Archive for October, 2010

If Jon Stewart can do it, so can you.

Monday, October 25th, 2010

To paraphrase the US Army, you’re a factory of one.

Stuff lands in your inbox, or on your desk, or is handed to you in a meeting — market research, budgets, trend forecasts, lots of venti soy half-caf pumpkin lattes — and out pops beautiful, creative, groundbreaking solutions. Answers to all the biggest questions your organization faces: should we expand into Latvia or Estonia? Should we extend our lobster bib product line by adding oyster bibs? How can we convince our CFO that we really need the Aeron chair “true black” colorway?

And if you’re a factory of one producing this stellar work, like any other factory, you should have a process.

But what I hear all the time is, “My work is too unpredictable to define a process.” Or, “My work is different. I’m not like the sales admin staff processing invoices, or the mail room guy whose job is just to send out letters. My work is creative.”


Of course it’s creative. But even so, you can define a process. In fact, I’ll go so far as to quote W. Edwards Deming:

If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.

Yeah, yeah, I know — you’re not a factory drone, stamping out widgets. But there’s a process, a system — standard work –  for everything that’s done well. Even comedy.

Don’t believe me? Here’s Jon Stewart, explaining to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross how he and his team of writers produce their comedy:

You’d be incredibly surprised at how regimented our day is, and just how the infrastructure of the show is very much mechanized.

People always think “The Daily Show,” you guys probably just sit around and make jokes. We’ve instituted — to be able to sort of wean through all this material and synthesize it, and try and come up with things to do — we have a very, kind of strict day that we have to adhere to. And by doing that, that allows us to process everything, and gives us the freedom to sort of improvise.

I’m a real believer in that creativity comes from limits, not freedom. Freedom, I think you don’t know what to do with yourself. But when you have a structure, then you can improvise off it.

Get it? It’s a process. Even for something as creative as writing jokes, there’s a structure to follow. And by establishing that structure, they can unleash their comedy. Without it, they’d probably be a bunch of unfunny fat guys eating donuts and wondering why their show just got canceled.

Now, take another look at your work. Sure, you have to be creative. But whether you’d a doctor in an emergency department, the marketing director for a shoe company, or the coach of a professional football team, you can define a process. I’ll go even further: you can create standard work.

Of course there will be variability: the doctor never knows whose going to walk through the hospital doors, the marketer doesn’t know what customer will complain about an ad campaign, the coach doesn’t know which player will get injured (or in the case of the NY Jets, get arrested for stupidity). But these cases are the exceptions, not the rule.

If you try to manage your work for the exceptions, you’ll never get anything done. Jon Stewart said that it took him six years to write his first 45 minutes of material. Now, with a rigidly defined process (and, to be fair, a team of writers), he creates 30 minutes every single day. The structure, and the standard work you define, enable you to manage the unpredictable crises.

If something as evanescent as comic inspiration can be turned into a process, there’s no excuse for you to not create a process for your own work.

24/7 availability does not create peak performance.

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Mark Graban’s latest post on Chrysler’s CEO, Sergio Marchionne, reminded me of a recent visit to a client’s R&D facility. Two of the managers bemoaned the incessant demands on their teams. Even as recently as a few years ago they would have downtime after the completion of a project when staff could go on vacation, work shorter hours, and generally refresh themselves.

But no more. Layoffs and increasing pressures from the executive team means no more breathers. It’s constant pressure year-round now. Unfortunately, as psychiatrist Edward Hallowell says,

Making yourself available 24/7 does not create peak performance. Recreating the boundaries that technology has eroded does.

In an interview with CNET earlier this year, Hallowell explainted that “attention deficit trait” is

sort of like the normal version of attention deficit disorder. But it’s a condition induced by modern life, in which you’ve become so busy attending to so many inputs and outputs that you become increasingly distracted, irritable, impulsive, restless and, over the long term, underachieving. In other words, it costs you efficiency because you’re doing so much or trying to do so much, it’s as if you’re juggling one more ball than you possibly can.

Organizations are sacrificing their most valuable asset, namely the imagination and creativity of the brains they employ, by allowing ADT to infest the organization.

Pick up any business journal this year and at least once a week you’ll read about the need for innovation. Companies hire consultants, conduct off-site retreats, install “chief innovation officers” (whatever that means — probably a sign of a non-innovative company), and give employees toys from the Fisher Price catalog in an effort to spur innovative thinking.

But maybe they’re missing the mark. (In the case of the “chief innovation officer,” there’s no maybe about it.) Maybe what the staff needs is some time away from the office, away from the Blackberries, away from meetings. Maybe they need to go hiking and rafting away from their electronic tethers.

Of course, you don’t have to go that far. As Hallowell says,

It’s not that hard to deal with, once you identify it. You need to set limits and preserve time to think. Warren Buffett sits in a little office in the middle of nowhere and spends a lot of his time just thinking.

Back to Sergio Marchionne: you could make a powerful argument that his job above all requires innovation, creativity, and imagination. Does answering his six Blackberries within minutes or seconds, 24/7, have a negative effect on his own performance? (And for that matter, the fact that so many decisions are funneled through him surely has negative consequences. The always-available executive subtly undermines the people around him by telegraphing that his team is incapable of running things on their own. A good question might be why Marchionne has to make all of these decisions at all times.)

Think about it: getting more with less — less energy, less time, less effort. If we can apply lean thinking (creating more value with fewer resources) at the macro-level to manufacturing and services, why can’t we apply it at the micro-level to individual output?

Improve morale: go to the gemba.

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

A McKinsey survey last year revealed that non-cash motivators — praise from immediate managers, attention from leaders, and a chance to direct projects — are at least as effective as the three most highly rated monetary ones.

My first reaction was to add this research into the Gobsmackingly Obvious Business “Insight” Hall of Fame. I mean, really? McKinsey needed a survey of 1000 businesspeople to learn that praise and attention from the CEO is motivational?

But then I realized that McKinsey is only mirroring the pervasive cluelessness of most corporations. The study goes on to explain:

Why haven’t many organizations made more use of cost-effective non-financial motivators at a time when cash is hard to find? One reason may be that many executives hesitate to challenge the traditional managerial wisdom: money is what really counts. While executives themselves may be equally influenced by other things, they still think that bonuses are the dominant incentive for most people. “Managers see motivation in terms of the size of the compensation,” explained an HR director from the financial-services industry.

Another reason is probably that nonfinancial ways to motivate people do, on the whole, require more time and commitment from senior managers. One HR director we interviewed spoke of their tendency to “hide” in their offices—primarily reflecting uncertainty about the current situation and outlook. This lack of interaction between managers and their people creates a highly damaging void that saps employee engagement.

Interestingly, lean management provides the opportunity to institutionalize all of these things: praise; attention from leaders; the chance to direct projects; plus autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

There’s a lesson here: go to the actual place where your people are working. Talk to them. Say thank you. And find out what’s important.