In Search of Metrics.

Persuading people to trade French fries and doughnuts for kale and quinoa is much easier said than done. Market researchers in the food industry have long known that people often say they will eat healthier or exercise more but never get around to it.

The New York Times reports that participation in workplace weight management programs is surprisingly low, especially given the incidence of obesity and the fact that the programs free to employees. Despite people’s best intentions, it’s hard for them to change long-established behaviors.

As a result, some companies are beginning to look at more innovative methods to improve worker health (and lower health care costs). I.B.M., for example, provides rebates on health insurance premiums for completing online programs in physical activity, nutrition and preventive care, along with online support groups and monitoring. At Safeway, employees can save up to $800 on their health care contributions.

Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health, which represents large employers on health care matters, says that

A lot of us have piles in our homes and our offices that we’ll get to when we can, and changing how you eat is often a bit like that. I don’t think you could possibly overestimate how hard this stuff is.

And that made me think: why is it so tough for people to apply 5S to the information they manage? Why is it so tough for them to change work habits (e.g., not checking email all the time, using the calendar as a kanban to drive their activity, etc.) to improve the flow of the value streams in which they work? And it hit me: there’s no support for these changes. In fact, the organizational inertia to keep doing things the same way fights against any effort to change.

So how can you create supports for these changes? Extrinsic incentives — financial or otherwise — are not a terribly good idea, as Mark Graban, John Hunter, and others (including me) have pointed out numerous times. The willingness to look for problems and the desire for kaizen has to be intrinsic.

Perhaps the answer is measurement. Maybe the key to this kind of improvement is in finding clearly understood metrics that can make the waste visible. But what are those measurements? I have some ideas that I’ll share later, but I’d like to hear your thoughts. Please let me know what metrics you’d use to sustain lean in the office.

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5 Responses

  1. Dan says:

    John, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think you’re spot on in your analysis.

    I once worked at a company where meetings ran like clockwork: start on time, end on time, everyone prepared, clear agenda, etc. I asked some people why they worked this way, and they said it was simple: that’s what the COO expected. Period. His leadership & expectations led to the creation of a culture that demanded that kind of behavior.

  2. Joe Ely says:

    Good post, Dan. And a topic I’ve thought a lot about and have experienced some similar frustration.

    I’ve worked two simple metrics for myself on the 5S of information
    >># of emails in my Outlook inbox gets to zero at some point in each work day
    >>My physial inbox is empty at some point of each work day

    These two seem to work because in my role as a knowledge worker, I have to process this stuff. What I don’t process is WIP.

    Typically, an unprocessed email is either holding up somone else’s work or decision or it is unnecessary, sitting there as a distraction for me.

    Physical stuff is a bit different. Often it is papers to sign or approvals to make…each reads on a process or project somewhere. My non-response is WIP.

    Excessive inventory, as we know, is one of the 7 wastes. I find if I set “excessive” as >0, I have clarity.

    I used to measure this at the end of each day. But I kaizened that, as a flurry of inflow late in the day does not mean I’m not processing stuff. The target of getting it to zero once during each work day seems to work.

    So, that is two metrics, each day. If I’m in the office all week, it means 10 data points. In a good week, I’ll hit it 40% of the time. It’s tough.

    But it forces good processes and hammers my personal tendency towards procrastination.

    My thoughts….

  3. Dan says:

    Thanks for sharing your ideas. I completely agree that looking at your WIP is a great approach. And I really like your thinking on the end of day numbers; I hadn’t considered that, but it makes perfect sense. I still feel as though there are more measurements that can help us move towards smoother flow of value. Perhaps something related to uninterrupted work time?

  4. Charles Howell says:

    Dan, I’d recommend tracking meeting time as percent of available time. I have always contended that excessive meetings that squeeze out actual time to work is the start of a downward spiral toward ineffectiveness, not to mention longer hours to compensate.

    I agree with your premise of this post. My company has successfully offered incentives called Wellness Bucks that has been very effective.

  5. John Hunter says:

    Some things about what people do also have their roots in psychology. Deming had an understanding of psychology as one of 4 areas in his system of management. A huge factor in what people do is based on what they are used to doing – habits. It is often difficult for people to change – not necessarily because they don’t want to, or the alternative is more difficult or they think it is unwise. It is difficult just because they are in the habit of doing something else.

    William James did explored the power of habits.

    Often I favor convincing people why certain actions are best and then they can chose to take those actions. But you can also get people in the habit of the actions you seek to encourage and then let the power of habit work. For health, I think this, often is a good strategy.

    But it also is done in many ways that culture is established in an organization. You enforce that meetings must have an agenda. Then it becomes a habit. You enforce that decisions are based on data. Then it becomes a habit. You enforce that the work area must be clean. Then it becomes a habit.

    Two ways you can notice that things are becoming a habit: 1) when people bring “work” ideas to their personal life

    2) you find yourself in a new environment where the habit is not practiced and you are uncomfortable. You go to a new organization and 5s is not being practiced and you feel uncomfortable. You go to meetings without agendas and they seem to wander and waste time and you can’t imagine why they don’t use agenda and follow them.

    When the ideas have reached the level of habits you have changed. I think with health issues this is the understanding people should have. How do I change things so people adopt good habits. Then you have to find strategies that effectively move people to adopt those habits.

    Now the strategy is that often adopting the habit is easier than convincing someone to change with the power of pure logic. But it is also important as habit are adopted to explain the reasoning on why the habits are important. By understanding the role those habits play in successful health, for example, a person knows how to adapt to changing circumstances. And they know what are the key factors that should remain as methods are adapted over time. Explaining why 5s is valuable is important even beyond the habit.

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