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You want muda? Let’s talk about muda!

Cognitive Waste
Cognitive Waste

Cognitive capacity at any given time is limited. There’s only so much mental bandwidth for processing information. So when we introduce lean to an organization, why do we insist on using up some of that precious capacity by forcing people to translate Japanese into English? Why do we ask them to make the mental leap from making cars to healing patients?

In my forthcoming book, Building the Fit Organization, I argue that we should be speaking a language that people are comfortable with when we introduce radically new ideas. Lean is a new way of thinking for many people—it’s crazy to make it harder for them to wrap their heads around these ideas by wrapping them in a foreign language, or by telling people how Toyota makes cars. All that does is consume valuable cognitive capacity on the waste of translation.

Some people will argue that there’s no real equivalent to many of the original Japanese words like gemba, but I maintain that the slight difference in nuance between “front lines” and gemba is probably not your biggest obstacle to changing your leadership behavior. And do you really want people to struggle with memorizing the definitions of muda, muri, and mura? If you’re so committed to Japanese, why not ask people to use tsukurisugi, temachi, unpan, zaiko, dōsa, and furyō for six of the wastes? There are subtle differences in translation there, too. And please, let’s not talk about Toyota. AGAIN. You know as well as I do that as soon as you mention Toyota, your audience immediately resists: “Toyota’s totally different from us. They make cars. We make _______.” They think that even if they make something like motorcycles. (“It’s totally different. Our vehicles only have two wheels. No crossover at all.”)

Look, there’s nothing wrong with using the original Japanese words or referring to Toyota. There’s a lot of value there. But maybe it shouldn’t be the first thing you throw at your team. First, get them to embrace the fundamental concepts. Use language and examples that people can relate to easily and comfortably. Once you’re past that intellectual, emotional, and cultural hurdle, you can do a gemba walk at Toyota and learn your 3Ms and 5Ss.

Until then, it’s just intellectual muda.



Avoiding the Information Push/Pull Mismatch

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 9.25.21 AM
Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 9.25.21 AM

Despite the proliferation of convenient, easy, fast, and free communication devices and media, communication chaos often reigns in complex organizations. That’s because there’s a terrible mismatch between the content of the messages we’re sending and the type of messaging media we often use. Messages fall along a continuum of urgency—from “The building’s on fire!” to “There are leftover brownies in the break room.” You can’t afford to miss the first one; the second one, not so much. (Okay, I know some people would say that the leftover brownies are just as urgent, but at least in terms of survival, if not gastronomic satisfaction, the fire really is more urgent.) The differing urgencies point us to different communication media. The fire gets a loud alarm and a PA announcement over the loudspeaker, while the brownies get an email. From a lean perspective, urgent messages get sent via a push system—you get the fire alarm when the sender wants you to. (Of course, Toyota’s famous andon cord is a push system—music plays and lights flash when the worker needs help.) Non-urgent messages get sent via a pull system—you retrieve the message from the server when you’re ready.

At least, that’s how communication should work. In practice, however, we’ve gotten out of the habit of using different mediums for different types of messages. Email has become the default mode of communication in most companies irrespective of the message’s urgency. The result is communication chaos. We send urgent messages via email even though we fear they’ll be lost in the mass of non-urgent messages (both important and trivial) —and then to compensate, we follow up with a phone call two minutes later: “Did you get my email...?” Or we send the email and then go to the recipient’s office immediately after: “I just sent you an email, and….” Intuitively, we know that email is a pull system, so we rely on a push system (phone call, face-to-face conversation) as a backup. That’s crazy, but fortunately it’s only a waste of time. What’s worse is when a truly urgent message gets lost in the inbox and we miss the opportunity to respond quickly enough to avert a serious problem.

You might argue that this problem could be avoided by just reviewing messages as they come in. That, after all, is what the email desktop alert does for you. But that argument doesn’t make sense. First, there are plenty of times when you’re not actually at your computer, or you’re talking with someone, so you’ll miss the alert. Second, the cure is worse than the disease: as numerous studies have shown, dealing with interruptions (aka multitasking) is toxic to productivity and work quality. Finally, it just doesn't make sense to review each incoming email when 99% of them are not urgent.

It’s far better to just match the right communication medium for the type of message you’re sending. Why bother searching for a needle in the email haystack when you can just avoid putting the needle in there in the first place?

Here are four steps to take to avoid the information push/pull mismatch:

  1. Identify the communication tools people are already using widely in the organization. (You’re probably using more than you think.)
  2. Choose one or two “push” media for urgent issues. They could use technology (pagers, cell phones) or not (face-to-face meetings, flashing lights).
  3. Conduct an internal discussion about what constitutes an urgent issue and decide upon the appropriate channel to handle it.
  4. Explore different types of “pull” media to reduce email burden—for example, Yammer, Slack, even old-school project boards.

Undoubtedly, there will be mismatches in some of the messages. But establishing a protocol for choosing more appropriate communication media will reduce the frequency of those mismatches, and lead to smoother, faster, and less chaotic communication and cooperation.


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Cadillac's NYC Boondoggle.

Last week's news about Cadillac's management relocating to New York got me in the mood to steal one of Kevin Meyer's old tricks from his Evolving Excellence days: calling out corporate stupidity when I see it. In case you missed it, the leadership at Cadillac announced that it will be moving its headquarters to NYC, in order to better understand the needs of the luxury customer:

[Cadillac President Johan] De Nysschen said being in New York, which he called the epicenter for global trends, will allow the team to build a focus solely on the brand and to better understand the "sophisticated lifestyle" of Cadillac's target customer base.

I can understand the desire to have marketing and design people spend a lot of time in New York rather than Detroit -- although it's worth pointing out that in the US, BMW and Mercedes are both based in New Jersey, which is not exactly known for being a hotspot of global trends. It's also worth noting that the heart of American car culture is in California, and as a result, many car companies have their design centers in the Los Angeles area.

Of course, the truth is that you can understand your customers' lifestyle pretty damn well even without opening up a fancy showroom in SoHo. Toyota's Yuji Yokoya, chief engineer for the Sienna minivan, drove 53,000 miles around the U.S. to understand what American drivers needed in a minivan. (The minivan was not sold in Japan at the time, so Toyota's headquarters in Nagoya were much farther away from the target market than Detroit is from New York.) The Sienna received rave reviews and was a huge success.

What's more worrisome about Cadillac's move is the possibility that the company will send more functions than just marketing to New York:

GM is studying whether to send Cadillac's product planning and finance functions to New York, or to keep those in Detroit. Design, research and development and other technical aspects will remain based in southeast Michigan, de Nysschen said.

This dispersal of critical functions is a recipe for failure -- for missed handoffs, for botched communications, for rework in all phases of product development. Most companies, even well-functioning ones, have a hard enough time avoiding these snafus when people are working on the same floor, much less the same building. But separated by 600 miles? Good luck. And needless to say, GM isn't exactly an exemplar of efficient and effective communications.

My guess is that within 12-18 months Cadillac will abandon this project, citing absurd expenses in New York city, unanticipated project costs and errors in new product development, and a lack of sales growth.

You read it here first.

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Disrespectful communication

Lean Communication
Lean Communication

  Microsoft's announcement that it will lay off 18,000 employees is a brilliant example of how not to show people respect in communication. Stephen Elop took 11 paragraphs (!) in his internal email to finally get to the point that, you know, 18,000 people were about to be sacked. Brevity is not only the soul of wit, and plain, direct speech is a key element of respect for people. Less than One Paragraph: This is Donald Trump territory. "You're fired!" hardly constitutes respectful communication.

Eleven Paragraphs: To go this far, you have to bury the lede behind an awful lot of turgid business bloviation. While employees are anxiously looking for information about their jobs, they have to trudge through a bog of business jargon ("financial envelope," "accruing valuing to our strategy," "right-size operations," etc.). If your corporate environment permits emails like this to go out, it's probably ridden with what Bob Emiliani calls "fat behaviors," that create fear, uncertainty, and mistrust. Good luck establishing any sort of continuous improvement culture in that environment.

The alternative to the cruel bluntness of Donald Trump and the clueless circumlocution of Stephen Elop is direct and empathetic communication. State the facts honestly. Be humble. Bring humanity into your conversation. Remember that at the other end of your bloated strategy email is a real human being nervous about losing her job because she doesn't make a seven figure salary, or have millions in stock options, or have the security of a corporate pension.

If you still don't know how to communicate with a little more respect, read Bob Emiliani's work, or talk to Liz Guthridge. And if you want some entertainment, read Kevin Roose's hilarious evisceration of the Microsoft memo here.



Will people pay attention now that HBR has validated it?

I've been preaching for years now that companies should pay more attention to how much time they regularly squander. Whether we're talking about confusing communication, inefficient meetings, or unimportant initiatives, organizations waste enormous amounts of time on non-value added activities. Most companies don't seem to really care as long as this waste doesn't hit the bottom line (and it doesn't, since managers are on salary, not hourly wages). The same companies that will argue the need for a corporate jet to keep their senior team maximally productive (Down time at airports? The horror!), will tolerate the rest of the company spending 300,000 hours per year supporting one weekly executive team meeting. Disappointingly, even companies engaged in lean transformations seem not to care much about the waste of time. I've met many people from nearly every functional silo in these firms over the past five years, and they all complain about email overload, meeting gridlock, and other pointless activities. And yet their firms accept this waste as either unimportant or unavoidable, a fact of nature along the lines of the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. They'd never accept a similar waste of time and attention on the plant floor, of course, because people are working on the clock, and because they can measure material utilization down to the penny. Muda of time? No problem. Muda of metal? No way.

But perhaps there's hope. The May issue of HBR features Your Scarcest Resource, an article that quantifies some of the cost of poorly managed time, and suggests strategies to reduce the organizational waste. There are no Copernican insights here -- the ideas are as gob-smackingly obvious as most time management ideas. (Start meetings on time, and end them early if they're not productive. Standardize the decision-making process. Etc.) -- but it's a good article. But just maybe the HBR imprimatur will at least get management to start turning their lean lenses on the waste of this most precious, and non-renewable, resource.

If you decide to take it on, feel free to call me. I wrote the book on it.



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Communication vs. Coordination

The power of visual management and standard work. Communication & Coordination

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Meeting behavior is *NOT* a small thing

From the recent WSJ interview with Alan Mulally:

WSJ: Are you worried that Ford will go back to its old ways if, someday, you're not there to hand out the cards [printed with a summary of his "One Ford" strategy]?

Mr. Mulally: I am not only not worried about it, but I am very excited about the institutionalizing of our management systems inside Ford.

WSJ: So you feel it's not just you at this point.

Mr. Mulally: Absolutely. We have it built into the audit process. We actually audit the process and the behaviors.

WSJ: When was the last time you had to remind someone: "No, you didn't get it."

Mr. Mulally: Every once in a while someone in business-plan review will, say, pull out their communication device and start working on it. We have the entire leadership team networked around the world, and somebody would have the audacity to start working a specific issue instead of being laser focused on helping everybody?

Or they'll talk. At Ford, one of the behaviors is you listen, and you don't have side conversations during the meeting. It's just so important everybody stays focused. So if someone has a side conversation, we just stop and we just look at them, and it's amazing how it doesn't happen again.

Here you've got a guy who's universally credited with rescuing a $63 billion market cap company talking about how not using smartphones, or avoiding side conversations during meetings, is an essential element of sustaining the new corporate culture.

Pay attention, people: small behaviors are NOT small things. They're critical symbols of what the company values. Mulally cites these seemingly minor behaviors as evidence that Ford has become a different kind of company. More importantly, he uses them as a way to monitor the behaviors that underpin the company's transformation.

Disregarding others, and not being present to support and aid colleagues in meetings -- these are the leading indicators of a dysfunctional corporate culture. They're not the only reason why Ford teetered on the edge of bankruptcy a few years ago, but they're emblematic of a culture that is rotting at the core. That's why Alan Mulally attends to these seemingly minor indicators. And that's why you should, too.

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Why you need to make processes visible

One of my clients is trying to improve their product development processes. They have two major value streams: one for softgoods (cut and sew products) and one for hardgoods (products requiring injection molds). The development timelines on these two streams are fairly different, although both products are sold to the same customers during the same seasons. The hardgoods process always seemed to be late, with last minute changes and late nights for both the engineers and the factories. As the first step in improving the process, representatives from all parts of the value stream -- product managers, designers, engineers, logistics, marketing, and sales got together to map the entire process.

Turns out, the major problem was gobsmackingly obvious: the engineers thought the product had to be finalized and ready to go in time for the first customer delivery date. But the sales team needed the product to be finalized and ready to go for the salesman samples -- two months earlier. Whoops.

The softgoods team already knew this and operated on this model. It was just assumed that the hardgoods team operated this way as well. But making assumptions is never a good idea:

It was only the visualization of the process that laid bare the mistaken assumptions.

There's still plenty of improvement opportunity in the process. But with the ambiguity in the delivery date cleared up, the team now has the possibility of actually meeting customer needs.


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The Silent Andon Cord

I was fortunate to hear Rich Sheridan, president of Menlo Innovations and the author of the terrific book, Joy, Inc., speak at the AME Innovation Summit last week. At one point, he explained that "the sound of silence from your colleagues is a signal that they need help." There's always conversational noise at Menlo Innovations. It's an open office environment, and his programmers work in pairs, so there's always plenty of talking. If programming is progressing smoothly, there's a consistent conversation between the programmers. But if there's extended silence, the programmers have probably hit a roadblock and are having problems figuring out a way around it. Essentially, the sound of silence is a kind of invisible, silent, andon cord. When it's "pulled," one of the nearby programming teams comes to help.

I love this story.

In a typical office environment, it's often an effort to signal that you need help: you have to get up from your desk and find your boss or a colleague, which might take 2 minutes or 20. There's also the need to overcome the psychological hurdle of explicitly saying that you've got a problem and need assistance. Menlo's approach eliminates the need to find someone while removing the psychological hurdle. How easy is it in your company for people to get help when they need it?

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Is it time to find a new language?

Gemba. Nemawashi. A3 thinking. Kanban. Kaizen. 5S. Muda, muri, muda. Maybe it's time to get rid of the Toyota-spawned language of lean and create a native vocabulary.

The lean community has been breathing its own linguistic exhaust for a long time now, and I wonder if we've lost sight of how alienating, off-putting, and counter-productive the senmonyogo (専門用語 -- oh, sorry: jargon or specialized vocabulary) can be to the uninitiated. Any sort of change is challenging, and lean thinking is a huge change for most people. Why make it more difficult for people to embrace lean by using impenetrable or confusing language?

Some recent articles in the New York Times made me think that there are other, more approachable ways to describe basic concepts. For example, Karen Abramson, CEO of Walters Kluwer Tax & Accounting says,

"I call it “go to the floor.” At the beginning of any new assignment, I will always go right to the people who are on the front line, whether it’s our salespeople or a client or customer service people."

Let's not argue whether or not she is a "true" lean leader. Focus instead on the fact that when she says, "go to the floor," you immediately know where she's going. I'm guessing that most workers don't know where the gemba is at first -- but they do know where the floor is.

Or what about using evocative terminology from the omnipresent world of technology? Carey Smith, CEO of Big Ass Fans, tells the Times that

I sometimes describe myself as a “hyperlink.” I have an office, but most of the time I just walk around and try to determine if we’ve got any problems. It might be a minor thing, but I’ll take that and then try to track it back.

Again, I don't know whether or not he's a lean leader, but I do know that when he describes his role as acting as a hyperlink throughout a process, I have an immediate appreciation of what he's trying to accomplish, without resorting to gemba mumbo-jumbo. And when he "tracks it back," I get a much clearer picture of what he's doing than if he "walks the value stream."

A few months ago, Jon Miller of the Kaizen Institute pointed out that even the much-beloved term "A3 thinking" is an arbitrary choice:

Why don't we call it "One-page PDCA" or something more descriptively accurate? Marketing, mnemonics, first mover advantage, who knows.

Obviously, there are times when it makes far more sense to import a foreign word than to develop a new word or phrase in English. Sushi. Schadenfreude. Chutzpah. These words, and countless others, have found a happy home in the English vernacular -- and our language is the richer for it. But when you're trying to get people to adopt a new way of thinking and acting, I'm not sure that force-feeding (gavage) a bunch of abstruse words in English or a foreign tongue is necessarily redounding to our best advantage.





Architectural poka-yoke.

There are two buildings on the Pixar campus. Each one has only four bathrooms (two men’s, two women’s). All in the same place – the main hall of the building. No matter where you sit, if you want to pee, you have to get up from your desk, schlep down a long corridor to the staircase, down the stairs, and across the main hall to the bathroom. This layout is not an example of lousy architecture. This is by design. Steve Jobs's design.

Jobs recognized that functional silos are an unavoidable feature of large, complex organizations. He also recognized the danger in those silos—the lack of communication, the lack of cohesion, the development of an “us” and “them” mentality. The design of the buildings was one of his attempts to foster interaction and communication between departments. If you force everyone to come to the same place to go to the bathroom, they’ll see each other and talk with each other on a regular basis.

The Wall Street Journal’s recent article on the effects of moving people into different seats is testament to Jobs’ instincts. You can’t force people to think horizontally in terms of a value stream, but you can certainly help to blunt the silo mentality by forcing people to meet other people upstream and downstream. It's kind of like architectural poka-yoke -- error proofing through building design.

If your organization is growing, think about how the office is laid out and where people are physically sitting. Think about the silos that will be inevitably be created by location. What can you do to increase the level of interaction among departments?



How can you bring standard work to communication?

I'm back from the annual Shingo Conference, where my book, A Factory of One, received a Shingo Research Award. A common topic of conversation at the meeting was the importance of standard work in an organization. Seems that whether you're talking about the factory floor or "carpetland" (the office), companies aren't reaping nearly as much benefit from standard work as they could. The R&D engineers at one of my clients have done some interesting work in this area. They're inundated with email (like most people), and they're obligated to check messages as they come in because there might be something urgent. Of course, most messages aren't urgent at all, but the possibility -- and the anxiety -- exists that they might miss something critical, like a major product quality problem.

Their situation is hardly unique, of course. But unlike most groups who simply wave their hands feebly and bemoan their fate, they've deployed standard work to fix the problem. They created a new, standard communication protocol:

Communication Protocol

Pay attention to the critical benefit here: everyone has agreed that email is NOT to be used for urgent or complex issues. This agreement really is significant, because it unshackles people from their BlackBerries during meetings, or product development work, or strategic planning. Or their kids' soccer games. Or dinner. Or sex. Which means that there's now a fighting chance to have some uninterrupted time to, you know, think.

This protocol isn't a breakthrough along the lines of, say, cold fusion. (Or duct tape. Or Oreos, for that matter.) However, the clear expectations and standards around the use of communication tools give the engineers license to ignore the beep of their smartphones and focus on real value-creating activities.

This exact protocol might not work for you. You might want to account for text messages, or IM, or even old-school memos. Every company has an idiosyncratic culture and needs. The important thing isn't how you define your communication protocol, but that you define it.

Give it a try, and let me know how it works out.



Missing the forest for the (electronic) trees.

I've written many times before (as have many others) about the perils of constant electronic connection in the workplace. Now legendary professor Henry Mintzberg has published an interesting take on this problem, in the Winter issue of Strategy+Business. Leaving aside the issue of multitasking, Mintzberg points out that information-poor media like email and text messages take away the nuance and subtleties that can only be conveyed in face-to-face conversation. Mintzberg argues that

Managers who believe that they can learn about their department through email — rarely walking down the hall, let alone getting on an airplane — may find themselves in trouble . . . By giving managers the illusion of control, the rapid flow of information through new technologies threatens to rob them of real control. As demands pile up, managing can become more frenetic and superficial.

Recently I've seen companies with processes that aren't functioning particularly well. The problem, however, isn't necessarily that the process is poorly designed or broken. Rather, the breakdowns occur during handoffs that are communicated exclusively through email or some other electronic medium. Sometimes, one party lacks perfect understanding of the process. Another time, a simple request via email is interpreted as a peremptory demand, triggering intransigence or foot-dragging. Both situations cause a process to bog down, with finger pointing and blame the ultimate result.

The demands on your time -- and your managers' time -- are formidable. Email is a necessary and valuable communications tool. But it isn't, and shouldn't be, the only tool in your armamentarium. Otherwise, as Mintzberg says, "you'll gather the facts, but you may miss the meaning."



Your Internal Communication Stinks. Here’s Why—and What To Do About It.

I've posted another article on the HBR blog. Coming up with a title was a challenge for them, and ultimately they chose to focus on the plague of email. Frankly, I liked my original title better: "Your Internal Communication Stinks. Here's Why -- and What To Do About It." The post is really about switching communication models, from information "push" to information "pull." Here's how it starts:

How often are people’s email privileges suspended (aka, “mail jail”) because they’re inundated with a blizzard of questions, status updates, notifications, and other non-mission critical information? Most inboxes—and calendars—are gorged with junk because the dominant paradigm of communication is information “push.” This means that information is being pushed onto people when it’s ready, but not necessarily when the recipient needs it.

You can read the rest of the article on the HBR blog here.



Cardboard boxes and common sense.

“Sorry about the mess. These are just the cases that came in the last couple of days. The big pile over there? That’s the research project that I’m supposed to be working on.” Megan sighed despairingly and waved her arm, indicating piles of unread slides stacked like ziggurats on every flat surface in her office. Megan is an experienced, talented, and very hard working pathologist at a major cancer hospital. Her days are spent with her face pressed up against the viewer of her microscope, examining tissue samples for evidence of malignant tumors. I was visiting her because she seemed to have lost her ability to read cases and turn them around rapidly for the referring physicians. Megan was caught in a bind: she was feeling pressure from her boss to work faster, but she was worried that reading the slides more quickly would increase the risk that she’d incorrectly diagnose a case.

Megan went on: “I used to be able to read more cases during regular business hours, but now I have to come in earlier and stay later just to keep up—and obviously, I’m not doing a particularly good job of that. Although to be fair, no one else in the department is either. We’re all feeling swamped.”

Frankly, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to help her. I’m neither a pathologist nor a doctor. (Which, since I’m Jewish, always made my parents very sad. They weren’t exactly cheering when I took a class in the Semiotics & Hermeneutics of the Mystery Story.) I know as much about interpreting tissue samples as I do about designing sub-atomic experiments for the Large Hadron Collider.

So I spent a couple of days watching Megan work. And what I saw reminded me of what Keith Poirier wrote on Jamie Flinchbaugh’s blog recently:

Lean is nothing more than the re-introduction of ‘common sense’ into our daily work lives.

I don’t know anything about interpreting biopsies. But it turns out I didn’t need to. What I saw was a doctor who seldom got more than eight uninterrupted minutes to analyze a slide. Practically every time she nestled up against her microscope, someone came into her office and interrupted her. Following each interruption, she’d turn back to the slide, and start re-reading it from the beginning to ensure that she didn’t miss anything. As a result, reading each case took three, four, five times as long as it needed to.

What’s worse, in the two days I watched her, none of the interruptions were urgent. In fact, the most common interruption was from technicians bringing her new slides to read. They’d walk in, say hello, tell her that they have new cases, and she’d tell them to just put them on the corner of her desk.

My solution? Put a cardboard box outside of her door with a sign telling the technicians to put all new cases inside it. Megan created a fixed schedule to pick up any cases every 90 minutes. Fancy, right? She cut interruptions by two-thirds, and cut the time it took her to process her cases by 40%.

We didn’t talk about takt time, pull systems, or kanbans. As Keith Poirier wrote, it’s just common sense. You’re not going to be able to do your work—whether that’s reading pathology slides, writing ad copy, calculating force vectors on bridges, or writing a patent application—quickly or efficiently if you’re always being interrupted. So we cut down the interruptions to help her do her work a bit better.

There’s still plenty of work to be done in that hospital’s pathology department. There’s waste all over the place. But by focusing on simple, small, and rapid improvements, we made a big difference in Megan’s performance—and her happiness.


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A life preserver for drowning rats.

In last week's blog post, I wrote that Jeff Kindler, the former CEO of Pfizer, was

thoughtless about the demands his communication style placed on his team and the results of that style. By making all his questions a matter of supreme urgency for his team — and let’s face it, communicating via BlackBerry at all hours of the night screams, "PAY ATTENTION! I’M IMPORTANT!" — he sowed the seeds of his own demise. Part of your role as a leader is to help people distinguish among levels of urgency and importance. Cramming everything through one communication channel — whether that’s email, IM, text message, or meetings — is a recipe for disaster.

One of my clients has taken this concept to heart. They don't have a leader who abuses his BlackBerry, but they do have an awful lot of engineers who are drowning like rats in the flood of communication -- particularly phone calls and emails --  within and between their teams. As a result, they can't distinguish between critical and time-sensitive issues like a major product flaw, and trivialities like the new flavor of coffee that they company has put in the machines.

Their situation is hardly unique, of course. But unlike most groups who simply wave their hands inertly and bemoan their fate, they're actually doing something about it. This is their new communication protocol:

Communication Protocol

Okay, this protocol isn't a breakthrough along the lines of, say, cold fusion. (Or duct tape. Or Oreos, for that matter.) But it does create clear expectations and guidelines to help the engineers manage the communication and information flow that was previously threatening to inter them.

Pay attention to one critical consequence here: everyone has agreed that email is NOT to be used for urgent or complex issues. This agreement really is significant, because it unshackles people from their BlackBerries during meetings, or product development work, or strategic planning. Or their kids' soccer games. Or dinner. Or sex. Which means that there's now a fighting chance to have some uninterrupted time to, you know, think.

This protocol might not work for you. Every company has an idiosyncratic culture and needs. The important thing isn't how you define your communication protocol, but that you define it. And while this might not be perfect, so far it's been a pretty good life preserver for all those drowning rats.

Now, what are your guidelines?

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What's your Batphone?

Would Jeff Kindler, Pfizer's fired CEO, have been able to keep his job if he had a Batphone?

Calls coming through the Batphone have the highest priority. The signal is unambiguous: if the Batphone rings, it must be important, and Bruce Wayne stops everything to answer it. But this system only works if there's an agreement that the caller only uses the Batphone for urgent issues.

Compare this mutually respectful agreement with how Jeff Kindler handled his communication with his staff. According to a terrific Fortune magazine article, Kindler

bombarded [his executive team] with long BlackBerry messages filled with questions at all hours of the day and night. He regularly scheduled conference calls on weekends. He seemed oblivious to executive vacations. He expected immediate responses to his questions, making no distinctions between urgent matters and routine ones.

All that didn't just make life miserable for Kindler's team; it also clogged the company's decision-making process. Kindler was a voracious consumer of information -- often a strength but increasingly a weakness. "Jeff heard something or read something," one former HR executive recounts, "and there would be a barrage of e-mails in the middle of the night." The next morning, staffers would have to divvy up the directives. "It was triage."

Kindler was guilty of doing something that all of us do at times: ignoring the distinction between urgent and routine issues, and choosing the appropriate communication channels. That overwhelmed his staff and slowed down their ability to respond to truly important matters.

As a leader, it's incumbent upon you to be extraordinarily careful about what you say. As I've written about before, your words -- your casual requests, your idle comments -- have enormous impact on your team. The communication medium you choose is nearly as consequential. In the story above, Jeff Kindler seriously degraded his executive team's ability to act because he was careless.

"Careless" may seem an odd word choice to describe someone who obviously cared intensely about the success of the company. Nevertheless, that's the right word. He was careless in *how* he communicated. He was thoughtless about the demands his communication style placed on his team and the results of that style. By making all his questions a matter of supreme urgency for his team -- and let's face it, communicating via BlackBerry at all hours of the night screams, "PAY ATTENTION! I'M IMPORTANT!" -- he sowed the seeds of his own demise.

Part of your role as a leader is to help people distinguish among levels of urgency and importance. Cramming everything through one communication channel -- whether that's email, IM, text message, or meetings -- is a recipe for disaster. Consider setting general policies around communication: how will you and your team handle urgent issues? How will you handle important (but not urgent) matters? What kind of service level agreements pertain to each form of communication?

The Batphone only works if there's a mutual understanding of its purpose and respect for the person on the other end. Jeff Kindler didn't understand or respect the power of his BlackBerry. That failure of understanding wasn't the only reason he was sacked. But it certainly didn't help.



Godzilla in the corner office (part 2)

John Rowe, president and CEO of Exelon, tells this story:

In my first C.E.O. job, a young woman who worked for me walked in one day and said, “Do you know that the gossip in the office is that the way for a woman to get ahead is to wear frilly spring dresses?”

And I just looked at her and asked, “Where did this come from?”

She said: “Well, you said, ‘pretty dress’ to four women who happened to be dressed that way. And so now it’s considered policy.”

I said: “Well, it’s the furthest thing in the world from policy. I was just trying to be pleasant in the elevator.”

People hang on a leader’s every word on what seems like trivia and can resist like badgers your words when you’re really trying to say something you think is important.

I wrote about this phenomenon, which I call "Godzilla in the corner office," before. Godzilla's tail alone can destroy hundreds of buildings without him even realizing it, and people high up in the food chain in an organization can wreak havoc without even realizing it. John Rowe's story is a perfect example.

You create expectations and  tacitly encourage behaviors through your own actions. Do you check your smartphone when you're talking to a direct report? Do you arrive five minutes late to all meetings? Do you send emails on Sunday afternoons? What messages are you sending to your team? Is that what you want?

It's ironic, of course, but people in your organization will attend closely to what seems like trivia, and ignore or resist what you think is important. This is the nature of hierarchical organizations. Recognize it, be alert to the messages you're sending, and periodically seek honest feedback from people throughout the company. You might be surprised at what you learn.



Reducing the communication burden.

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?



What are 3 minutes good for?

You're on line (not online) at Starbucks for your iced skinny half-caf semi-grande caramel macchiato with soy whip on top. You've got about three minutes from where you are now to picking up your drink. What do you do? Pull out your Droid and check email, of course. After all, you've got three minutes. Why waste them? That's what the mobile internet is for.

But here's a suggestion: instead of filling your brain, why don't you try emptying it?

Let's face it. In the three minutes you've got to look at your inbox, you really can't get much of anything done. Sure you can skim some of your new email, and you might even be able to answer a couple of the easy ones. ("Yes." "No." "Chicken.") But for the most part, you're pre-ordaining yourself to seeing a bunch of subject lines or messages that you can't do anything about at that moment. Not when you've got to elbow your way from the pick-up counter to the Splenda dispenser.

That's a recipe for stress. You know you have to respond to a customer or to your boss, but you don't have the time right now. It's festering in your inbox. And you know it. Enjoy the macchiato, bub.

So, a modest proposal. Next time you have three extra minutes, instead of filling up your mind with stuff you can't do anything about, why not empty it? Take a notebook and write down stray ideas that have come to you, to-dos that you've forgotten about, questions you need to ask, whatever. Use the time to empty your head of the flotsam that washes up on the shores of your consciousness so that you can actually do something about them later.

Last week I wrote about why you need slack in a system. Filling every minute with work guarantees that your throughput will decrease. My modest proposal to empty your head, rather than fill it, is, I think, a related concept. Giving yourself more work (more email busy-ness) just because you have a few minutes of unbooked time in your day is utterly counter-productive.

Yes, this means that you'll have to stop mainlining the internet for just. Three. Minutes. And you may suffer from some withdrawal symptoms. But you're likely to become more relaxed. More focused. Less frazzled.

Now, enjoy your coffee.