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Lean in to Change


Post was originally published on GE Transportation CEO Jamie Miller’s LinkedIn 

I’m participating in the World Economic Forum in Davos this week. The agenda this year is simple: change, change, and more change. 

Rarely has the world been so in flux. Economic, business, technological, political and cultural conditions are ever-shifting under our feet, much like the powdery terrain of the ski slopes of the Swiss Alps that surround Davos. On that note--bear with me--I’ve been thinking about what ski instructors says to beginners: don’t lean back! Lean in with your shoulders pointed down the slope! Position your feet under your body, but not too stiffly. Overcome your self-protective instincts and move with the shifting slope. Don’t fight gravity. Accept it, and use it to drive yourself in the direction you want.

That advice is relevant to succeeding as an individual or a business in our changing world. And they don’t vary much from the insights I think will shape 2017. Lean into change; embrace flux; don’t resist forces you want to control but can’t. It comes down to being able to constantly adapt, whether you’re an innovator rapidly prototyping until you’re shipping the right product or a leader willing to listen to diverse voices from within and outside your organization to find the right answer.

I think about how GE Transportation, like all of GE’s companies, evolved in this new context of mass digitization. Among other things, we build locomotives, which aren’t exactly the world’s newest form of transportation. But much like cars today, locomotives can now be computers in motion. Emitting, processing and gathering data with every turn. GE’s Trip Optimizer service, for example, is a digital solution that is continuously monitoring traffic conditions, fuel consumption and other variables to alter the speed and even the course of the locomotive for optimal efficiency.

Trip Optimizer exists because leaders at GE Transportation leaned into the transformation of the analog world into a digital one. They opened up the product brainstorm session, bringing in data scientists and computer engineers to sit next to train builders. Customers--people from the freight and rail companies--were also included in the mix so that their specific needs in a digital world could be considered and addressed. The result is the creation of an entirely new market for the company: Trip Optimizer helps train companies operate as efficiently as possible: embedded in more than 8,000 locomotives, it has helped customers save 100 million gallons of fuel in seven years, improve fuel efficiency by 10% and reach 175 million miles in auto control mode.

So what are the key building blocks, not just for re-imagining trains in the digital age but adapting to any transformation?

First, it’s imperative to open up the discussion, including diverse voices. One of the most integral contributors to Trip Optimizer, in fact, was a GE Research engineer who had previously built algorithms for scheduling TV ad spots when GE owned NBC. To him, optimizing locomotive traffic was a very similar challenge, just wrapped in a different package. We wouldn’t have gotten there without his experience, which was completely different from ours.

Another, similar point: bring in people from outside the organization to help you understand the environment in which your product or solution will be working. That can include academics, government officials and, most important, customers. Finally, creativity must be the ethos guiding the entire enterprise. Play with potential answers to thorny questions. Take teams on field trips. Encourage more casual collaboration and interaction that can create an atmosphere ripe for unexpected insights and get folded back into the project.

All of this together is what leaning into change looks like. By doing it at GE Transportation, we built a new market on top of one of our oldest ones, taking advantage of mass digitization and the emerging Industrial Internet to rethink our core offering.

How has your organization leaned in to change? What are obstacles to new ways of creating and how did you overcome them? These are some of the questions I’ll be curiously asking this week. 


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