Archive for January, 2010

Creating flow in your work (Part 2)

Monday, January 25th, 2010

I've been thinking a lot recently about how to improve flow when you're dealing with complex, low-volume, high-mix knowledge work. The process for creating flow is pretty well documented for repetitive, task-oriented work. (That's not to say that it's easy. But it is well-defined.) However, what do you do when you're the creative director at an ad agency? Or a trial lawyer? Or in charge of marketing communications for a specialty chemical manufacturer? How can you bring flow to work that is inherently so unpredictable and highly variable?

In a previous post, I suggested that you should look for the elements of your work that are predictable and repetitive. Now, I want to suggest that you transforming complex, creative work into simple, “transactional” tasks that can be done easily. Checklists are a perfect example of this concept. They ensure that individual steps within a complicated process are both remembered completely and done correctly.

NASA astronauts and ground operations use checklists for all space missions. The Columbia Journalism Review advocates that journalists use checklists to reduce errors in reporting. Since the crash in 1935 of a prototype B-17 bomber, pilots use checklists when taking off and landing planes – the process is just too complicated, and the downside risk is too great, to rely upon mere memory. Checklists are increasingly finding their way into medicine as well, dramatically reducing infection and mortality rates where they’re being used. Dr. Peter Pronovost has been leading the way in this area, as Atul Gawande reported in The New Yorker:

The checklists provided two main benefits, Pronovost observed. First, they helped with memory recall, especially with mundane matters that are easily overlooked in patients undergoing more drastic events. (When you’re worrying about what treatment to give a woman who won’t stop seizing, it’s hard to remember to make sure that the head of her bed is in the right position.) A second effect was to make explicit the minimum, expected steps in complex processes.

Your work may have less riding on it than the lives of patients or passengers, but there’s no doubt that there’s complexity in your work that, if eliminated, would improve flow and reduce waste. Chip and Dan Heath wrote in Fast Company about the benefits of checklists in business:

Even when there is no ironclad right way, checklists can help people avoid blind spots in complex environments. Has your business ever made a big mistake because it failed to consider all the right information? Cisco Systems, renowned for its savvy in buying and absorbing complementary companies, uses a checklist to analyze potential acquisitions. Will the company's key engineers be willing to relocate? Will it be able to sell additional services to its customer base? What's the plan for migrating customer support? As a smart business-development person, you'd probably remember to investigate 80% of these critical issues. But it would be inadvisable to remember the other 20% after the close of a $100 million acquisition. (Whoops, the hotshot engineers won't leave the snow in Boulder.) Checklists are insurance against overconfidence.

Checklists reduce ambiguity and uncertainty, thereby allowing faster action with less deliberation. They provide the same benefit that habits do in setting free, as William James put it, the “higher powers of mind” for creative thought.

Checklists improve flow in one other significant way: they dampen the tendency to multi-task in favor of serial-tasking. In a rapidly changing, always-connected work environment, serial-tasking may sound heretical. At the very least, it probably sounds slow and inefficient. And yet, serial-tasking leads to a smoother flow of work (and value). What we often forget is that the most complex activities are composed of individual actions – done one at a time. A good analogy might be the performance of an elegant prima ballerina in Swan Lake: her dance is composed of a series of individual movements – turns, steps, and jumps – done in sequence, one at a time. But when they’re linked together, they create a seamless, flowing whole. The same is true for your work. Because even if you’re not creating an artistic masterpiece, you can nevertheless strive for the same smooth, uninterrupted, flow of work.

How can you use checklists in your work? How can you turn the creative into the "transactional"? Let me know in the comments section.

Stacking the Box, Throwing Downfield, and PDCA

Monday, January 18th, 2010

I’m a long time (and long suffering) NY Jets fan. I’ve watched decades of ineptitude, incompetence, and bad luck. I’ve suffered through bad drafts (Blair Thomas? Lam Jones?) and lousy coaching (Rich Kotite?). I’ve suffered through the Mud Bowl and Marino’s Fake Spike. So when I watched yesterday’s playoff game against the San Diego Chargers, I didn’t have much hope.

The Jets needed to run the football to win. Their rookie quarterback has a tendency to throw the ball to the wrong team, so the Jets’ plan was to run and run and run some more, and only throw when absolutely necessary. Only problem was that the Chargers knew this. So they “stacked the box,” bringing all their defenders up to the line of scrimmage. The Jets couldn’t run: in the first quarter they had more penalty yards than rushing yards.

But then the Jets adjusted. They started throwing the ball downfield, forcing the Chargers to respect the throw and play defense over the whole field. This prevented the Chargers from stacking the box. And that enabled the Jets to finally run effectively. End result: Jets win.

You couldn’t find a clearer example of PDCA this weekend. It came from the stadium floor not the factory floor, but it was still a tremendous example of making a plan (run, don’t throw), doing the plan (running on 10 of first 13 plays), checking the results of the plan (0 points, 11 net yards), and then acting upon those results and adapting (throw downfield and more often).

In football playoffs, there’s really no choice except to adapt if your plan isn’t working — if you don’t win, you’re out. But when I think back to problems I faced in jobs earlier in my career, it was very different. If we had problems during the development cycle of one of our running shoes, well, that wasn’t great, but there were plenty of other shoes that were coming along just fine, and anyway, we were busy getting ready for the next season’s product development cycle. With hindsight, it’s obvious that we lacked the sense of urgency that a football team has in the playoffs.

How many problems do you see at work that you let slide? How often do you think to yourself, “Well, it’s not that important,” or “I don’t have time to figure out what’s causing the problem,” or “Yeah, this stinks, but that’s just the way it is.”

What would it take to get you and your company to treat everyday like the playoffs (lose and you’re out)? What would it take to get you and your company to apply PDCA to all the problems you’re facing and make the adjustments necessary to win?

Creating flow in your work (Part I)

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Jon Miller’s latest post on his agile kanban experiment got me thinking about how to create flow in managerial, white-collar work. There’s so much variation in your daily job that it probably seems impossible to create a smooth flow of customer value.

That’s true to a certain extent. But no matter what kind of work you do, it comprises both creative, unpredictable elements, and mundanely repetitive tasks. And while it may be hard (or impossible) to bring flow to the creative areas of your job, it’s certainly possible to bring flow to the more repetitive areas. After all, managers have to do performance reviews. Medical technicians need to do preventative maintenance on hospital equipment. Artists have to buy paints (and pay the rent on time). Actors have to go to the gym and get regular Botox treatments. This work isn’t particularly exciting, but it’s eminently predictable, and it needs to get done.

What’s surprising, though, is how often these tasks are left to languish. Rather than being processed systematically so that they can be taken care of in the normal course of business, this “transactional” work lies about people’s offices like beached whales, consuming mental space and stinking up the joint. They’re not sexy, they’re generally not much fun, and they’re not urgent (until, of course, they are). But when they finally come due, everything stops – colleagues, customers, and family all take a back seat to the completion of these relatively unimportant tasks.

This is the antithesis of flow. It needlessly creates waste and stress.

A woman I know is the CFO of a large law firm in San Francisco. She knows that every month she has to present key financials to the executive committee. In fact, she knows the exact date of every monthly meeting for the whole year. Yet somehow, preparations for the meeting fall to the last minute and end up consuming a full day and a half right before the deadline. This frustrates her boss, who would like the opportunity to review the presentation a few days before the meeting – and it frustrates her direct reports, who can’t get any help from her for a day and a half each month. With better flow, she’d be able to delegate some of the work to her staff, deliver the report to her boss on time, and increase her accessibility to customers within the firm.

If you look closely at your own work, you’ll undoubtedly spot areas of predictability amidst the variability of your own job. These areas hold the potential for improved flow. For example, the law firm CFO could improve the flow of her monthly presentation by carving out small blocks of time in a regular pattern to prepare the report. In fact, breaking the work into smaller pieces with a predictable cycle might even enable her to delegate pieces of the job to her staff.

Obviously, there’s still going to be unpredictability and uncontrollable variability in your work. Who knows – most of your work might fit into that category. But recognizing that some portion of your work is predictable, and taking advantage of it, would result in a greater ability to deploy your skills and creativity in solving unforeseen problems.

2009 Management Improvement Carnival

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

TimeBack Management is proud to be part of the 2009 Management Improvement Carnival, coordinated by John Hunter at Curious Cat. Several of us are reviewing a variety of 2009’s best posts from some of the best blogs. Links to all carnival participants and the summary can be found here.

I’ve picked posts from three of my favorite blogs: Mark Graban’s Lean Blog, Jason Yip’s You’d think with all my video game experience that I’d be more prepared for this (which surely sets a record for longest blog title relative to the length of the posts), and Kevin Meyer’s Evolving Excellence.

From Mark’s LeanBlog, I’ve chosen the following:

  • “Love” or “Lean,” This Quote Rings True: Mark explains how “respect for people” doesn’t mean being soft on people, and how accountability should be the real watchword in management.
  • Where Would I Be Without Lean, by Andy Wagner, explains how the lean journey starts with the simplest step: listening to Joe (not the plumber, but the person on the front line).
  • This Year’s WSJ “JIT”-Bashing Article, Again Misguided: you shouldn’t talk about the Lean Blog without picking at least one post on LAME. This one explains how the Wall Street Journal (once again) gets it wrong on lean. Thanks to Mark for helping expose the mainstream media’s misperception of lean.

Jason Yip’s posts are generally quite short, but pithy and thought-provoking. There’s always more than meets the eye.

  • Productivity Is Not The Primary Goal: no, really, it’s not. Read to find out what is the main goal.
  • The Toyota version for Information Refrigerator: a brilliant, concise image of why a computer is not the answer for your inventory issues — or any other problem, for that matter.
  • Don’t just make it visible, make it tangible: a thoughtful challenge to go beyond mere visible management.

Evolving Excellence is an awfully wide-ranging blog, but these posts are enlightening, funny, and powerful:

  • When The Neck Bone Isn’t Connected To The Head Bone: guest blogger Bill Waddell explains how the business school academics’ devotion to “core competence” and other management theories can have devastating effects.
  • 5S: Reality or Lean Illusion explains the difference between the core of 5S and the appearance of 5S, and why it’s important.
  • Chief Brain Officer: it would be a mistake to talk about Evolving Excellence without choosing at least one post on treating employees as more than just a pair of hands. Kevin is at his eloquent best in talking about how terminology affects the way we think about employees.

Finally, a special shout-out to Bill Waddell’s masterful manifesto on the Hollowing of the American Economy, which was first introduced on the EE blog. This piece was probably the single most powerful article I read all year. Download it here.

Many thanks to all of you for entertaining, enlightening, and educating me over the past year with your wisdom and creativity.