Planning Managerial Capacity

I've been corresponding with Conor Shea of the Daily Kaizen blog recently about the importance of understanding one's own "production" capacity, and how that ties into the lean journey. We've both noticed that managers are terrible at taking the time to really think about what needs to be done — and what shouldn't be done. As Conor says,

the inability to strategically and systematically stop work is one of our biggest issues, and this of course can trace back to the hundreds of leaders who aren't able to do this as individuals.
I've written before (as has Matt May) about the importance of stopping work. While it's very easy to take on more projects and responsibilities, it's *stopping* work that's critical to getting out of the office and meetings, and into the gemba where the learning happens.

But of course, in order to know what to stop doing, you actually have to understand what you're spending your time on and how much you can realistically accomplish in a day or a week. That's where visual management (and lean tools) comes in. In this case, making managerial work visible enables a leveling of workload, and that means less stress, fewer mistakes, and less waste — all that mura, muri, and muda stuff.

Conor's group is trying an interesting approach:

We'll lay out the next few days, block out our meetings to leave our available capacity. We'll then create cards with the various tasks that are sized to the estimated length of the task, prioritize in an inventory by due date, and load accordingly. This allows us to match our demand and capacity, and have the necessary conversations (attend meeting? stay longer? etc.) depending on that fit.
Conor and I both think that greater efficiency and reduced waste starts with this deceptively simple question: "How many hours per week do you plan to work?" It's simple in the best sense of the word, in that it leads you down a road that eventually will force you to evaluate production capacity (your time) against production demand (your tasks and projects).

When you answer this question, you can begin to figure out where to put your scarce resources. More importantly, it's the first step in using PDCA to improve the way you work.

5S makes you better.

As you've probably read here ad nauseum, 5S is a fundamental part of lean. It helps you to spot abnormalities in a process or a system so that you can make improvements. 

But can it make you a better manager? Or entrepreneur? Or venture capitalist? Or journalist?

Although 5S is traditionally applied to the physical environment, I believe that it isn't just applicable to physical space — you know, "a place for everything and everything in it's place." In a larger sense, 5S can be applied to time as well.  It's an awkward locution, but think about having "a time for everything, and everything at the right time. And that means time to think and plan as well, not just react to the latest fire.

In the MIT Sloan Management Review, Nancy Duarte, the CEO of Duarte Design, says that

Clear space, oft maligned, is one of the most important elements of design. We want to utilize all our resources, not “waste” space, time or talent by leaving them unused. But what happens when we use things to 100% of their capacity? When a desk is 100% covered with papers, it is no longer a useful space. When people are kept busy 100% of the time, no time is available for generating new ideas.
This is a theme that keeps coming up when you talk to very successful people.  Barack Obama touched on this idea last year during his trip to Europe:

the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking.

The CEO of eBay, John Donhoe said essentially the same thing:

I find that if I don’t schedule a little bit of structured time away, where there’s no interruption, that it’s very hard to get the kind of thinking time and reflection time that I think is so important.

And Jim Collins, author of Good to Great (and whom I wrote about here and here), reserves at least four (count 'em, four!) work days per month with NO appointments or commitments during which he can do, well, whatever he wants: writing, talking to clients, or rock climbing. Whatever.

It's this temporal "white space" that enables a person to spot abnormalities, identify areas for improvement, and really tackle the tough issues.

Dany Levy, the founder of Daily Candy, is even more explicit:

There is a dearth of white space, of down time. I have gotten better about not checking my email as incessantly, simply because I felt like I was so reactionary. Everything I was doing was just a reaction to something. In terms of creativity, it allowed me no time to actually come up with anything new, because I was constantly just reacting.
And that, I think, is how 5S can make you better manager at whatever it is that you do. When applied to time, 5S clears out the clutter and allows you to focus on the forest instead of the trees — or the bark. It allows you to spot large-scale abnormalities that are hampering your ability (or your organization's ability) to do the great things that you aspire to.

Think of it as the 5S mind.

Standard work and the folly of multitasking.

I've been harping on this for a long time, but since there's new information I figure that it's worth saying again: multitasking doesn't work. The latest blow to that myth is from researchers at Stanford University:

People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time, a group of Stanford researchers has found. "They're suckers for irrelevancy," said communication Professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers. "Everything distracts them."

Further tests showed that compared to light multitaskers, heavy multitaskers perform worse on memory tests because they're struggling to retain more information in their brains at any given time.  And in a beautiful display of irony, heavy multitaskers suck at switching between tasks:

"They couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing. The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can't keep things separate in their minds."

In fact, the heavy multitaskers were inferior in all ways:

Eyal Ophir, the study’s lead investigator and a researcher at Stanford’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab, said: “We kept looking for multitaskers’ advantages in this study. But we kept finding only disadvantages. We thought multitaskers were very much in control of information. It turns out, they were just getting it all confused.”

Now, imagine if in your efforts to eradicate waste at work you identify a work process that was clearly inefficient. Maybe it's the way an operator reaches for a part. Or perhaps it's the kind of form someone in accounting fills out for travel reimbursements. If you're worth your lean salt, you'd try to find a way to eliminate the waste in the process. You'd create standard work and establish benchmarks, and then you'd run experiments to find a better way to do the job.

And yet we never do this kind of analysis for the way that knowledge workers manage the flow of information they deal with. Multitasking is a way of life for these folks, as they check their Blackberries in the middle of meetings, reply to emails while working on new product development, and in general expect (and are expected) to drop everything whenever someone comes by with a question.

But this isn't the best way to operate, as evidenced by this Stanford study (and many others). So why do we tolerate gross inefficiency among these workers, at the same time that we take arms against a sea of inefficiency in all other arenas of the company? Some people argue that eradicating this waste won't "move the needle." They want to focus on the 38 days it takes to generate a quote, or the $3 million in scrap and rework — that's where the money is, they say. But who has the time and the mental bandwidth to take on the 38 days and the $3 million in scrap if they're constantly undermining their own ability to process and analyze incoming information?

My challenge to you is this: seriously examine the way that your highly paid knowledge workers process the information that flows to them and benchmark performance. Create standardized work, and then try to improve it. See if you can find a better way.

My guess is that you can — and without too much difficulty. All you need to do is let go of the fallacy that multitasking is an efficient way to work.

Visual Management, Production Schedules, and the Tyranny of the Urgent

“Value added work takes a lot of time, is unglamorous and is often not as important to my boss as the crisis of the day.”
You hear it constantly: spend time on improvement work, not just the daily grind. Yet in your world you face a nearly unending stream of crises that demand your attention, from trivial ("Hey, anyone know how to fix a copier jam?") to major ("The jig's up on the Death Star strategy. We're about to be indicted."). Which begs the question: how do you make the time for the value-added, improvement work that's necessary for the lean journey?

Lee Fried's Daily Kaizen blog, which chronicles the lean efforts at Group Healthcare, addressed this problem last month. One of the managers talked about her struggle to escape the "tyranny of the urgent" so that she could spend time on improvement work:

Urgent work is easy work. I know how to do it. I am more comfortable doing it. This new work is uncomfortable and foreign. If it’s going to take me 3 hours to pull the data together, 15 people are going to show up at my door and I am going to get frustrated and quit.

This is a pretty common sentiment, isn't it? You've probably felt the same way: locked into firefighting mode, and unable to address any of the big picture stuff. And even in a company like Group Healthcare, which is firmly committed to lean, this person's boss isn't helping:

When our boss comes, our culture is to drop everything and help them with their crisis. Even if they’ve asked you to do the value-added work, they’ll expect you to drop it. This is probably the same experience they have with their boss and for the people that report to me as well.
So how does she improve the odds that she'll get to the improvement work?

First of all, I have learned that I have to schedule time for all improvement work. It won’t happen if I don’t plan the time into my day. Second, I have to break the improvement work up into short term deadlines. If I don’t, this far off task will seem too abstract and I’ll never get started.
She also explains how visual management helps:

I am also currently working to make my own work visible so that my staff, my boss and I can see my whole day, and what various items are scheduled for the day. Specifically, I am trying to carve out time for e-mail, and other things that can often spur crises. Over time, I am hoping to have control over my day to the point that I can sit down and focus on what I ever I have “loaded” for that time, knowing I have allotted time for all other critical items at some other point in the day.

I've written before about the value of visual management for knowledge workers as embodied by Jim Collins. I believe that having a "production schedule" increases the likelihood that you'll actually get it done because it enables you to focus on what you're supposed to be doing — the improvement work — rather than getting reflexively sucked into the crisis work.

To be sure, sometimes it's appropriate to go into firefighting mode — when the SEC is in your office asking about the Death Star strategy, writing an A3 seems somewhat less important — but it should be a mindful, conscious decision, and not just a knee-jerk reaction. There's an opportunity cost for everything you do, and visual management helps you measure that cost, and spend your limited time on the important things.

One reason why so many lean initiatives fail

You've been through it before: the big cheese in the corner office with the reserved parking space decides to jump on lean, spends piles of money on consultants, launches a 5S campaign which is met with enthusiasm, and then. . . it fizzles.

To turn the old adage on its head, failure has many fathers. I won't presume to catalog all of them — really, how boring is that? — but I do want to address one: not living lean in all aspects of work.

All too often, lean is applied out there — to the assembly line, or the medical equipment supply closet, or the insurance underwriting process. But it's not applied at home. It's something to do, not something to live.

The clearest example I can give is an executive whose office is the anti-5S, with papers, files, and other crap strewn about. But that's just one example, of course. There's the unwillingness to create standard work for oneself, or the lack of visible management for one's own workflow. Not to pick on the bigwigs, but it seems that often they're much better at applying lean rather than living lean.

And while applying lean is certainly necessary, it's not sufficient. Jamie Flinchbaugh wrote a terrific piece over at the LeanBlog about the need to "be first" and lead the change you want:

If you want to see people tackling waste, you can't just encourage it, you must do it yourself. If you want to see people be more frugal and prudent in their spending, then you must give up some things yourself that might be great conveniences but cost money. . . . As with most leadership practices, this isn't only so for executives and managers. Even if you are an individual contributor, you must be first in the changes you want to see.

This echoes something John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, said recently in regards to how he started video blogging for internal communication. He resisted for a long time until the 20-somethings in the company convinced him:

I thought I was very leading-edge in terms of how I communicated. My team just kept pushing, and I finally said, “Why do you want me to do this?” And they said: “John, if you don’t do it our company won’t learn how to do this. It won’t be built into our DNA for the way we interface with customers, our employees. The top has to walk the talk.” I was expecting text blogging and we did video blogging. The first one was a little bit uncomfortable, because it’s very unprofessional. You just basically put a camera there, and you go. By the second one, I realized this was going to transform communications — not just for the C.E.O., but it would change how we do business.

(Chambers isn't exactly the picture of lean leadership, by the way. In the same interview, he describes himself as "a command-and-control person. I like being able to say turn right, and we truly have 67,000 people turn right." So much for leading as though you have no authority.)

What would it mean to the company to have the CEO live lean? To have office 5S as a part of his life? To understand the inefficiency of multitasking, and therefore to have standard work that eliminates the expectation that everyone answer email within two minutes of receiving it? To level the flow of work he delegates so that employees aren't overburdened?

I realize that these are not elements of lean that most companies focus on. Usually, the emphasis is on the big ticket stuff, like reducing machine downtime or shortening process lead time. But I'm convinced that to drive a successful lean transformation, lean ideas have to permeate every aspect of the way people think and act. They have to live it.

This is why Toyota is happy to give tours to competitors: as one of their top guys once said (and I paraphrase here, because I can't find the original quote), "what our competitors need to learn they cannot see by coming to our plants." I think what he meant is that visitors can only see the tools on display — they can't (or are unwilling to) see the way that everyone lives lean.

Obviously, there are other factors in determining the success or failure of your organization's lean initiative. But it's worth thinking about whether top management is doing what they need to do to make it work. As Jamie Flinchbaugh says, when clients tell him that management is 100% behind them: "Behind is still behind. Leadership is about being out in front."

Is your environment helping your lean efforts?

Many lean transformations (and more broadly, "change management initiatives") fail because the organizational environment isn't conducive to making and sustaining that change. As a result, it's tough for people in that environment to alter their behaviors.

A case in point: at a company I once worked at, we had a consulting group come in and tell us (for a large fee, of course) that lack of clear communication from the exec team was one of the behaviors causing problems. They advocated open door policies for individuals, and avoidance of closed-door meetings for the team. Ironically, this advice was given in a closed door meeting with the execs — and that should tell you just how far this idea went.

There were a lot of causes of this behavior, but one of the main reasons is that the exec team spent a lot of money outfitting a really swank executive meeting room: big leather chairs, nice wooden table, fancy conference call hardware, cut glass pitchers, etc. If you were an executive, wouldn't you want to have meetings in there?  And their individual offices were pretty fancy, too, which created an unfortunate tendency for them to stay sequestered in their well-equipped digs.

If you want people to change their behaviors, you have to make it easy for them to change. And you have to make them *want* to change. In a recent Harvard Business Publishing article, Peter Bregman describes how he wanted to eat outdoors more when he moved to Savannah, GA. He dutifully set up a table and chairs outside the French doors leading to the kitchen. And they never used it. Apparently, the 10 foot walk from the kitchen to the table was too much. His solution? Move the table right outside the doors. After that, his family ate every meal outdoors. Ten feet was all the difference.

Bregman tells the following story:

One of my clients wanted everyone in the company to fill out a time sheet, and they were having a very hard time getting people to do it. Their mindset was compliance. They made it very clear that people didn't have a choice. Everyone was required to do it. That worked for about half the employee population. The rest simply ignored it.

The leaders were about to send out a memo saying no one would get paid unless the time sheet was handed in. But wait, I asked, do we know why they aren't doing the time sheet? We assumed it was because people didn't care. But we asked around anyway.

Well, it turns out that people didn't mind the idea of filling out a timesheet, but they were frustrated by the technology. The online system required people to go through a series of steps (a wizard) in order to put their time in. It was meant to help them, but it took longer and needlessly delayed them. Not by much — 10 seconds at most — but that was enough to dissuade 50% of the people from following through.

Once we changed the form and the technology it was on, everyone started using it. They weren't being defiant. They simply weren't walking the 10 feet and four steps to the table. The solution isn't to explain to people why they should take the walk or force them to take the walk. The solution is far simpler: move the table.

This is lean thinking at its best: showing respect for people and creating a simple, no-cost solution to a problem. (Not quite lean at its best: the employees should have been in charge of changing the form and the technology.)

Now, think about the lean initiatives that you've undertaken that aren't being accepted. Is it possible that the environment isn't conducive to adopting those changes?

Think about 5S. What would happen if you reduced the number of filing cabinets in the office, or had people use smaller desks: would that reduce the amount of useless crap that people hoarded? I once wrote about the president of a custom prosthetic company in Seattle who gets a smaller desk every year in order to keep him from accumulating junk. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all, even if it's just on your desk.

Better yet, what would happen if you set up offices from the start to support 5S, with clear areas marked for Working, Reference, and Archive files? That would certainly increase the adoption of administrative 5S.

Do people have whiteboards in their offices to make their knowledge work visible (a la Jon Miller's experiments with a kanban system — here, here, and here)? Have you tried Nielsen's trick of disabling the "Reply All" function within Outlook?

Think about it: how can you make people want to change?

It’s about the system, not the individual

I've often railed against the colossal waste of time, effort, and energy in the offices of knowledge workers around the globe. If you could only hear, in Ross Perot's term, the "giant sucking sound" of managerial time wasted by pointless meetings and useless emails, you'd run screaming from the building and immediately become a farmer so you could actually get some work done without interruption. (See previous posts here and here for some sense of how big a problem this is.)

Some workers try to combat this problem by vowing to check email only one or two times per day. Some departments have even attempted  email-free or meeting-free Fridays. Usually these initiatives start out well and they're met with much rejoicing. But they're rapidly undermined by the very people who institute them. Some VP can only meet on Friday this week, or your boss just *has* to know before 10am today the size of the total US market for metal detecting sandals. One company I know has long struggled with the C-level execs calling meetings during the daily "meeting-free zone" because, well, they need to. (And they can.) As a result, these attempts to drive out waste in knowledge work either fails completely, or limps along in an unsatisfactory and ineffective form.

So do we blame them for being spineless, unable to stick with their commitments? In keeping with lean thinking, the answer is no. The blame doesn't rest with the individual; it rests with the system.

Lesa Becker, a registered nurse and director of organizational learning in a large medical center, has written a terrific paper titled "Will the 21st Century Dr. Deming Please Stand Up? Making Knowledge Work More Productive." (Download the pdf here.) She discovered that individual behaviors were far less important than organizational culture in creating waste (which in this context, she calls "information overload"):

The most significant finding of my research was the impact the organizational environment had on information overload.  Managers indicated organizational culture was a more significant contributor to information overload than the volume of information, personal characteristics, the way they performed tasks or the technology they used.

Becker argues that the only way to create real improvement is through systemic change in the way the organization operates:
A few examples of organizational changes recommended by managers include: (1) adopting a strategic planning process that limits strategic goals and tactical plans to those the organization has the human capital, or human capacity to support; (2) clearly communicating the decision making process for projects including levels of responsibility, authority and accountability to avoid redundant work or competition between divisions; (3) limiting the number of software products implemented during the same fiscal year; (4) calculating the ROI on software products and include costs associated with shifting work from lower paid workers to highly paid professionals; and (5) significantly reducing the number of meetings and the number of individuals participating in meetings to avoid what participants called the “paralysis of collaboration.”

She doesn't use fancy lean terms, but clearly she's onto vital lean principles. Limiting strategic goals and software products to those that employees can support is nothing more than respect for people, combined with the need to avoid muri (overburdening). Better communication to avoid redundant work eliminates the waste of overprocessing, as does reducing the number of meetings and participants in meetings.

To me, this points clearly to the need for an A3 approach to solve the problem of inefficient communication that drains the lifeblood out of so many workers. An individual — or even a department — can't make a change alone, because the inertia of the organization is overwhelming. But an A3 will allow an individual to quantify the cost of the problem, develop possible countermeasures, and gain company-wide alignment in attacking it. Doing it alone? Well, that's just a recipe for failure.

I'll be working with about half a dozen companies later this month on precisely this issue. We're going to develop A3s together to see if we can find a way out of the email/meeting/interruption hell we've created for ourselves. I'll keep you posted on the results.

Standard work, by any other name….

Peter Bregman, head of his eponymous management consulting company, makes a compelling case for standard work in a recent blog post at Harvard Business Publishing. He writes that recently his work day went quickly and quietly down the toilet as he was ambushed by emails, solving other people's problems, and fire-fighting, all of which kept him from getting done what was really important. He points out that even with his daily to-do lists,
the challenge, as always, is execution. How can you stick to a plan when so many things threaten to derail it? How can you focus on a few important things when so many things require your attention?
Bregman looks to Jack LaLanne for the answer:
At the age of 94, he still spends the first two hours of his day exercising. Ninety minutes lifting weights and 30 minutes swimming or walking. Every morning. . . . So he works, consistently and deliberately, toward his goals. He does the same things day in and day out. He cares about his fitness and he's built it into his schedule.

Bregman argues that
Managing our time needs to become a ritual too. Not simply a list or a vague sense of our priorities. That's not consistent or deliberate. It needs to be an ongoing process we follow no matter what to keep us focused on our priorities throughout the day.

Call it ritual, as Bregman does, or call it standard work. It's the same thing. Just as standard work defines the current best way to do a task, you can define a best way to manage your day. For knowledge workers, that's no easy trick: the lack of level flow of incoming work, and the variation in types of work, makes it difficult to create standards. And let's face it: there's nothing standard or predictable about your company's new line of titanium escargot forks. So it's difficult, but not impossible.

But just as emergency room nurses can't predict what kind of patient is going to be wheeled in through the front door, they can still create standard work for the predictable aspects of their job like rounding, or management of medical supplies, or administrative scut work.

Similarly, you can create standard work to help you manage your day. Bregman suggests three steps:

First, set a plan for the day:
Before turning on your computer, sit down with a blank piece of paper and decide what will make this day highly successful. . . . Write those things down.

Now, most importantly, take your calendar and schedule those things into time slots, placing the hardest and most important items at the beginning of the day. And by the beginning of the day I mean, if possible, before even checking your email. If your entire list does not fit into your calendar, reprioritize your list. There is tremendous power in deciding when and where you are going to do something.

Second, refocus every hour:
Set your watch, phone, or computer to ring every hour. When it rings. . . look at your list and ask yourself if you spent your last hour productively. Then look at your calendar and deliberately recommit to how you are going to use the next hour.
Third, review:
Shut off your computer and review your day. What worked? Where did you focus? Where did you get distracted? What did you learn that will help you be more productive tomorrow?

In many respects, Bregman is simply creating standard work for daily PDCA activity. There's the morning plan, the hourly production checks, and the end of the day kaizen opportunity.

Bregman writes that
the power of rituals is their predictability. You do the same thing in the same way over and over again. And so the outcome of a ritual is predictable too. If you choose your focus deliberately and wisely and consistently remind yourself of that focus, you will stay focused. It's simple.

And that's true of any standard work. It reduces variability, brings the process under control, and allows for continuous improvement.

Really think about this for a moment.

Standard work is NOT just something for the metal stamping line, or for the invoicing process. Standard work can be — should be, must be — applied to the way you work on an individual level as well. Because when you start applying lean principles to your own work, you'll not only improve your own performance, you'll set a model that will inspire others as well.

(Other related posts on applying standard work to knowledge workers available here, here, here, and here.)

Would you like some fries with that visual management?

Listening to Michael Krasny's Forum interview with David Kessler (former head of the Food and Drug Administration and author of the new book, The End of Overeating), I heard an example of visual management tools from an unlikely place — the Google cafeteria.

Google's cafeteria is legendary for the variety, quality, and price (free!) of the food and snacks it serves. As you might imagine, with that much food there's a real danger of employees, um, overgrazing at the trough. So Google uses visual management — red, yellow, and green placards in front of the food — to help employees monitor what they eat. The green cards in front of fruits and vegetables mean "go crazy — have all you want." The yellow cards mean "moderate quantities are okay." The red cards mean "just a taste," and are placed in front of the Krispy Kreme donuts and fried pork rinds.

Like the best visual management systems, it's simple and easy to understand. It doesn't help create "standard work" in the lean sense or show normal vs. abnormal operating conditions. But it does provide employees with important information about what they should be eating in order to stay healthy, without relying upon calorie counts or detailed nutritional information. And that's good for Google's health care costs.

These cards play into the "nudge" theory of improving decisions as popularized by the behavioral economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. (More info on their blog and in this earlier post.) And that makes me wonder: could we develop a similar set of cards for the workplace? What if certain computer programs (I'm looking at you, Outlook) came with some sort of red icon meaning "just a taste." Or if you're a financial analyst and most of your work is in spreadsheets, Excel would have a green icon. (Of course, it's already green, but you know what I'm getting at.) Throughout the day, your computer could show you what percentage of time you've spent in green, red, or yellow software.

Or perhaps meetings could be color coded. Brainstorming sessions, which can often be giant time sucks, or meetings that have more than 6 attendees, can be flagged with a red icon: be wary of how many of these meetings you attend. But meetings that have a clearly defined goal, or that have just a few attendees, can be flagged with a yellow icon: going to a moderate number of these meetings is okay.

Okay, I realize that these suggestions are clumsy and most likely impractical. But it's worth considering how you might be able to use visual management tools to keep you away from the work equivalent of empty calorie, high-cholesterol, salty snack foods.

How lean is your own behavior?

Recently, I was struck by something that Bob Miller, Executive Director for The Shingo Prize said: "A culture of lean is present when the day to day behaviors of every person reflect a deep understanding and commitment to the principles."

I see a huge gap between this description of a lean culture and the culture in most organizations pursuing lean. In general, lean seems to be something that's done to something else, not to oneself. (If you remember your college Psych 101 class, this is called the "Other.") People are committed to making a process like strategic planning lean by moving to hoshin kanri. Or they apply lean to a production line by creating cells and pull systems.

There's nothing wrong with this, of course; that's required for eliminating waste and creating value for customers. But I'd argue that it's not enough. Lean also needs to be applied to oneself — to the way we act and think.

Have you assessed the way you work recently? For example, have you tracked and measured the time you spend on value creating activities compared to non-value added waste? What percentage of your day is spent looking for information, or sitting in unproductive meetings, or simply figuring out what work needs to be done? How much of your day is spent writing or reading useless email? My guess is that most companies pursuing lean would never tolerate such ambiguity about value-added vs. non-value added in a work cell.

Another example: do you actively try to level the load in your workflow? Jim Womack has written persuasively about the importance of creating a "cadence" in knowledge work in order to avoid waste. In a newsletter last year, he wrote that

a development organization can only do so much in a given period of time and that it can actually get more useful work done if everyone is working at a steady pace. In my experience, the organization and the customer are better off with the latter approach, when a clear cadence is established for project completions and the cadence is maintained.

So how do you bring heijunka to your work? Most people I see don't even think about that: they take on more work than they can possibly accomplish without stopping to consider their production capacity — something they'd never do when it comes to the production capacity of a drill press, for example. In so doing, they create all kinds of waste due to overburdening and uneveness: processing errors, forcing customers to wait, etc.

Some people and organizations do apply lean to oneself. For example, Jon Miller over at Gemba Panta Rei recently set up a white board to help with visual management of his knowledge work and avoid overburdening. He'll acknowledge that it's not the perfect system, but it's a start towards eliminating waste in his own work. The president of a small custom manufacturing company in Seattle that I know reduces the size of his desk each year in order to force himself to avoid excessive storage of inventory (documents). Kevin Meyer at Evolving Excellence has moved to a stand-up desk to improve efficiency and speed. (The whole story: 1, 2, 3.)  Jim Womack has set a monthly cadence for his newsletters. These are perfect examples of committing to lean principles in day to day behaviors.

Remember, a lean culture starts at home (literally and metaphorically). With you. What are you going to do to make yourself lean?

Hansei, “stop doing,” and exiting a market.

Sunday's NYTimes Corner Office interview of Clarence Otis, Jr. (CEO of Darden Restaurants, which owns Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Capital Grille) made me think about an oft-forgotten element of lean: the process of hansei, or reflection. We focus so much on *doing* stuff during the day, and figuring out how to *do* even more stuff, that we often forget that the post-mortem is just as important as the project itself. After all, it's the reflection after the work is done that provides the information that enables the company to replicate success (or avoid the same failure).

In response to the interviewer's question about time management, Otis answers,

I schedule and block the calendar to have downtime, because I do think that in senior leadership positions, one of your jobs is to reflect, and you have to schedule time to do that. I try to leave a few hours a week that are unscheduled.
Scheduling time to think isn't common: a recent Basex study of knowledge workers revealed that they spend on average only 12% of their day thinking and reflecting. Although Basex didn't examine that figure, my guess is that most of that 12% was unscheduled, broken into feeble, ineffective 5-10 minutes bits, rather than large chunks of time mindfully carved out of the week's inventory of work hours.

And yet that's where the learning is. Hansei is critical to learning after a project, every bit as much as the shorter PDCA cycle is during the course of a project. Hansei is the "stop doing" that Matt May writes about on his blog and in his new book, In Pursuit of Elegance.

Here's an example of the power of hansei from earlier in my business career, when I worked at the athletic footwear company Asics Tiger. In the early 1990's, we had been gaining share in the running shoe market. Much of that growth had come with an influx of new products in the lower end of the market: $55-65 shoes targeted at the occasional jogger and sold through large chains like Foot Locker, Finish Line, and FootAction. Success, right?

Well, not exactly. For Asics, the market for those lower-priced shoes was extremely volatile. Demand in that segment was driven by fashion, not function, and Foot Locker could easily cancel an order for 50,000 pairs of shoes because consumer tastes shifted. There were many instances where we had to closeout a bunch of shoes because the demand for them evaporated. On top of that, Asics wasn't very good at making fashionable shoes at that price. The company didn't have Nike's skills at reading (or creating) customer demand, and its cost structure was higher, so that these shoes weren't as profitable as the higher-end, technical running shoes it excelled at making.

Despite the success of the foray into lower-end of the market, Asics abandoned it completely — over howls of protest from the sales force. A 2-3 month period of hansei led to the realization that the short-term profits from these shoes were putting the company at risk: financially, due to the large swings in demand, and image-wise, in terms of the dilution of brand equity as a maker of the best technical running shoes on the market. It was a big financial blow in the short-term: revenues and profits fell for the next year. But it allowed the company to put its resources completely into more profitable, and more stable, higher-end products, and set the stage for 12 years of uninterrupted growth in sales and profits.

As the guy responsible for driving that decision, I remember struggling with the heads of sales and product development to convince them that this was the right decision for the long term health of the company. Without adequate time for reflection, I don't think I ever would have come to this conclusion. It would have been too easy to continue making lower-priced shoes and counting the money coming in the door. But by pulling myself away from the daily requirements of planning the next season's product line, I was able to think a bit more deeply about the road we were one — and where it was leading.

It's certainly not easy to make the time for hansei, as I've written about here and here. But avoiding it is like leaving out the C in PDCA. And that's a recipe for failure.

Jim Collins lives lean (part 2)

Last week I pointed to an interview with Jim Collins (Built to Last, Good to Great, How the Mighty Fall) to show how he not only embraces, but truly lives, key lean principles like visual management and productive maintenance. Another recent interview in Inc. demonstrates his relentless drive to eliminate waste in his core production function: processing information and creating new ideas.

. . . if you accept the idea that work is infinite and time is finite, you realize you have to manage your time and not your work. . . . And that means having a ferocious understanding of what you are not going to do. The question used to be which phone call you wouldn't take. Now, it's the discipline not to have your e-mail on. The skill is knowing how to sift through the blizzard of information that hits you all the time.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know that shackling yourself to your inbox instead of actually, you know, doing work, is one of my pet peeves. So of course, it's nice to see that Collins takes a similarly dim view of this habit. But more to the point, the recognition that not all information is of equal value, and that processing low-value (or no-value) mail creates waste is in keeping with the precepts of lean. Just as an organization's financial resources are limited, so too are the individual's temporal resources. You can't afford to waste time on activities that the customer doesn't value.

The "decision not to have your email on" all the time is just one small part of Collins's "stop-doing" strategy. As Matt May described it (full article available here), Collins both preaches it and lives it:

He now starts each year by choosing what not to do; and each of his to-do lists always includes “stop-doing” items. Collins preaches his practice, impressing upon his audiences that they absolutely must have a “stop-doing” project abandonment list to accompany their to-do lists. As a practical matter, he advises developing a strong discipline around first giving careful thought to prioritizing goals and objectives, then eliminating the bottom 20 percent of the list and abandons those projects…forever.

Although Collins applies the "stop-doing" concept to projects (personal or organizational), it applies equally well to individual activities and tasks. Remember: you're a machine that produces value, every bit as much as your company is. Just as you eradicate waste in the company's operations, so too must you eradicate waste in your own operations. That takes focus, discipline, and commitment to the same lean principles that you're trying to instill in your firm.

Now turn off your Outlook and get back to work.

Jim Collins Lives Lean

Sunday's NYTimes profile of Jim Collins was striking for many reasons, but for me, most notable was the way in which Collins has taken core lean concepts and applied them to his life. He's a reminder that continuous improvement doesn't have to be larded up with Japanese words and icons borrowed from Toyota to be lean.

Visual management? Check.

In a corner of the white board at the end of his long conference room, Mr. Collins keeps this short list:

Creative 53%
Teaching 28%
Other 19%

That, he explains, is a running tally of how he’s spending his time, and whether he’s sticking to a big goal he set for himself years ago: to spend 50 percent of his workdays on creative pursuits like research and writing books, 30 percent on teaching-related activities, and 20 percent on all the other things he has to do.

These aren’t ballpark guesstimates. Mr. Collins, who is 51, keeps a stopwatch with three separate timers in his pocket at all times, stopping and starting them as he switches activities. Then he regularly logs the times into a spreadsheet.

Now, this kind of measurement may seem a bit anal, but if you think about Collins as a factory — one that makes ideas rather than engine blocks — it's really no different than what lean companies do on their production lines. They religiously track actual output against standards, and when things go wrong, they try to figure out why. Although the article doesn't mention it, you can bet that if the percentages very too much from the goal, he'd conduct a 5 Whys analysis to find the root cause.

Check out the way he approaches his "productive maintenance."

He figures that he needs to get 70 to 75 hours of sleep every 10 days, and once went to a sleep lab to learn more about his own patterns. Now — surprise, surprise — he logs his time spent on a pillow, naps included, and monitors a rolling average. “If I start falling below that,” he says, pointing to the short list on his whiteboard, “I can still teach and do ‘other,’ but I can’t create.” 

What you've got here is a guy who's (okay, I'll admit it) uncomfortably intense compared to most people. But no more so than a company that's totally committed to creating a lean culture and organization. Building that kind of firm requires absolute, relentless, and complete commitment to efficiency — and Collins is what that looks like on an individual level.

Reading this article, I was reminded again of Charles Fishman's profile of Toyota a few year's back. He wrote,

Media accounts often report that a typical Toyota assembly line in the United States makes thousands of operational changes in the course of a single year. That number is not just large, it's arresting, it's mind-boggling. How much have you changed your work routine in the past decade? Toyota's line employees change the way they work dozens of times a year.

Most of us are focused exclusively on improving our external environment rather than ourselves. We draw value stream maps of various processes, lead kaizen events on indvidual lines, and set up white boards to track production. But how often do we track and improve our own work processes? As Fishman asks, how often do we change the way we work? I'm guessing that short of buying a Blackberry in the past couple of years, you haven't done anything differently. You still conduct and attend crappy meetings. You still spend far too much time reading and deleting stupid, useless, email. You still suffer from too many interruptions. You still struggle to find the information you need quickly. You still spend too much effort on issues of little consequence.

Even if you have made a change in the way you work (like getting your shiny new Blackberry), you probably didn't measure the effect of that change, which is the essence of the scientific method, and something that you always do on the factory floor. So how do you know if it was beneficial? Do you log your sleep, or your daily activities, like Collins does? Probably not.

Think about it. You, no less than your company, are an engine of production. Why not apply lean to your own productivity?

Turning the PDCA goggles on yourself.

Notwithstanding the Wall Street Journal's recent (and frequent) misunderstandings about lean, a lot of very fine firms with enlightened leadership see lean as the road to lower costs, higher quality, and a better work environment. The investment they make and the results they achieve are impressive, and best of all, the ones that really "get it" know that they're on a never-ending road of improvement. There's always the possibility of eliminating waste from the firm's operations, of reducing wasted inputs.

But my friend Tom asks the following: how lean can a company be when it ignores the enormous amounts of time wasted by workers, managers, and executives?

Time is a non-renewable resource, so you'd think that people in companies would treat it with a bit more respect. And yet from the top of the corporate food chain to the bottom, most people seem to ignore its value. People start meetings late and allow them to run long, waste time processing no-value-added email (which other workers have spent time creating), interrupt others' value-added work with non-urgent issues, and lose countless hours just looking for information in the landfill that masquerades as their office. They ignore the lean tools they're so passionate about applying on the factory floor — visual management, 5S, and standard work — when it comes to their work habits and their workplace.

God help you if your job is operating a machine on an assembly line and you don't do your regularly scheduled 5S, or use a whiteboard to track actual vs. planned production.  But if you work in an office, when was the last time you did a thorough 5S?  Take a look at the piles of paper on your desk, or the 4,921 emails in your inbox and answer that honestly. When was the last time you looked at your planned production and compared it to what you actually did?  How about standard work: have you created standard work for your routine daily or weekly activities? And the biggest question of all: when was the last time you did PDCA on your own work?

In a managerial or executive role, there's always going to be variability that creates waste and messes up your production: a customer has a problem that needs to be addressed right now. There's an HR problem brewing. Your latest shipment from China got held up in customs. Whatever. That waste is unavoidable, because life never quite goes according to plan.

But there's plenty of work that's predictable and can be standardized. And for that work, how can you accept the mindless addition of resources — time, in particular — when lean is all about reducing resource inputs? How can you accept people working late or on weekends to complete work that should/could be done during a normal work schedule? It's true that for non-hourly workers, that cost is invisible — companies don't pay a VP more when she comes into the office on Sunday to finish the marketing plan. Just because the cost is invisible, however, doesn't mean that it isn't waste. And if it's waste, it should be analyzed with a rigorous PDCA cycle.

In a previous blog post (here, or download the article here) I wrote about applying Toyota's notion of "lowering the water level" to time: if we reduce the "inventory" of time we have available, we'll force ourselves to become more efficient.  (This is nothing more than my fancy take on Parkinson's Law.) I still believe that. However, I realize that in order to lower the "temporal water level" (Sorry — I just saw Star Trek and have space-time continuums on my mind.), we have to do PDCA to discover the root causes of the problems that keep us from getting our jobs done, and to develop countermeasures.

I hear people say over and over that "time is my most precious resource." But they sure don't act like it. They mindlessly accept wasted and inefficiently used time at the office, because it doesn't come with an easily readable price tag. I suggest that if that's the dominant mindset at your organization, the lean mentality really hasn't seeped into people's consciousness. You may have people deploying lean tools, but they haven't yet made lean part of their lives.

Look, the economy blows, and it's likely to continue blowing for a good long time. Undoubtedly, your organization is feeling serious financial pressures due to the environment. Can you afford to cavalierly flush so much valuable time down the toilet everyday? Imagine what you could accomplish if everyone in the company had an extra two hours per week to solve problems or create something your customer really wants.

Here's my challenge to you: turn those PDCA goggles onto your own work habits and workspace. See if you can root out the waste in how you operate. And imagine having more time to create value for your customers, your staff, your family, and yourself.

Are you solving the right problem?

I worked with an executive assistant recently who was struggling with the burden of producing meeting minutes for meetings that her boss, the CEO of the company, attended.  And it wasn't just her problem, either: the team of six assistants in the executive suite were all spending inordinate amounts of time on the same task. In fact, this EA calculated that the team was spending 25% of their time — the equivalent of 1.5 FTE months each month — just producing meeting minutes.

Her initial approach to this problem was to sign everyone up for a SkillPath class so they could learn to take notes more quickly. In her view, EAs didn't have the skills they needed to transcribe efficiently. To be sure, with better note-taking and transcription skills, they would have speeded the process immensely. 

But looking at the situation from the perspective of an A3 analysis, I believe that her problem statement was superficial. Her definition of the problem ("The EAs don't have the skills they need to produce minutes quickly.") is really a solution masquerading as a problem. Because she had already jumped to the conclusion that the problem was lack of skills, the only possible solution was to take a class to acquire those skills. In other words, she defined the problem in terms of the solution she liked.

After working together, we reframed the problem as a true problem statement: "Our EAs spend too much time producing minutes." (Or as a question: "Why do our EAs spend so much time producing minutes?") This problem statement led to dramatically different countermeasures by opening the door to a true analysis of the situation.

First, it led us to examine the process. It was mind-bogglingly wasteful: the EA attended the meeting with a tape recorder; transcribed all the discussions and decisions; sent copies of the minutes to the attendees for approval; and eventually distributed the approved document days (or weeks) later. But did the EA need to be there, or was a tape recorder sufficient? Was there a standard format for minutes? Could it be standardized?

Second, the new problem statement led us to examine the purpose of the minutes. What level of detail did the participants (the customers) want? Did they really need to see a record of all the conversations? Did different types of meetings have different requirements for minutes? Was timeliness an important issue?

She has more work to do before she's able to answer all these questions, but you can see how changing the definition of the problem changes the response. In this case, spending money on SkillPath seminars is the educational equivalent of investing in an expensive MRP system to automate a broken process. There's no point in speeding up something that's broken. First fix it, and then automate it if it still makes sense.
In your own company, be wary of problems statements that imply a single solution. They're superficial or incomplete, and will lead you down the wrong road because they're so seductively simple:

- "The problem is that we don't have enough clerical support."
- "The problem is that marketing doesn't give product development feedback early enough."
- "Our sales force would be more effective if they had a better grasp of the technical features of our product."
- "We need a more effective ad campaign to raise awareness."

A simple rule of thumb is to phrase a problem in such a way that it leads to more questions. If you do that, you'll know you're on the right track:

- Our execs spend nearly an hour each day filing their paperwork.
- Product development needs better information to direct their efforts.
- The sales force isn't as effective as we'd like.
- Market awareness of our new product line is low.

As they say at Toyota, the basic unit of knowledge is a question. Be sure you're asking the right one — starting with, "are we solving the right problem?

Black belts, magicians, and the willing suspension of disbelief.

My friend, Roger, leads the lean initiative at a health care system in Florida. Roger is a 23-year veteran of GE Healthcare, with more than his share of colored belts and fancy titles ("Quality Leader") to his name. He knows his 3 Ps, his 4Ms, his 5Ss, his 6 Sigmas, and his 7 Wastes inside and out. He's a damn nice guy, an amateur magician, and — as I discovered over the past few weeks — quite the philosopher about his work.

For Roger, leading a lean transformation is just like doing magic. Not that it requires real supernatural powers, of course (though they would certainly come in handy). But as he explains it, the key to doing a really great trick — to creating, not "real" magic (that's impossible after all), but the magic moment that leaves your jaw on the ground in disbelief — is to first become an actor who totally and completely believes in his own magic. In other words, if the magician doesn't believe that he really can change the queen of diamonds into the ace of spades, the audience won't believe it either. It's the same belief that separates Laurence Olivier's Hamlet from my 14-year old nephew's Hamlet. Olivier believed he was Hamlet, so Hamlet's words were his own. My nephew just played at Hamlet, memorizing the lines and reciting them.

Creating a true lean transformation means believing totally that it will work. That the people involved in the process have the capacity to change. That the colossal amount of systemic waste and frustration can be eliminated. That management really is committed to lean at the most fundamental level, and isn't just treating it as the flavor of the month. That "lean" won't be followed by "mean" and used to justify layoffs. Lee Fried of Daily Kaizen provides some excruciating examples of lean gone bad here. Regardless of the organization's or group's history, the lean leader has to believe with every fiber of his being that this time it's different, and it's for real.

For the participants, too, embarking on a lean journey is similar to watching a magic show. The audience at a magic show has to want to be tricked. They have to be willing to be sucked into the magician's world. They have to accept his patter, and be willing to believe that the coin really did pass through the table. Even though intellectually they know it's impossible. It's the willing suspension of disbelief that makes for the magic moment, the "Holy crap! Did I just see that?" reaction. That's why learning the secret to a trick is unfailingly disappointing: we say we want to know how it's done, but there's a part of us that really, really *wants* to believe in magic, and it's that part of our minds that gets so sad when we find out that — sigh! — there really is no such thing as magic.

Workers  — even skeptical workers — in a lean transformation also have to want to believe that there's magic in lean. If they sense that it's just another way to get more work out of them in an effort to bolster executive compensation packages, it won't work. If they think that it's the first step in a nefarious plan to fire people, it won't work. If they see it as just another set of tools (Last week: six sigma statistical analysis. This week: takt time.), it won't work. As Lee Fried wrote in his last post,

Most people don’t get excited by the principles, tools and concepts.  Instead, they get excited and engaged when their lives and the lives of their patients are improved through the use of the principles, tools and concepts.

No, workers have to want to believe in lean — in the respect it offers people and in the opportunity it holds for growth.

Roger (and many others far wiser than I) often says that lean is all about people. The tools are just tools. It's the people that make the system work. And that's like magic, too. The tricks are simple. It's the belief, by both the magician and the audience, in the possibility of real magic that makes it special.

Shameless Self-Promotion: I’m sleepy today edition

It’s been a painful three weeks of travel for me, with the result that I’m a bit shy in the clever, stunningly incisive, and trenchant blog posts you’ve come to know and love. Consequently, I’m scraping the bottom of the imagination barrel and referring you to a podcast I did recently with Liz Lynch.

Liz is a long-time friend, an outstanding business woman, and a networking maven. She’s also the author of Smart Networking, a wonderful book for people who get creeped out by the idea of putting on a suit and carrying a stack of business cards to a “networking function” where you shake lots of strangers’ hands and exchange empty platitudes about “reaching out” and “finding synergies.”

A couple of weeks ago we did a teleseminar about time management, productivity, and dealing with the never-ending barrage of email.  You can listen to the seminar, or download the podcast, for free here.

A lame post, I know. I promise to do better next week.

Immutable laws of nature.

We accept certain facts as immutable laws of nature: hydrogen has a molecular weight of one. E=MC2. The Wall Street Journal will complain about the Obama stimulus package. Britney Spears will do something to land herself on the cover of People. The volume of email you get each year will inexorably increase.

I'm struck by the fatalism in this last assumption. There's a whiff of resignation, a kind of tragic foreknowledge that next year will indeed suck more than this year, at least in terms of email. (That is, unless you actually enjoy being inundated by email, because it makes you feel important. In which case skip the rest of this post and send an email to the company-wide distribution list asking for feedback on the firm's mission statement.)

But why? Why do we assume that there's no stemming the tide? Rather than trying to solve the underlying problem (and virtually everyone acknowledges that email glut is a problem), we look for technological silver bullets like Xobni or GTD Outlook add-ins, or we resign ourselves to declaring email bankruptcy. We never try to understand the root cause of the issue, and as a result, all the steps we take are nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. And that's a losing battle, particularly as the types of icebergs (text messages, IM, Twitter, etc.) continue to multiply. Wouldn't it be better to just chart a better course and avoid the icebergs entirely?

I chose that metaphor deliberately. Changing corporate communication culture is probably about as easy navigating the (pre-global warming) North Sea in winter. But reducing inventory levels, shortening assembly lines, lowering cost while improving quality — hell, running a profitable apparel company with US manufacturing — also seemed impossible at one time. But through the relentless application of lean tools, and an unwillingness to accept the status quo, all of those things have come to pass at the companies that have embraced lean.

Lean is all about solving problems that keep us from creating customer value. So why not commit to a systemic solution to your email problem?

I suspect that the commitment is lacking in part because it's difficult to quantify that waste. Unlike excessive work in process inventory or the finished goods defect rate, time wasted on email is tough to measure. That makes it seem like less of a "real" problem. But when you think about the opportunity cost of that time and attention — I mean, what kind of value could you create in that time? — you realize that it's real and it's significant. As Nathan Zeldes puts it,

Better solutions to major problems that may be hobbling an organization’s performance toward its goals are left undiscovered. The engineer who could have the “Aha!” insight leading to the next major product innovation is trying to find 30 minutes to think about it, and failing. The supervisor who could double a fabrication line’s efficiency can’t because they are nearly brain dead from staying up until one AM working on e–mail. Across the industry, knowledge workers and managers are thinking less, inventing less, producing less, succeeding less.

Nielsen has taken a first step by disabling the Reply All button on their copy of Outlook. They've apparently determined that one of the root causes of their email plague is stupid cc: emails.  However, I'm sure there are more countermeasures to take as well.

As I've mentioned before, I'm working with some companies to see if we can figure out how to attack the root cause of the problem. In true A3 fashion, we'll begin by trying to understand what the real problem is at each firm, assessing the real cost to each company, and we'll go from there. It's not going to be an easy task, nor will there be a simple solution. But I think we'll be able to make a significant improvement. After all, increasing email is not a law of nature.

Why isn’t “thinking time” part of your standard work?

I'm continually struck by the relentless, frenzied pace that people maintain at work. Whether it's an engineer at a high-tech startup in which speed is part of the company's DNA, or an attorney at a law firm who insists she has to respond immediately (if not sooner) to a client's call, or the head of a non-profit focused on building community support for the organization's mission, everyone is obsessed with speed and responsiveness.

But does a myopic focus on one aspect of performance really lead to the best results? Are we sacrificing quality on the altar of speed?

Sunday's Corner Office interview in the NYTimes was striking for the assertion — once again — that there's nothing more important than taking time away to (gasp!) actually think. John Donahoe, CEO of eBay, says

I take days away. This is the only phone call I’m taking today, because it’s a thinking day. It’s a day to just get away and step back and reflect. And I find that very hard to do in the office or in a familiar environment. I find that if I don’t schedule a little bit of structured time away, where there’s no interruption, that it’s very hard to get the kind of thinking time and reflection time that I think is so important.

He goes on to explain that even though he takes one of these days every two months, he thinks he should take more of them — at least one per month. As it is, he uses long flights where's there's no email or cellphone service to give himself some pure, uninterrupted thinking time.

Donahoe also maintains that email can be a real problem. He points out that

On the one hand the BlackBerry’s a productivity tool. On the other hand, it can be a very fragmenting thing. If I’m spending all day checking my BlackBerry, by definition I’m reactive. And so I try to only do e-mail first thing in the morning or in the evening, because I find if I check e-mail during the day, I go from being proactive about what I want to get accomplished that day to being reactive, and that’s a bit of a trap. Being reactive is a lot easier than being proactive, and e-mail and the BlackBerry are natural tools to facilitate that.

I think that Donahoe has really nailed it here: email leads us to become reactive, rather than proactive. If all you're doing is responding to new, incoming messages, by definition you're putting out yesterday's fires. And further, you're implicitly placing greater importance on the newest thing (by giving it attention) rather than what you're currently doing — which is patently ludicrous.

Some people think that it's all well and good for a CEO to unplug himself — when you're the big cheese, you make the rules — that's just not possible for the folks in the trenches. But I think that's a lie. Unless you're in a sadly dysfunctional organization (and if you are, feel free to stop reading now and go to for the latest baseball scores), you're being paid to create value for customers (internal or external). You're not being paid to respond to every random thought or idle question in 8 nanoseconds. And to create value, sometimes you have to actually stop and think.

Action without thought leads inevitably to one of the seven forms of muda. It's very hard to actually stop doing and start thinking, but that's the real way to eliminate waste and create value. There's a recent story about a computer room at Toyota's Torrance headquarters that was getting too warm. Most people would get that email and immediately turn up the air conditioner. You know, respond immediately to the email. But these guys did a root cause analysis and found that the real problem was a blocked air duct. The symptoms didn't go away immediately, but the real problem was actually solved. It just required some time to think.

Here's the challenge for you: build some of this thinking time into your week or month. Make it part of your standard work. It's easy to be lulled into the safety of immediate action. But thinking is critical to ensuring that the action you take is actually of value. Donahoe knows that. Toyota knows that. You should know it too. 

Management Poka-Yoke

We're accustomed to thinking of poka-yoke (error-proofing) as something for a manufacturing assembly line, or at the very least, for a machine. In this standard conception, there are fail-safe devices (some cool, some pretty basic) to ensure errors are prevented. Electric eyes in elevators keep doors from closing on people. Some hotel rooms are equipped with a room key holder that turns off the power when the key is removed to prevent electricity from flowing to the room when it's vacant. Gas caps on cars are attached with a cord to prevent drivers from leaving it on the roof. (I left a cap near Grants Pass, OR, if anyone happens to see it….)

But why not institute poka-yoke for management? Why not create systems that prevent bad management practices from taking hold?

I thought of this yesterday when reading the NYTimes interview with Kevin Sharer, chief executive of Amgen. When he ascended to the big chair, he talked to the top 150 people in the company one at a time for an hour.

 I seek feedback, because that’s the only way that you can grow as a C.E.O., which is a very isolating job. And so if you don’t create mechanisms to get authentic feedback, you won’t.

Sharer sees this isolation as a major "error." It might lead to, oh, I don't know, a $6000 shower curtain. Or a $1400 garbage can. So why not institute some poka-yoke to prevent the problem?

Every year I have the head of human resources at Amgen who reports to me conduct an evaluation of me done by my team that they write up and then present to me and the board. And that’s an uncomfortable process, of course. You hope, as C.E.O., for the team to say, “Boy, boss, you did a great job this year, are we lucky to have you.” And, by gosh, every year they’ve come up with three or four things that are quite authentic that I ought to do better. So you’ve got to create those kinds of feedback loops.

But wait! There's more!

There are probably four things I do [to stay in touch with employees at all levels]. First of all, we take an all-staff survey every two years that is very comprehensive and very broad, and I really read that closely. One of the questions is: What kind of job do you think Kevin Sharer is doing? So you want to get some direct feedback? There it is. I read all the write-in comments.

Second, I’ll go out on rides with sales reps, just me and the sales rep calling on doctors. I try to do that four times a year and spend a day with them. I visit every factory every year, and have small focus groups with people.

I give probably 10 town hall meetings a year where 150 or 200 people come in, and the Q. & A.’s are robust. We have a very effective human resource department here that I listen to broadly, and so you just try to get feedback every way you can. This is fundamentally an isolating kind of job. And so if you don’t take affirmative action to break the isolation, you will be isolated.

What's striking (to me, anyway) about Sharer's approach to management is that he doesn't whine about the exigencies or constraints of the job. He just finds a way to poka-yoke the aspects he finds dangerous.

By contrast, I work with a lot of managers who complain that their schedules don't allow them to spend enough time with their staff. Or that their email burden is so overwhelming that they don't talk — really talk — to people. And while I won't deny that managing isn't easy (lord knows I've screwed up enough communication on the job), Sharer's example is pretty powerful. Why not create a system that guarantees you'll get the results you want?

So the question to you: what would you poka-yoke? And how would you do it?