Archive for August, 2010

Getting to the root cause.

Monday, August 30th, 2010

While out for a bike ride with a friend of mine today, we talked about the class on A3 thinking that I’ll be teaching this fall at the Stanford Continuing Studies Program. As I described the importance of finding the root cause, he told me about a fascinating example of root cause analysis by the National Park Service. (My source for this story is here.)

There was excessive wear on the Lincoln Memorial from all the cleaning it was getting because of bird droppings. The Park Service experimented with different cleaners and brushes to cut down on the wear. That didn’t work so they looked at it differently and asked “Why are we cleaning it so much?” Because of all the bird droppings.

They put up nets to keep the birds out and it worked some but not well enough and the tourists complained about them. They went one step further and asked “Why do we have so many birds coming to this monument?” After studying it they determined it was because of the insects that swarmed the monument in the evenings. They tried different types of insecticides but nothing seemed to work for long. So they asked “Why do we have so many insects swarming the monument?”

They determined the bright lights that illuminated the monument in the evenings were drawing the insects. They found out that by turning on the lights 1 hour later each evening they could eliminate over ninety percent of the insects and the resulting bird droppings. The brushes and cleaners, nets, and insecticides all addressed symptoms of the root cause. The Root Cause was the lighting and once it was addressed the problem went away.

This story really exemplifies lean thinking at its best. The Park Service solved a major problem without spending large amounts of money or reallocating huge numbers of resources. By taking the time to understand the problem instead of jumping to solutions, they were able to institute a cheap, effective countermeasure.

As you know, I’m fascinated by the dysfunctional relationship people have with email, and the waste that it often creates. This story makes me think of all the technological solutions that companies are peddling to fix the email blight. Yes, they may work. But I’m not sure that they’re really addressing the root cause of the problem. You can categorize, prioritize, analyze, sort, thread, and color-code your messages all you want — but you’re still going to spend a preposterously large amount of time dealing with mail. Perhaps it would be better to figure out why you’re getting so much, and how you can prevent its creation in the first place.

How are you going to stop the (metaphorical) bird crap from invading your office?

TimeBack Goes Live! August 30, 4pm: The Lean Nation Radio Show

Friday, August 27th, 2010

I’ll be a guest on The Lean Nation radio show on August 30 from 4-5pm on 790 AM Talk and Business, hosted by (the always dapper) Karl Wadensten. This is a reschedule of my earlier appearance, when the Yankee game preempted my interview.

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 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.

MBA case studies teach the wrong things

Monday, August 16th, 2010

A couple of months ago, Steve Spear wrote that C-level and other senior leaders usually don’t embrace lean as a strategic concern, because their training has been focused on making decisions about transactions, rather than making discoveries through experimentation. As he describes it,

Business managers are not trained to learn/discover.  Rather they are trained to decide about transactions.  Consider the MBA curriculum core:

  • Finance–how to value transactions
  • Accounting–how to track transactions
  • Strategy–taught as a transactional discipline of entering or exiting markets based on relative strength and weakness
  • OM courses–heavily pervaded by analytical tools (in support of decisions)

Largely absent: scientific method, experimentation, exploration, learning methods, teaching methods, etc.

I couldn’t agree more. When I think back to my MBA classes (1990-92), I remember wading through case studies in all my classes that ostensibly taught me something about business. But the truth is that these simplified, post-hoc analyses really didn’t do a great job in teaching any useful information (at least for me). The eventual business success achieved by the heroic managers in times of crisis were attributed to brilliant insight, or “leveraging core competencies,” or some other management buzzword of the day. I can’t think of a single case where the leadership team said, in effect, “Well, we’re screwed. Now what do we do? How about if we try a few countermeasures and see what works?”

Even worse, the great insight was almost always a major — even revolutionary — idea springing fully-developed from the forehead of the brilliant leader in isolation. No incremental steps or improvements that, over time, lead to a successful shift. No input or ideas from the workforce, who, as Kevin Meyer always reminds us, is composed of more than just pairs of hands. No guidance on how to understand the real problem, rather than simply leaping to solutions. No lessons on how to work through PDCA cycles in an effort to make real, lasting improvement.

The truth is that the corporate ecosystem is enormously complex. Presenting a simplified view of that ecosystem may seem to make pedagogical sense, but it leads to the false belief that problems are easily understood, that there is one “right” answer, and that there’s no need for experimentation. And that’s a tremendous disservice to future business leaders.

Book Review: Slay the Email Monster

Friday, August 13th, 2010

I just finished reading Slay the E-mail Monster, a new book by my friends and long-ago colleagues Lynn Coffman and Michael Valentine. It’s a quick read, and valuable for anyone consumed by email and struggling to find time and bandwidth to do their real work.

Lynn and Michael have briefly listed 96 ideas (one per page) that can help you get control. They don’t delve into the specifics of each technique (“Click on Tools/Options/Preferences,” etc.) — you may need to Google how to do some of the things they recommend — but they do provide the important underlying concepts. You’ll know what to do and why to do it.

As David Allen often says, many of these ideas are nothing more than “advanced common sense.” But common sense isn’t always that common, and the frantic chaos of the workplace frequently buries common sense beneath a pile of competing commitments. This short book is a good reminder that answering email is not, in fact, your job, and provides good ideas for getting re-focused on creating real value.

The final word on making meetings better.

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

I’ve slaughtered trillions of electrons bloviating about making meetings more effective using lean techniques. As usual, however, Scott Adams (Dilbert) said it better, more succinctly, and far (far!) more entertainingly than I ever did. Here’s Dogbert on avoiding the colossal waste of stupid meetings. (The first part of the video should remind LeanBlog‘s Mark Graban of his recent FIOS customer service extravaganza.)

Learn it, love it, live it.

Plain English for Plain People

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

I just ran across Software Advice’s explanation of lean, six sigma, and flexible manufacturing here. I suspect that some of the more knowledgeable lean folks will have plenty to quibble about: for example, there’s no mention of respect for people; lean is actually about improving (not maintaining) quality; and there’s nothing about problem solving and learning.

But that’s looking at the glass half-empty. The half-full part is that he avoids all the jargon, acronyms, and Japanese buzzwords that can be so off-putting if you’re not one of the cognoscenti. Instead, you get an easy to read, one-page summary of a very important topic.

If you — or your boss — doesn’t know much about lean, and you’re trying to communicate the essence, this is a really good resource. By all means keep the Wikipedia bookmark, but add this one as well.

Shrink the Change

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

As I’ve said many times, I’m not a big fan of business books. I think they’re usually bloated, self-evident, post-hoc analyses that don’t really teach too much. (Read about the “Halo Effect” for a more thoughtful and intelligent critique on these books.) Nevertheless, though, I read and really enjoyed Chip and Dan Heath’s latest book, Switch.

Notwithstanding Kevin Meyer’s low regard for the book, I found it insightful and really useful. Because, really, when you’re trying to get people to manage their time better or to undertake a lean transformation, what you’re really trying to do is get them to make a change — a switch — in the way they behave.

The Heath brothers talk about Dave Ramsey’s “Debt Snowball” approach to reducing personal debt. Dave advocates that when you’re totally overwhelmed by debt, you should pay off the smallest debt first, rather than the debt with the highest interest rate. When you’ve paid off that debt, every available dollar goes to paying off the next smallest debt. Why? In his words,

sometimes motivation is more important than math. This is one of those times. . . . Face it, if you go on a diet and lose weight the first week, you will stay on that diet. If you go on a diet and gain weight or go six weeks with no visible progress, you will quit. When training salespeople, I try to get them a sale or two quickly because that fires them up. When you start the Debt Snowball and in the first few days pay off a couple of little debts, trust me, it lights your fire. I don’t care if you have a master’s degree in psychology; you need quick wins to get fired up. And getting fired up is super-important.

This approach to debt reduction is pretty controversial. But the underlying concept — getting small wins — is, I think, a pretty powerful idea. As the Heath brothers put it,

if people are facing a daunting task, and their instinct is to avoid it, you’ve got to break down the task. Shrink the change. Make the change small enough that they can’t help but score a victory. Once people clean a single room, or pay off a single debt, their dread starts to dissipate, and their progress begins to snowball.

In my work, I often see people — from mid-level managers to highly-paid senior executives — buried in a pile of junk. (Not exactly the picture of 5S for information.) Despite their competence in so many areas, they’re often paralyzed by the task of processing all that stuff. It’s just too overwhelming for them. So they feebly move stuff from one side of the desk to the other, or move one email into an electronic folder, and then. . . stop. Or even worse, they come in on a weekend with every intention of finally getting control, but after a few minutes, they give up and do something else, like some regular work. It seems so fruitless to attempt to purge all that accumulated flotsam and jetsam.

Instead, I think, people could help themselves by shrinking the change. Don’t try to get completely organized. Just get more organized. Don’t try to apply 5S everywhere. Just apply 5S to one area of the office, or one supply closet, or one operating room. For that matter, don’t try to become a lean company in one day or one kaizen event. Just try to become leaner.

Make that the first step. Shrink the change, and make it an easy win.