Some leaders might reasonably argue that this all sounds well and good, but in the real world, there are limits to how much we can invest in e.g., quality if we want to deliver before hell freezes over. A reality where one of the key insights from the world of flow can indeed seem counterintuitive: that we cannot keep delivering fast in the long run unless we constantly maintain very high quality.

The crucial point is whether what we do is a recurring phenomenon. As soon as we risk facing the negative consequences of our short-term shortcuts, the perspective on what is worthwhile shifts. Just like it did for the lazy pigs, who wouldn't have had a problem if the wolf hadn't been there to remind them of the consequences of their sloppiness.

Go Slow to Go Fast, with Pride

There's an excellent podcast that tells the story of Toyota's collaboration with General Motors (GM) on the Japanese automaker's first car factory in the USA. One factory worker describes how it was commonplace at GM to have batches of defective cars fresh off the assembly line parked on the forecourt outside the factory. Defects that they had to painstakingly spend time repairing.

At GM, everyone knew that stopping production to fix a defect was a reason for dismissal. The imperative was to keep the assembly line running at almost any cost. When Toyota took over, the employees received the opposite message: they had a duty to stop and fix any defects before they continued. The result was a massive productivity increase.

And improved job satisfaction: one of the factory workers tells how he was so proud of his work for the first time in his life that he, at his own expense and in his own time, went around placing stamped postcards under the windshield wipers when he saw one of "his" cars on the street. On the card, he asked the owners to write back about what they thought of their nice new car.

The New Is Now the Norm

What we have seen in the past few decades in the technological world is how creating the new is no longer something we do occasionally or alongside our "real" work. Instead of being rare and episodic, creating the new has increasingly taken on an operational character: we continuously work on both additions and improvements, and therefore increasingly end up paying for past neglect ourselves.

Our perception of "the real world" has therefore shifted in a way where, for example, it's too costly in terms of lost innovation and engagement to push ourselves hard towards a deadline: because we are the same people meeting again on Monday morning to continue with the next important thing. Quality, speed, engagement, etc., in that situation, become mutually reinforcing prerequisites.

Repeat After Me: "Simultaneously"!

We like Jonathan Smart's slogan about the results commonly pursued with flow-based leadership: Better Value, Sooner, Safer, Happier (BVSSH). That is, we want quality, customer value, short delivery times, safe deliveries, and engaged employees. Considering the above, however, we think there's a word missing: simultaneously.

Many leaders might reasonably think they already pursue such goals. But we often see the point of simultaneity being lost. We use management methods that encourage us to trade off these considerations rather than treating them as mutually supportive. So, approaching an important deadline, we might compromise on quality, even though we know it'll likely come back to haunt us later.

What Kind of "Pig" Are You?

So, ask yourselves if you're still using management methods that treat the creation of the new as something episodic, even though it now happens so frequently that it has taken on an operational character. If you are neglecting to consider factors like delivery time, quality, and engagement as mutually reinforcing prerequisites and instead find yourselves having to balance them against each other.

In other words, whether the management style you're using is ready to face the big bad wolf of change—or if you're at risk of being "eaten" before winter comes.

Ulrik H. Gade

Any questions or comments? You are welcome to contact me on LinkedIn. Want to know more? Look at our workshops, talks and action learning programmes on flow-based leadership.


bottom of page