Ed Catmull, Pixar and the influence of Lean

Ed Catmull is co-founder and president of Pixar. After having reached his life long goal (creating the first computer animated feature film) with Toy Story in 1996, Ed faced a terrible dilemma : what should be his next goal ? Looking at smart leaders and once successful companies stumbling and collapsing, Ed soon identified this new goal : overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration.

This is what this book is all about. Sure there are some delightful back stories of some of the most inspiring animated movies of all time. There also are the little secrets of working closely with Steve Jobs. But the most valuable takeaways of this book are elsewhere.

They are in the way Ed Catmull (with the helped of Amy Wallace) describes the path that a rather successful leader in a creative industry followed to protect Pixar and then Disney Animation from these unseen forces and to make both company strive. Interestingly enough, the core of his management and leadership practices lies in Deming principles and Japanese management : a book #BetterFasterTogether could not miss …

The story of Ed

The book is built in some chronological order starting from Ed’s time at Univeristy of Utah (U of U) alongside the likes of Alan Kay. We then follow Ed from New York Institute of Technology to Lucas Films and then to the creation of Pixar and the very difficult first years until they get the deal with Disney thanks to Steve Jobs determination and impressive negotiation skills.

What is very interesting with this story is that we actually see how Ed has built a strong set of beliefs, the weak ones being eliminated by his experience, and how he has remained faithful to them. The acuity of his observations of what works and what does not provide an interesting light of how Ed has built his management principle.

Hiring brilliant people

A telling story is when, while at the NYIT he decided in the late 70s to hire Alvy Ray Smith, who looked more qualified than him to manage the team in NYIT. Yet « The fact to hire Alvy changed me as a manager. By ignoring my fear I realized my fear was groundless. ». This is to compare with managers who might have taken a safest path and not hire someone who they fear could take their management seat.

Another telling moment is the circumstances of John Lasseter integration to Ed’s Lucas Film team. John just get fired from Disney after pitching the story of a little toaster. What a great example of inability of large corporation to foster creativity. John was fascinated by the Pixar Image Computer technical capabilities and soon thought of stories that would use them to the full. Ed could not let that chance go

The power of shared purpose

Once dismantled from Lucas Films, Pixar (contraction of Pixer and Radar) started in 1986 as a small start-up selling the Pixar Image Computer. The first years have been chaotic and despite the very difficult times they went through from mid 80s to early 90s one can still feel the Ed’s confidence into Pixar’s team abilities. That is also probably true for less successful start-up who eventually went belly up but Ed’s belief in his team and their shared purpose can be felt at every page :

After trying everything we could to sell our Pixar Image Computer, we were finally facing the fact that hardware could not keep us going. Like an explorer perched on the edge of a melting ice floe, we needed to leap to more stable ground (…) The only thing that made this leap easier was that we had decided to go all in on what we’d yearned to do from the outset : computer animation. »

Implementing Japanese Management Approach

In this book, Ed tells how he get tired of empty management literature and then eventually discovered Edward Deming management principles and how they extended into Japanese management principles in the likes of Toyota.

« It was at that time that I happened upon one of the most valuable lessons from the early days of Pixar. And the lesson came from an unexpected source – the history of Japanese manufacturing (…) I soon discovered that the Japanese had found a way of making production a creative endeavor that engaged its workers – a completely and radical and counter intuitive idea at the time. Indeed the Japanese would have much to teach me about building a creative environment. »

It is quite a nice surprise for a lean evangelist to watch lean at work in probably one of the more creative company in the world. Obsessed with the hidden things that may bring his company down, Ed elaborates on his desire to make problems visible in his company, empower people to fix them without asking permission and learn his people to see. His Toyota speech at Disney Animation (page 264) at a very critical time during Bolt production is quite telling in that respect.

Candor and care of the new

Beyond the obsession of transparency and making problems visible, promoting candor (or rather as Ed puts it : removing the blocks to candor) is one of the self-given objective of the Pixar director. This blog already has elaborated on the fostering candor in braintrusts meeting in a previous article. A core idea of these meeting is what this blog called the egoless approach to knowledge work :

« You are not your idea and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation and enable yourself to focus on the problem, not on the person. »

The Random and the Hidden

Yet the most impressive parts of the book are the ones dedicated to randomness and what is hidden. There are still unpredictable events that can happen and completely transform the destiny of your. The story about the car crash – when as a young boy he calmly realized in retrospect that he was 2 inches away from being dead – or the one of the Toy Story 2 (page 161) files being help in taking a step back on any situation are quite stunning.

But the most captivating thing out of those is that even though Ed fully appreciates those two dimensions, he still addresses them actively by making sure both he and his organizations are prepared. Dealing with Randomness in making sure they accept it and are open to it. Dealing with the hidden with one of his core management belief : if you want to be prepared to lead, you have to try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature.

Hiring and Empowering smart people

Making sure all problems are made visible and are addressed by everyone in the company is a practical way to achieve these two objectives. « What is the point of hiring smart people if you don’t empower them to fix what’s broken ? » does he ask : a question at the very heart of lean management.

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