Archive for July, 2010

TimeBack Unchained! August 9, 4pm: The Lean Nation Radio Show

Friday, July 30th, 2010

I will be a guest on The Lean Nation radio show on August 9 from 4-5pm on 790 AM Talk and Business, hosted by (the always dapper) Karl Wadensten.

We’re going to discuss how lean principles translate to good leadership.  This topic was inspired by a guest post I did for Mark Graban’s Lean Blog, titled “You Don’t Have to be Lean to be Good.”

You can listen to my appearance live on 790AM (Citadel Broadcasting, ABC Affiliate) in Providence, RI.  The show is also globally available via a live audio stream at  I would love to hear your opinions and answer your questions on this topic or others, so feel free to call in to the show.  The call-in number is 401-437-5000 or toll free at 888-345-0790.

Can’t tune in live?  The podcast will be available after the show, so you can have my dulcet tones put you to sleep while you’re sitting on the airport tarmac.

5S to Relax, Part Deux

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Kevin Meyer recently connected his own experience using a smaller desk with a Wall Street Journal article on an architect who believes that a lack of visual clutter allows you to relax. Both of their feelings echo what many of my clients say when we clean off their desks and start organizing their information: they can concentrate, they can focus, they can “breathe.”

Now, I’ve been preaching the virtues of 5S for both your workspace and your information for a long time (here, here, and here, for example), but recently I’ve been wondering whether I’ve been pushing that too hard. Jamie Flinchbaugh has written persuasively that reflexively rolling out a 5S program at the beginning of a lean transformation because “it’s always the first step” doesn’t make a lot of sense. He argues that it’s far more important to understand the problem you’re trying to solve, and then choosing the right tool to solve it. 5S might be that tool. Or it might not.

Kevin’s post and the WSJ article reminds me that (for many knowledge workers, at least) one of the most serious problems is the inability to find blocks of uninterrupted time for concentrated thinking. Maintaining focus amidst the maelstrom of distractions and interruptions is incredibly difficult. But there’s no reason to make it any harder than it has to be. A robust 5S program for all the information that washes up on your desk like white collar flotsam and jetsam is a great way to help increase the amount of concentrated work you can do.

As Kevin says, “minimize to achieve the elegance and peacefulness of simplicity.” Or in other words, 5S it.

Leadership vs. Management

Monday, July 19th, 2010

I’ve become quite a fan of Bob Sutton’s blog recently. In addition to presenting interesting research that you probably haven’t heard about, he’s irreverent and funny. (No more so than in his post on the “asshole collar.”) So I paid attention when he wrote that

one of the dangers of talking about leadership versus management is that the implication is that leadership is this important high status activity and management is the shit work done by the little people.  My view (and there is plenty of evidence to support it) is that effective management — the work done by the collection of bosses and their followers in an organization, if you will — is probably most crucial to success. After all, they are the people who turn dreams into reality.

This comment brought me back to the examples of lean leadership at Lantech and Group Health that I’ve learned about. In these companies, senior execs — leaders — have standard work that involves regular visits to the gemba and communication with the line workers. Even though they’re responsible for the grand vision and strategy, they also know the nitty gritty of daily work. Sutton says that they realize they have a

deep understanding of the little details required to make [the grand vision] work — or if they don’t, they have the wisdom to surround themselves with people who can offset their weaknesses and who have the courage to argue with them when there is no clear path between their dreams and reality.

Sutton cites Medtronic’s Bill George, Xerox’s Anne Mulcahy, Pixar’s Brad Bird, Steve Jobs, and Francis Ford Coppola as leaders who understand this. (Bill George spent about 75% of his time during his first 9 months on the job watching surgeons put Medtronic devices in patients and talking with doctors and nurses, patients, families, and hospital executives to learn about customers and users of his products.) I don’t know if any of these folks are considered “lean” leaders, but by this definition of leadership, at least, there’s not much difference between being good and being lean. (Something I touched on in this post for Mark Graban’s Lean Blog as well.)

I think that one of the great benefits of the various lean tools is that they help leadership get deep into the weeds. Value stream maps, A3s, and the fundamental principle of “go and see” is all about understanding the details of daily life for front line workers and managers. These tools make management part of leadership.

Information overload vs. filter failure

Monday, July 12th, 2010

I’m a big fan of Nathan Zeldes’ blog. Aside from his seminal piece on “Infomania,” he’s a clear-eyed observer of the email hell in which most corporate employees find themselves trapped. Recently, he rebutted Clay Shirky’s argument (here and here) that “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.”

Shirky’s maintains that (since Gutenberg at least) there’s always been more information than any individual could possibly process — but it’s not a problem, because as long as reading it all isn’t mandatory, who cares? But Zeldes rejects that argument. As he says,

It is not that there’s a lot of information; it is that there’s a lot more information that we are expected to read than we have time to read it in. It’s about the dissonance between that requirement and our ability to comply with it, and this requirement was not there in Alexandria or in Gutenberg’s Europe: you were free to read only what you wanted to and had time for. This is what has changed, not just the filtering….there is an expectation (express or implied) that you must go through all the mail in your Inbox.

I think Zeldes is exactly correct in this analysis. And to his credit, he points out that along with the obvious reasons for the growth of email (it’s free, easy, and instant), there are powerful cultural reasons as well: CYA, publish or perish, mistrust, escalation, and so on.

Okay, these aren’t exactly Copernican insights here. So what?

Well, as Jamie Flinchbaugh constantly reminds me in regards to A3s, getting the problem statement right is at least half the battle. And I think that the problem statement, “I/We have too much email” isn’t very good. After all, how do you define “too much”?

Instead, I think it’s worth asking questions like “Why is so much communication done via email?” Or, picking up on Zeldes’ point, “Why are we expected to read all that mail?” These questions lead to much more interesting — and fruitful — conversations about corporate culture, service level agreements, allocation of authority, etc.

In an earlier post, I talked about how Peter Drucker viewed an excess of meetings as a sign of a dysfunctional organization. He wrote that

Too many meetings always bespeak poor structure of jobs and the wrong organizational components. . . if people in an organization find themselves in meetings a quarter of their time or more — there is time-wasting malorganization.

Too many meetings signify that work that should be in one job or in one component is spread over several jobs or several components. They signify that responsibility is diffused and information is not addressed to the people that need it.

I wonder if you could say the same thing about too much email. Yes, when you’re collaborating with teams located in different offices around the world email is a incredibly useful communication tool. But lord knows that there are plenty of people, teams, and companies that don’t have that convenient excuse.

The root causes behind our biblical email plague are myriad — and almost certainly don’t involve something we can’t fix, like a vengeful god. Asking questions that reveal the root causes can help you take appropriate countermeasures. It’s a better approach than blaming email on “filter failure,” or meekly accepting the worsening status quo.

The problem with priorities.

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

Ron Ashkenas posted a thoughtful piece on the problem with priorities a few months ago. He tells a story of the head of a large hospital who asked his direct reports to make an index card for each of the projects they were working on.  One hundred fifty cards (!) later, it became apparent why so few of the projects were moving towards completion — with so many projects drawing on the same resources of time and attention, nothing could get finished. Moreover, these senior managers were reluctant to formally drop any of the projects because they felt that all of them were important.

But as the old saying goes, if everything is a priority, then nothing is. Something is either the priority or it’s not.

This reminded me of something that Merlin Mann once wrote:

Making something a BIG RED TOP TOP BIG HIGHEST #1 PRIORITY changes nothing but text styling. If it were really important, it’d already be done. Period. Think about it.

Example. When my daughter falls down and screams, I don’t ask her to wait while I grab a list to determine which of seven notional levels of “priority” I should assign to her need for instantaneous care and affection. Everything stops, and she gets taken care of. Conversely – and this is really the important part – everything else in the universe can wait.

I’ve written before about the necessity of understanding your “production capacity.” If you had infinite time and infinite resources (energy, money, focus), you wouldn’t really need to worry about your production capacity. You’d just keep working and get everything done. You’d rescue your daughter and analyze last month’s sales figures. No problem.

Unfortunately, you don’t have infinite time and resources. (Or if you did, you wouldn’t be working right now. You’d be on a yacht docked at your own private Caribbean island.) So you have to make choices. You have to choose your priority for the hour or day or week or year.

My wife has gradually been learning this lesson. Recently, she’s been a bit better at saying no, and has been spending a bit more time on her “great work.” Patient care comes first as always — there’s no letup in the number of procedures she’s doing each day — but she’s shelved almost all of her academic work and a significant amount of her administrative work. Equally important, she’s less stressed about the stuff that she’s not doing.

Remember: either your project is the priority or it’s not. Period.