The downside of automation

Nathan Zeldes, former Intel engineer and author of the seminal paper on Infomania, argues that IT tools can reduce productivity. He doesn’t suggest that computers and information technology, writ large, is a bad thing (he’s an Intel guy, after all), but rather that any specific IT tool might not be good for the organization.

He describes a typical situation:

I’ve seen many an MD cursing under their breath while struggling to enter my examination data and conclusions into a new computerized system. Instead of scribbling a few illegible lines on paper and chucking it into a manila file, to be processed later by an assistant, they had to use an unfamiliar and possibly ill-designed piece of technology, and it took them much longer. And because of this they had less time to apply their real value added, their precious ability to cure the sick.

Zeldes isn’t advocating a return to the 50s, complete with pink collars, steno pads, and 3-martini lunches. (Although, who knows – he might be a fan of Mad Men.) He realizes that the benefits of IT are enormous. But I think he raises an interesting issue: the downside of IT systems and automation.

Zeldes says that usually technology

gets deployed with little attention to the wider implications. Thus, if a tool enables the manager or engineer to do the admin’s work, the temptation to remove the admin and become “lean” and “efficient” is great. But the fact is, an admin is paid much less than a highly skilled engineer or manager (or surgeon); and the latter only has so many hours in a day, which may be better used for doing higher level tasks. This is not to say that we can’t streamline some of the work by having it done by the manager; the question is which part, and to what extent. As is often the case, it’s pretty much about identifying the correct balance.

Toyota is famous for being very slow to introduce new, expensive, technology: they never want to automate a broken process. That slowness to add technology also enables the company to understand how it will affect the value stream, and whether that’s wise.

When I see companies leaping at technological solutions for time and attention management, I have a feeling that they’re in for a big disappointment. Buying a piece of software isn’t a cure for poor work flow any more than buying a bigger pair of pants is a cure for your weight problem. Understanding the root cause(s), developing multiple countermeasures, and going through several PDCA cycles is a more reliable route to success.

The Productivity Myth.

Tony Schwartz asks this question over at the HBR Conversation blog:

But is it [the productivity gains in the economy since the market meltdown] good news? Is more, bigger, faster for longer necessarily better?

Tony argues that the fear of layoffs is driving workers to sleep less, work more, take fewer vacations, and have less downtime during the day. He says that this amped up work pace “ultimately generates value that is narrow, shallow and short-term.” Personally, I think he takes his argument a bridge too far when he blames the more, bigger, faster ethic for Toyota’s problems and the sub-prime mortgage crisis (more sales, more profits, damn the torpedoes).

And yet, there’s an element of truth in his argument. Mark Graban penned a wonderful piece today on the perils of 100% utilization, whether for a system, machines, or people. As he says,

The goal of 100% utilization leads to dysfunction and waiting time. Yes, we don’t want the doctor to be idle anymore than ZipCar wants its vehicles to be idle, but you need some “slack capacity” in any system for things to flow.

I’ve never expressed this idea as concisely as Mark, but I talk about this all the time when I consult to companies. I see people who are stressed and overworked, and they come to me for ideas on how to get more done during the day. To be sure, there’s often a high level of waste and inefficiency in the way they work, and we have no problem coming up with ways to reduce that waste. But if all they’re going to do is fill up their new “production capacity” (usually with more stupid email, pointless meetings, or non-value added work), then their efforts are ultimately self-defeating. By pushing themselves up to 100% utilization, they’re guaranteeing that the system will break: they’ll get sick, they’ll make mistakes, they won’t be a good bosses or husbands or dog owners.

Bottom line: you need some slack time to relax, recharge, and you know, actually think and reflect for a bit. Your performance will improve (as will your health).

Schwartz say that

Getting more tasks accomplished — say, writing and responding to scores of emails in between other activities — may technically represent higher productivity, but it doesn’t necessarily mean adding greater value.

I couldn’t agree more.

Why companies don’t experiment.

A recent HBR article by Dan Ariely, “Why Companies Don’t Experiment,” posits that listening to experts creates a false sense of security.

When we pay consultants, we get an answer from them and not a list of experiments to conduct. We tend to value answers over questions because answers allow us to take action, while questions mean that we need to keep thinking. Never mind that asking good questions and gathering evidence usually guides us to better answers.

He goes on to say that

Companies pay amazing amounts of money to get answers from consultants with overdeveloped confidence in their own intuition. Managers rely on focus groups—a dozen people riffing on something they know little about—to set strategies. And yet, companies won’t experiment to find evidence of the right way forward.

I think that in a larger sense, the experts might take the form of internal Lean Six Sigma Black Belts, the senior engineer, the department chair, even your mother (“always make the chicken soup *this* way, with the parsnip added last”). Even if you don’t have direct authority from your position in some organizational food chain, you might have authority that stems from your expert status. And that’s something to be wary of.

As a consultant, this issue — leading with no authority, combined with the danger of prescription — is on my mind. My clients consider me an “expert” (which makes me squirm) on time management. The truth is, I’ve worked at dozens of companies and with hundreds of people, so I see patterns that are often repeated — but that doesn’t mean that I can prescribe an off-the-shelf solution for an organization struggling with getting the right things done. Each organization is unique — and for that matter, each individual is unique. Not only are the root causes of their problems likely to be different, but the solutions and countermeasures will differ. The only way to find what will work is to really understand what’s behind the problems and then experiment with changes.

And yet, most managers I see are reluctant to try different ways of working. I think that’s partially due to inertia — after all, they’ve done pretty well so far by working the way they have. But that reluctance is also driven, in part, by fear. What if people don’t like working in this new way? What if the CEO doesn’t like the fact that emails aren’t being answered within 45 seconds?

Ariely says that Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, is

trying to create a culture of experimentation in which failing is perfectly fine. Whatever happens, he tells his staff, you’re doing right because you’ve created evidence, which is better than anyone’s intuition. He says the organization is buzzing with experiments.

Experiments require evidence and data. So if your gut tells you that you’re not working as efficiently as you could and you want to change in the way you work, benchmark the current state, run experiments, and measure the change. You don’t need experts to tell you what will work for you.

Call for Community A3 Participants Redux

Much to my surprise, the response to Joe Ely’s and my call for participants in our community A3 project has been, um, underwhelming. After some reflection with Joe and others, I’ve come up with the following possible explanations:

  1. Companies are so magnificently efficient that there’s no wasted managerial time, and therefore no need for a community A3. No problem, no A3.
  2. Companies may have a problem, but have no desire to be involved with Dan and Joe because, after all — who the hell are they?
  3. Companies may have a problem with all their really smart people stuck in unproductive meetings, but it’s just not really a priority compared to all the other stuff they’re doing, lean and otherwise.
  4. Companies may have a problem with all their really smart people stuck in unproductive meetings, but they’re reluctant to share those inefficiencies with the public — even the lean community.

I’ve ruled out #1 because having flushed more hours than we care to count down the toilet of flabby, pointless meetings, both Joe and I know better.

#2 is a good possibility. Aside from our devastating good looks and wonderful blogging voices, neither Joe nor I have double-top-secret Lean Six Sigma Infrared belts. (Actually, Joe might, but since it’s double-top-secret, he hasn’t told me about it.) But we’re pretty good as coaches nonetheless, if only because, as outsiders, we can ask questions.

#3 is quite likely. After all, it’s hard to measure the cost of waste of really smart people checking their Blackberries in a conference room for two hours instead of being out on the floor solving problems. It’s a real opportunity cost, but it doesn’t show up on the income statement. If this is the case, do me one favor: before you mark this RSS feed as read and move on to your next job, just try calculating how much time you’ve spent in the last week in meetings, and how much of it was waste.

Now, if #4 is the issue — you’re afraid of making either yourself or your organization look bad — let me put your mind at ease: the purpose of this A3 is to share ideas for improvement with the lean community, not to embarrass anyone. We’re more than happy to keep all participants anonymous. There’s no need to put your name on your A3 — we’ll share the content (root causes, countermeasures, implementation results, etc. — but not your identity.

So, with all that said, we still have room for a few more people or organizations to join us. Welcome; we’d love to have you.

Looking for volunteers for our community A3 project

Joe Ely of Learning About Lean and I are organizing a community A3 project to figure out how to eliminate (or at least reduce) the soul-sucking waste of time masquerading as corporate meetings.

No less an eminence than Peter Drucker believed that a company is “malorganized” if it causes you to spend more than 25% of your time in meetings. (See my post on this topic here.) Based on our own experience and conversations with others, we’re guessing by that definition most companies are in trouble.  So we’re going to take up arms against this sea of administrative troubles and by opposing, end them.

We’d like you to join our effort.  We’re hoping that the collective wisdom of the lean community can give us more time to do important things (like, say, work) and spend less time in conference rooms sleeping through a 93 slide PowerPoint deck.

Here are the details:


  • To reduce the plague of meetings so that we can, you know, actually do some work


  • Participation is limited to the first eight companies (or groups) to respond
  • All members of the lean community are welcome to review the A3s at any time, or comment on the open access Google Doc


  • Dan Markovitz & Joe Ely will provide the problem statement for the A3 (this creates a uniform starting point for all groups)
  • Each company works simultaneously on its own A3
  • All A3s posted and readable (but not editable) on Google Docs to anyone who is interested during and after the course of the project
  • Comments/updates/funny cat pictures can be submitted on a separate Google Doc so that everyone can read them

Timeframe (75 days):

  • Target launch date: Monday, May 3
  • Target completion date: Monday, July 12
  • Two weeks to fill out the left side of the A3 (background; current conditions; goal; analysis)
  • Eight weeks for Do-Check-Act (proposal; implementation plan; follow up)
  • Report out/reflection by July 19

If you’re interested in joining us, please send an email to Dan Markovitz (dan ATSIGN with your name, organization, and contact information.  We’ll send you the link to the Google Docs area with the A3 template and problem statement.

Questions?  Comments?  Contact Dan or Joe (joeely618 ATSIGN

We hope you can join us.

“I’m not stressed out.”

Mark Graban tells the following story about his visit to VIBCO:

The two women who were working at the front desk (answering phone calls and customer requests, among other duties) were describing the impact of Lean on their work – how they standardized many of their activities and applied a Kaizen mindset to making their work easier. There were lots of little Lean improvements in place, stuff they had worked on themselves. They mentioned how they were able to get much more done during their day.

A visiting healthcare executive asked one of the women if she was working harder as a result of those changes. She responded,

It doesn’t feel like I’m working harder. I’m not stressed out. I’m getting more done and there’s a sense of accomplishment.

There’s an important point here, and it’s easy to miss. Generally speaking, the front desk job is incredibly demanding: there’s no time for planning and there’s no predictability to the schedule — when you’re working the phones and tending to the front door, you have no idea what’s coming through the door or when. In a lot of respects, it’s a lot like working in the emergency department at a hospital: you never know what kind of patient will come through the door next.

What’s noteworthy is that even in a position where the worker has to be immediately responsive to the unpredictable incoming work (after all, they can’t just not answer the phones, or lock the front door), they were able to standardize some element of their activities and make those activities easier. And the establishment of standardization resulted in less stress and more work completed. (Not to mention that nice feeling of accomplishment.)

If you’re reading this blog, there’s an excellent chance that you’re not a receptionist, and therefore that your job allows for a more measured response time. For the most part, you don’t have to answer the phone on the first ring, or respond to an email within a minute of its arrival (even if you feel you do). Think about the effect that standardizing — and improving — some of your work could have on your ability to accomplish your work.

Analyze your responsibilities. Break out the recurring, predictable work (ordering supplies, processing email, dictating cases) from the creative, unpredictable work (writing ad copy, choosing a color palette for the product line, choosing a medication protocol). Standardize and kaizen the predictable stuff. Get more work done. With less stress.

If a receptionist can do it, you can too.

Meetings: the plaque of an organization.

Ed Whitacre Jr., the CEO of GM, is struggling to get the company moving faster. The ossified bureaucracy at GM renders rapid decision-making nearly impossible, and nowhere is that more evident than in the plague of meetings that prevent people from actually making decisions.

How bad is it? The Wall Street Journal reported that in the past,

even minor decisions had to be mulled over by committee after committee. Once several years ago, the company tried to stamp out bureaucracy—and ended up appointing a committee to oversee how many committee meetings should be held.

Whitacre is trying hard to push authority and decision-making responsibility deeper into the organization, rather than requiring everything to be approved by the CEO. The Journal describes a recent meeting designed to get his approval for a new generation of cars and trucks:

Before the executives could present the pictures, charts and financial projections they had prepared, Whitacre stopped them to ask why they were having the meeting in the first place.

“Y’all have checked all this out pretty thoroughly,” Mr. Whitacre said in his Texas drawl, according to a participant. “I imagine you’re not going to approve something that’s bad or unprofitable, so why don’t you make the final decisions?”

Mr. Whitacre then let the team’s plans stand—and suggested that the group end its regular Friday sessions.

I don’t know if Whitacre has spent much time reading Peter Drucker, but Drucker was bluntly eloquent about the dangers of meetings. As a recent article in Human Resources IQ explains, Drucker went so far as to say that meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization, because you can either work or meet — you can’t do both at the same time. And although meetings are a necessary evil, they should be rare:

But above all, meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule. An organization which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done.

Too many meetings always bespeak poor structure of jobs and the wrong organizational components. . . if people in an organization find themselves in meetings a quarter of their time or more — there is time-wasting malorganization.

Too many meetings signify that work that should be in one job or in one component is spread over several jobs or several components. They signify that responsibility is diffused and information is not addressed to the people that need it.

How does your organization compare to Drucker’s 25% benchmark? My guess is that you’re way over that. Most executives I see are spending over 40% of their time in meetings (and most of those are poorly run, poorly focused, and don’t result in clear direction for the participants).

Meetings are like plaque, clogging the arteries of the business — and of the value stream. Companies become immobile from these unproductive, pointless time sucks. Compare GM’s sclerotic meeting culture with the stripped down, focused, problem solving meetings at Lantech, where decisions are made at the point of the problem, and at lowest possible level. (Read more about how those meetings are folded into standard work here.) No committees, no fluffy agendas, no long-winded Powerpoint presentations: all the information and all the necessary people are at the location of the problem ready to make a decision. Quickly.

Get rid of the meetings. Go to the gemba. Start flossing.

Leading without authority at Porsche.

John Shook often talks about “leading as if you have no authority.” This kind of leadership is not only fundamental to a lean system and to A3 problem-solving, it’s an equally valuable skill in any company. When you’re working in a matrix organization or in a team, the odds are good you won’t have the authority you might want to accomplish your charter.

I thought of this principle when I read this statement by Michael Mauer, Porsche’s head of design:

… at the end of the day, I do not tell them [the designers] to move a line exactly 50 mils lower or higher or more to the left or more to the right, because if the boundaries are too narrow you really kill all the creativity. I try to motivate people to think for themselves about the solution and how they could achieve the goal… Even if I have a solution in my mind, it is just one possible solution. There might be ten other possible solutions that are maybe much better, but by giving a direction that is too detailed or showing a solution, a way to the solution that is too detailed, I kill all the creativity. One of my major goals is to give the team freedom in order to have a maximum of creativity.

(Excerpt via Diego Rodriguez at Metacool. Full text of interview here.)

This feels to me very much like leading as if you have no authority. And more: it feels like the approach necessary for good problem solving. There’s a recognition that there are always multiple solutions to a problem, and what you think is “the answer” might not be the best one, despite your knowledge and experience.

Leading as if you have no authority doesn’t just mean not bullying people like Mr. Spacely. It also means avoiding the temptation to dominate — however inadvertently, however well-meaning — with your knowledge and experience.

Master the art of saying yes slowly.

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.

Drucker on time

Jon Miller, over at Gemba Panta Rei, reminded me last week of how eloquently and succinctly Peter Drucker stated so many of the ideas that I often struggle to articulate. Here’s Drucker on time:

Everything requires time. It is the only truly universal condition. All work takes place in time and uses our time. Yet most people take for granted this unique, irreplaceable, and necessary resource.

When the concept is stated this clearly, the connection to lean is unmistakable. Time is a resource, and lean is nothing if not creating more customer value with fewer resources.

When I was at LEI’s Lean Transformation Summit a few weeks ago, I attended Drew Locher‘s workshop on bringing lean thinking to offices. One of the things he said that really hit home for me was that time management is absolutely a key part of lean in the office. Of course. If you want to remove the waste in a process, then you really ought to figure out ways to take out any waste of “this unique, irreplaceable, and necessary resource.”

If you think about time this way, you might be a little more reluctant to attend meetings with no clear objective, or allow people to walk in and steal your attention with the dreaded “quick question” (that’s anything but), or succumb to the tyranny of the urgent email.

It’s irreplaceable. Invest it wisely.