Create a fast track for your work.

I spent a few days at the SHS/ASQ alphabet soup conference in Atlanta this week, learning about how hospitals are implementing lean to improve their quality and lower their costs. I was struck by the fact that all the focus is on hospital processes — admission, discharge, nurse shift change, etc. — but no one is thinking about how to use lean to improve the way people do their office work. The nurse supervisors and managers I spoke to, for example, were complaining about the difficulty of getting their administrative tasks done in any sort of efficient way. Like workers in any other kind of organization, they buried by email, paperwork, and meetings.

There’s no easy solution to these burdens, but there are lessons from the way hospitals manage patients that can be applied to the way that individuals manage their work. Consider the “fast track” that many hospitals have implemented in their emergency departments.

There’s one pathway for the serious problems — gunshot wounds, cerebral hemorrhages — that need immediate attention. And there’s a fast track for people who have non-life-threatening issues that can be easily resolved, such as stitching up a bad cut or splinting a sprained finger. These are high volume, fast turnover cases. If you’ve ever gone to an emergency department that doesn’t have a fast track for a non-life threatening problem, you’ll end up sitting around for hours studying People magazine’s “Sexiest Man of 2007″ double issue while the medics take care of the guy who’s having a coronary.

What would happen if you created a fast-track for your work? As part of 5S, sould you set up a paper and electronic filing system that separates the high volume, fast turnover work from the serious, more complex issues that take time to process? That would make it easier and faster to access the information you need, and avoid those Howard Carter-like archaeological expeditions looking for stuff.

Going one step further, could you create blocks of time in which you only dealt with high volume, fast turnover work, and other blocks that were reserved for the big stuff? If you did that, you might increase the likelihood that you’d deal with everything more quickly, more smoothly, and with less stress.

Can you start a lean contagion?

Efforts to drive a lean transformation across an organization are difficult. Improvements in one area of the business often don’t spread to other areas. Deep-seated resistance to change slows progress to a crawl or stops it entirely. Backsliding erases hard-won gains.

But what if you could get lean to spread like a contagion? What if acceptance of lean, or even an outright embrace of lean (not the tools, but the mindset), could become like a virtuous epidemic?

Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, in their book Connected, posit that all kinds of behaviors and characteristics that we consider independently defined actually spread like a contagion. Take obesity, for example. After analyzing the Framingham Heart Study, they found that obese people tend to hang with other obese people, and thin people hang with thin people. (Birds of a feather, and all that business.)

More intriguingly, they found that there’s a causal relationship: obesity spreads by contagion. So if your friend’s friend’s friend — whom you’ve never met, and lives a thousand miles away — gains weight, you’re likely to gain weight, too. And if your friend’s friend’s friend loses weight, you’re likely to lose weight, too.

How does it work? Scott Stossel explains in the NYTimes that

Partly, it’s a kind of peer pressure, or norming, effect, in which certain behaviors, or the social acceptance of certain behaviors, get transmitted across a network of acquaintances. In one example the authors give, Heather stops exercising and gains weight, which influences her friend Maria’s thinking about what normal weight is, so that when Maria’s other friend Amy (who has never met Heather) also stops her exercise regime, Maria is less likely to urge Amy to resume it. So Heather’s weight gain influences Amy’s, even though the two women never meet.

And it’s not just obesity that can be contagious:

Christakis and Fowler explore network contagion in everything from back pain (higher incidence spread from West Germany to East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall) to suicide (well known to spread throughout communities on occasion) to sex practices (such as the growing prevalence of oral sex among teenagers) to politics (where the denser your network of connections, the more ideologically intense and intractable your beliefs are likely to be).

So this got me thinking: is it possible to spread lean throughout an organization like a contagion? Is it possible to have it take on a life of its own? After all, when you’re looking at a value stream horizontally across an organization, you’ve got a great opportunity to have lean spread widely and quickly. In some respects, you even need lean to spread this way, because you’re cutting across so many functional silos.

When I think about my work — applying lean to individual behaviors — I realize that this idea presents a huge opportunity. One person running a lean meeting, for example, has a chance to, um, infect up to a dozen other people in a company. A simple change in email processing policy (say, only four times a day) can touch hundreds of others. In fact, at Intel, Nathan Zeldes created blocks of time during each day that engineers could work without interruptions, and when word of the experiment spread, other regions demanded to be included in the program.

There’s more research to be done in this area, though: some companies mandate email-free Fridays, but usually can’t sustain it. And even Intel hasn’t been entirely successful in maintaining the new behaviors. It’s possible that those initiatives didn’t start at a “hub” — one of the “influenceable” nodes that are likely to spread a behavior most quickly. Or perhaps you need a critical mass to prevent recidivism.

What do you think? Could you take advantage of this idea of behavioral contagion to spread lean more quickly through your company?

Four tools for making work visible.

In general, I’m not a big fan of fancy time management hardware or software. As the saying goes, automating a broken process gets you a faster (and more expensive) broken process. Far better to use a simple system to fix the process and then automate as necessary. (Kevin Meyer is the chief apostle of this approach, with his pizza and whiteboard replacement for an ERP system.) Even buying special pre-packaged and printed day planners fits into this category, since you get locked into someone else’s proprietary and inflexible system.

Having said that, there are some interesting websites that can give you greater visibility in how you’re spending your time. They won’t actually help you, you know, do anything important, but by making your actions visible, they can help spur behavioral change.

The Wall Street Journal covered four of the services (Slife, RescueTime Pro, ManicTime, and Klok) last week. Each one has strengths and weaknesses, but will no doubt be improved over time. I won’t bother reviewing them as you can read the WSJ article for free here.

I’m good with a watch, a piece of paper, and some discipline. However, if new tools will help you get started down this road, by all means read the article and check them out. The important issue, I think, is not so much what tool you use, but rather that you’re committed to making the invisible — i.e., where and how you spend your time and attention — visible. Once you’ve done that, you can start to analyze the current state and implement countermeasures to improve it. As the WSJ authors wrote,

All in all, the services really helped us get a handle on how we spend our work time. And having a written account of where our minutes went pushed us to modify our work habits—and get more done.

These tools aren’t panaceas. But it might get you started in living the lean principles that you’re trying to drive through the organization.

Why not become CEO of your problems?

I had a chance a few weeks ago to take a class on A3 thinking with John Shook. He mentioned that one of the greatest benefits of an A3 is that it forces people to take ownership of a problem, rather than having it fall into a no-man’s-land between functional silos. And we’ve all run into those, right? You know how it goes: “That’s marketing’s responsibility.” “No, it isn’t. Its definitely part of the sales function.” “Yes, but sales gets that information from IT.” And on and on it goes, with no hope of ever getting resolved.

So I was struck by last week’s NYTimes interview with Mark Pincus, founder and chief executive of Zynga. Pincus tells the interviewer that one of his key methods of leadership is to make everyone into a CEO in the company:

Mark Pincus: I’d turn people into C.E.O.’s. One thing I did at my second company was to put white sticky sheets on the wall, and I put everyone’s name on one of the sheets, and I said, “By the end of the week, everybody needs to write what you’re C.E.O. of, and it needs to be something really meaningful.” And that way, everyone knows who’s C.E.O. of what and they know whom to ask instead of me. And it was really effective. People liked it. And there was nowhere to hide.

NYTimes: So who were some of your new C.E.O.’s?

MP: We had this really motivated, smart receptionist. She was young. We kept outgrowing our phone systems, and she kept coming back and saying, “Mark, we’ve got to buy a whole new phone system.” And I said: “I don’t want to hear about it. Just buy it. Go figure it out.” She spent a week or two meeting every vendor and figuring it out. She was so motivated by that. I think that was a big lesson for me because what I realized was that if you give people really big jobs to the point that they’re scared, they have way more fun and they improve their game much faster. She ended up running our whole office.

Now, you can argue with Pincus’s approach. It probably doesn’t conform with all the tenets of “respect for people.” And telling an employee, “I don’t want to hear about it. Go figure it out.” probably isn’t the best way of training staff in how to think (which is one of the key functions of the A3). But making a person the CEO of a problem is, I think, very much in keeping with Shook’s idea of granting ownership via A3, because it ensures that something will get done.

Have you ever whined about ineffective, time-wasting, soul-sucking meetings? Do you bemoan the plague of useless, irritating, and time-consuming “reply all” emails? Are you frustrated at the lack of an intelligent electronic file storage system? Do nearly constant interruptions by colleagues keep you from getting any of your important work done?

In Pincus’s terms, are you willing to become the CEO of any of these problems? Or using lean methods, are you willing to take ownership of these problems with an A3 so that you can devise some countermeasures and make the office a better place to work?

Getting off the fire truck.

The Lean Enterprise Institute has released a new DVD, “Womack on Lean Management.” I haven’t watched it yet, but the description alone really got my attention:

“When you go in and spend a day with managers and observe what they are doing – even up close to the top – they are busy talking to the customer about things gone wrong, they are busy talking to the supplier about things gone wrong, they are busy talking to operations or design about things gone wrong. Complete instability.

“As a result, the main work of many managers at many levels in companies using ‘modern management’ systems is constant firefighting.”

This really hit home for me. I don’t deal with the seriously tough problems that so many lean consultants grapple with, like getting complicated manufacturing or service value streams straightened out. Or, as Jim would say, creating stability in core processes. My work is (in some ways) much simpler: just getting people to spend time on what’s actually important to their customers and their company.

But when I see the amount of time squandered on activities that create no value at all, I wonder whether we should first try to create stability in single person processes — i.e., the stuff that forms the core of value-added managerial work.

I mean, what if directors, managers, and supervisors created stability in the way that they managed their own work? What if they had regular trips to the gemba and regular, repeatable, consistent mentoring? What if they stopped bowing to the holy god of the inbox? What if they stopped kneeling before the almighty 60 minute meeting? What if they applied visual management techniques to their own use of time to help ensure that they actually spent time on the really important stuff?

What if they got off the fire truck for awhile and tried to solve the problems in their own work processes?

Creating flow in your work (Part 2)

I've been thinking a lot recently about how to improve flow when you're dealing with complex, low-volume, high-mix knowledge work. The process for creating flow is pretty well documented for repetitive, task-oriented work. (That's not to say that it's easy. But it is well-defined.) However, what do you do when you're the creative director at an ad agency? Or a trial lawyer? Or in charge of marketing communications for a specialty chemical manufacturer? How can you bring flow to work that is inherently so unpredictable and highly variable?

In a previous post, I suggested that you should look for the elements of your work that are predictable and repetitive. Now, I want to suggest that you transforming complex, creative work into simple, “transactional” tasks that can be done easily. Checklists are a perfect example of this concept. They ensure that individual steps within a complicated process are both remembered completely and done correctly.

NASA astronauts and ground operations use checklists for all space missions. The Columbia Journalism Review advocates that journalists use checklists to reduce errors in reporting. Since the crash in 1935 of a prototype B-17 bomber, pilots use checklists when taking off and landing planes – the process is just too complicated, and the downside risk is too great, to rely upon mere memory. Checklists are increasingly finding their way into medicine as well, dramatically reducing infection and mortality rates where they’re being used. Dr. Peter Pronovost has been leading the way in this area, as Atul Gawande reported in The New Yorker:

The checklists provided two main benefits, Pronovost observed. First, they helped with memory recall, especially with mundane matters that are easily overlooked in patients undergoing more drastic events. (When you’re worrying about what treatment to give a woman who won’t stop seizing, it’s hard to remember to make sure that the head of her bed is in the right position.) A second effect was to make explicit the minimum, expected steps in complex processes.

Your work may have less riding on it than the lives of patients or passengers, but there’s no doubt that there’s complexity in your work that, if eliminated, would improve flow and reduce waste. Chip and Dan Heath wrote in Fast Company about the benefits of checklists in business:

Even when there is no ironclad right way, checklists can help people avoid blind spots in complex environments. Has your business ever made a big mistake because it failed to consider all the right information? Cisco Systems, renowned for its savvy in buying and absorbing complementary companies, uses a checklist to analyze potential acquisitions. Will the company's key engineers be willing to relocate? Will it be able to sell additional services to its customer base? What's the plan for migrating customer support? As a smart business-development person, you'd probably remember to investigate 80% of these critical issues. But it would be inadvisable to remember the other 20% after the close of a $100 million acquisition. (Whoops, the hotshot engineers won't leave the snow in Boulder.) Checklists are insurance against overconfidence.

Checklists reduce ambiguity and uncertainty, thereby allowing faster action with less deliberation. They provide the same benefit that habits do in setting free, as William James put it, the “higher powers of mind” for creative thought.

Checklists improve flow in one other significant way: they dampen the tendency to multi-task in favor of serial-tasking. In a rapidly changing, always-connected work environment, serial-tasking may sound heretical. At the very least, it probably sounds slow and inefficient. And yet, serial-tasking leads to a smoother flow of work (and value). What we often forget is that the most complex activities are composed of individual actions – done one at a time. A good analogy might be the performance of an elegant prima ballerina in Swan Lake: her dance is composed of a series of individual movements – turns, steps, and jumps – done in sequence, one at a time. But when they’re linked together, they create a seamless, flowing whole. The same is true for your work. Because even if you’re not creating an artistic masterpiece, you can nevertheless strive for the same smooth, uninterrupted, flow of work.

How can you use checklists in your work? How can you turn the creative into the "transactional"? Let me know in the comments section.

Stacking the Box, Throwing Downfield, and PDCA

I’m a long time (and long suffering) NY Jets fan. I’ve watched decades of ineptitude, incompetence, and bad luck. I’ve suffered through bad drafts (Blair Thomas? Lam Jones?) and lousy coaching (Rich Kotite?). I’ve suffered through the Mud Bowl and Marino’s Fake Spike. So when I watched yesterday’s playoff game against the San Diego Chargers, I didn’t have much hope.

The Jets needed to run the football to win. Their rookie quarterback has a tendency to throw the ball to the wrong team, so the Jets’ plan was to run and run and run some more, and only throw when absolutely necessary. Only problem was that the Chargers knew this. So they “stacked the box,” bringing all their defenders up to the line of scrimmage. The Jets couldn’t run: in the first quarter they had more penalty yards than rushing yards.

But then the Jets adjusted. They started throwing the ball downfield, forcing the Chargers to respect the throw and play defense over the whole field. This prevented the Chargers from stacking the box. And that enabled the Jets to finally run effectively. End result: Jets win.

You couldn’t find a clearer example of PDCA this weekend. It came from the stadium floor not the factory floor, but it was still a tremendous example of making a plan (run, don’t throw), doing the plan (running on 10 of first 13 plays), checking the results of the plan (0 points, 11 net yards), and then acting upon those results and adapting (throw downfield and more often).

In football playoffs, there’s really no choice except to adapt if your plan isn’t working — if you don’t win, you’re out. But when I think back to problems I faced in jobs earlier in my career, it was very different. If we had problems during the development cycle of one of our running shoes, well, that wasn’t great, but there were plenty of other shoes that were coming along just fine, and anyway, we were busy getting ready for the next season’s product development cycle. With hindsight, it’s obvious that we lacked the sense of urgency that a football team has in the playoffs.

How many problems do you see at work that you let slide? How often do you think to yourself, “Well, it’s not that important,” or “I don’t have time to figure out what’s causing the problem,” or “Yeah, this stinks, but that’s just the way it is.”

What would it take to get you and your company to treat everyday like the playoffs (lose and you’re out)? What would it take to get you and your company to apply PDCA to all the problems you’re facing and make the adjustments necessary to win?

Creating flow in your work (Part I)

Jon Miller’s latest post on his agile kanban experiment got me thinking about how to create flow in managerial, white-collar work. There’s so much variation in your daily job that it probably seems impossible to create a smooth flow of customer value.

That’s true to a certain extent. But no matter what kind of work you do, it comprises both creative, unpredictable elements, and mundanely repetitive tasks. And while it may be hard (or impossible) to bring flow to the creative areas of your job, it’s certainly possible to bring flow to the more repetitive areas. After all, managers have to do performance reviews. Medical technicians need to do preventative maintenance on hospital equipment. Artists have to buy paints (and pay the rent on time). Actors have to go to the gym and get regular Botox treatments. This work isn’t particularly exciting, but it’s eminently predictable, and it needs to get done.

What’s surprising, though, is how often these tasks are left to languish. Rather than being processed systematically so that they can be taken care of in the normal course of business, this “transactional” work lies about people’s offices like beached whales, consuming mental space and stinking up the joint. They’re not sexy, they’re generally not much fun, and they’re not urgent (until, of course, they are). But when they finally come due, everything stops – colleagues, customers, and family all take a back seat to the completion of these relatively unimportant tasks.

This is the antithesis of flow. It needlessly creates waste and stress.

A woman I know is the CFO of a large law firm in San Francisco. She knows that every month she has to present key financials to the executive committee. In fact, she knows the exact date of every monthly meeting for the whole year. Yet somehow, preparations for the meeting fall to the last minute and end up consuming a full day and a half right before the deadline. This frustrates her boss, who would like the opportunity to review the presentation a few days before the meeting – and it frustrates her direct reports, who can’t get any help from her for a day and a half each month. With better flow, she’d be able to delegate some of the work to her staff, deliver the report to her boss on time, and increase her accessibility to customers within the firm.

If you look closely at your own work, you’ll undoubtedly spot areas of predictability amidst the variability of your own job. These areas hold the potential for improved flow. For example, the law firm CFO could improve the flow of her monthly presentation by carving out small blocks of time in a regular pattern to prepare the report. In fact, breaking the work into smaller pieces with a predictable cycle might even enable her to delegate pieces of the job to her staff.

Obviously, there’s still going to be unpredictability and uncontrollable variability in your work. Who knows – most of your work might fit into that category. But recognizing that some portion of your work is predictable, and taking advantage of it, would result in a greater ability to deploy your skills and creativity in solving unforeseen problems.

2009 Management Improvement Carnival

TimeBack Management is proud to be part of the 2009 Management Improvement Carnival, coordinated by John Hunter at Curious Cat. Several of us are reviewing a variety of 2009′s best posts from some of the best blogs. Links to all carnival participants and the summary can be found here.

I’ve picked posts from three of my favorite blogs: Mark Graban’s Lean Blog, Jason Yip’s You’d think with all my video game experience that I’d be more prepared for this (which surely sets a record for longest blog title relative to the length of the posts), and Kevin Meyer’s Evolving Excellence.

From Mark’s LeanBlog, I’ve chosen the following:

  • “Love” or “Lean,” This Quote Rings True: Mark explains how “respect for people” doesn’t mean being soft on people, and how accountability should be the real watchword in management.
  • Where Would I Be Without Lean, by Andy Wagner, explains how the lean journey starts with the simplest step: listening to Joe (not the plumber, but the person on the front line).
  • This Year’s WSJ “JIT”-Bashing Article, Again Misguided: you shouldn’t talk about the Lean Blog without picking at least one post on LAME. This one explains how the Wall Street Journal (once again) gets it wrong on lean. Thanks to Mark for helping expose the mainstream media’s misperception of lean.

Jason Yip’s posts are generally quite short, but pithy and thought-provoking. There’s always more than meets the eye.

  • Productivity Is Not The Primary Goal: no, really, it’s not. Read to find out what is the main goal.
  • The Toyota version for Information Refrigerator: a brilliant, concise image of why a computer is not the answer for your inventory issues — or any other problem, for that matter.
  • Don’t just make it visible, make it tangible: a thoughtful challenge to go beyond mere visible management.

Evolving Excellence is an awfully wide-ranging blog, but these posts are enlightening, funny, and powerful:

  • When The Neck Bone Isn’t Connected To The Head Bone: guest blogger Bill Waddell explains how the business school academics’ devotion to “core competence” and other management theories can have devastating effects.
  • 5S: Reality or Lean Illusion explains the difference between the core of 5S and the appearance of 5S, and why it’s important.
  • Chief Brain Officer: it would be a mistake to talk about Evolving Excellence without choosing at least one post on treating employees as more than just a pair of hands. Kevin is at his eloquent best in talking about how terminology affects the way we think about employees.

Finally, a special shout-out to Bill Waddell’s masterful manifesto on the Hollowing of the American Economy, which was first introduced on the EE blog. This piece was probably the single most powerful article I read all year. Download it here.

Many thanks to all of you for entertaining, enlightening, and educating me over the past year with your wisdom and creativity.

Kaizen: it’s good for what ails you.

Breaking news from next month’s Harvard Business Review: kaizen is good for morale.

Well, HBR didn’t put it that way exactly. The (somewhat pompously titled) article, “Breakthrough Ideas for 2010,” argues that the top motivator of performance is progress, even if it’s incremental:

On days when workers have the sense they’re making headway in their jobs, or when they receive support that helps them overcome obstacles, their emotions are most positive and their drive to succeed is at its peak. On days when they feel they are spinning their wheels or encountering roadblocks to meaningful accomplishment, their moods and motivation are lowest.

Although the article doesn’t talk about kaizen or about the elements of lean leadership, many of the ideas come straight from The Gold Mine or The Lean Manager. The authors recommend that managers “scrupulously avoid impeding progress by changing goals autocratically, being indecisive, or holding up resources.” They go on to suggest that

If you are a high-ranking manager, take great care to clarify overall goals, ensure that people’s efforts are properly supported, and refrain from exerting time pressure so intense that minor glitches are perceived as crises rather than learning opportunities. Cultivate a culture of helpfulness. While you’re at it, you can facilitate progress in a more direct way: Roll up your sleeves and pitch in. Of course, all these efforts will not only keep people working with gusto but also get the job done faster.

Nothing wrong with these suggestions. I especially like the recommendation that minor glitches should be seen as learning activities. That fits nicely with lean thinking. But I can’t escape the feeling that there’s something wrong when high-ranking managers have to be told by the august HBR to, um, actually help out with some of the work. Shouldn’t this be common sense, rather than “breakthrough” managerial thinking?

The article also challenges the widely held belief that recognition is the most important factor motivating workers. According to the authors’ research, recognition ranked last. (Which makes you wonder about the methodology of all these studies if the results are so different.) But then they go on to say that

the diaries revealed that [recognition] does indeed motivate workers and lift their moods. So managers should celebrate progress, even the incremental sort. But there will be nothing to recognize if people aren’t genuinely moving forward—and as a practical matter, recognition can’t happen every day.

I’m not sure what salt mine the authors work in, but where I come from, recognition doesn’t have to be a large cash prize given out in front of the whole company. In fact, it’s quite possible to say “Thank you — I appreciate the work you did” every day.

Okay, now that I’ve got that off my chest, let me go back to the key premise: that improvement and progress aren’t just good for the company, they’re good for the workers. And that’s a virtuous circle we can all benefit from.