Archive for June, 2011

Go See. Ask Why. Show Respect.

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

In 2009 Google launched “Project Oxygen.” You probably haven’t heard of it, because it’s not a product. It’s Google’s quest to build a better boss.

In typical Google fashion, the company gathered enough data on managerial performance to float a battleship. They followed up with interviews, coded feedback, and ranked results in order of importance. What they found is music to any lean manager’s ears. Here’s how the NYTimes describes it:

Mr. Bock’s group found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight [drivers of managerial excellence]. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Mr. Bock says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

John Shook over at the Lean Enterprise Institute has been talking about this for awhile now (most recently here). It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Go see. Ask why. Show respect.

And yet.

Even assuming that your managerial team is staffed by well-meaning people and not those who think that Mein Kampf is the sine qua non for leadership lessons, this simple activity is surprisingly difficult, for two reasons.

First, finding time to “go see” is absurdly hard. Managers and executives spend so much time cooped up in conference rooms that you’d think they were mapping the human genome, not setting the sales price for a new candy bar. Spending six hours a day stifling hypnagogic jerks in a Powerpoint-induced stupor isn’t exactly a solid foundation for a “go see” culture.

Second, we want to help. We want to solve problems. And, frankly, we like demonstrating our smarts. But in providing answers, we undermine people’s intellectual development and corrode their self-esteem, just as surely as salt air rusts the supports on a bridge. People need to stretch themselves and solve their own problems — with guidance and instruction, yes, but largely on their own. Otherwise they neither develop the capacity for learning nor the pride of accomplishment.

Your company may not be like Google (or even aspire to be like it), but good management transcends industries and idiosyncratic corporate culture. In lean terms, go see. Ask why. Show respect. In generic terms, make yourself available. Ask questions. Take an interest.

It’s really not that hard. And hey, Google has quantitative proof that it works.

Strategy lessons from septuagenarian mall-walkers.

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

I used to work at Asics many years ago, where the strategic direction was to focus on the serious athletic enthusiast. We made wonderful, relatively high-priced (and high-margin) shoes that addressed their needs. Unfortunately, we also wanted to chase the sales volume that major retailers like JC Penney and Kohl’s could provide. That required us to make low-priced, low margin shoes.

Our designers and developers were overburdened by the need to produce great shoes for both enthusiasts and for, well, septuagenarian mall-walkers in Miami. That bifurcation of work made it impossible to handle all their responsibilities. It also confused them as to what our business strategy actually was. As a result, we missed deadlines, made product development errors, and didn’t deliver to either market terribly well.

It’s not exactly a Copernican insight to say that your strategy should match (sorry, I should use the all-important buzzword, “align” with) your daily work. If it doesn’t, you run a serious risk of overwhelming yourself and your people with pointless activity that leads nowhere—except to feelings of overwhelm, missed deadlines, and unmet commitments.

As I’ve written about before, what often manifests itself as a time management “problem” is actually a mismatch between your strategic direction and what you’re asking people to work on. Because people are being pulled in two or three different directions, they can’t get any of their important (i.e., strategically aligned) work done. They’re busy serving pretzels when they should be piloting the plane.

Asics wasn’t the only company in this boat, of course. According to data in The Strategy Focused Organization, 80% of businesses fail to accomplish their strategies because of poor execution. 65% percent don’t align budget with strategy. Less than 35% of mid-manager activity contributes directly to the execution of business strategy, and less than 10% of front-line employees can articulate the institution’s strategic imperatives.

The numbers may not have been exactly right, but that sure describes Asics when I was there: a whole bunch of activity not tied to the company’s strategy.

Next time you see overwhelmed staff and unconsummated strategy, consider those “problems” as symptoms. The real problem—the root cause—may very well be strategy that’s neither clearly defined nor clearly articulated.

At Asics, we made the tough decision to adjust our product line to match our espoused strategy. We dropped the bottom end of our product line—saying goodbye to a sizable chunk of revenue and earning the rather considerable wrath of our sales reps. It sure hurt for awhile. But it freed up our designers and developers to do the right work, and in the long run it positioned us to build a truly sustainable business that leveraged our core strengths. Three years later we had regained all the lost sales and built a rock-solid position at the high-end of the market.

Who are your septuagenarian mall-walker customers? Bringing clarity at the top level leads to focused action at the front line. And that’s your job.

When good data go bad.

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

Bob Lutz, longtime car guy who held senior leadership positions at GM, BMW, Ford, and Chrysler, tells a story about the feedback that David Davis, an auto industry expert, received on a speech he delivered at GM:

Sometime in the early ’80s, he’d accepted a gig as speaker to a large group of GM executives. The speech appeared to go well, and the applause felt genuine. David went home pleased and thought no more about it until he received the following letter:

Dear David:

You asked for feedback on your remarks at our recent conference. The data is just now available.

The rating scale was zero to ten with ten being “best.” The five non-GM speakers had scores ranging from zero to ten. Yours ranged from three to ten. The five “outside speakers’” average scores ranged from 5.25 to 8.25.

Your average was 7.35.

Two speakers had higher scores than yours. Your standard deviation from the mean was 1.719 and ranked second among the variances, showing that most people had a similar opinion about your remarks.

I personally enjoyed your remarks very much. Your refreshing candor, coupled with your broad understanding of people, product, and the market, gave us exactly what we asked you for—”widened competitive awareness.”

Thank you for your participation.

Absurd, right? Hopefully you didn’t snort the milk from your Cheerios out your nose as you read this. It’s a miracle that GM survived as long as it did with this kind of bureaucratic plaque clogging its organizational arteries.

But before you sprain your shoulder patting yourself on your own back for how much smarter you and your company are than big, stupid GM, think about the birth of that colossal dysfunction. At some point, a diligent, well-meaning employee—or her manager—probably wanted to help improve the quality of presentations. And he probably read in business school that what matters gets measured, so he created a simple 10-point rating scale.

[Stop here. Does your organization use one of these scales to evaluate speakers, or training sessions, or the selection of deli meats in the company cafeteria?]

It’s a short—very short—step from a 10-point rating of an individual event, to a comparison of multiple events. And an even shorter step from that comparison to a deeper, more thorough statistical analysis, replete with r2-values and more Greek letters than you’ve seen since your last purchase of foreign yogurt.

Organizations, and individuals within organizations, drive themselves to the land of absurdity all the time because they don’t ask the first question that lean thinkers focus on: What is customer value?

Learning that a speech was well received with a score of 7.35 out of 10 is valuable, important, and worthwhile for the customers (in this case, the speaker and the people who invited the speaker). The other data, not so much. The Outside Speaker Effective Analysis Group could have identified that value by simply (gasp!) asking the customers what information would be helpful for them. Hell, there probably wouldn’t even be a need for an Outside Speaker Effective Analysis Group in the first place had GM focused on this question.

In my mind, this is where traditional approaches to productivity go wrong. These approaches focus on improving the efficiency of producing these reports without considering whether or not they should be produced in the first place. The lean approach—first, identify the value—is, to me, a far better way to operate. And once you’ve identified the value, you can apply the lean tool of 5S to the information: sort the value from the waste, set it in order, systematize the delivery of the information, etc.

Of course, the waste from not focusing on customer value isn’t always as obvious as having an Outside Speaker Effective Analysis Group (The existence of a department like that is pretty much a dead giveaway.) Sometimes it’s subtler, like having the IT department generate dozens, or even hundreds, of reports per week, most of which go unread (as happened at one of my old employers).

Unless you continually evaluate your own generation of data, reports, and statistics, you run the risk of becoming the punch line to a joke and an object lesson in making good data go bad.

Tomorrow’s Middle Management Challenge

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Middle management has been gutted like a trout since the recession started in 2008. Unfortunately, the job growth we’re seeing now isn’t rebuilding this class of managers: most of the new positions are at the bottom of the pyramid, primarily minimum wage and temporary jobs. In fact, out of the 260,000 jobs created in April, 60,000 came from McDonald’s.

The evisceration of middle management, combined with a swelling front-line work force, means that span of control is increasing. The burden placed on the remaining managers — already stretched thin by layoffs — will only get heavier.

This situation will challenge their ability to work effectively and execute daily, weekly, and monthly plans. And as I wrote last week, this necessitates developing clear organizational strategy; limiting the number of priorities each person is responsible for; simplifying systems and processes; establishing manageable cultural expectations; and finely honing individual skills.

Is your organization ready for this? Are you setting your middle managers — arguably the backbone of any organization — up for failure or success?

June 2011 Newsletter

Monday, June 6th, 2011

No. You don’t have 13 priorities. You only have one. And if you want to have a prayer of completing getting any of your important work, you’ve got to come to grips with that.

Download PDF

The Iceberg that Sinks Performance

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

I’m back.

The last few weeks have been hectic for me: I finished the manuscript for my book, A Factory of One, and submitted it to Productivity Press, who will be publishing it in November or December this year. Many thanks to all of you in the lean community who provided feedback, comments, stories, and challenges to my thinking along the way.

I’ve also spent a long week clarifying my thinking about how lean concepts and tools tie into time management and individual performance. In the spirit of visual management, I thought that drawing this relationship would be helpful. This is what I came up with:

Obviously, I’m no Rembrandt. But I think this iceberg does a pretty good job of expressing the actual situation that I’ve seen over the past few years when people complain that they’re overwhelmed, or that their group needs time management training, or that they simply don’t have enough time to do everything. Their complaint — the visible symptom, the part of the iceberg above the water — is not the problem at all. It’s a symptom. The root cause — the real problem — lies below the waterline. And while it’s invisible, it can — and will — sink the ship.

Time management “problems” are really just manifestations of dysfunction in one or more of the following areas: strategy; priorities; internal systems and processes; corporate cultural expectations; or individual skills. And this is why very often time management programs fail to improve the lives of the people who so diligently construct lists, who carefully discriminate between urgent and important, who pursue inbox zero, who never check email in the morning, etc. All those approaches — as valuable as they are — only address the problems in individual skills. They ignore the systemic issues that undermine individual performance. You can try not checking email till 11am, but if your boss reams you out for missing an urgent email she sent at 8:15am, you’re probably not going to stick with that 11am plan for very long.

Carrying the iceberg metaphor a bit further, even if you do lop off the top — even if you address the symptoms by adding staff, or bolstering a person’s individual skills, the problem will just rise to the surface again. At some point you’ll have to get to the root causes, or you’ll end up sinking the ship.