What Can Pixar Animation Teach the Building Industry?

What Can Pixar Animation Teach the Building Industry?


When we think of Pixar we think of a long line of successful, high quality, and entertaining animated films that we have secretly enjoyed watching just as much as our kids. It can be easy to see this success and to not stop and consider what underlying philosophy and the measures it took to achieve a quality product time after time after time.

I was somewhat skeptical about the applicability of the book Creativity, INC by Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, to the building industry. What I found just a short way through was that it was a book that was immediately applicable to any business in any industry and even in many spheres of life outside of business.

As you will quickly find in reading this book, Ed Catmull himself became adrift after the achievement of creating the first ever feature-length animated film (Toy Story), a goal that had consumed him for more than two decades. For a year after Toy Story he searched for his next goal.

As he considered business that were successful and businesses that failed (sometimes those that were previously successful) and considered his own successful business he realized his next goal: To create a culture at Pixar that would outlast its founding leaders and that to achieve this culture he would have to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it.

Ed seeks to deal specifically with 4 negative forces that can destroy a business, such as:

  1. Uncertainty
  2. Instability
  3. Lack of candor
  4. Things unseen

These forces at play are unique to groups of people working to achieve established ends. The problem is that people bring the most creative forces and the most destructive forces to play in our workplaces.

So, getting back to our title question, “What Can Pixar Teach the Building Industry?” The answer is this; that regardless of the difference in what is being produced that people are the key component to all products and services. So insofar as Pixar helps us manage, lead, encourage, and assist those that work for us or that we work with, than Pixar has much to say that would help the building industry.

Consider these questions that I would present to owners and managers. These questions are inspired by my reading of this book:

  • If polled, do you think your people would think that you value them or the product they create more? If the product, do you think the quality of the product will suffer over time as people are aware of their perceived value?
  • Do you know the names of all your employees? If not, what does that say about your priorities and what you value?
  • When hiring do you look at what a prospective employee can immediately produce for the company? Or do you take the long view approach of what their potential to grow could be in the right environment?
  • Do your employees feel like they can speak up?
  • Does the company itself value and encourage candor?
  • Do you seek out and search for the reasons behind a lack of candor?
  • Do you get people to speak up when they are reticent to share?
  • Are you always right? Does everyone know this? Do you think this encourages collaboration or stifle it?
  • In production is every person given the ability to halt production if they believe there is a quality control issue? If not, how can you encourage this (based on the theory by the economist W. Edwards Deming).
  • Do your people know what you value? What your vision and mission is?
  • Have they taken that vision and mission upon themselves (e.g. become “invested” in the company)?
  • Do you expect more from your people then what you are willing to compensate them for?
  • Do you have too many rules? Who are the rules designed for? The 5% of trouble makers? Do you think this helps or hampers the productivity of the 95% of good workers?
  • How do you handle failure? Is it considered unpardonable? Do you allow your people the opportunities to fail and learn from their failures and grow?
  • Is there fear present in the company? If so, find out. If you don’t know, find out.
  • Do you seek to prevent risks or to make it safe for your people to take them?
  • Do you allow your employees to help shoulder problems? Or do you downplay problems in the company?
  • Can everyone talk to anyone in your company? Or does communication follow the organizational hierarchy of the company? Which is better?

These questions are just a few that we can be asking of ourselves as managers and owners of companies. They illustrate that many of the problems that we find in our workplaces are not the making of poor products or supplying terrible service, but rather that these problems are systemic to the culture of the company. Great products and service then proceed from a company’s sound ethos, what it values, and it’s tenacity by its owners and managers in staying true to its defined vision and mission.

These questions then are diagnostic, they tell us not only where we are at, but in another sense they are a gauge to help establish where we should be and should encourage further study and inquiry into the health of our companies.

The real question then becomes: Are you willing to ask these questions, and if you do, are you ready for the responses?

Tim Hoke – Design Trainee

Gould Design, Inc.