Archive for March, 2010

Leading without authority at Porsche.

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

John Shook often talks about “leading as if you have no authority.” This kind of leadership is not only fundamental to a lean system and to A3 problem-solving, it’s an equally valuable skill in any company. When you’re working in a matrix organization or in a team, the odds are good you won’t have the authority you might want to accomplish your charter.

I thought of this principle when I read this statement by Michael Mauer, Porsche’s head of design:

… at the end of the day, I do not tell them [the designers] to move a line exactly 50 mils lower or higher or more to the left or more to the right, because if the boundaries are too narrow you really kill all the creativity. I try to motivate people to think for themselves about the solution and how they could achieve the goal… Even if I have a solution in my mind, it is just one possible solution. There might be ten other possible solutions that are maybe much better, but by giving a direction that is too detailed or showing a solution, a way to the solution that is too detailed, I kill all the creativity. One of my major goals is to give the team freedom in order to have a maximum of creativity.

(Excerpt via Diego Rodriguez at Metacool. Full text of interview here.)

This feels to me very much like leading as if you have no authority. And more: it feels like the approach necessary for good problem solving. There’s a recognition that there are always multiple solutions to a problem, and what you think is “the answer” might not be the best one, despite your knowledge and experience.

Leading as if you have no authority doesn’t just mean not bullying people like Mr. Spacely. It also means avoiding the temptation to dominate — however inadvertently, however well-meaning — with your knowledge and experience.

Master the art of saying yes slowly.

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Learning to say no matters. A lot.

I’ve been thinking recently about what Michael Bungay Stanier describes as “Bad Work,” “Good Work,” and “Great Work,” particularly as it relates to my wife. (Michael is the founder of Box Of Crayons and is the author of Do More Great Work.)

In Stanier’s view, “Bad Work” is the brain-numbing, soul-sucking crap that drives you to drink — stupid meetings, inane emails, pointless office face time, etc. “Good Work” is the work you do most of your time, the product or service that your organization provides to the world. Stanier says

There’s nothing wrong with Good Work—except for two things.

First of all, it’s endless. Trying to get your Good Work done can feel like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the mountain, a never-ending task. And second, Good Work is comfortable. The routine and busy-ness of it all is seductive. You know in your heart of hearts that you’re no longer stretching yourself or challenging how things are done. Your job has turned into just getting through your workload—week in, week out.

By contrast, “Great Work” is the stuff that makes a real difference to the organization and to the world. Great Work

is what you were hoping for when you signed up for this job. It’s meaningful and it’s challenging. It’s about making a difference. It matters to you and it lights you up. It matters at an organizational level too. Great Work is at the heart of blue ocean strategy, of innovation and strategic differentiation, of evolution and change. Great Work sets up an organization for longer-term success.

Now, my wife is a doctor at a major NYC cancer hospital. It’s a teaching hospital, which means that while her days are primarily clinical, filled with procedures and patients, she also has a significant research and teaching burden.  I think that kind of work is both “good” and “great.” I mean, helping to cure people of cancer is pretty damn meaningful and makes a real difference. But at the same time, it’s routine (for her, not the patients); it’s often not that challenging; and it’s definitely Sisyphean.

Recently, she’s been heavily involved with a major process improvement project. Even though it’s administrative work, I think it qualifies as Great Work because when it’s done, the hospital will be able to treat more people, more quickly, with less of a hassle for the patients. And if you’re sitting there with a giant liver tumor, getting to see her more quickly with less of a hassle is pretty Great.

But here’s the problem: the clinical, academic, and research burdens are overwhelming her. She has very little time to work on the process improvement project, because she has so much else going on. And she feels as though she can’t say no to any of those other responsibilities. Partly that’s self-imposed pressure. Partly that’s due to preposterously high expectations set by the hospital. So she’s got a ton of work that’s not getting done, and she feels terrible about it.

Of course, even though she’s accepted all the work, she’s not getting to a lot of it. Her time is finite. So even though she says yes, she might as well have said no.

And if she had explicitly said no to some of the work — by doing fewer procedures, teaching fewer residents, not reviewing any papers — she’d be able to do more of the process improvement project. Frankly, she’s not doing those other things in a very timely fashion anyway. And had she done so, she might be less stressed and feel better about herself.

I’ve written before about the importance of understanding one’s own production capacity. It seems to me that if you understand your capacity, it will help you learn to say no (or as Stanier says, at least it will help you “master the art of saying yes slowly”).

After all, your capacity is fixed. Saying yes or no will not affect the amount of work you can do. But saying no will make you feel better. And it just might help you do more Great Work.

Drucker on time

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

Jon Miller, over at Gemba Panta Rei, reminded me last week of how eloquently and succinctly Peter Drucker stated so many of the ideas that I often struggle to articulate. Here’s Drucker on time:

Everything requires time. It is the only truly universal condition. All work takes place in time and uses our time. Yet most people take for granted this unique, irreplaceable, and necessary resource.

When the concept is stated this clearly, the connection to lean is unmistakable. Time is a resource, and lean is nothing if not creating more customer value with fewer resources.

When I was at LEI’s Lean Transformation Summit a few weeks ago, I attended Drew Locher’s workshop on bringing lean thinking to offices. One of the things he said that really hit home for me was that time management is absolutely a key part of lean in the office. Of course. If you want to remove the waste in a process, then you really ought to figure out ways to take out any waste of “this unique, irreplaceable, and necessary resource.”

If you think about time this way, you might be a little more reluctant to attend meetings with no clear objective, or allow people to walk in and steal your attention with the dreaded “quick question” (that’s anything but), or succumb to the tyranny of the urgent email.

It’s irreplaceable. Invest it wisely.

Email is where knowledge goes to die

Monday, March 15th, 2010

“Email is where knowledge goes to die.” *

Think about that for a sec. Think about the treasure trove of information that lies buried in your email inbox, or somewhere in the painfully complex taxonomy of email folders that you’ve created to hold each message in just the right place — your own private, generally poorly-functioning, Dewey Decimal system.

I started thinking about this issue after reading one of Jeremy Sluyter’s recent blog posts. He points out that the inability to access the information locked away in individual email boxes creates waste. You ask a question via email, a colleague answers, and both you and the company benefit. But when you save the information in a mail folder six layers deep in Outlook,

The transaction, the knowledge gained, has died in your email, for you to forget and for no one else to see.  And what about the next time someone asks the same question?  In fact every time someone asks the same question over and over again, we are wasting time.  And we all know that time = money.

Jeremy says that each time you answer a question over email, you should ask yourself what you could do to ensure that the answer to this question is available to everyone. Even if your organization doesn’t have an intranet, there are ways to make the answer available to a Google query. [For more technical ways to transform information into usable knowledge, read Bill French's post here. Much too advanced for me, but it might make some sense to you.]

To me, this is another way to view 5S for knowledge workers. It’s not about putting a tape outline around your stapler and mouse — probably you can find the damn things without the tape, and if you can’t, you probably won’t be holding your job down much longer. 5S is for information — for making it easy to find and easy to use for the rest of the organization.

When it comes to “set in order,” don’t worry so much about organizing your inbox and mail folders. Think about how you can make that information readily available for you — and for others — when you need it.

Don’t let knowledge go to die.

* Hat tip to Bill French for this unbelievably felicitous turn of phrase. I stand humbled before you.

Why do we spend so much time putting out fires?

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

What does your typical day look like? It’s probably not very predictable, except insofar as the first thing you do is check email to see what crises broke out between the time you went home for dinner and the time you finished your morning blueberry Pop-Tart. As for the rest of it, it’s probably a series of fire-fighting exercises, studded with pointless meetings and punctuated by the occasional 20 minute oasis of calm where you get to, you know, think.

Not so for Jim Lancaster, president of Lantech. Jim has brought standardized work and problem solving to all levels of management — including his own. At Lantech, there’s a strict cadence for the plan-do-check-adjust cycle. Even if you’re not in manufacturing, bear with me for this description — I promise to make the connection to your banking, or alumni development, or accounting job.

Individual operators check their machines and review production at 6:00am. Then the team leader meets with all the operators at 6:10 to discuss the day’s work and any potential problems. Then the area supervisor meets with all the team leaders at 6:20. Then the plant manager meets with all the supervisors at 6:30. Then the VP of manufacturing meets with all the plant managers at 6:40. Then all the VPs meet with the executive team at 6:50, and so on. Problems are solved right then and there at the location of the problem and at the affected level. If solving a problem requires a trade-off of resources, then the decision is escalated to the next level — but the analysis and the countermeasures are done at the location of the problem, where the work is done.

Now the coolest part: this process is repeated throughout the company, not just in the factory. Accounting, sales, marketing, credit — pick the department, and you’ll  have the supervisors, managers, directors, VPs, and president at your desk at the same time everyday. They’re there to see your work and help you solve problems, right then, right there. You don’t have to try to herd cats and schedule a meeting with the necessary people three days later (a meeting in which half the people are checking their Blackberries anyway). You don’t have to suffer through the spirit-sapping chain of emails that somehow seem to only confuse the issue and delay its resolution.

As you’d imagine, this standard work of going around to where all the work is done takes a lot of time. But the power of this standard behavior is that it eliminates much of the wasted time, effort, and energy that we unthinkingly spend trying to solve problems in a conference room long after they’ve occurred. The process keeps everyone up to date on where things stand throughout the organization — no tedious, long-winded, meanderings in the 60 minute weekly (or god help you, 90 minute monthly) meeting.

When I used to work in product marketing at Asics, I remember the frequent conflicts and problems that cropped up with sales. There were miscommunications about pricing and inventory levels that we didn’t identify until it was too late — after the sales rep had made a promise to a customer. And we had frequent issues with the product development team that could only be resolved through tedious meetings long after the fact, when it was expensive to make product changes. I’ve seen the same types of problems crop up between sales and the credit department, with a customer being put on credit hold, taken off, put back on, taken off again –  and all the while, his shipment of product languished in the warehouse.

In hindsight, I think that most of these problems could have been avoided in the first place with standard work that formalized communication and brought problem solving down to the place where the work was being done. Think about it: firefighting vs. standard work. Sexy vs. boring. Stressful vs. calming. How do you want to spend your days?

The cost of communication waste.

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Dwight Frindt over at 2130 Partners just published a white paper on “Lean Conversations” (download here). It’s an interesting look at how the way we communicate within an organization can create waste.

Dwight defines lean communication as a style that uses

less of everything: less intellectual effort, less time devoted to non-value adding conversations, less emotional energy expended, and less time to produce outcomes desired by a team of people or the organization overall. They are designed to eliminate the friction and waste from your own interactions and throughout your organization that have resulted from unproductive, unexamined conversational patterns.

Dwight’s piece echoes Bob Emiliani’s award winning paper, Lean Behaviors. Bob distinguishes between “lean behaviors” (those consistent with and supportive of lean principles) and “fat behaviors” (those that undermine lean and create waste). Bob writes that

the ability to communicate ambiguously and without ever making a commitment results in the avoidance of conflict. Refinement of this skill reduces people’s ability to say what they mean, sometimes even in the simplest of conversations, and forces other people to “read between the lines.” If such behavior becomes the norm, then the unintended consequence is an organization that cannot effectively discuss important issues. Business problems linger unresolved, often for years, and it becomes increasingly difficult to confront the issues. Ignoring problems leads to repetitive errors that consume resources whose focus is usually on short- term solutions to appease management.

Conversations are reduced to simple comments, obligatory discussions, or debilitating debates…. Information becomes closely guarded, the transfer of knowledge is biased towards agreement or good news, and learning is stunted so that an organization is not able to accurately assess its competitive position.

Okay, so this all sounds very academic and far removed from what you deal with on a daily basis. But think about the pointless meetings, poorly-timed interruptions, meandering conversations, and unclear directives that plague your days. Think about how they undermine your ability to do your work well by robbing you of focus, clarity, and time to solve problems. That’s significant.

Dwight’s paper contains a short diagnostic that might be helpful. If you’re serious about changing the way your office functions, it’s a good place to start.

Closed Lists, Kanbans, and the Key to Prioritization.

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

I was recently revisiting Mark Forster’s concept of the “closed list.” (Mark is the author of Do It Tomorrow, and a leading productivity consultant and thinker based in the UK who’s well-worth reading.) The closed list is essentially a to-do list that’s limited by the amount of work time you have available during the day.

Mark’s argument is that making a daily to-do list containing 14 hours of work is pointless, not to mention frustrating and self-defeating. If you’re only working 10 hours a day, you’ll never finish all the items on your list no matter how efficient and motivated you are. So why bother putting all those items on your list for the day? You’ll have to move it to another day.

Instead he advocates a to-do list that can be completed within your workday — and that includes accounting for the unexpected problems that inevitably derail your schedule. It’s a reality-based to-do list.

The closed list reminds me of the brilliant simplicity of the kanban in a lean production line. For those who don’t know, a kanban is a signaling device (usually a simple card) that controls the amount of work-in-process inventory. When a person on a production line finishes his operation (grinding a piece of metal, say, or checking the credit scores on a mortgage application), he sends a kanban to the previous station. This signals that he’s ready for the next piece of metal or the next mortgage application, and the upstream person then sends the next item down the line. For the purpose of this blog post, what’s important is that the kanban controls the amount of work-in-process inventory: there can never be more inventory than there are kanban cards, so you never run into Lucy’s famous problem of too many chocolates coming too fast down the assembly line.

Mark’s closed list — which is really the father of my principle of “living in the calendar” — has the same benefit of the kanban in controlling the amount of work-in-process inventory. It prevents you from taking on more than you can handle in any one day, and thereby forces you to prioritize. You can’t do more than 8, or 10, or 14 hours worth of work — you have to decide what’s most important, and ruthlessly weed out the rest (a la Jim Collins’ stop doing list). It also creates a basis for a conversation with your boss when yet another “critical project” with an impossible deadline is added to your load.

The closed list doesn’t reduce the amount of work you have to do. The truth is, that work is pretty much infinite. But it does force you to assess your work more closely, and helps you prioritize and keep you focused on what’s really important to you.

Create a fast track for your work.

Monday, March 1st, 2010

I spent a few days at the SHS/ASQ alphabet soup conference in Atlanta this week, learning about how hospitals are implementing lean to improve their quality and lower their costs. I was struck by the fact that all the focus is on hospital processes — admission, discharge, nurse shift change, etc. — but no one is thinking about how to use lean to improve the way people do their office work. The nurse supervisors and managers I spoke to, for example, were complaining about the difficulty of getting their administrative tasks done in any sort of efficient way. Like workers in any other kind of organization, they buried by email, paperwork, and meetings.

There’s no easy solution to these burdens, but there are lessons from the way hospitals manage patients that can be applied to the way that individuals manage their work. Consider the “fast track” that many hospitals have implemented in their emergency departments.

There’s one pathway for the serious problems — gunshot wounds, cerebral hemorrhages — that need immediate attention. And there’s a fast track for people who have non-life-threatening issues that can be easily resolved, such as stitching up a bad cut or splinting a sprained finger. These are high volume, fast turnover cases. If you’ve ever gone to an emergency department that doesn’t have a fast track for a non-life threatening problem, you’ll end up sitting around for hours studying People magazine’s “Sexiest Man of 2007″ double issue while the medics take care of the guy who’s having a coronary.

What would happen if you created a fast-track for your work? As part of 5S, sould you set up a paper and electronic filing system that separates the high volume, fast turnover work from the serious, more complex issues that take time to process? That would make it easier and faster to access the information you need, and avoid those Howard Carter-like archaeological expeditions looking for stuff.

Going one step further, could you create blocks of time in which you only dealt with high volume, fast turnover work, and other blocks that were reserved for the big stuff? If you did that, you might increase the likelihood that you’d deal with everything more quickly, more smoothly, and with less stress.