Archive for the ‘Featured’ Category

When all you have is a hammer…

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

…everything looks like a nail. Even if it’s an ice cream sandwich.

According to Bloomberg Business Week, the failure of the Chevy Volt to win over consumers is due to the mismatch between the “green” image of the car and the decidedly non-green image of General Motors. The author of the article, who is a brand and marketing consultant with a long background at Clorox, and who bought his car in December 2010, says that

most of my “Green” friends are uninterested [in the Volt]. They’d rather own a Toyota Prius—or await for a plug-in from some other company. Why? Because the Volt is made by General Motors and they just can’t believe GM’s heart is in it.

The author goes on to explain that consumers want to buy a product from a company that shares their values:

Toyota has long supported fuel-efficient vehicles. If Toyota had launched the Volt, chances are it would already be a runaway success. But GM? It’s hard to associate the company that brought us the Hummer with a green image. How could GM executives possibly care about fuel efficiency? Or even get it right? Are they doing this only to look like good corporate citizens?

I suppose there’s some merit to this argument. It would seem weird if Payless Shoe Stores starting selling high-end performance running shoes. Except that ascribing the Volt’s struggles to GM’s non-green image is like saying the Titanic sank because the dining room menu didn’t include a porterhouse.

Consider the following:

  1. As of mid-July, there are only about 200 Volts available nationwide.
  2. There will only be about 10,000 units available for sale in the U.S. by the end of 2011.
  3. The Volt starts at $40,000. The Prius starts at $23,500. The Nissan Lean starts at $32,800.
  4. It takes 10-12 hours to recharge the car with a standard outlet. Good luck if you live in an apartment building that doesn’t have electrical outlets near the parking spaces.

Maybe it’s just me, but those seem to be far more salient facts than whether or not GM has a sufficiently green image. Who wants to pay twice as much for a car that they probably won’t get for months and that might not be easily rechargeable, when they can get a Prius or a Leaf?

This is what happens when your article is written by a consultant who specializes in branding.

Missing the boat like this isn’t a mortal sin when the product is an article in a weekly magazine. But it could be catastrophic when the product is a new corporate strategy. Or a succession plan. Or the roadmap for international expansion in China.

Everything we do is colored by our experiential filters. Those experiences shape our views and give us tools with which to address our organizational challenges. That’s human nature. And therefore it’s incumbent upon you to know what experiences and biases an employee, a writer, or a consultant brings to the table.

Because if the only tool on his belt is a hammer, you damn well better have a bunch of nails.

July 2011 Newsletter

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Does your work style make you a magnifying glass — focused, concentrated power — or a prism — lots of pretty colors, no heat?

Download PDF

January 2011 Newsletter: An Alternative to the “Always On” Ethic

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Consider this: great client service does NOT require you to be always accessible, 24/7.

Download PDF

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.


Master the art of saying yes slowly.

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Learning to say no matters. A lot.

I’ve been thinking recently about what Michael Bungay Stanier describes as “Bad Work,” “Good Work,” and “Great Work,” particularly as it relates to my wife. (Michael is the founder of Box Of Crayons and is the author of Do More Great Work.)

In Stanier’s view, “Bad Work” is the brain-numbing, soul-sucking crap that drives you to drink — stupid meetings, inane emails, pointless office face time, etc. “Good Work” is the work you do most of your time, the product or service that your organization provides to the world. Stanier says

There’s nothing wrong with Good Work—except for two things.

First of all, it’s endless. Trying to get your Good Work done can feel like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the mountain, a never-ending task. And second, Good Work is comfortable. The routine and busy-ness of it all is seductive. You know in your heart of hearts that you’re no longer stretching yourself or challenging how things are done. Your job has turned into just getting through your workload—week in, week out.

By contrast, “Great Work” is the stuff that makes a real difference to the organization and to the world. Great Work

is what you were hoping for when you signed up for this job. It’s meaningful and it’s challenging. It’s about making a difference. It matters to you and it lights you up. It matters at an organizational level too. Great Work is at the heart of blue ocean strategy, of innovation and strategic differentiation, of evolution and change. Great Work sets up an organization for longer-term success.

Now, my wife is a doctor at a major NYC cancer hospital. It’s a teaching hospital, which means that while her days are primarily clinical, filled with procedures and patients, she also has a significant research and teaching burden.  I think that kind of work is both “good” and “great.” I mean, helping to cure people of cancer is pretty damn meaningful and makes a real difference. But at the same time, it’s routine (for her, not the patients); it’s often not that challenging; and it’s definitely Sisyphean.

Recently, she’s been heavily involved with a major process improvement project. Even though it’s administrative work, I think it qualifies as Great Work because when it’s done, the hospital will be able to treat more people, more quickly, with less of a hassle for the patients. And if you’re sitting there with a giant liver tumor, getting to see her more quickly with less of a hassle is pretty Great.

But here’s the problem: the clinical, academic, and research burdens are overwhelming her. She has very little time to work on the process improvement project, because she has so much else going on. And she feels as though she can’t say no to any of those other responsibilities. Partly that’s self-imposed pressure. Partly that’s due to preposterously high expectations set by the hospital. So she’s got a ton of work that’s not getting done, and she feels terrible about it.

Of course, even though she’s accepted all the work, she’s not getting to a lot of it. Her time is finite. So even though she says yes, she might as well have said no.

And if she had explicitly said no to some of the work — by doing fewer procedures, teaching fewer residents, not reviewing any papers — she’d be able to do more of the process improvement project. Frankly, she’s not doing those other things in a very timely fashion anyway. And had she done so, she might be less stressed and feel better about herself.

I’ve written before about the importance of understanding one’s own production capacity. It seems to me that if you understand your capacity, it will help you learn to say no (or as Stanier says, at least it will help you “master the art of saying yes slowly”).

After all, your capacity is fixed. Saying yes or no will not affect the amount of work you can do. But saying no will make you feel better. And it just might help you do more Great Work.

The calendar as kanban

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

Are you one of those people whose day is driven by the latest email someone has lobbed into your inbox? Do you feel like you’re chronically a half-step slow in managing your work? If so, try using your calendar as a kanban. (For the lean novices, a kanban is a signaling system to trigger the right amount of production at the right time.)Picture 56

In an earlier post I wrote about the need to “live in your calendar” rather than your inbox. By designating dates and times for specific tasks and projects, you’ve essentially created a production schedule for your work, with the calendar (and the calendar alerts) acting as a kanban that pulls work forward.

Now, I can hear your objection: “a real pull-based system of work would have me responding to the incoming messages as they arrive. Living in the calendar leads to batching and inventory creation rather than flow.”

That’s true. This pull system that I’m advocating does create inventory. And if your job entailed working in only one value stream – as it would if you were on an assembly line – then it wouldn’t be a good idea.

But you don’t work in just one value stream. As a knowledge worker, you work in many value streams at once, with multiple tasks and projects coming at you at the same time, performing very different types of operations (e.g., selling, writing, presenting, analyzing) for many different customers (your boss, the marketing team, the medical journal editor), very often with differing delivery dates. It’s an extraordinarily complex situation.

Consequently, if you were to work on each item as it arrived – just-in-time production, true one-piece flow – you’d inevitably end up creating inventory anyway, and you’d almost certainly miss key delivery dates. And since your incoming work doesn’t flow smoothly and predictably, you’re guaranteed to have conflicting delivery schedules. So, just as a machine job shop must schedule production based on complexity, delivery date, and duration of production, and just as hospital emergency departments must schedule medical procedures based on severity of injury and treatment duration, so too do you have to schedule your workflow. And that necessarily means creating work-in-process inventory.

But – and here’s the key – you want the calendar to drive the work that you do, not the order in which the job arrives (viz, the time it arrives in your inbox). The calendar pulls work forward at the right time, allowing you to properly allocate your resources (time and energy). It enables you to level the load where necessary – for example, shunting aside work when you’re in the middle of a crisis with a customer or a product. It allows you to calculate takt time and create fast tracks for predictable and repetitive work, such as expense reports or personnel evaluations. It helps you carve out sufficient time for complex, resource-intensive jobs like writing a chapter for a textbook, or creating a new compensation plan for hourly workers.

You just can’t manage your work this way when you live in your inbox.

Of course, life never goes according to plan

This all sounds good in theory — but of course, life never goes according to plan. You may have designated time Tuesday morning from 9am-11am to calculate your monthly closeout pricing, but inevitably, an emergency will erupt and take precedence over the scheduled work. That’s okay. In fact, I’d argue that it’s precisely because something urgent inevitably arises that you need to live in your calendar.

Without a calendar to pull your work at the right time, you run the risk of losing track of that other, less urgent task.  If your team has just discovered a major software bug and it takes you seven hours to deal with it, the odds are excellent that you’ll forget whatever it is you were supposed to do that day.

The calendar prevents you from forgetting. Simply figure out when you can finish that scheduled task and reschedule it. Acting as a kanban, the calendar will then pull the rescheduled work into the job queue at the (new) right time.

But, what if you can’t reschedule it? What if your calendar is so full of work that there’s simply no time to take care of it? That situation is often a reality for some people. In that case, the calendar has done you the invaluable service of making that problem visible: you can actually see that you don’t have the two hours to calculate the closeout pricing before the sales meeting, rather than being surprised by that realization a few days (or weeks) later.  So you can either delegate responsibility for closeout pricing to someone else, or you can choose to create more production capacity for yourself by working on Sunday, or you can determine that it’s not that important after all and ignore it.

Regardless of what option you choose, you’ve at least made the options visible, and the choice conscious, rather than invisible and inadvertent. And if it’s a recurring problem – which you can now see – you have the opportunity to engage in root cause analysis and problem solving so that it doesn’t keep happening.

A kanban isn’t just for material flow. It’s for information flow, too. If you treat the calendar as a kanban, you can ensure that you’re spending your time and energy on the activity that creates the most value and smoothing the flow of the value streams in which you work. Try it. You’ll see.