Exhibit 1: Computer consulting firm Atos Origin announces that it’s abandoning email within three years. The CEO says that “information pollution” burdens managers with an unsustainable load of 5-20 hours of email per week (and climbing), so the company is shifting to social media in order to lighten the load. Exhibit 2: Google announces that for part of each day, new CEO Larry Page and other top executives will sit and work together in an area of the company's headquarters that's accessible to all employees. As part of the effort to recapture some of the nimbleness and entrepreneurial speed of a smaller company, he’s also encouraged employees to pitch him new product ideas in emails of 60 words or less.
I think we’re seeing a trend here. As organizations grow in size and complexity, the volume of communication (via email or meetings) explodes. But it’s becoming painfully obvious that the use of meetings and email just doesn’t scale very well. Past a certain point, the very tools that expedited communication at a smaller scale begin to throttle it. Organizations sclerose under the weight of their tools – too many emails, too many formal meetings. The attempt to communicate crowds out all other work -- even the value-creating work. Nothing gets done, and people bemoan the hulking, slow-moving battleship their company has become.
Certainly, there’s no panacea for this problem. Atos Origin has taken a technological approach, while Google has taken a physical approach. W.L. Gore has, since 1965, taken an entirely different path: no teams bigger than 200 people, so as to ensure that it will be free of stifling bureaucracy. I worked with one client that used to hold an unending string of formal (and time-consuming) status update meetings to ensure that product development teams would cross-pollinate ideas. They eventually gave up those meetings and just bought the teams pizza for lunch every other month. That worked better and eliminated the time suck of needless meetings. Other firms are adopting visual management systems—often, low-tech whiteboards or corkboards—to communicate important information quickly and efficiently. Still other organizations are now using A3s to not only aid problem solving, but also to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of communication.
If the goal of lean is to provide the greatest value at the lowest possible cost, then there’s plenty of room for improvement in our communication. But the first step is to realize that the status quo just isn't good enough, that the way we communicate is needlessly costly and inefficient. Atos Origin, Google, and Gore are taking steps to eliminate that waste. What about you?