Archive for February, 2011

Apparently, you’re in the same boat as the White House.

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Think your company’s meetings suck? Well, it may be cold comfort, but you’re in good company. Apparently the Bush White House’s meetings stunk, too.

This is an excerpt from Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir — an extended gripe session about Condeleeza Rice’s NSC meetings.

I had other issues with [Condeleeza] Rice’s management of the NSC process. Often meetings were not well organized. Frequent last-minute changes to the times of meetings and to the subject matter made it difficult for the participants to prepare, and even more difficult, with departments of their own to manage, to rearrange their full schedules. The NSC staff often was late in sending participants papers for meetings that set out the issues to be discussed.

At the conclusion of NSC meetings when decisions were taken, members of the NSC staff were theoretically supposed to write a summary of conclusions. When I saw them, they were often sketchy and didn’t always fit with my recollections. Ever since the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration, NSC staffs have been sensitive to written notes and records that could implicate a president or his advisers. Rice and her colleagues seemed concerned about avoiding detailed records that others might exploit. This came at the expense of enabling the relevant executive agencies to know precisely what had been discussed and decided at the NSC meetings. Attendees from time to time left meetings with differing views of what was decided and what the next steps should be, which freed CIA, State, or Defense officials to go back and do what they thought best.

In one August 2002 memo to Rice, I raised this lack of resolution. “It sometimes happens that a matter mentioned at a meeting is said to have been ‘decided’ because it elicited no objection,” I wrote. “That is not a good practice. Nothing should be deemed decided unless we expressly agree to decide it.” Rice started putting a note at the bottom of draft decision memos: “If no objections are raised by a specific deadline, the memo will be considered approved by the principals.” That, too, was impractical. [Secretary of State Colin] Powell and I were frequently traveling. I did not want to have others assume I agreed with something simply because I missed an arbitrary deadline.

Happy Thursday.

Going to the email gemba.

Monday, February 21st, 2011

One of the core principles of lean is the notion of going to the gemba — the place where the actual work is being done, so that you can see for yourself what the situation really is. This principle is particularly powerful when you’re trying to solve problems. Why discuss a manufacturing failure while sitting in a conference room when you could go to the actual production line and watch the process? What’s the sense in developing plans to spur sales of a new running shoe without first actually hanging out at the store and watching customers try it on?

I thought about this principle when I read this article by Michael Schrage: To Improve Performance, Audit Your Employees’ Emails. Schrage argues that

Because the rhythm and rhetoric of effective email exchange is a critical success factor in business performance, mismanagement of email may in fact be a symptom of other weaknesses in your organization.

Okay, okay, I know the title of the article sounds (more than) a bit Big Brother-ish. But Schrage isn’t advocating that you actually monitor all the messages they read and write. That’s insane. Rather, he suggests that you should make email an intrinsic part of performance reviews.

Ask people to present three sets of correspondence that demonstrate how well they’ve used the medium to manage successful outcomes. In other words, have them select examples illustrating their own email “best practices” for results. You, and they, will find this review and prioritization process revealing.

When you think about it, the concept actually makes sense. It’s kind of like going to the “email gemba.” It gives you a chance to deal with concrete communication examples, rather than vague abstractions, like, “Your direct reports say that your feedback and suggestions are confusing.” Examining these self-selected emails may also reveal that the employee does a poor job of analysis, or excels at building teamwork.

To be sure, this tool is as compromised as any performance review by the delay between writing the email and the date you actually review it. But as a tool for seeing the actual work and helping to spur self-reflection and improvement, it’s actually a pretty good idea.

Do you have a story to add to my book?

Monday, February 14th, 2011

I’m writing a book for Productivity Press about how individuals can apply lean principles to improve their personal performance and productivity. Call it a cross between Getting Things Done and lean.

I’m looking for stories of people — and you don’t have to be a Sixteen Sigma Master Ultraviolet Belt — have used lean ideas to help them eliminate waste in their work and be more efficient.

The book is focused on improvement in the workplace, so I don’t need stories about how you’ve brought 5S to your sock drawer, and now it takes you 16 seconds less to put away your laundry. Or how you’ve alphabetized the spice rack in your kitchen, so you immediately know that you’ve run out of curry powder.

But I do want to hear how you use checklists for yourself to reduce the likelihood of errors. Or how you’ve created standard work for your very non-routine job. Or how you’re using visual controls (like Tim McMahon and Jon Miller have done with their personal kanbans) to improve your focus on value-creating activity. Or how you’ve applied 5S to the information you manage (as the nurses at Virginia Mason Medical Center did to reduce and simplify the number of forms they dealt with). Or how you’ve applied A3 thinking and 5-Whys to solve problems.

Your stories will either be woven into the text of the book, or featured as case studies in a sidebar. If you or your company would prefer to remain anonymous, that’s no problem.

My time frame fairly short: I’d like to get your feedback before March 10.

Questions? Comments? Stories? Contact me here: dan [atsign] timebackmanagement [dot] com.


Unfortunately, the medium is the message.

Monday, February 7th, 2011

I recently endured a turgid, three-hour meeting at a client’s office. It stretched on for three hours, engorged by a seemingly endless series of PowerPoint slides, and it was all I (or anyone else) could do to hide the hypnic jerks that demonstrate, beyond a shadow of any doubt, that the meeting has gone on far too long.

Marshall McLuhan’s famous insight that “the medium is the message” wasn’t targeted at PowerPoint presentations, but lord does it ever apply. His point was that

“we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. Whenever we create a new innovation – be it an invention or a new idea – many of its properties are fairly obvious to us. We generally know what it will nominally do, or at least what it is intended to do, and what it might replace. We often know what its advantages and disadvantages might be. But it is also often the case that, after a long period of time and experience with the new innovation, we look backward and realize that there were some effects of which we were entirely unaware at the outset.”

It’s fascinating, really: when you give people a clicker and a PowerPoint deck, they stop talking to their audience and begin talking at them. Instead of communicating in a normal, information-rich manner, they begin to break their thoughts and ideas into micro-chunks that are so laborious and time-consuming to process that you might as well be dealing with a reading primer book. Except in this case, instead of getting “See Dick. See Jane. See Dick and Jane,” you get something like this:

“We have a huge opportunity in front of us. But there are at least two serious competitive threats. First there is Acme Manufacturing. They have Wile E. Coyote as a well-known spokesman. He embodies determination. Second, there is Pillsbury. The doughboy has a high Q-Score. Plus, he’s well-fed and has a great laugh.”

Of course, there’s a bullet point for each of these sentences, just in case you didn’t get it — and as a result, the meeting goes on and on and on. This meeting could easily have been cut by one-third had the presenters dispensed with the PowerPoint and instead simply talked to the audience.

Garr Reynolds writes extensively and compellingly about what he calls “naked” presentations — presentations that are stripped of artifice, and that present ideas in a simple, powerful, and fresh manner. Naked communication is effective because the message can be communicated without the medium getting in the way. Naked communication also avoids the waste of unnecessary processing that PowerPoint almost always entails — both in preparing the slides, and then in making the audience listen to you slowly read through them.

Do yourself a favor: make the message the message.