Episode 12: Prof. Mike Vorster on: Surfing the Waves of Change

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On this episode, Clue CEO, Oded Ran, speaks with Professor Mike Vorster, a world-renowned expert in construction equipment management and the author of Construction Equipment Economics, discussing the constant nature and speed of change in the industry. They explore how organizations can adapt to both technical and social changes, the importance of lifelong learning, and the role of humility and curiosity in embracing change. Through engaging metaphors and personal anecdotes, this episode offers valuable insights for construction company owners, fleet managers, and equipment managers looking to navigate and thrive amidst ongoing industry transformations.

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Mentioned on this episode:

Mike Vorster - Construction Equipment Management (CEMP)

The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter Senge

Read a Transcript of the Episode

[00:00:00] Oded Ran (Clue): Hi, everyone. Welcome to another episode of the Full Scoop. And Mike, we promised we're going to not wait five years. So here we are again. And I think we picked up a topic for today, and that is: Change.

[00:00:15] Mike Vorster: Yep. I think that, the world continues to change. Thank heavens for that. And I think that we underestimate the sort of constant nature and the speed of change in our lives and then what we're doing. Very different today than it was a year ago, and certainly it's different today than it was yesterday or the day before, yeah?

[00:00:40] Oded Ran (Clue): So, first, just a take from your perspective, is the velocity and speed of change really increasing or not really?

[00:00:47] Mike Vorster: Without a doubt, the velocity is increasing but I've always thought about it in two dimensions: the change that we experience every day, in the social and environmental aspects of our lives and of our business world- and then the change in the technical aspects of our business world. Put those two things together, and not only is the velocity of change increasing, but the scope of that change is increasing, I believe, in both those dimensions very dramatically. Don't change in one direction at the peril, don't change in the other direction at your peril. And we've got to get on top of both those issues.

[00:01:31] Oded Ran (Clue): What have you seen are the best practices of organizations that are able to change, both in the organization level, maybe personal level, as well as the cases where it didn't happen?

And what were the results?

[00:01:45] Mike Vorster: Well, let's chat about what I see as an absolute prerequisite for change and what I see in organizations which aren't changing and which are falling behind, The first thing to realize is that if you don't change, you don't need to worry because your competition has changed already, okay? The other thing that I see a lot in organizations which are not staying in front of the wave, is that there's an inherent reluctance to continue to learn. And as I've thought about the relationship between change and learning, I've come to the conclusion that you can't change, and you can't continue to change, if you don't learn and continue to learn. If you do learn, you will learn new things, and different things, and new techniques, and different techniques, and new ideas, and different ideas. And you will therefore change, and you will therefore implement those things, and stay ahead of the wave. On the other hand, if you have a reluctance to learn If you don't spend the requisite amount of time sharpening the saw and keeping on top of things, then you won't have anything to change to. Because if you don't have any new ideas, any new thoughts, you're just going to spend your life improving the way you implement old ideas, And that's not going to get you to any great success. And so I have really since we started thinking seriously about this, I've been thinking as much about the willingness to learn and the willingness to keep yourself at the forefront of your knowledge base, as I have been thinking about your willingness to change and adopt new things. Because like I say, it's two sides of the same coin, right?

[00:03:42] Oded Ran (Clue): Why do you think people in that case, don't want to learn? Because that's a strange thing, right?

[00:03:48] Mike Vorster: Well, we are blessed, you and I, and folk like us are blessed by virtue of the fact that we've been we probably had a very happy time at school, all right, one way or the other. We certainly didn't hate our school days and we certainly didn't wish that our school days would come to an end. But there are a lot of people who wish their school days would come to an end, and when they walk across the stage at their high school or their college graduation, they say, I'm finished, I'm done, I've finished with learning. That, I think, is a terrible affliction. I really like the concept of commencement as opposed to graduation, both from junior school, high school, and college, all right?

[00:04:35] Oded Ran (Clue): I never thought about it that way. The commencement speech is actually when you start...

[00:04:39] Mike Vorster: when you start, because I think that particularly college, I have sat through many commencements at Virginia Tech, and I sit there and the image which goes through my mind is of a rocket on the launch pad. Okay, and we are just going 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0, and when they walk across the stage and pick up their diplomas, that's when the rocket is clearing the tower and the journey is about to start its commencement in the fullness of sense of the word. A lot of people, unfortunately, have a mindset that says that, when they walk across the stage, they've just splashed down after the end of a tortuous journey. And so I think that it's important that we recognize this thing called lifelong learning. Because absent lifelong learning, you're not going to have the background, the motivation, and the urge to embark on a lifelong career of change.

[00:05:43] Oded Ran (Clue): It sounds like what you're saying is that some people associate learning as something pleasurable and other people associate learning with something painful.

[00:05:50] Mike Vorster: Or something that's ended, something that's concluded. I'm done. I've studied all the history I'm ever going to study. I've done three courses in history. I know all about history. Well, it's a lifelong fascination, right? And so we need to have this lifelong fascination with whatever it is that we do, alright?

[00:06:10] Oded Ran (Clue): Are you still learning? Professor Mike Vorster, are you still learning?

[00:06:13] Mike Vorster: Literally, I discovered new things yesterday and I thought about a new way of doing something yesterday. And that's because I noodle on the subject and I think about it and there's got to be a better way of doing this. There's got to be a better way of doing this. I was talking to a buddy the other day who was a fairly eminent physician during his career and he told me about the fact that he was reading a book called Every Patient Tells a Story. And it's about the art and science of diagnostics, diagnosing medical patients, doctors patients. And the first thing I did when I got home was I loaded it up on my iPad . Why did I do that? Because I thought that if you learned more about how doctors diagnose patients, I could be better at how I diagnose a sick machine. And so that's the sort of curiosity and that's the sort of thing that we need to do if we're going to continue to change. We need to learn wherever we can, and as a result of reading that book, I have changed and introduced into my thinking a lot of different thoughts with regards to what we do when we diagnose problems with machines, what we do when we diagnose problems on construction sites, and I learned that by learning a little from the medical profession, right? They are, after all, the definitive diagnosticians on the planet, or we hope they are, and can we learn a little from them as we change the way and make the necessary changes in the way we look at equipment and equipment decisions and projects and how we diagnose a perhaps a sick business or a sick project? I think so. And I think that's, that in many ways brings together this. There's almost fixation that I have about constantly learning, constantly changing, constantly thinking about new things. And I think so when we started about talking about change, I came to the conclusion that can we actually change without continuing to learn?

[00:08:34] Oded Ran (Clue): Is it coming from a fear of learning, or does it come out of a lack of humility? "I know it all"? What are the areas that one should look deep down in themselves when they ask themselves, why am I not embracing change?

I think there's a lot of fear in change. Because I'm currently doing it correctly, I'm currently successful and I'm now faced with changing what it is. And if I'm in an organization which doesn't recognize and reward change and recognize and reward new ways and new adventures, and if I'm in an organization which punishes doing things in innovative ways or taking chances or perhaps slipping up a little bit. Then fear is going to be a very big part of the equation. And remember last time we spoke about "I might not be right, but I'm sure as hang not going to be wrong." I think that's a big part of the change equation as well.

[00:09:31] Mike Vorster: I'm doing it at the moment. I'm doing it hopefully fairly well. I'm not going to change because I don't want to be wrong. And so it's going out to this word Humility that you raised. I'll replace humility with hubris. I think that there is a significant lack of humility. I think there is hubris. I'm doing it right. I've got it right. Can't do it any better. I'm beating the competition. See, I was low bidder. See, I've got the lowest rates. Let's talk in a little while's time when the chickens come home to roost and you know what it actually did cost you to build the work or what it actually did cost you to own and operate these machines. And so, I think humility is a word that we need to start using. I think also that that hubris is a word we should start using when we consider reluctance to to do things differently.

[00:10:30] Oded Ran (Clue): Hubris is a bit of a highbrow. In plain language, is that arrogance? Is that pride? What is it?

[00:10:35] Mike Vorster: Pride, it's believing I'm the best in the world. It's believing that there is no better way than my wayand it lies at the root of a lot of problems.

[00:10:45] Oded Ran (Clue): Hand on heart, have you come across it? It could be perhaps because by the time we end up having a meaningful conversation at Clue, it's already with someone who realized that they want to embrace change. When people would approach you throughout your career, were they already in a point where they knew change is required or did you often have to spend within the first couple of meetings just unpicking it and establishing maybe they're not ready for change?

What was the experience that you've seen?

[00:11:11] Mike Vorster: Well I'm gonna loop back and revisit this habit that I have about reading about things in other domains, so that I can see how applicable they are in our domain, and that is, Many years ago, I spent a lot of time studying physical failures, physical disasters: Three Mile Island, the Space Shuttle Challenger, the Hyatt Regency Collapse, and those sorts of things.

Because I said to myself that if I learned a little bit about the causes of physical collapses, like the Space Shuttle Challenger, Hyatt Regency, Exxon Valdez. I would learn a little bit about the things which caused organizations to collapse and which caused business failures. Same sort of thing. You learn about what happens in one domain, see how applicable it is in your domain. And as I studied physical failures and the Three Mile Islands and the Exxon Valdezes of the world, hubris, and, "I do it the right way", and "I've got it right", was in many cases, dominant characteristic of the organization that that was overseeing the situation, which finally led to failure. Yes, I have come across in my personal career, a lot of folk who said to me, nah, I don't need to know this. I'm doing it. I'm doing it the right way. I've got it right. And if you don't want to explore and don't want to follow how things are happening, and who, run into terrible trouble. Remember the first dimension of change that I mentioned and that is change in our sort of social world and in our interpersonal world as opposed to change in our technical world. I think that there are many people who probably recognize that they aren't quite as good in the technical world as they should be.

But I think there are a lot of people who say, I know how to manage people. My great grandfather told me about how to manage people when we were in covered wagons going across the prairies.

Well, I'm sorry my friend among the changes that have occurred, there's not only the internet and the PC and and very smart and capable computing, but there've been a lot of social and cultural changes that have occurred. And I'm gonna suggest that almost as many businesses flounder because of their inability to handle the social and cultural changes that have occurred in our world over the last 15, 20 years, even 5 years, than there are businesses that flounder because they're not on top of the internet or the artificial intelligence business or whatever it might be. So let's not forget the change that occurs in the business and cultural world.

[00:14:11] Oded Ran (Clue): More often than not, I speak with people who actually they see it, and potentially they already arrived at a place in their career because they have been pretty good at changing and learning. And the fear of change is perhaps fear of failure. Because "things work pretty well for me so far".

What's the practical things someone who is mid stage in their career, they still have at least 10 years to go, if not 15 or 20 years more, and they already notice that in themselves, that speed, that desire to change is slowing down. What are these things? What useful advice, what practical advice we can give them?

[00:14:52] Mike Vorster: Well, I think when you say, 15 or 20 years to go, I hope most 40 year olds are thinking about 40 years to go, right? I think that we really need to focus on, maintaining your curiosity, maintaining your urge to learn. And I think we need to focus on the very simple fact that you don't know everything.

The world is dramatically changing. And spend as much time as you can. Interacting with smart people because there are a lot of smart people out there. Don't get left behind. Sharpen the saw. Take the time to sharpen the saw because that's how you're going to be successful in your change initiatives and in your change management.

You're going to have to need to know where you're going to go. And so take time off to yourself. Take time to sharpen your saw. Go to seminars, keep reading, and keep the old cogs between the ears turning, You don't take two parts of this and mix it with three parts of and all of a sudden you'll be really good at at changing and managing change. It's an attitude, and it's a belief. And you better believe that the world is changing, and you better believe that the world is changing in both of those dimensions. The social and cultural dimension, and the interpersonal dimension, and then also the technical dimension.

I guess there's something you said there and it's important, the type of community, I guess, or culture or company you put yourself in. So if you find yourself in a place where other people like you are late adopters, the way we call it, or spend more time reminiscing on how things used to be, than looking forward for how things could be. Then that's probably the wrong environment? , Well, our only competitive edge is our ability to learn.

[00:16:53] Oded Ran (Clue): I love that. Our only competitive edge is our ability

[00:16:57] Mike Vorster: ability to learn.

[00:16:58] Oded Ran (Clue): So from your vantage point, obviously you've spent enough time looking at things change radically, right?

[00:17:06] Mike Vorster: I frequently ask folk, do you know what the opposite is of aging?

[00:17:12] Oded Ran (Clue): What is the opposite of aging?

[00:17:13] Mike Vorster: The opposite of aging is learning.

[00:17:16] Oded Ran (Clue): The opposite of aging is learning.

[00:17:18] Mike Vorster: because,

[00:17:19] Oded Ran (Clue): "Double click" on that...

[00:17:20] Mike Vorster: because you're going to keep yourself intellectually active. You're going to keep yourself in a position to change and to move forward with the times. You're not going to decay and watch the world go by, right? And that of course is the great fear of advancing years, is that the world will go by. And so I think that if you continue to learn, you won't be in a position where the world will go by. If you continue to change, you won't be in a position where the world goes by.

[00:17:54] Oded Ran (Clue): I've found myself in the last few years still spending time learning, but I find it's even harder to unlearn. Unlearn things I picked up that may have served me once, perhaps not even then. And unlearning is this just philosophy or there's a bit of truth in that?

[00:18:13] Mike Vorster: No, I think there's truth in that. I think knowledge has a shelf life, or a half life, like, radioisotopes. It has a half life, and it will decay over time. Not all of it will go away, but a substantial portion of it will decay over time. But let's swing back to organizations, because that's really what we're talking about.

Because and in many ways, they're very similar to organizations. And Peter Senge spoke about Learning Organizations and how important it is to have your organization in a position where it continues to learn, continues to change, and continues to stay current with things. We can put this in the context, in almost any context but to put it into the equipment context and into the software context. Man, machines are changing dramatically. Our software and the tools we have available to us are changing dramatically. Our data transmission issues, everything is changing dramatically. I was talking to someone the other day who was going to a stringless curb laying machine and, "well it's giving me a lot of trouble and so I'm sticking to my old string controlled machine and this is what I'm doing". I said, yeah. The sooner you start using a stringless and learning about stringless grade control on your curb laying machine, the sooner you're going to be in a position to own and operate and produce productively from the next generation of curb laying machines. The longer you spend trying to hammer out the last vestiges of production from the old technology, the longer it's going to take you to achieve the production and technology and quality and standards of the new technology. So I'm not saying be at leading edge. I'm saying, respect and remember the past. But embrace the future as an organization because if you don't it's moving and it's, I don't know how many times I can say that. you need to focus on building your future.

[00:20:26] Oded Ran (Clue): I'm hearing this and I can already picture someone thinking, oh, I just wish I could have 10 years where the things I already know will be able to, bear fruit and be able to reap their rewards without having to be on this continuous process of learning and improving and change and so on.

if one is subjected to that mindset it's really hard, to get excited about change. what's the right way to change the mindset?

[00:20:57] Mike Vorster: Well,

[00:20:58] Oded Ran (Clue): Or am I asking an impossible

[00:20:59] Mike Vorster: I think that that exploring new things, doing different things is part of keeping life new, part of keeping life exciting. I really wish I was 40 years younger because I think we've had, my generation's had a a very interesting career. We've been around at a very interesting time. And let's take this as an example of what we're talking about, Oded. And that is that my generation, I think about 80% of the folk in my age and stage in When the Apple IIe came along, they looked at it and said, not for me, slide rule and calculators are fine. And they didn't paddle and catch that wave and the wave passed them by. I think probably less than 20%, and I'd like to use the word us here, I like, I think a little less than 20 percent of us looked at this wave coming up behind us and we said, looks like an interesting wave, let's paddle and catch it. Okay, and we changed. We hooked ourselves onto the PC revolution, if you wish, and that's what it was called for a number of years. And and we've surfed that wave. All right. Now, I think that's a very good example of what we're talking about. That these technologies, if we're talking about technologies now; These technologies will come. We'll look over our shoulder at them, like a surfer looks at every shoulder of the wave. And we'll see when, where, and how this wave is going to break. And we will make a decision. Are we going to paddle and catch it? Or are we not? Okay? And know that once you've made the decision to paddle and catch it, you're in for a wild ride. Okay? Wherever that might take you. And if you make the decision not to paddle and catch it, you don't. Alright? You're not, it's, that wave's not going to come up behind you again. Another one will. But that wave is not going to come up behind you again. We've spoken about the day when I loaded my first copy of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet into my Apple IIe, and I looked at this thing with 100 columns and 26 rows, and in each cell you could put a label, value, or an equation. That was it. The user manual was one 8.5" x 11" sheet and it said you've got 26 rows and a hundred columns and you can put a label, a value, or an equation in each cell. Please do whatever you want to do. And if I'd looked at that and I'd said, I'm going to let that wave pass me, my life would have been completely different. But I looked at this thing and I called Mel, my wife into the room and I said, "hey, look at this", and understand it, because effective today, the world is going to be different. And, I paddled like crazy, and I, to a much lesser extent than many people, I caught that wave, and it's been an incredible journey. Not as good a journey as it's been for people like yourself, but it was a slightly different wave to me, and the paddling was slightly different. But, those are the kinds of things we do when we accept change. And when we deny change, the wave will pass us. We can deny change. We're not going to stop change. We are just going to let the wave pass us. And organization is the same.

[00:24:59] Oded Ran (Clue): I love this. I think you gave us the title for this episode. Surfing the Waves of Change. Surfing the wave of change. hopefully this analogy of surfing the waves of change is resonating also for someone not lucky enough to live by the beach.

[00:25:14] Mike Vorster: We all watch the movies anyway. And certainly at my stage, it's a, it's an artificial concept to surf the waves, or ride on a paddle for the waves. But certainly I think it is a really good metaphor for what we're talking about and a good metaphor for what we're encouraging folk to do and that is to get out there in the surf, look for the waves of change that are coming up and paddle and take the ones you think you want.

And I think the important lesson is, if you don't catch the wave, you're not going to stop the wave. It'll form, it'll break on the surf, and rush ashore and do whatever it's going to do when it's on the shore and give whatever rides it's going to give to whomever it is. The fact that you or your organization didn't paddle and catch it, it's not going to change..

[00:26:06] Oded Ran (Clue): Some waves, if you're not ready for them, they will crush you. You will tumble down. Another analogy I just remember from my childhood. I used to really not like entering the seawater when it's cold.

And there's always this trepidation of entering it. But there's one thing that I've learned in later years, the fear of entering the water when cold. It has nothing to do with the actual temperature and after 2-3 minutes you're enjoying it.

And if anyone has children, they will know. My kids will jump into the water, it doesn't matter the temperature, and they're joyful and enjoying because they don't have these constructs of fear. So if we're sticking to waves and sea and water and cold water, maybe that's also relevant, right?

Tipping the feet in the water, yes, it will be cold at the beginning, that feeling of change. But after a while it just feels like, okay, that's just normal. It's certainly not as frightening as it would have been just looking at the sea from far away, right?

[00:27:03] Mike Vorster: And again, you've put your finger on a critical issue and that is that, the big rides come from big waves, okay, and you've got to have the courage to take those big waves because if you stay in the surf up to your knees, most of the waves are broken by then, right? You need to get out there, you need to get into, yes, slightly deep water. You need to have the ability to surf in that deep water and you need to have the courage to identify and recognize those big waves and be in the right place at the right time. And that's another issue, and that is the courage aspects of change, right?

[00:27:48] Oded Ran (Clue): You've got to have the courage of saying, there's an outside chance I might be wrong, but boy, when it's, when I'm right, it's going to be wonderful. All right? There's an outside chance I this wave might dump me, but if it doesn't, this is going to be a wonderful ride. And then, of course, the wonderful ride doesn't come from the first wave you catch, right? Because there's a lot of learning we've got to do, and there's a lot of time we've got to spend in the baby surf before we can get there. Really going with the big and wonderful rides. Our metaphor works. Yeah, metaphors and analogies, they're just ways to, I guess, restructure, reframe, rewire the patterns in our brains, in our minds that are stopping us from embracing change, right? So if anyone takes anything from this conversation, maybe that analogy of sea and surfing will stick next time you look at the water and you're like, I don't want to get in, right?

[00:28:45] Mike Vorster: you.

[00:28:46] Mike Vorster: Explain things with metaphors and you remember them with stories, okay? and that is the role of metaphors and stories in our lives. I certainly couldn't live my life but for metaphors and stories.

Oded Ran (Clue):

And we have for the next one, we already have a topic in mind around career acceleration and knowing your customers. So that's going to be coming up in our next conversation. Mike, thank you so much. Great to see you again. Very much look forward to it. See you soon.

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