Archive for February, 2010

Can you start a lean contagion?

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Efforts to drive a lean transformation across an organization are difficult. Improvements in one area of the business often don’t spread to other areas. Deep-seated resistance to change slows progress to a crawl or stops it entirely. Backsliding erases hard-won gains.

But what if you could get lean to spread like a contagion? What if acceptance of lean, or even an outright embrace of lean (not the tools, but the mindset), could become like a virtuous epidemic?

Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, in their book Connected, posit that all kinds of behaviors and characteristics that we consider independently defined actually spread like a contagion. Take obesity, for example. After analyzing the Framingham Heart Study, they found that obese people tend to hang with other obese people, and thin people hang with thin people. (Birds of a feather, and all that business.)

More intriguingly, they found that there’s a causal relationship: obesity spreads by contagion. So if your friend’s friend’s friend — whom you’ve never met, and lives a thousand miles away — gains weight, you’re likely to gain weight, too. And if your friend’s friend’s friend loses weight, you’re likely to lose weight, too.

How does it work? Scott Stossel explains in the NYTimes that

Partly, it’s a kind of peer pressure, or norming, effect, in which certain behaviors, or the social acceptance of certain behaviors, get transmitted across a network of acquaintances. In one example the authors give, Heather stops exercising and gains weight, which influences her friend Maria’s thinking about what normal weight is, so that when Maria’s other friend Amy (who has never met Heather) also stops her exercise regime, Maria is less likely to urge Amy to resume it. So Heather’s weight gain influences Amy’s, even though the two women never meet.

And it’s not just obesity that can be contagious:

Christakis and Fowler explore network contagion in everything from back pain (higher incidence spread from West Germany to East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall) to suicide (well known to spread throughout communities on occasion) to sex practices (such as the growing prevalence of oral sex among teenagers) to politics (where the denser your network of connections, the more ideologically intense and intractable your beliefs are likely to be).

So this got me thinking: is it possible to spread lean throughout an organization like a contagion? Is it possible to have it take on a life of its own? After all, when you’re looking at a value stream horizontally across an organization, you’ve got a great opportunity to have lean spread widely and quickly. In some respects, you even need lean to spread this way, because you’re cutting across so many functional silos.

When I think about my work — applying lean to individual behaviors — I realize that this idea presents a huge opportunity. One person running a lean meeting, for example, has a chance to, um, infect up to a dozen other people in a company. A simple change in email processing policy (say, only four times a day) can touch hundreds of others. In fact, at Intel, Nathan Zeldes created blocks of time during each day that engineers could work without interruptions, and when word of the experiment spread, other regions demanded to be included in the program.

There’s more research to be done in this area, though: some companies mandate email-free Fridays, but usually can’t sustain it. And even Intel hasn’t been entirely successful in maintaining the new behaviors. It’s possible that those initiatives didn’t start at a “hub” — one of the “influenceable” nodes that are likely to spread a behavior most quickly. Or perhaps you need a critical mass to prevent recidivism.

What do you think? Could you take advantage of this idea of behavioral contagion to spread lean more quickly through your company?

Four tools for making work visible.

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

In general, I’m not a big fan of fancy time management hardware or software. As the saying goes, automating a broken process gets you a faster (and more expensive) broken process. Far better to use a simple system to fix the process and then automate as necessary. (Kevin Meyer is the chief apostle of this approach, with his pizza and whiteboard replacement for an ERP system.) Even buying special pre-packaged and printed day planners fits into this category, since you get locked into someone else’s proprietary and inflexible system.

Having said that, there are some interesting websites that can give you greater visibility in how you’re spending your time. They won’t actually help you, you know, do anything important, but by making your actions visible, they can help spur behavioral change.

The Wall Street Journal covered four of the services (Slife, RescueTime Pro, ManicTime, and Klok) last week. Each one has strengths and weaknesses, but will no doubt be improved over time. I won’t bother reviewing them as you can read the WSJ article for free here.

I’m good with a watch, a piece of paper, and some discipline. However, if new tools will help you get started down this road, by all means read the article and check them out. The important issue, I think, is not so much what tool you use, but rather that you’re committed to making the invisible — i.e., where and how you spend your time and attention — visible. Once you’ve done that, you can start to analyze the current state and implement countermeasures to improve it. As the WSJ authors wrote,

All in all, the services really helped us get a handle on how we spend our work time. And having a written account of where our minutes went pushed us to modify our work habits—and get more done.

These tools aren’t panaceas. But it might get you started in living the lean principles that you’re trying to drive through the organization.

Why not become CEO of your problems?

Monday, February 8th, 2010

I had a chance a few weeks ago to take a class on A3 thinking with John Shook. He mentioned that one of the greatest benefits of an A3 is that it forces people to take ownership of a problem, rather than having it fall into a no-man’s-land between functional silos. And we’ve all run into those, right? You know how it goes: “That’s marketing’s responsibility.” “No, it isn’t. Its definitely part of the sales function.” “Yes, but sales gets that information from IT.” And on and on it goes, with no hope of ever getting resolved.

So I was struck by last week’s NYTimes interview with Mark Pincus, founder and chief executive of Zynga. Pincus tells the interviewer that one of his key methods of leadership is to make everyone into a CEO in the company:

Mark Pincus: I’d turn people into C.E.O.’s. One thing I did at my second company was to put white sticky sheets on the wall, and I put everyone’s name on one of the sheets, and I said, “By the end of the week, everybody needs to write what you’re C.E.O. of, and it needs to be something really meaningful.” And that way, everyone knows who’s C.E.O. of what and they know whom to ask instead of me. And it was really effective. People liked it. And there was nowhere to hide.

NYTimes: So who were some of your new C.E.O.’s?

MP: We had this really motivated, smart receptionist. She was young. We kept outgrowing our phone systems, and she kept coming back and saying, “Mark, we’ve got to buy a whole new phone system.” And I said: “I don’t want to hear about it. Just buy it. Go figure it out.” She spent a week or two meeting every vendor and figuring it out. She was so motivated by that. I think that was a big lesson for me because what I realized was that if you give people really big jobs to the point that they’re scared, they have way more fun and they improve their game much faster. She ended up running our whole office.

Now, you can argue with Pincus’s approach. It probably doesn’t conform with all the tenets of “respect for people.” And telling an employee, “I don’t want to hear about it. Go figure it out.” probably isn’t the best way of training staff in how to think (which is one of the key functions of the A3). But making a person the CEO of a problem is, I think, very much in keeping with Shook’s idea of granting ownership via A3, because it ensures that something will get done.

Have you ever whined about ineffective, time-wasting, soul-sucking meetings? Do you bemoan the plague of useless, irritating, and time-consuming “reply all” emails? Are you frustrated at the lack of an intelligent electronic file storage system? Do nearly constant interruptions by colleagues keep you from getting any of your important work done?

In Pincus’s terms, are you willing to become the CEO of any of these problems? Or using lean methods, are you willing to take ownership of these problems with an A3 so that you can devise some countermeasures and make the office a better place to work?

Getting off the fire truck.

Monday, February 1st, 2010

The Lean Enterprise Institute has released a new DVD, “Womack on Lean Management.” I haven’t watched it yet, but the description alone really got my attention:

“When you go in and spend a day with managers and observe what they are doing – even up close to the top – they are busy talking to the customer about things gone wrong, they are busy talking to the supplier about things gone wrong, they are busy talking to operations or design about things gone wrong. Complete instability.

“As a result, the main work of many managers at many levels in companies using ‘modern management’ systems is constant firefighting.”

This really hit home for me. I don’t deal with the seriously tough problems that so many lean consultants grapple with, like getting complicated manufacturing or service value streams straightened out. Or, as Jim would say, creating stability in core processes. My work is (in some ways) much simpler: just getting people to spend time on what’s actually important to their customers and their company.

But when I see the amount of time squandered on activities that create no value at all, I wonder whether we should first try to create stability in single person processes — i.e., the stuff that forms the core of value-added managerial work.

I mean, what if directors, managers, and supervisors created stability in the way that they managed their own work? What if they had regular trips to the gemba and regular, repeatable, consistent mentoring? What if they stopped bowing to the holy god of the inbox? What if they stopped kneeling before the almighty 60 minute meeting? What if they applied visual management techniques to their own use of time to help ensure that they actually spent time on the really important stuff?

What if they got off the fire truck for awhile and tried to solve the problems in their own work processes?