Now I got out of there alive. Over half the people I flew with did not come back from their missions. And when I came back to the United States, it was a big surprise. I had come so close to getting killed so many times. It felt like it was a new life. Every day was like a bonus day, a free day. And what was I going to do with it?
So I asked the Air Force to send me back to the Air Force Academy to become — train to be a professor or back to school at Stanford, train to be a professor at the Air Force Academy. And from there I went into the University of Colorado Medical School. I was on the faculty there for 11 years. While I was there, my expertise was building super-computer models of the human cell and showing how it evolved and multiplied and what caused it to become cancerous, what could make that stop, how do we cure cancer?
And while I was there, a big banking company running 150 banks all over North America came by and they said, “You know, at the university, you have the best expertise in technologies we use at the bank. You have all the knowledge and none of the money. But at the bank, we’ve got all the money. And we don’t know what we’re doing. You should come work for the bank and it would be a perfect marriage of knowledge and money”.
And they made me an offer that my wife couldn’t refuse, a poor university professor. So I wind up at the bank. And what do I see? I see they’re running all these huge projects, hundreds of developers and they manage all these projects with a Gantt chart. And this is a technology that was introduced to the military of the United States in 1910. It didn’t work very well in World War I. And it didn’t work very well then, because every piece of the project is lined up with a date. And if anybody misses that timing, the whole project is delayed. And when it gets delayed, the customers get upset, the managers get angry. They would force these developers to work nights, weekends. They’d go on death marches. It reminded me of the Roman galleons, you know, the slaves rowing, rowing, the whip is cracking.
But as a fighter pilot, I knew the essence of the problem. These guys could not land a project. We learned as a fighter pilot that we had to very carefully bang that airplane right on the end of the runway. And if we didn’t, we might go halfway down the runway and slide off the runway into the trees. And that’s what they were doing every project — sliding off the runway into the trees.
So I went to the CEO and I said, “This bank is totally screwed up. If you give me the worst business unit in the bank, I will fix it, just like I fixed Company L2”.
And he said, “Sutherland, if you want that headache, you’ve got it”.
So I said, “OK. I will report to you once a month to you and the senior management and the rest of the time you stay out of my unit. We’re going to run this as a little company in a company like a startup”. And so we broke them down into small teams, sales, marketing, installs, engineering, everyone — all working together with team incentives in a collaborative space. And we ran weekly cycles. We began building a backlog of what we needed to do. And I began to show them how to land the airplane.
How is it that a pilot can make a perfect touchdown? He has to look at altitude, airspeed, rate of descent, the heading of the airplane, understand the wind and the weather, and every few seconds being adjusting constantly. So every week they would try to land the airplane at the end of the runway. Bang! And week after week they did it, and surprise, surprise, in less than six months, that team was the best team in the bank. They had gone from the worse money losing unit to the most profitable units in the bank. Because they made their work visible. The team was given the responsibility to fix the problem and they self-organized to make it happen. It’s all about learning how to land the airplane.
Now from that banking experience, I was asked by a series of companies to come in and deal with tough problems. So I needed to figure out how to do this consistently and get other people to do it other than me. I couldn’t be there all the time for everyone. And so I began to think about how would I do this. I was running a little French company in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the MIT Campus. And five graduate students from MIT came by and they said, “We’re starting up a company building robots, can you rent us some space?”
And I said, “Sure. We have a couple of extra rooms you can use for a lab”.