First, think about the purpose.

If you haven’t yet done so, read the NYTimes interview with Phil Libin, the CEO of Evernote. Phil’s focus on value, rather than form, eliminates waste, shows respect for people, and leads to better results.

For example, there are no offices or trappings of seniority at the company. In Phil’s view, they’re not only wasteful, they have a negative effect on people’s work:

Nobody has an office. In fact, there are no perks that are signs of seniority. Obviously, there are differences in compensation, but there are no status symbols. You certainly don’t get a better seat or any of that kind of stuff, because they’re just unnecessary. They create artificial barriers to communication. They create artificial things that people focus on rather than just getting their job accomplished. We try to have an organization that just helps you get your work done, and then it’s my job to eliminate all of the risks and all the distractions so you can just focus on achieving. That attracts people who are primarily motivated by how much they achieve.

Phil’s effort to improve communication extends to the uprooting any sort of email culture:

We strongly discourage lengthy e-mail threads with everyone weighing in. It’s just not good for that. Plus, it’s dangerous, because it’s way too easy to misread the tone of something. If you want to talk to somebody and you’re a couple floors apart, I kind of want you to get up and go talk to them.

I’m most impressed by Phil’s approach to vacations. If you think about the real value of a vacation, it’s to enable people to refresh and recharge. The typical fixed two week vacation policy is more about the form than the real value. After all, if your job requires insanely hard bursts of work, or if you’re having health problems, you might need more time off. Here’s how Evernote handles it:

We recently changed our vacation policy to give people unlimited vacation, so they can take as much time as they want, as long as they get their job done. If you want to take time off, talk to your team, but we’re still measuring you on the same thing, which is, did you accomplish something great? Frankly, we want to treat employees like adults, and we don’t want being in the office to seem like a punishment. We always try to ask whether a particular policy exists because it’s a default piece of corporate stupidity that everyone expects you to have, or does it actually help you accomplish something? And very often you realize that you don’t really know why you’re doing it this way, so we just stop doing it.

(N.B. This vacation policy warms the cockles of my heart, because it’s the way I managed my team years ago. It told them to take time off when they needed it, and not to bother reporting it to the HR department. Like Phil, I wanted to treat them like adults.)

It’s the “default piece of corporate stupidity” that infects most organizations — things that exist because that’s just the way it’s always been done: report and presentation formats, agendas and participants at those giant standing meetings, certain expectations, etc. And it’s often the ”default piece of corporate stupidity” that saps motivation, leeches passion, and inspires cynicism.

Focus on the purpose and the value. Then figure out how to deliver it. You might be surprised at how much easier it is.

4 thoughts on “First, think about the purpose.

  1. The vacation policy is intriguing. I imagine it would take an advanced lean culture with emphasis on respect for people and with a lot of waste already eliminated to make it happen well. Otherwise, I could see some superiors abusing this. For example, if you’ve got a supervisor with a slaveship mentality, he or she could consistently be telling you, “You work isn’t done. Why do you want to go on vacation?” Or, even if it was truly up to you as the employee, you could take vacation and then get hammered (fired, demoted, or worse) by your boss for taking it.

    I could see it working in the right environment, but I wouldn’t implement it lightlly. I’d imagine the culture would need to be built first.

  2. Good point, Mark. However, I think that you can also try this in pockets within the organization. (Shhh…don’t tell the HR department!) That’s what I did at my old company: I had a clear, but non-public understanding with my team that they could take time off when they needed it, as long as it didn’t create huge problems for the rest of the team. The HR department didn’t know about it and neither did the executive team, but my group was very, very satisfied.

  3. Dan – I’ve got to chuckle at your response because for a number of years I WAS an HR guy :-) So, I understand from where you speak! Given both my lean and HR backgrounds, I can now see how this could be trialed as part of the PDCA process – wouldn’t need to be kept under wraps, necessarily. Best of both worlds.

    By the way, I like your blog AND your book, “A Factory of One.” Keep the good stuff coming.

  4. Mark – Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate knowing that my ideas are actually, you know, helping people.

    I’m increasingly convinced that the PDCA process is the way to trial all of these innovative ideas. The hard part, I think (especially for the HR department), is that the legal system doesn’t much care for PDCA. Anything that might run afoul of employment law (especially here in CA) is seen as too risky to try.

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