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Steven Spear  

Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management

Steven Spear is a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and at the Engineering Systems Division at MIT.

Spear is a well-recognized expert on how select organizations manage complex development, design, and delivery efforts to create unmatched rates of internally generated, broad-based improvement and innovation. His work investigates how the resulting leadership on reliability, agility, cost, quality, and safety produces sustainable competitive advantage even in the face of intense rivalry. Prior to MIT Sloan, he worked for the investment bank Prudential-Bache, the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment, and the University of Tokyo, and he taught at Harvard Business School for six years.

As a consultant and an advisor, Spear works actively with organizations to develop their capacity for high-speed, sustained improvement and innovation. He played an integral role in developing the Alcoa Business System, which has been credited with saving hundreds of millions of dollars in Alcoa’s annual report, and the Perfecting Patient Care system of the Pittsburgh Regional Healthcare Initiative, which helped raise quality and safety of care in area hospitals and which has been credited with saving many lives and much money. His clients include organizations such as Lockheed Martin, John Deere, Intel, Intuit, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He consulted for the MacArthur Foundation and works with Toyota on supplier development efforts. A senior lecturer at MIT Sloan and at the Engineering Systems Division, Spear teaches a course on high-velocity organizations in the Leaders for Global Operations Program and in several executive education programs. He supports the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s efforts as a Senior Fellow.

Spear’s book, The High Velocity Edge: How Market Leaders Leverage Operational Excellence to Beat the Competition (McGraw Hill, 2010), has won several awards, including the Shingo Prize for Excellence in Manufacturing Research and the Philip Crosby Medal from the American Society for Quality. His articles, “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System” and “Learning to Lead at Toyota” have been widely read and have become part of the lean manufacturing canon. “Fixing Healthcare from the Inside, Today” won a McKinsey Award as one of the best Harvard Business Review articles in 2005 and his fourth Shingo Prize for Research Excellence. Spear has published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and other medical journals as well, and has had op-ed pieces in The New York Times, the Boston Globe,, and Industry Week. He has been interviewed on Bloomberg TV and radio and on CBS News, has been quoted in a number of magazines and newspapers, and has spoken to audiences as diverse as the Association for Manufacturing Excellence and the Institute of Medicine.

Spear holds a BS in economics from Princeton University, an MA in management and an MS in mechanical engineering from MIT, and a PhD from Harvard Business School.


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Speech Topics

Making the Leap: How High-Velocity Organizations Get Ahead & Stay Ahead

Regardless of your industry or sector - whether civilian, military, high tech, heavy industry, manufacturing, or design - the difference between your organization being great and being average is having the knowledge to be great. In this engaging presentation, speaker Steven Spear explains that great organizations distinguish themselves through their ability to build new and useful knowledge, to innovate, and to bring new discoveries into useful practice.

Drawing from examples as wide ranging as NASA's bid to put a man on the moon within a decade and a hospital's failure to diagnose a problem well in advance, Spear shows how an organization can make the leap from average to great by using a "hop, skip, and jump" method. Just as the Mercury spacecraft - the "hop" - led to the Gemini spacecraft - the "skip" - which only then led to the Apollo spacecraft - the "jump" - organizations make giant leaps to greatness through many small steps.

Spear shares specific tips and examples to show your organization how it can make these small steps to stay ahead of the learning curve and thus become or remain great.

Leading in a High-Velocity World

We live in a world where even the most distinctive products or services become commoditized, seemingly overnight. At the same time, the complexity of designing, manufacturing, and distributing goods and services approaches unmanageability. The temptation for many companies is to outsource, restructure, and downsize as a way to "cheat death," at least in the short run.

Speaker Steven Spear thinks this is wrong. He lays out the case for competing on the basis of high speed, sustained innovation across the span of determining market needs, developing products and services to meet those needs, and creating and running systems to deliver those items to market. The challenge is not so much to find a position, unhampered by competitors, but to simply outrun the field, propelled forward by new and ever better ideas, as they struggle vainly to catch up. Drawing on his rich experience with firms such as Toyota, Alcoa, and the US Navy, Spear shows how leaders can design and run fast, innovative, and adaptive organizations using new capabilities. These center on capturing and integrating knowledge around problems, swarming around and solving problems to build new knowledge, disseminating knowledge to the peripheries of the organization, and embedding these disciplines as part of the leadership mantra of the enterprise. Once you see these practices in operation, you will never return to the traditional management models we've grown up with. Run with the rabbits!

Improving Healthcare: Twice the Care at Half the Cost

As the debate on US healthcare reform reaches fever pitch, we risk losing sight of a basic problem: in the current healthcare system, Americans pay too much and get too little in return because care delivery is often mismanaged. Individual practitioners spend half their time and work compensating for malfunctioning systems rather than providing care.

Speaker Steven Spear believes that the American health system can do better. In his presentations, Spear lays out a path to providing much better care to more people than we currently do at less cost and with less strain on providers. How?

High-velocity medical providers are learning how to replace their old approach to management with a more sophisticated approach to designing and operating complex processes, improving them when flaws are found, and modifying the systems as appropriate when circumstances change. This continuous process helps healthcare organizations better manage their internal complex systems, identify inefficiencies, and quickly address them. As a result, in model institutions, hospital-acquired infections, patient falls, misdiagnosis, and other risks and injuries to patients have been dramatically reduced.

Steven Spear is at the leading edge of healthcare reform and offers tangible solutions for the industry's most pressing challenges. His innovative approach to management has helped numerous healthcare providers improve safety, increase the quality of results, and drive down costs.

Don't Be a 'Zombie' Organization!

Zombies are all the entertainment rage, mindless brutes in relentless pursuit despite all the obstacles hurled at them. The outnumbered human heroes nevertheless prevail because they are agile learners, assessing situations and adapting to them - seeing problems, developing new schemes - solving problems to clobber the mindless hoards. It's not just TV that has plodding zombies massed against agile, adaptive people. Organizations also display either zombie or agile hero qualities. In zombie organizations, engineers, doctors, nurses, mechanics, or managers encounter problems, big and small, but instead of pausing to investigate and develop better solutions, they use “workarounds” to keep plodding forward. Zombie behavior is wasteful. Worse, it creates risk of catastrophe.

Fortunately, failure is avoidable. In contrast, high-velocity learning organizations easily vanquish their foes with fewer people and fewer resources. They don't start with perfect products, services, or processes. But, they start by recognizing that imperfection is inevitable, so they constantly look for and find stumbles in execution that impede progress. They aggressively investigate and diagnose those low-level problems and then develop robust "treatments" to prevent recurrence. When they are really "on," they aggressively teach and learn, sharing discoveries organization-wide to get the maximum performance bang for the learning buck. And their leaders see critical part of their own mission-critical capabilities to include coaching, encouraging, and harnessing the capabilities of: (1) seeing problems; (2) solving problems; and (3) spreading discoveries. These organizations get far better, far faster, and their rivals cannot keep up. When these high-velocity learning capabilities are in play, nothing remains the same. Issues encountered on Monday are addressed on Tuesday, and by Wednesday new approaches are being tested and tried.

Growth in an Uncertain World

The Discipline of Innovation

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