More Trash Cans Don’t Make for Cleaner Streets

Photo by  Gary Chan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Gary Chan on Unsplash

Back in 2011, I had the good fortune of participating in a week-long executive Lean tour of Japanese companies, organized by Shingijutsu Consulting. This was a week where we got started early in the morning, travelled extensively by bus or train every day to visit various companies, and then attended lectures and analyses into the late hours of the evening. It was exhausting, but extremely enlightening.

As I was making my travel arrangements, I noticed that it cost a whopping $12,000 to fly Business Class, per company standard, and upon further research I discovered that I could fly coach for “merely” $2,500! When I floated the idea of flying coach to my bosses, I was reminded that it was worth flying Business Class as I would be refreshed and ready to go when I landed. I think those who regularly traveled overseas didn't want traveling coach to become the norm and that's understandable. In any case, I just couldn’t bring myself to spend that kind of money, out of my plant’s budget, when we were trying to save every penny we could. I ended up negotiating a deal where I would fly coach two days early and the company would cover my meals and accommodations for a couple of extra days while I got over my jet lag, etc. resulting in huge savings and a couple of days of sightseeing for me. It was a real win-win!

I landed in Sendai, Japan, which, sadly, was to be devastated by the Tsunami of 2011 just one month later. I spent most of my two days before the start of the tour, walking around the city. I had been to Japan a dozen times already,  but I still enjoyed being back and was determined to see as much of the city as I could. I took a train occasionally, but I walked several miles every day. On one occasion, I stopped and bought some snacks and when I got done eating, I couldn’t find a trash can to discard the food wrapper, no matter how hard I searched. I mean, I literally walked in this well-developed city for miles and did not see one trash can. My quest to find a trash can sent my mind wandering through many stories of why there would be none, all the while noticing that the place was immaculate. There was not one piece of trash on the ground. This was not a surprise as that is how it is for the most part in Japan, but to not have any trash cans and still maintain that standard was the strange part. Turns out that one of the many scenarios I had conjured up in my head was actually true. My inquiry into the situation revealed that the city had identified the labor associated with maintaining the trash cans in public areas as an opportunity to reduce cost. They had, in turn, removed most, if not all the trash cans, and requested that the citizens carry their trash with them until they got to a subway station, a store, home, or wherever, to discard it properly. Moreover, I was told by a few people that the city was even cleaner than it was before because people were being even more intentional about what they did with their trash. In stark contrast to the counterintuitive approach they took in Sendai, I can think of many cities where I have lived and visited where there was no shortage of empty trash cans and yet people were just fine with throwing their trash on the sidewalk.

I have reflected on my experience and the powerful lesson I learned many times over in the past few years. More trash cans don’t make the streets cleaner. The people’s mindset and behavior does. There are so many situations in life and in business where this lesson applies. Yet, our go to place when we want to change the results is to put more tools and systems out there, which in many cases shift our focus away from developing the right mindset. As a result, we have more friends on social media and fewer friends in real life, more electronic messages being exchanged and less face-to-face communication, more sophisticated medical devices and medication, and poorer health. We have memberships to fancy gyms with state-of-the-art exercise equipment, and yet we get less exercise. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because it is easier to put more trash cans out there and hope that people will use them than it is to cultivate a mindset that is rooted in a commitment to having cleaner streets. It’s easier to give people a smart phone and a laptop than it is to develop truly collaborative partnerships where team members use whatever resources, no matter how limited, available to them to communicate and collaborate. It’s easier to address the symptoms of the problems we encounter and be a heroic firefighter than it is to look for a root cause and develop and implement predictive and preventive plans.

This tendency gets further exacerbated as we gain access to more technology and more sophisticated tools. We get a false sense of security when we purchase and install the latest business intelligence process, or hire a highly paid consulting firm to analyze our business situation and give us a list of drastic actions to take. We have the illusion that 80% of the work is done and all we have to do is use the system we just bought, or implement those recommendations to restructure our business and slash costs in certain areas, when in fact most of these interventions, at best, deliver a Hawthorne Effect or a temporary positive blip in the stock market, but no real change in performance or the company’s value proposition.

The potential value of change is lost when we make a change but don’t follow through with the transition to ensure that the team members understand the need and justification for the change, participate in planning the transition, and have the right tools and skills to make it happen effectively. Consequently, they can’t see enough merit in what’s possible to truly commit, and at best they will only reluctantly comply.

Leaders who are committed to creating meaningful transformations do make effective use of the resources that are available to them, including state-of-the-art tools and systems, but they know that in the end, unless they win the hearts and minds of the people in the organization, no sustainable gains are made. They deliver results, even in the face of scarce resources. They purpose to earn the trust of the people so that when they make a request for all hands on deck, it will be met with enthusiasm about a brighter future and willing participation in developing and implementing strategies, rather than a sense of doubt and skepticism. These are leaders who have earned the right to make seemingly unreasonable requests that change the game.

Transformative leaders not only envision and set clear goals for the results that the organization will deliver in the future, they also envision the various aspects of the behaviors that shape the culture. They focus diligently on understanding and closing the gaps between today’s culture and the desired culture. They role model and cultivate the mindset that the pre-requisite for striving for excellence is not an abundance of resources. On the contrary, when you have the right mindset and create the right context, scarcity of resources and tools often leads to the manifestation of wisdom to know how to use the available resources to develop and implement innovative solutions. Remember Rocky Balboa training to fight his Russian opponent, Ivan Drago in Rocky IV?  He had no gym equipment but his will to win led him to use sticks and rocks and whatever was available to him in the woods to do what needed to be done. I have seen the equivalent of that in organizations several times in my career and it's priceless when it happens.

I'd love to hear your comments on your experiences and where you have seen people and organizations deliver extraordinary results in the face of scarce resources or the other way around, where organizations have spent large amounts of money on tools and systems that yielded no meaningful results.

Further material for your consideration: The Transformative Leader Podcast - Culture Transformation as Context

As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at

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