It's about the system, not the individual


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.

1 Comment