Archive for January, 2011

Building consensus? Try standard work.

Monday, January 31st, 2011

I recently visited a company that’s almost totally consensus-driven. Virtually every decision that influences other groups or functional silos is made through consensus; no one makes decisions by fiat.

This is neither good nor bad — the world is full of successful organizations that are run autocratically. People self-select to work in that kind of environment, and they accept the benefits (speed, autonomy, a sense of progress) as well as the drawbacks. For this company, it works: it’s a vital part of their culture, and while it does slow them down a bit, when they actually decide to move, everyone is on board.

But here’s the thing: gaining consensus is a grueling process. Meeting after meeting after meeting, usually ending ambiguously with no clear direction and no clear action items to move forward. A nearly unending string of email conversations that are frustrating at best and confusing at worst. Two steps forward and one step back.

What this company is crying out for is a process for building consensus. In fact, let’s call it by its lean name: standardized work: a clear method by which a person can build a case for the initiative, communicate it to colleagues, incorporate their feedback, gain their support, and thereby move forward. Slowly, perhaps, but consistently.

Sound familiar? Maybe a bit like an A3?

In fact, I think the A3 is a perfect structure for building consensus. It replaces difficult-to-schedule, bloated meetings with shorter 1:1 meetings between stakeholders. It eliminates turgid Powerpoint decks with a concise story told on one page. And it structures a dialog so that people don’t have an opportunity (or at least, less of an opportunity) to climb up on their favorite soapbox and air their grievances about the proposed initiative. In other words, the A3 can help mitigate the downside of consensus-building.

This company — or any consensus-driven company, for that matter — probably won’t ever be the fastest to market. But once they have a decision, they can act with overwhelming discipline and coordination. And that spells success.

Decision Sclerosis

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Recently I’ve been hearing companies lament that they’re no longer as nimble as they once were. Decisions require more meetings and take longer. People at all levels are frustrated because they can’t implement new ideas quickly. Even the simplest issues seem to require endless rounds of discussion and debate. Eventually, the organization is either outflanked in the market, or talented people leave to find opportunities with faster-moving companies. I see at least two causes creating this problem.

First, as companies get bigger and there are more zeroes attached to their budgets, the risks inherent in any decision seem to grow. It’s one thing to screw up the colors on a running shoe when it only sells 8,000 pairs; it’s quite another to screw it up when it accounts for 800,000 pairs. You really want to be sure that the fluorescent colors of the 80s are back before plastering them all over your new high-end shoe, and as a result, you end up consulting with sales, marketing, manufacturing, account management, IT — pretty much anyone who has even the most tangential relationship to the product.

The fallacy here is that compared to the scale of the business, that product or initiative isn’t really any more significant or risky. It’s not the absolute number that’s important; it’s the relative number. A $5000 investment decision for a start-up is just as meaningful and fraught with danger as a $5 million decision for GE — maybe even more so, since GE can absorb that loss without going out of business.

Second, as organizations get bigger, consensus rather than action becomes the driving force. When companies are small, everyone either sees eye-to-eye (that’s why they’re there, after all), or they’re at least comfortable with the inevitable interpersonal conflict. But as organizations grow, employee diversity grows, and management is increasingly sensitive to the need for harmony and agreement. People may have the titular authority to make decisions, but in reality they don’t: they have to gain consensus before acting. If one group doesn’t agree, nothing proceeds.

The problem here is that when no one has the power to make a decision, either nothing gets done, or everything gets pushed up the the CEO for a judgment. Neither option is acceptable. Decision-making authority must reside with individuals within an organization, not be diffuse within a group.

So what is to be done? Establishing clear decision-making criteria is an important start. Set thresholds based on money, say, or risk for involving other groups. Also, allow some decisions to be made by majority, rather than consensus. Neither of these are easy changes to make, but if you don’t want to become a sclerotic, lumbering dinosaur, you’ll have to pursue these changes at some point.

Getting back to your roots.

Monday, January 17th, 2011

The Daily Show’s John Oliver was interviewed on KQED’s Forum a few weeks ago. Along with some very clever observations, he mentioned how he loves doing stand-up comedy and tries to perform a few times per year. He also mentioned that Jon Stewart — despite the administrative and creative burdens of producing four shows per week, to say nothing of writing a book and organizing the Rally to Restore Sanity — also goes on the road to do stand-up. (Again with Jon Stewart? What’s with me and Jon Stewart?) And that’s nothing compared to Jay Leno, who still does about 150 nights of stand-up each year on the road.

All three of these comedians have their roots in stand-up. Going back on stage is a way to refresh themselves, challenge themselves, develop new ideas, and perfect their art.

If you’re an engineer, or a doctor, or an architect, and you’ve moved out of your area of specialty into “management,” are you still in touch with the techniques needed in your field? Or have you lost a feel for what it takes to get the job done?

In most organizations that I’ve seen, many of the managers and executives no longer have a feel for how long it takes or how difficult it is to do something. As a result, strategic initiatives from management are often divorced from the reality of actually getting the task done. This leads to unrealistic timelines, missed deadlines, overburden, stress, and frustration.

Getting out of the corner office and into the gemba on a regular basis means that you see and learn what it takes to accomplish daily work. You’ll know how long it takes to perform preventative maintenance on a machine, how difficult it is to update a critical spreadsheet, or how time-consuming writing a proposal can be. And that knowledge will either lead you to help figure out how to do the job more quickly and easily, or, at the very least, will give you an appreciation for how the sausage is made.

Whether you want to call it getting back to your roots or simply going to the gemba, the act of seeing (and if possible, doing some of) the work will sharpen your skills and help you to execute on your strategy more effectively.

One snowstorm. Three leaders. One lesson.

Monday, January 10th, 2011

The snow fell again in NYC this past Friday, and with it came a new spate of commentaries about how Mayor Bloomberg mishandled the big blizzard on December 26.

For those who don’t know the story, in the wake of a 20″ snowfall, Manhattan streets were plowed quickly, but streets in the outer boroughs (Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island) remained unplowed for days. The mayor apologized, promised a thorough post-mortem to understand the root causes of the poor municipal response. . . and then demoted and reassigned three people. Thee mayor’s approval ratings are now at their lowest point in his administration.

In New Jersey, where up to 31″ of snow fell, Governor Chris Christie is taking heat for vacationing at Disney World with his family instead of returning to the state to help with its recovery efforts. He’s made matters worse by defending his decision to put his responsibility to his family first: “I wouldn’t change the decision even if I could do it right now. I had a great five days with my children. I promised that.” The governor’s nearly bullet-proof image, constructed during a year of tough leadership and emphasis on taking responsibility, has taken a beating.

Then there’s Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, NJ. Mayor Booker was not only present during the blizzard, he personally responded to several calls for help, showing up with a shovel to help some motorists who were stuck in the snow and bringing diapers to others. The mayor kept up a constant stream of tweets so that people knew what he was doing, even asking citizens to send him tweets letting him know where help was needed. The mayor is now a hero in Newark, where he faced a difficult re-election last year.

The PR experts will undoubtedly begin talking about best practices for crisis management (if they haven’t already). But from a lean leadership perspective, what strikes me is the fact that only one of these leaders went to “the gemba” — the streets where the work was actually being done.

You could argue that a mayor has better things to do with his or her time than shovel snow (that’s why we have children, after all). But I disagree. People need to see (and in the case of Mayor Booker, hear via Twitter) that their leaders are willing and able to work in the trenches.

Of course, Mayors Bloomberg and Booker, and Governor Christie have other, higher-level, leadership tasks to ensure that these service failures don’t recur. But it’s important for all people in the state, the city, or any organization to see that their leaders are present and doing everything they can to help ease their pain. And if the problem is something that requires specialized skills that the leader doesn’t have — shutting down a nuclear reactor, tunneling into a mine shaft, performing surgery — then the leader should be supporting those that do have the critical skills by bringing them coffee and donuts, or cold water, or fresh bandages.

It’s no coincidence that the salient memory of Rudy Giuliani is him standing atop the World Trade Center rubble, while the lasting image of George Bush during Katrina is him peering through the window of Air Force One several thousand feet above New Orleans.

No one expected Giuliani to spend all day, everyday at the World Trade Center. No one expected Mayor Booker to spend all day, everyday shoveling snow. But people do expect their leaders to at least be present where the work is being done for some amount of time.

Lean bloggers and teachers often talk about the need to get out of the corner office and the conference room and get to the gemba as part of their standard work. That need is even greater in an emergency.

One snowstorm. Three leaders. One lesson.

It’s not a Maginot Line. It’s happiness.

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

As a strategy, building walls is frowned upon. The Great Wall of China. Hadrian’s Wall. The Maginot Line. AOL’s “walled garden.” Defensive moves — all failed.

But maybe in certain circumstances walls can be beneficial?

A New York Times article describes how researchers used an iPhone app to contact some 2,200 individuals and get a total of roughly 250,000 replies as to how each person was feeling and what they were doing at the time they were contacted. Forty-seven percent of them reported that their minds were wandering when contacted — in other words, half of them were not focused on whatever it was they were doing. Most interestingly, there was no correlation between the joy of the activity and the pleasantness of their thoughts.

Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing.

This finding jibes perfectly with the focused attention inherent in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow,” in which a person so completely immersed in a task that feelings of time, effort, and energy disappear.

The problem today, of course, is that the state of flow is increasingly difficult to achieve. Psychologist Edward Hallowell says that

30% to 40% of people’s time in the workplace is spent tending to unplanned interruptions, and then reconstituting the mental focus the interruption caused. I’m sure that was not the case 20 years ago simply because the tools of interruption were not so plentiful. And all the distraction has created blocks in thinking and feeling deeply. We’re being superficialized and sound-bit.

In fact, when he asks people where they do their best thinking, the most common response is, “In the shower.” Apparently, the shower is one of the last places left where we’re not often interrupted.

That’s where the Maginot Line comes in. While it’s not possible (or advisable) to completely wall off the outside world all the time (who wants to end up like France in 1940?), it’s essential to recreate some boundaries around your work time so that you can think without interruption. Close the door. Go to a conference room or a coffee shop. Spend a weekend at a meditation center. Whatever works for you. But for god’s sake, put away the iPhone and turn off the internet connection.

Thinking and creating is hard work. It requires energy. Often it isn’t very much fun. The prevalence and ease of distraction — particularly electronic — is a seriously enticing alternative to hunkering down with your thoughts and a blank piece of paper. But if you can maintain your focus on that blank piece of paper instead of mindlessly and reflexively following another distraction, you’ll be much happier.

What’s your Maginot Line going to be? What kind of defensive walls will you build?