A Better Way To Work TimeBack Management

About Dan Markovitz

Dan Markovitz is the founder and president of TimeBack Management. Prior to founding his own firm, Mr. Markovitz held management positions at Sierra Designs, Adidas, CNET and Asics Tiger. Learn More...

Leveling; smoothing out the flow; e.g., doing two performance evaluations a day for 3 weeks, rather than ten a day for three days -- and then needing to take a vacation because you're so burned out.
Overburdening people, process, or equipment; e.g., people working 100 hour weeks for months on end -- come to think of it, like most lawyers and accountants.
Uneveness or variability; e.g., leaving work at the normal time on Thursday, but having to stay at the office till midnight on Friday because the boss finally got around to giving you that project...at 4:30pm.
Waste; activities that your customer doesn't value and doesn't want to pay for; e.g., billing your customer for the really expensive 10am FedEx delivery because you didn't finish the document on time.

TIMEBACK BLOG Syndicate content

Are you making your work easier?

Posted December 21, 2009 @ 10:16 PM

Over at The Lean Edge, Orry Fiume wrote something that really got me thinking:
Productivity gains do not automatically reduce costs, they just free up capacity. The actions that management had to take to actualize productivity gains include. . .  reducing overtime.

Okay, this is obvious stuff, I suppose. But let's transfer this idea from the production line to the managerial class, and all of a sudden you've got a problem: most, if not all, managers and supervisors are exempt employees, which means there's no overtime pay. If they don't get their work done on time, they come in earlier, stay later, or work on weekends, and the company bears no financial burden. The wife might not see her husband at dinner, the father may not make it to his son's baseball game, but the company? No cost, no loss.

So what's the driving motivation, and what's the metric for lean work applied to managers? There's no cost-reduction incentive, the work is difficult (or impossible) to standardize, and, well, let's face it: we're just used to applying lean thinking to repetitive tasks like those found on an assembly line or a repetitive business process.

Orry goes on to say that

Employees also tend to interpret the statement “improve productivity” as “work harder”. The reality is that you can’t have annual double-digit productivity gains without making the work easier to do.
So here's the question for you: has your work gotten easier to do? What have you done anything to make it easier? When I think about the eight years I spent in product design and marketing in the footwear and outdoor goods industries, I can safely answer that in two words: very little. In general, I worked the same way as my predecessor, and my successor worked the same way as I did. That meant far too many last minute (read: expensive) flights to customers for feedback, a lot of late nights finalizing product specs, and a god-awful number of pointless, stupid meetings that chewed up time without adding any value to anyone. (I'd mention email, but this was in the days before we used email too much. We did run up quite a bill sending overnight FedEx packages to Taiwan, however.)

My point is simply this: you should be thinking about how to make your work -- no matter how variable, unpredictable, irregular, and creative it is -- easier. If you're not, you're probably not realizing the productivity gains that you could.

Making Work Easier

There is no question at work we have made things much easier. I moved from predominately management improvement activities into information technology (with a lot of management improvement focus) because IT offers so many great opportunities for improvements in the office (making things easier for everyone). Over the years we have systematically improved our applications to make it much easier for our internal staff (we have improved for external customers also, but we were always doing a fairly decent job there - and great compared to what others do, in my opinion).

We have also eliminated a great deal of loss. We had problem, bugs, capacity issues... that would impact our staff and to some extent external customers (though again we always did fairly well for external customers). One problem we had, was with the resources available, we could barely keep our internal customers most important needs met. And in doing so could only do the minimum necessary to make it basically work (limited testing, limited planning for the future, limited hardware planning and optimization, limited coordination of development to optimize productivity, limited improvement of the software development process...).

Over several year, using largely agile software development tools (along with very strong handed priority setting) we have systemically eliminated problems and improved the development system. We replaced hardware, replaced software development processes, added automated testing to the code base, completely changed how we managed projects, improved the hiring process...

We have created a system now where programmers have a much easier job: they are working within a well functioning system. They are not constantly being bombarded with emergencies (though this still happens occasionally). We have established processes to assure they can get assistance when needed. We assure the code is consistent, so each programmer knows how applications should work. Switching to Ruby on Rails as the development platform, was part of this process and has helped a great deal again by providing tools and processes that allow programmers to program more easily.

And we have greatly eliminated problems staff in our organization (outside IT) had to deal with in our applications. But far beyond that, we have been able to provide many new capabilities to ease the workload of staff because we have made the time to not just work on emergencies and absolute requirements but to think about where we can add value and then do so.

This has been partially due to the decision to increase our programming staff. This is not the doing more with LESS idea. In my view we were just chronically short staffed, which did not allow us to do the job needed. So one of the solutions was to add staff. That along with the significant improvements we have made in our processes has made the work much easier for everyone involved.

I do not believe it would have been possible without adding staff though. At some point all you can do is try to survive the day, if you have to few resources. All you are doing is trying to survive from one crisis to the next. We could have improved how we did that but the powerful improvements to really making work easier would have been very difficult and very limited.

I, personally, have been able to focus much much more on improving the systems of software development, project management and process management (focus on the organizational processes and then determine where we can provide great value and then target IT solutions there). And to some extent on coaching others on good practices to aid improvement (inside and outside IT). The process is ongoing, but the focus now is much more on system improvements than fighting fires and juggling urgent priorities.

The programmers are much more productive due to the tools and systems provided today v. 3 years ago. The other staff are provided great tools to make their jobs easier. System administration has also been able to see this benefit as we have put in place the proper IT hardware solutions over the last 3 years. And we have been able to add functionality to external users also, even some significant ones, over the last few years.

A few big changes made this possible. But most important was many many small improvement made day after day that have resulted in a work system that is easier to work within.

And we still have opportunities for more improvements, of course. I really want to see us adopt more visual management. We could really use a better physical office layout (hopefully we can accomplish this in 2010).

I think you are exactly right. If you focus on improving the work system it should result in work being easier much of the time. If that is not happening you should explore if you are doing the right things. I must admit once you really are doing a great job I think the 'easier' measure might be hard to meet. But by "great" I mean something really incredibly exceptional, most places I have seen are nowhere near that level. And I don't know of anyplace at that level (but I imagine they may exist).

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

  Captcha Image: you will need to recognize the text in it.
Please type in the letters/numbers that are shown in the image above.