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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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Is your environment helping your lean efforts?

Posted August 11, 2009 @ 8:30 AM

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?

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It's about the system, not the individual

Posted August 2, 2009 @ 6:31 PM

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.

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Standard work, by any other name....

Posted July 20, 2009 @ 4:30 PM

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.)

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