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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Standard work and the folly of multitasking.

Posted August 31, 2009 @ 9:24 PM

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

Posted August 25, 2009 @ 8:45 AM

“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.

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One reason why so many lean initiatives fail

Posted August 17, 2009 @ 4:26 AM

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."


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