A Better Way To Work TimeBack Management

About Dan Markovitz

Dan Markovitz is the founder and president of TimeBack Management. Prior to founding his own firm, Mr. Markovitz held management positions at Sierra Designs, Adidas, CNET and Asics Tiger. Learn More...

Leveling; smoothing out the flow; e.g., doing two performance evaluations a day for 3 weeks, rather than ten a day for three days -- and then needing to take a vacation because you're so burned out.
Overburdening people, process, or equipment; e.g., people working 100 hour weeks for months on end -- come to think of it, like most lawyers and accountants.
Uneveness or variability; e.g., leaving work at the normal time on Thursday, but having to stay at the office till midnight on Friday because the boss finally got around to giving you that project...at 4:30pm.
Waste; activities that your customer doesn't value and doesn't want to pay for; e.g., billing your customer for the really expensive 10am FedEx delivery because you didn't finish the document on time.

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You can see it in the eyes.

Posted December 14, 2009 @ 6:56 AM

It was his eyes that I noticed first. Totally focused. Intent. Piercing. 

No, I'm not talking about the guy I sat next to on the plane yesterday. I'm talking about a worker attaching handles to mugs at the Heath Ceramics factory.

Heath Ceramics is one of the few remaining mid-century American potteries still in existence in the U.S. They've been making tableware and tile for over fifty years in their factory in Sausalito, CA. They employ a crew of 60 people and make every product right on the premesis.

I was on a factory tour of Heath last week when I saw the guy attaching mug handles. As I said, his eyes told the story of how deeply he was concentrating on his task. The company has exacting standards for everything they produce, and the attachment between handle and mug body is one of the most critical -- and difficult -- joins in ceramic tableware. (It has to be strong and look seamless at the same time. Not an easy trick in a fully manual operation.)

The guy attaching handles was the living definition of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow," the feeling of energized focus and positive feelings that come from being fully immersed in what you're doing.

It's also the polar opposite of what you see everyday in offices around the country.

I mean, the contrast couldn't have been clearer. On the one hand, the guy attaching handles, totally focused on his job, clearly energized by the work he was doing. On the other hand, tens of millions of office workers frustrated, stressed, and demotivated by their work.

You could argue pretty persuasively that some of the difference is due to the nature of the work. In his book Shopcraft as Soulcraft (and his shorter essay here), Matthew Crawford argues that "manual competence" -- the ability to make and fix things with your own hands like fixing a carburetor or attaching a mug handle -- is in many ways intrinsically more rewarding than pasting formulas into a spreadsheet or assembling a marketing plan.

But I think there's more to it than simply working with something physical. Stephen King doesn't make things with his hands like Matt Crawford, but I bet that he feels as energized and rewarded when he writes. (Or at least after he's done writing.) Ditto Judith Jamison, the director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, when she choreographs a dance. Or Merly Streep, when she's preparing for a role. And probably the same is true for you, when you've had a chance to really immerse yourself in a "knowledge work" project, whether that's coordinating logistics for a shipment of goods or analyzing the latest public health data on teen pregnancy. So the work doesn't have to be manual to be intensly rewarding and to bring you to Csikszentmihalyi's state of "flow." 

But you do need an environment that allows for flow. As I've written about before (here, here, and here), constant interruptions (both self-imposed and externally inflicted) prohibit that. Unrealistic or impossible deadlines that take no account of managerial production capacity prohibit the attainment of flow as well. In fact, the social and physical work environment for most of us white-collar types stack the deck against us, and pretty much guarantee that we'll never get there during regular work hours. You'll have better luck late at night and on weekends, which is why you see so many people working then. ("It's the only time I can actually get anything done!")

I think that lean principles can help create this environment. By implementing 5S and by standardizing the stuff that can be standardized, we can improve the (fortuitously named) "flow" of our work. With root cause problem solving we can reduce or eliminate the interruptions that keep us from creating flow -- for us and for our customers.

With lean, we can get those same eyes that the craftsman at Heath Ceramics has. The alternative is more of the same stress, anxiety, and lack of productivity that sucks the soul out of your work.

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Standardized Work: the Source of Creativity

Posted December 7, 2009 @ 8:48 AM

Knowledge workers often push back against the adoption of lean by claiming that their work is fundamentally creative and unpredictable, and therefore unsuited to the standardization that lean requires. That complaint is legitimate when it comes to the actual creative work. And yet, standardized routines are necessary (or at least helpful) underpinnings for the flowering of your creative genius.

There's a terrific article at the99percent.com that explains this concept. It points out that the magic of creative inspiration is more likely to occur when you have routines built into your daily work process. This is what Steven King says about the importance of routines in his writing:

There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.

Notice the elements of 5S and standardized work at play here, even though his job -- dreaming up fiction -- is the epitome of creative work.

Steven King's approach ties in nicely with what the psychologist William James said about the importance of habit:

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automation, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their proper work. There is no more miserable person than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision….

Toyota gets this idea, too. Our friend Mark Graban at the Lean Blog says that

I've heard Toyota people say you want to eliminate the hundreds of LITTLE repetitive decisions so that the person involved can focus on the FEW major decisions with a fresh mind that's not fatigued from constant decision making.

Obviously, this kind of control over daily workflow is more difficult to exert if you're working in a cubicle in a large organization. But there are ways to absent yourself from the chaos around you -- park yourself in a conference room, go to another floor or department in the building where no one needs you, run out to a local coffee shop, put on headphones, whatever.

Consider it a kaizen opportunity to find a way to bring some semblance of routine to the hectic frenzy of your day. (One caveat: don't make reading email first thing in the morning a routine. That's the road to disaster.)

Thomas Edison said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. The perspiration will more likely lead to inspiration if you create some standardized work to structure it.

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In search of metrics.

Posted December 1, 2009 @ 8:52 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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