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Less is More

My friend Matt May has just published his latest book, The Laws of Subtraction. It's a terrific read. Matt argues that decisions become exponentially easier and simpler when you focus on what to ignore, what to leave out, what to "don’t." More importantly, the results are exponentially more impactful. He goes on to explain that the key is to remove anything obviously excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly -- or even better, avoid adding them in the first place.

Matt covers some of the ground that he explored in his earlier books, but for me, this is a more concise and powerful exploration of his recurring theme that less is more. His stories about Toyota’s youth brand Scion, the urban design that transformed London’s Exhibition Road, the power of white space in comics, and the secrets of Lockheed’s Skunk Works are compelling.

But that's not why to buy this book.

The real reason you need to buy the book is on page 64. That's the page that tells my story about how subtraction led to a far better outcome for me and my team. (I'd argue that my story is the highlight of the book, but Matt might get mad at me.)

Truth is, there are 53 individual stories of real people -- not captains of industry, not global business titans -- ordinary people doing wonderful work by subtraction. In some respects, these stories are the real joy of The Laws of Subtraction, because they're so ordinary and so easy to relate to, that you can immediately see how you can adopt Matt's six principles.

Read the book. In this case at least, more (learning) is better.





Improve morale: go to the gemba.

A McKinsey survey last year revealed that non-cash motivators -- praise from immediate managers, attention from leaders, and a chance to direct projects -- are at least as effective as the three most highly rated monetary ones. My first reaction was to add this research into the Gobsmackingly Obvious Business "Insight" Hall of Fame. I mean, really? McKinsey needed a survey of 1000 businesspeople to learn that praise and attention from the CEO is motivational?

But then I realized that McKinsey is only mirroring the pervasive cluelessness of most corporations. The study goes on to explain:

Why haven’t many organizations made more use of cost-effective non-financial motivators at a time when cash is hard to find? One reason may be that many executives hesitate to challenge the traditional managerial wisdom: money is what really counts. While executives themselves may be equally influenced by other things, they still think that bonuses are the dominant incentive for most people. “Managers see motivation in terms of the size of the compensation,” explained an HR director from the financial-services industry.

Another reason is probably that nonfinancial ways to motivate people do, on the whole, require more time and commitment from senior managers. One HR director we interviewed spoke of their tendency to “hide” in their offices—primarily reflecting uncertainty about the current situation and outlook. This lack of interaction between managers and their people creates a highly damaging void that saps employee engagement.

Interestingly, lean management provides the opportunity to institutionalize all of these things: praise; attention from leaders; the chance to direct projects; plus autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

There's a lesson here: go to the actual place where your people are working. Talk to them. Say thank you. And find out what's important.


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Book Review: Slay the Email Monster

I just finished reading Slay the E-mail Monster, a new book by my friends and long-ago colleagues Lynn Coffman and Michael Valentine. It's a quick read, and valuable for anyone consumed by email and struggling to find time and bandwidth to do their real work. Lynn and Michael have briefly listed 96 ideas (one per page) that can help you get control. They don't delve into the specifics of each technique ("Click on Tools/Options/Preferences," etc.) -- you may need to Google how to do some of the things they recommend -- but they do provide the important underlying concepts. You'll know what to do and why to do it.

As David Allen often says, many of these ideas are nothing more than "advanced common sense." But common sense isn't always that common, and the frantic chaos of the workplace frequently buries common sense beneath a pile of competing commitments. This short book is a good reminder that answering email is not, in fact, your job, and provides good ideas for getting re-focused on creating real value.

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Shrink the Change

As I've said many times, I'm not a big fan of business books. I think they're usually bloated, self-evident, post-hoc analyses that don't really teach too much. (Read about the "Halo Effect" for a more thoughtful and intelligent critique on these books.) Nevertheless, though, I read and really enjoyed Chip and Dan Heath's latest book, Switch. Notwithstanding Kevin Meyer's low regard for the book, I found it insightful and really useful. Because, really, when you're trying to get people to manage their time better or to undertake a lean transformation, what you're really trying to do is get them to make a change -- a switch -- in the way they behave.

The Heath brothers talk about Dave Ramsey's "Debt Snowball" approach to reducing personal debt. Dave advocates that when you're totally overwhelmed by debt, you should pay off the smallest debt first, rather than the debt with the highest interest rate. When you've paid off that debt, every available dollar goes to paying off the next smallest debt. Why? In his words,

sometimes motivation is more important than math. This is one of those times. . . . Face it, if you go on a diet and lose weight the first week, you will stay on that diet. If you go on a diet and gain weight or go six weeks with no visible progress, you will quit. When training salespeople, I try to get them a sale or two quickly because that fires them up. When you start the Debt Snowball and in the first few days pay off a couple of little debts, trust me, it lights your fire. I don't care if you have a master's degree in psychology; you need quick wins to get fired up. And getting fired up is super-important.

This approach to debt reduction is pretty controversial. But the underlying concept -- getting small wins -- is, I think, a pretty powerful idea. As the Heath brothers put it,

if people are facing a daunting task, and their instinct is to avoid it, you've got to break down the task. Shrink the change. Make the change small enough that they can't help but score a victory. Once people clean a single room, or pay off a single debt, their dread starts to dissipate, and their progress begins to snowball.

In my work, I often see people -- from mid-level managers to highly-paid senior executives -- buried in a pile of junk. (Not exactly the picture of 5S for information.) Despite their competence in so many areas, they're often paralyzed by the task of processing all that stuff. It's just too overwhelming for them. So they feebly move stuff from one side of the desk to the other, or move one email into an electronic folder, and then. . . stop. Or even worse, they come in on a weekend with every intention of finally getting control, but after a few minutes, they give up and do something else, like some regular work. It seems so fruitless to attempt to purge all that accumulated flotsam and jetsam.

Instead, I think, people could help themselves by shrinking the change. Don't try to get completely organized. Just get more organized. Don't try to apply 5S everywhere. Just apply 5S to one area of the office, or one supply closet, or one operating room. For that matter, don't try to become a lean company in one day or one kaizen event. Just try to become leaner.

Make that the first step. Shrink the change, and make it an easy win.



Can you start a lean contagion?

Efforts to drive a lean transformation across an organization are difficult. Improvements in one area of the business often don't spread to other areas. Deep-seated resistance to change slows progress to a crawl or stops it entirely. Backsliding erases hard-won gains. But what if you could get lean to spread like a contagion? What if acceptance of lean, or even an outright embrace of lean (not the tools, but the mindset), could become like a virtuous epidemic?

Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, in their book Connected, posit that all kinds of behaviors and characteristics that we consider independently defined actually spread like a contagion. Take obesity, for example. After analyzing the Framingham Heart Study, they found that obese people tend to hang with other obese people, and thin people hang with thin people. (Birds of a feather, and all that business.)

More intriguingly, they found that there's a causal relationship: obesity spreads by contagion. So if your friend’s friend’s friend — whom you’ve never met, and lives a thousand miles away — gains weight, you’re likely to gain weight, too. And if your friend’s friend’s friend loses weight, you’re likely to lose weight, too.

How does it work? Scott Stossel explains in the NYTimes that

Partly, it’s a kind of peer pressure, or norming, effect, in which certain behaviors, or the social acceptance of certain behaviors, get transmitted across a network of acquaintances. In one example the authors give, Heather stops exercising and gains weight, which influences her friend Maria’s thinking about what normal weight is, so that when Maria’s other friend Amy (who has never met Heather) also stops her exercise regime, Maria is less likely to urge Amy to resume it. So Heather’s weight gain influences Amy’s, even though the two women never meet.

And it's not just obesity that can be contagious:

Christakis and Fowler explore network contagion in everything from back pain (higher incidence spread from West Germany to East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall) to suicide (well known to spread throughout communities on occasion) to sex practices (such as the growing prevalence of oral sex among teenagers) to politics (where the denser your network of connections, the more ideologically intense and intractable your beliefs are likely to be).

So this got me thinking: is it possible to spread lean throughout an organization like a contagion? Is it possible to have it take on a life of its own? After all, when you're looking at a value stream horizontally across an organization, you've got a great opportunity to have lean spread widely and quickly. In some respects, you even need lean to spread this way, because you're cutting across so many functional silos.

When I think about my work -- applying lean to individual behaviors -- I realize that this idea presents a huge opportunity. One person running a lean meeting, for example, has a chance to, um, infect up to a dozen other people in a company. A simple change in email processing policy (say, only four times a day) can touch hundreds of others. In fact, at Intel, Nathan Zeldes created blocks of time during each day that engineers could work without interruptions, and when word of the experiment spread, other regions demanded to be included in the program.

There's more research to be done in this area, though: some companies mandate email-free Fridays, but usually can't sustain it. And even Intel hasn't been entirely successful in maintaining the new behaviors. It's possible that those initiatives didn't start at a "hub" -- one of the “influenceable” nodes that are likely to spread a behavior most quickly. Or perhaps you need a critical mass to prevent recidivism.

What do you think? Could you take advantage of this idea of behavioral contagion to spread lean more quickly through your company?