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Itchy fingers.

Bison Gear & Engineering, a designer and manufacturer of custom motors, reduced their new product development lead time from several weeks to three days by implementing lean concepts. One of their techniques is the "project blitz." They put a team of engineers together (literally -- they move their desks right next to each other), protect them from interruptions (they stretch police riot tape across the engineers' area so that no one can enter), and work exclusively on a single project until it's completed. Work flows from one engineer to another with no waiting and no distractions. They've realized, as I've written about before, that task switching is toxic to productivity.

Interestingly, Bison goes further than just protecting the team from external interruptions. The engineers also avoid self-generated distractions. Even when one of the team isn't actively working on the project at a given moment, she won't check email or surf the web while waiting for her next task. Experience has taught them that recovering from that type of distraction and getting back into the project flow slows down the blitz -- even though she's just waiting. Instead, she stays attentive to the work that the others are doing, remains more involved in the process, and is able to jump back in and contribute more quickly.

I asked their VP of Engineering about this prohibition on email. He said the emotional cost of this self-imposed disconnect was surprisingly high. People have an ingrained feeling that if they're not working, they're wasting time. Sitting idly at their desks and not -- at the very least -- clearing out their inboxes, felt profoundly unproductive. Even when it was clear that the project progressed faster when they worked this way, they still had itchy fingers.

To me, this is a beautiful example on a small scale of "going slow to go fast." If you can ignore the itchy fingers and the need to be busy every second of the day, you might find that your projects move faster, too.

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Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog Carnival: Annual Roundup 2011

I'm very proud to say that John Hunter kindly gave me the reins (for one day, at least) for the 2011 Management Improvement Blog Carnival Annual Roundup. What I’ve tried to do this year is select posts that gave me a new perspective about the world around me, and how improvements could be made to the current state.

First up: Shmula, the blog of Pete Abila.

Zipcar Customer Experience: Variability, Utilization, and Queueing is about as dry a blog post title as you could imagine. But what a fantastic analysis of the Zipcar system! Pete lucidly explores some of the major challenges stemming from variability and utilization facing an operation like Zipcar, and addresses the three kinds of buffers that the company needs to make it work. I’m not a process engineer, but even for me, this was one of the coolest posts of the year.

Death by a Thousand Cuts highlights how organizations begin their journey toward failure through many small decisions made over a long period of time—which is, incidentally, also how culture is created.

Pete provides a nice report on a presentation by Mark Zuckerberg in Mark Zuckerberg: I’d Rather Them Believe the Company Was Broken. If you only know of Zuckerberg from the movie, The Social Network, this is a refreshingly different view. He comes across as a modest guy who’s fully aware that his team deserves the credit for making the company successful.

Finally, check out Leader Standard Work. This concept is garnering more visibility of late. Pete provides a concrete description and approach to implementing it yourself. You’ll inevitably customize it to your specific needs, but this is a great place to start.

Next up: Daily Kaizen, the blog of the improvement folks at Group Health Cooperative.

Consultant Space Kaizen: Practicing What We Teach is a beautiful—and detailed—example of eating one’s dog food. The team describes how they applied all the tools they teach to their own workspace in order to reduce their resource consumption and model the process for the future.

Connecting to the “Why” is an excellent reminder that improvement for its own sake is pointless, uninspiring, and doomed to failure. Successful, sustainable change must be linked to the “why.” If you don’t know the ultimate purpose, then your improvement is a house built on sand.

Learning to Offer Questions, Not Solutions reminds us that change management and improvement is best led by questions, not solutions—and that those questions need to engage both the head and the heart.

The “D” Word tackles the under-appreciated trait of discipline, and explores how it’s “the fuel that drives the lean engine.”

Finally, Peter Drucker’s Management Philosophy blog. Sadly, it’s not written by Drucker himself. But the author, Jorrian Gelink, does a wonderful job of channeling Drucker’s insights, connecting them to current events, and reminding us how relevant his ideas are to both lean and management excellence.

In a business world increasingly engorged with email, text messages, and IMs, Effective Communication—The Speed, Quality and Cost Triangle, higlights the very significant tradeoff between ease and quality in our communications. Read this before you send your next email.

Keeping the focus on communication, Effective Communication – Execution and Results in an Organization provides three key points to remember when communicating within an organization. Attending to these points is a good way to reduce waste and improve the quality of your communication.

How do you build trust as a leader? The Three Cores to Building Leadership Trust eloquently explains that trust relies upon execution, people development, and honesty. The are simple, but incredibly powerful truths that are too often forgotten in the drive to get through one’s email.

If you liked this curated list of links, check out the other 2011 Annual Review posts here, and the regular Management Improvement Carnival here.



Meetings: the plaque of an organization.

Ed Whitacre Jr., the CEO of GM, is struggling to get the company moving faster. The ossified bureaucracy at GM renders rapid decision-making nearly impossible, and nowhere is that more evident than in the plague of meetings that prevent people from actually making decisions. How bad is it? The Wall Street Journal reported that in the past,

even minor decisions had to be mulled over by committee after committee. Once several years ago, the company tried to stamp out bureaucracy—and ended up appointing a committee to oversee how many committee meetings should be held.

Whitacre is trying hard to push authority and decision-making responsibility deeper into the organization, rather than requiring everything to be approved by the CEO. The Journal describes a recent meeting designed to get his approval for a new generation of cars and trucks:

Before the executives could present the pictures, charts and financial projections they had prepared, Whitacre stopped them to ask why they were having the meeting in the first place.

"Y'all have checked all this out pretty thoroughly," Mr. Whitacre said in his Texas drawl, according to a participant. "I imagine you're not going to approve something that's bad or unprofitable, so why don't you make the final decisions?"

Mr. Whitacre then let the team's plans stand—and suggested that the group end its regular Friday sessions.

I don't know if Whitacre has spent much time reading Peter Drucker, but Drucker was bluntly eloquent about the dangers of meetings. As a recent article in Human Resources IQ explains, Drucker went so far as to say that meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization, because you can either work or meet -- you can't do both at the same time. And although meetings are a necessary evil, they should be rare:

But above all, meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule. An organization which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done.

Too many meetings always bespeak poor structure of jobs and the wrong organizational components. . . if people in an organization find themselves in meetings a quarter of their time or more -- there is time-wasting malorganization.

Too many meetings signify that work that should be in one job or in one component is spread over several jobs or several components. They signify that responsibility is diffused and information is not addressed to the people that need it.

How does your organization compare to Drucker's 25% benchmark? My guess is that you're way over that. Most executives I see are spending over 40% of their time in meetings (and most of those are poorly run, poorly focused, and don't result in clear direction for the participants).

Meetings are like plaque, clogging the arteries of the business -- and of the value stream. Companies become immobile from these unproductive, pointless time sucks. Compare GM's sclerotic meeting culture with the stripped down, focused, problem solving meetings at Lantech, where decisions are made at the point of the problem, and at lowest possible level. (Read more about how those meetings are folded into standard work here.) No committees, no fluffy agendas, no long-winded Powerpoint presentations: all the information and all the necessary people are at the location of the problem ready to make a decision. Quickly.

Get rid of the meetings. Go to the gemba. Start flossing.



Drucker on time

Jon Miller, over at Gemba Panta Rei, reminded me last week of how eloquently and succinctly Peter Drucker stated so many of the ideas that I often struggle to articulate. Here's Drucker on time:

Everything requires time. It is the only truly universal condition. All work takes place in time and uses our time. Yet most people take for granted this unique, irreplaceable, and necessary resource.

When the concept is stated this clearly, the connection to lean is unmistakable. Time is a resource, and lean is nothing if not creating more customer value with fewer resources.

When I was at LEI's Lean Transformation Summit a few weeks ago, I attended Drew Locher's workshop on bringing lean thinking to offices. One of the things he said that really hit home for me was that time management is absolutely a key part of lean in the office. Of course. If you want to remove the waste in a process, then you really ought to figure out ways to take out any waste of "this unique, irreplaceable, and necessary resource."

If you think about time this way, you might be a little more reluctant to attend meetings with no clear objective, or allow people to walk in and steal your attention with the dreaded "quick question" (that's anything but), or succumb to the tyranny of the urgent email.

It's irreplaceable. Invest it wisely.