Archive for May, 2010

The downside of automation

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Nathan Zeldes, former Intel engineer and author of the seminal paper on Infomania, argues that IT tools can reduce productivity. He doesn’t suggest that computers and information technology, writ large, is a bad thing (he’s an Intel guy, after all), but rather that any specific IT tool might not be good for the organization.

He describes a typical situation:

I’ve seen many an MD cursing under their breath while struggling to enter my examination data and conclusions into a new computerized system. Instead of scribbling a few illegible lines on paper and chucking it into a manila file, to be processed later by an assistant, they had to use an unfamiliar and possibly ill-designed piece of technology, and it took them much longer. And because of this they had less time to apply their real value added, their precious ability to cure the sick.

Zeldes isn’t advocating a return to the 50s, complete with pink collars, steno pads, and 3-martini lunches. (Although, who knows – he might be a fan of Mad Men.) He realizes that the benefits of IT are enormous. But I think he raises an interesting issue: the downside of IT systems and automation.

Zeldes says that usually technology

gets deployed with little attention to the wider implications. Thus, if a tool enables the manager or engineer to do the admin’s work, the temptation to remove the admin and become “lean” and “efficient” is great. But the fact is, an admin is paid much less than a highly skilled engineer or manager (or surgeon); and the latter only has so many hours in a day, which may be better used for doing higher level tasks. This is not to say that we can’t streamline some of the work by having it done by the manager; the question is which part, and to what extent. As is often the case, it’s pretty much about identifying the correct balance.

Toyota is famous for being very slow to introduce new, expensive, technology: they never want to automate a broken process. That slowness to add technology also enables the company to understand how it will affect the value stream, and whether that’s wise.

When I see companies leaping at technological solutions for time and attention management, I have a feeling that they’re in for a big disappointment. Buying a piece of software isn’t a cure for poor work flow any more than buying a bigger pair of pants is a cure for your weight problem. Understanding the root cause(s), developing multiple countermeasures, and going through several PDCA cycles is a more reliable route to success.

The Productivity Myth.

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Tony Schwartz asks this question over at the HBR Conversation blog:

But is it [the productivity gains in the economy since the market meltdown] good news? Is more, bigger, faster for longer necessarily better?

Tony argues that the fear of layoffs is driving workers to sleep less, work more, take fewer vacations, and have less downtime during the day. He says that this amped up work pace “ultimately generates value that is narrow, shallow and short-term.” Personally, I think he takes his argument a bridge too far when he blames the more, bigger, faster ethic for Toyota’s problems and the sub-prime mortgage crisis (more sales, more profits, damn the torpedoes).

And yet, there’s an element of truth in his argument. Mark Graban penned a wonderful piece today on the perils of 100% utilization, whether for a system, machines, or people. As he says,

The goal of 100% utilization leads to dysfunction and waiting time. Yes, we don’t want the doctor to be idle anymore than ZipCar wants its vehicles to be idle, but you need some “slack capacity” in any system for things to flow.

I’ve never expressed this idea as concisely as Mark, but I talk about this all the time when I consult to companies. I see people who are stressed and overworked, and they come to me for ideas on how to get more done during the day. To be sure, there’s often a high level of waste and inefficiency in the way they work, and we have no problem coming up with ways to reduce that waste. But if all they’re going to do is fill up their new “production capacity” (usually with more stupid email, pointless meetings, or non-value added work), then their efforts are ultimately self-defeating. By pushing themselves up to 100% utilization, they’re guaranteeing that the system will break: they’ll get sick, they’ll make mistakes, they won’t be a good bosses or husbands or dog owners.

Bottom line: you need some slack time to relax, recharge, and you know, actually think and reflect for a bit. Your performance will improve (as will your health).

Schwartz say that

Getting more tasks accomplished — say, writing and responding to scores of emails in between other activities — may technically represent higher productivity, but it doesn’t necessarily mean adding greater value.

I couldn’t agree more.

Why companies don’t experiment.

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

A recent HBR article by Dan Ariely, “Why Companies Don’t Experiment,” posits that listening to experts creates a false sense of security.

When we pay consultants, we get an answer from them and not a list of experiments to conduct. We tend to value answers over questions because answers allow us to take action, while questions mean that we need to keep thinking. Never mind that asking good questions and gathering evidence usually guides us to better answers.

He goes on to say that

Companies pay amazing amounts of money to get answers from consultants with overdeveloped confidence in their own intuition. Managers rely on focus groups—a dozen people riffing on something they know little about—to set strategies. And yet, companies won’t experiment to find evidence of the right way forward.

I think that in a larger sense, the experts might take the form of internal Lean Six Sigma Black Belts, the senior engineer, the department chair, even your mother (“always make the chicken soup *this* way, with the parsnip added last”). Even if you don’t have direct authority from your position in some organizational food chain, you might have authority that stems from your expert status. And that’s something to be wary of.

As a consultant, this issue — leading with no authority, combined with the danger of prescription — is on my mind. My clients consider me an “expert” (which makes me squirm) on time management. The truth is, I’ve worked at dozens of companies and with hundreds of people, so I see patterns that are often repeated — but that doesn’t mean that I can prescribe an off-the-shelf solution for an organization struggling with getting the right things done. Each organization is unique — and for that matter, each individual is unique. Not only are the root causes of their problems likely to be different, but the solutions and countermeasures will differ. The only way to find what will work is to really understand what’s behind the problems and then experiment with changes.

And yet, most managers I see are reluctant to try different ways of working. I think that’s partially due to inertia — after all, they’ve done pretty well so far by working the way they have. But that reluctance is also driven, in part, by fear. What if people don’t like working in this new way? What if the CEO doesn’t like the fact that emails aren’t being answered within 45 seconds?

Ariely says that Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, is

trying to create a culture of experimentation in which failing is perfectly fine. Whatever happens, he tells his staff, you’re doing right because you’ve created evidence, which is better than anyone’s intuition. He says the organization is buzzing with experiments.

Experiments require evidence and data. So if your gut tells you that you’re not working as efficiently as you could and you want to change in the way you work, benchmark the current state, run experiments, and measure the change. You don’t need experts to tell you what will work for you.