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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Put away the Blackberry: an alternative to the "always on" ethic.

Posted October 13, 2009 @ 12:16 AM

I'm not a big fan of the Harvard Business Review (or any other business publication, for that matter). It pains me to see so many tress slaughtered in the service of filling the world with self-evident "insights" such as "Treat your customers well," or "Unleash the power of teams!" or "How Baskin-Robbins grew sales by increasing the number of flavors." No, really?

This month's issue, however, has an article that I actually like. Okay, it's true: I like it in part because the findings support the things I've been preaching about for years, and now I've got some proof that I'm right. Or if not proof, at least support for my position.

Making Time Off Predictable -- & Required is about experiments run at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in giving consultants planned time off during engagements. "Predictable time off" means designated periods of time that consultants were not only required to take off, but required them to be off completely – no checking of e-mail or voicemail allowed. The authors point out that

People in professional services (consultants, investment bankers, accountants, lawyers, IT, and the like) simply expect to make work their top priority. They believe an “always on” ethic is essential if they and their firms are to succeed in the global marketplace.
Having worked with my share of lawyers and accountants, I know that this is received wisdom, direct from the mountain and carved into tablets. But is it true?

Our research over the past four years in several North American offices of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) suggests that it is perfectly possible for consultants and other professionals to meet the highest standards of service and still have planned, uninterrupted time off. Indeed, we found that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited. Our experiments with time off resulted in more open dialogue among team members, which is valuable in itself. But the improved communication also sparked new processes that enhanced the teams’ ability to work most efficiently and effectively.
The research project was very much in keeping with the A3 process. Rather than making sudden wholesale changes, they ran controlled experiments. They established  standardized work processes for creating the time off, and measured the results. They incorporated feedback from all involved parties. They insisted on support from top management.

What I love about this story is the lengths to which BCG went in order to find a better way of working. They didn't blindly accept existing standards; they challenged the status quo in an effort to find something better.  In so doing, they identified waste in the way that their (very expensive) consultants were spending time, and they systematically tried to find new, more efficient, ways of doing their work.  The benefits are huge:

The payoff, they feel, is about far more than individual gains; it’s about preserving a strong, engaged pool of talent and, ultimately, cultivating productive work processes for the long term. When people are “always on,” responsiveness becomes ingrained in the way they work, expected by clients and partners, and even institutionalized in performance metrics. There is no impetus to explore whether the work actually requires 24/7 responsiveness; to the contrary, people just work harder and longer, without considering how they could work better. Yet, what we discovered is that the cycle of 24/7 responsiveness can be broken if people collectively challenge the mind-set. Furthermore, new ways of working can be found that benefit not just individuals but the organization, which gains in quality and efficiency—and, in the long run, experiences higher retention of more of its best people.
Think about the way your executives, managers, and supervisors spend their time. Think how they -- how *you* -- feel compelled to be "always on." Is it possible that there's a better way to work? That perhaps those extra hours you're working each day and each week aren't really adding value to your customer? That your 24/7 responsiveness is habitual, but not required?

That, quite frankly, it's laziness that keeps you "always on," because it keeps you from doing the hard work of figuring out how to work better?

I know, I know. You're probably thinking that if you tried something like this ("Sorry boss, I'm no longer available on Tuesday evenings. Leave a message, and I'll call you back."), you'd end up on the street corner with a Play Tech Blackberry, looking for a new job.

Well, it wasn't an easy sell at BCG either. Ironically, the firm had the opportunity to try different ways of working because they had been hired to help a client improve its work processes. This enabled them to position the experiment as their own attempt to do what they were asking of their client -- namely, engage in process improvement.

However, I maintain that if it can be done at BCG, you can do it too. It'll require hard work to sell it -- an A3 proposal would be a good start -- but you might find huge benefits to your customers, your employees, and your organization. Remember, your job consists of your work for your customer, AND your improvement work.

Read the HBR article, and don't accept the status quo. Remember that improvement of your own processes is part of your job.

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Planning Managerial Capacity

Posted October 6, 2009 @ 7:56 AM

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.

Posted September 14, 2009 @ 10:51 AM

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.


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