Trimtab as a Leadership Paradigm

“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary – the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, call me Trim Tab.” Buckminster Fuller
Trim Tab-how they work

Fuller’s effigy “Call Me Trimtab” is rather unique. As described above, a trimtab is a nautical device that acts as a small rudder used to turn the larger rudder of giant ships, offering tremendous leverage in terms of steering and changing the direction of the ship. Fuller, drawing upon his naval experience, saw the trimtab as a powerful metaphor for effective individual leadership: small and strategically placed interventions can cause large-scale and profound change. What makes this metaphor interesting is that the ship Fuller was referring to could be the entire planet, or any local system you are desiring to steer or change direction. To understand the full dimensions of the metaphor you need a clear understanding of the current direction of the “ship”, the flow of the currents it is moving through, the knowledge of where it is heading, and a vision of where the ship ought to be heading—as well as understanding where and how to apply pressure on the rudder to bring about change. As we have seen, Fuller had a strong vision for all these trimtab attributes. What is also interesting about a trimtab is that it efficiently brings about change with minimum effort – in other words – doing more with less – another of Fullers’ key principles.

Trim Tab-how they work 2

The guiding questions for everyday leadership that emerge from a trimtab approach are easy to list – but much more difficult to execute:

What ship are you steering?
Are you trying to change the entire world? Or maybe just your own department? What is the system you are seeking to steer or change direction?

Defining the scope of your work in an organization through using a Project Charter and other team building tools can help bring about a unity of purpose.

Trim Tab-how they work 3

What direction is your ship currently heading?
This often requires careful discernment and reflection. What is the “big picture” direction and destination?

Helping an organization see the ‘larger picture’ by using a Value Stream Map to establish the ‘as is’ and the ‘future case’ possibilities help the organization to see the larger picture and how the various segments of the organization fit together.

What outside currents, winds, tides, or events are impacting your ship? Sometimes these are obvious, and close at hand – but oftentimes they are remote either geographically, in time, or functionally, and it requires special instruments and measurements to gauge these outside factors.

Benchmarking in the industry and with best practices used in other industries helps an organization see larger and more effective possibilities. Special instruments to help measure and guage these can be selected from the Lean Six Sigma toolbox and others.

Where ought your ship be going?
This is often the most critical question of leadership. What is the goal, the prize, which you need to keep in sight so that your regular adjustments to the tiller, in response to the changing currents of the environment, will keep you on target? What is the big picture goal, not next quarter’s profit margin, share price, or units delivered—but the overarching social good? How will your efforts help to increase overall global well-being?

The goal or prize often can be articulated, understood and agreed upon by following involving the leadership team in and overall Lean Six Sigma project.

Where can you most efficiently exert pressure for “moving the rudder”? Answering this question accurately is only possible if you’ve taken the time to answer the previous questions! In the system you are seeking to steer, what is the rudder, what is the trimtab? In complex social systems, it is often instructive to ask, what is the rudder of the obvious rudder or the trimtab of the trimtab? These “trimtabs of the trimtab” need to be identified so that the least amount of effort is needed to change the system.

How can you most efficiently exert pressure for “moving the rudder”? Once you understand where you are going, and where change needs to happen in order to move in that new direction – the final step is to envision and plan how to make the change happen. Fuller had great faith in the individual’s ability to build artifacts, tools, and creative responses that would “move the rudder”. Not only that, but he recognized that each person would make his or her own unique contributions, based on their skillsets, life-history and available resources. The point is not for everyone to go out and invent new types of geodesic domes – rather, each person should be equally inventive in their own way.

How do you continue to navigate successfully through changing tides? One of the most remarkable things about Fuller’s life is that he was able to reinvent himself and his particular area of focus on several occasions – while keeping his core values constant. Then drawing on the knowledge and experience from one phase, he was able to realize even higher levels of creativity and inventive breakthroughs than in the previous phase. This process of continual learning, creation, modification, and synthesis culminated in his global lectures during the 1960s when he spoke on hundreds of college campuses – captivating the younger generation with literally a lifetime of insight, observation, and wisdom. In steering by key guiding principles, Fuller was able to navigate a complex century, making a unique and lasting contribution.

Selecting tools from your Lean Six Sigma toolbox can help the organization adjust to new challenges while ‘keeping on course.’

Not every leader is destined to be the same sort of “trimtab” that Fuller was – but every leader can gain valuable insights from his highly leveraged approach and sea-faring and navigation mindset.


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