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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Production goals, Feedback, and Finding Nemo

Posted November 23, 2009 @ 7:17 PM

I was halfway to nodding off while reading another turgid ("Lean is one of the very effective ways to actually mitigate operational risk") and obvious ("Involve frontline employees in problem solving") report from the Boston Consulting Group and Wharton on the value of lean when I read something that was actually interesting:

Part of what helps Pixar succeed is a model of working in which the individual is as valuable to the team as the team is to the individual. To help structure fruitful interactions, Pixar has instituted a system of daily meetings where team members talk about what they have or have not accomplished each day and others provide feedback.The point is not to track people. “In a creative world you often hit roadblocks, and team-based collaboration is critical,” [Wharton professor Kartik Hosanagar] explains. “People might discuss work that is clearly in an incomplete stage; they don’t have to feel embarrassed.”
Hmm. . . lean as applied to non-repetitive, creative work? How many times have you heard from people that their work is different, can't be standardized, and doesn't lend itself to lean principles?

What's striking about Pixar's approach isn't just the idea of collaboration -- plenty of people at plenty of companies collaborate. What's really interesting is the notion of production goals for people doing non-repetitive, creative work. And further, the notion of airing production problems in front of others to garner ideas on how to overcome them.

No matter what your role is in an organization, you have to account for the very real limits on your production capacity. That means taking a gimlet-eyed view at how your time is spent, and identifying what obstacles and inefficiencies keep you from reaching "full production." Institutionalizing feedback and learning from colleagues in a non-threatening environment, as Pixar has done, is a huge step in the right direction. It leads to the continuous improvement and growth -- kind of like the hero's journey of Marlin the Clownfish.


The Waste of Meetings: A Modest Proposal

Posted November 16, 2009 @ 8:13 AM

American workers spend somewhere between five and 15 hours per week (depending on what source you believe) in meetings. Whatever the actual number is, it's big. And as near as I can tell, much of that time is largely waste. So with due respect to Jonathan Swift, I have a modest proposal to end the pain of ineffective, bloated, and often pointless get-togethers that masquerade as work.

Try visual management for knowledge work.

A few weeks ago, Jon Miller coined the "Non-Invisibility Law." He wrote,

If need to ask > 0, then visual management = 0.

This is simply an if-then statement to the effect that formalizes the gemba kanri [workplace management] truism "If you have to ask, you don't have visual management of your operations." Visual management must leave no doubt. Nothing that is important should be invisible if true management by fact is to be practiced on the gemba.

This got me to thinking: why can't we use the same principle in the conference room (viz., the "meeting gemba")? Why can't we use visual management to improve the effectiveness of meetings -- to keep them on track, to keep them on time, to keep them from degenerating into a colossal waste of resources and energy?

What if. . . there was a posted agenda on a flip chart (or projected on the wall), so that anyone walking past could see not only the purpose and desired outcome of the meeting, but also what stage of the meeting the discussion was at? Wouldn't that drive behavior that would avoid many of the problems besetting meetings today? People would have to have an agenda and a goal, and they'd have to appoint a moderator to keep it on track. Not quite poka-yoke, but close.

What if. . . there was a timer to help keep people focused on the critical resource -- i.e., time -- being consumed? Many meetings at Google feature a four-foot tall timer projected on the wall, counting down the minutes left for a particular meeting or topic.

What if. . . meeting notes and action items were transcribed in one-piece flow during the meeting (rather than batch & queue afterwards), and projected on the wall, so that errors and inconsistencies could be spotted right then and there by the participants?  This is another technique that Google uses to ensure that meetings are effective.

If you think about it, the agenda, combined with the timer and real-time meeting notes, is exactly like the visual management boards in a factory. They're tools to drive the right behavior by participants, and they make the work (production) visible to outsiders.

Jon Miller says that "Visual management must leave no doubt. Nothing that is important should be invisible." I'd argue that as long as the time spent by employees in meetings consumes company resources -- and it most assuredly does -- then it's important, and therefore it damn well better be visible.

After all, your customers aren't paying you to sit in stupid meetings.


Work Standards = Fresh Mind = Better Decisions

Posted November 9, 2009 @ 8:28 PM

Mark Graban, a good friend of this blog, commented on the NYTimes report about the steps that Intermountain Health is taking to lower costs while improving patient outcomes. Mark's entire post is well-worth reading, even if you're nothing more than a consumer of health care. What most struck me, however, was this bit near the end:

A final idea is that using standardized methods as much as possible is a way of freeing the mind up to think about the truly important things (which Toyota preaches, by the way, for assembly workers):

[James] adds that he is simply trying to focus that resource [physician's thinking abilities] on the problems where it is most needed: those for which data does not have an answer.

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.

This is something I've talked about frequently. I believe that to-do lists don't work because they force you to constantly choose among the options on your list, a process that is itself both time-consuming and fatiguing. (Do I answer email now or later? Do I start Sarah’s performance review, review the latest budget numbers, or change the toner in the copier?) When you're constantly spending time and energy making choices, when you never have the option of running on autopilot, you impair your ability to think creatively. You get so mired in making small decisions that you can’t free your mind to attack the big stuff. As the psychologist William James wrote,

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….

Whether you're in health care, advertising, or production engineering, there's real value in automating tasks through standardized work (or even, as Jon Miller points out, work standards). Give it a try.

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