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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Would you like some fries with that visual management?

Posted July 13, 2009 @ 9:46 AM

Listening to Michael Krasny's Forum interview with David Kessler (former head of the Food and Drug Administration and author of the new book, The End of Overeating), I heard an example of visual management tools from an unlikely place -- the Google cafeteria.

Google's cafeteria is legendary for the variety, quality, and price (free!) of the food and snacks it serves. As you might imagine, with that much food there's a real danger of employees, um, overgrazing at the trough. So Google uses visual management -- red, yellow, and green placards in front of the food -- to help employees monitor what they eat. The green cards in front of fruits and vegetables mean "go crazy -- have all you want." The yellow cards mean "moderate quantities are okay." The red cards mean "just a taste," and are placed in front of the Krispy Kreme donuts and fried pork rinds.

Like the best visual management systems, it's simple and easy to understand. It doesn't help create "standard work" in the lean sense or show normal vs. abnormal operating conditions. But it does provide employees with important information about what they should be eating in order to stay healthy, without relying upon calorie counts or detailed nutritional information. And that's good for Google's health care costs.

These cards play into the "nudge" theory of improving decisions as popularized by the behavioral economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. (More info on their blog and in this earlier post.) And that makes me wonder: could we develop a similar set of cards for the workplace? What if certain computer programs (I'm looking at you, Outlook) came with some sort of red icon meaning "just a taste." Or if you're a financial analyst and most of your work is in spreadsheets, Excel would have a green icon. (Of course, it's already green, but you know what I'm getting at.) Throughout the day, your computer could show you what percentage of time you've spent in green, red, or yellow software.

Or perhaps meetings could be color coded. Brainstorming sessions, which can often be giant time sucks, or meetings that have more than 6 attendees, can be flagged with a red icon: be wary of how many of these meetings you attend. But meetings that have a clearly defined goal, or that have just a few attendees, can be flagged with a yellow icon: going to a moderate number of these meetings is okay.

Okay, I realize that these suggestions are clumsy and most likely impractical. But it's worth considering how you might be able to use visual management tools to keep you away from the work equivalent of empty calorie, high-cholesterol, salty snack foods.

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How lean is your own behavior?

Posted June 22, 2009 @ 11:02 AM

Recently, I was struck by something that Bob Miller, Executive Director for The Shingo Prize said: "A culture of lean is present when the day to day behaviors of every person reflect a deep understanding and commitment to the principles."

I see a huge gap between this description of a lean culture and the culture in most organizations pursuing lean. In general, lean seems to be something that's done to something else, not to oneself. (If you remember your college Psych 101 class, this is called the "Other.") People are committed to making a process like strategic planning lean by moving to hoshin kanri. Or they apply lean to a production line by creating cells and pull systems.

There's nothing wrong with this, of course; that's required for eliminating waste and creating value for customers. But I'd argue that it's not enough. Lean also needs to be applied to oneself -- to the way we act and think.

Have you assessed the way you work recently? For example, have you tracked and measured the time you spend on value creating activities compared to non-value added waste? What percentage of your day is spent looking for information, or sitting in unproductive meetings, or simply figuring out what work needs to be done? How much of your day is spent writing or reading useless email? My guess is that most companies pursuing lean would never tolerate such ambiguity about value-added vs. non-value added in a work cell.

Another example: do you actively try to level the load in your workflow? Jim Womack has written persuasively about the importance of creating a "cadence" in knowledge work in order to avoid waste. In a newsletter last year, he wrote that

a development organization can only do so much in a given period of time and that it can actually get more useful work done if everyone is working at a steady pace. In my experience, the organization and the customer are better off with the latter approach, when a clear cadence is established for project completions and the cadence is maintained.

So how do you bring heijunka to your work? Most people I see don't even think about that: they take on more work than they can possibly accomplish without stopping to consider their production capacity -- something they'd never do when it comes to the production capacity of a drill press, for example. In so doing, they create all kinds of waste due to overburdening and uneveness: processing errors, forcing customers to wait, etc.

Some people and organizations do apply lean to oneself. For example, Jon Miller over at Gemba Panta Rei recently set up a white board to help with visual management of his knowledge work and avoid overburdening. He'll acknowledge that it's not the perfect system, but it's a start towards eliminating waste in his own work. The president of a small custom manufacturing company in Seattle that I know reduces the size of his desk each year in order to force himself to avoid excessive storage of inventory (documents). Kevin Meyer at Evolving Excellence has moved to a stand-up desk to improve efficiency and speed. (The whole story: 1, 2, 3.)  Jim Womack has set a monthly cadence for his newsletters. These are perfect examples of committing to lean principles in day to day behaviors.

Remember, a lean culture starts at home (literally and metaphorically). With you. What are you going to do to make yourself lean?

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Hansei, "stop doing," and exiting a market.

Posted June 9, 2009 @ 6:52 AM

Sunday's NYTimes Corner Office interview of Clarence Otis, Jr. (CEO of Darden Restaurants, which owns Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Capital Grille) made me think about an oft-forgotten element of lean: the process of hansei, or reflection. We focus so much on *doing* stuff during the day, and figuring out how to *do* even more stuff, that we often forget that the post-mortem is just as important as the project itself. After all, it's the reflection after the work is done that provides the information that enables the company to replicate success (or avoid the same failure).

In response to the interviewer's question about time management, Otis answers,

I schedule and block the calendar to have downtime, because I do think that in senior leadership positions, one of your jobs is to reflect, and you have to schedule time to do that. I try to leave a few hours a week that are unscheduled.
Scheduling time to think isn't common: a recent Basex study of knowledge workers revealed that they spend on average only 12% of their day thinking and reflecting. Although Basex didn't examine that figure, my guess is that most of that 12% was unscheduled, broken into feeble, ineffective 5-10 minutes bits, rather than large chunks of time mindfully carved out of the week's inventory of work hours.

And yet that's where the learning is. Hansei is critical to learning after a project, every bit as much as the shorter PDCA cycle is during the course of a project. Hansei is the "stop doing" that Matt May writes about on his blog and in his new book, In Pursuit of Elegance.

Here's an example of the power of hansei from earlier in my business career, when I worked at the athletic footwear company Asics Tiger. In the early 1990's, we had been gaining share in the running shoe market. Much of that growth had come with an influx of new products in the lower end of the market: $55-65 shoes targeted at the occasional jogger and sold through large chains like Foot Locker, Finish Line, and FootAction. Success, right?

Well, not exactly. For Asics, the market for those lower-priced shoes was extremely volatile. Demand in that segment was driven by fashion, not function, and Foot Locker could easily cancel an order for 50,000 pairs of shoes because consumer tastes shifted. There were many instances where we had to closeout a bunch of shoes because the demand for them evaporated. On top of that, Asics wasn't very good at making fashionable shoes at that price. The company didn't have Nike's skills at reading (or creating) customer demand, and its cost structure was higher, so that these shoes weren't as profitable as the higher-end, technical running shoes it excelled at making.

Despite the success of the foray into lower-end of the market, Asics abandoned it completely -- over howls of protest from the sales force. A 2-3 month period of hansei led to the realization that the short-term profits from these shoes were putting the company at risk: financially, due to the large swings in demand, and image-wise, in terms of the dilution of brand equity as a maker of the best technical running shoes on the market. It was a big financial blow in the short-term: revenues and profits fell for the next year. But it allowed the company to put its resources completely into more profitable, and more stable, higher-end products, and set the stage for 12 years of uninterrupted growth in sales and profits.

As the guy responsible for driving that decision, I remember struggling with the heads of sales and product development to convince them that this was the right decision for the long term health of the company. Without adequate time for reflection, I don't think I ever would have come to this conclusion. It would have been too easy to continue making lower-priced shoes and counting the money coming in the door. But by pulling myself away from the daily requirements of planning the next season's product line, I was able to think a bit more deeply about the road we were one -- and where it was leading.

It's certainly not easy to make the time for hansei, as I've written about here and here. But avoiding it is like leaving out the C in PDCA. And that's a recipe for failure.

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