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Avoiding the Information Push/Pull Mismatch

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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.



How lean improves individual productivity

I'm a rabid believer that lean concepts and tools can improve personal productivity enormously -- hell, I (literally) wrote the book on that. But it's nice to see validation from the go-go world of internet startups. Bill Trenchard, founder of LiveOps and now partner at First Round Capital, just published a piece that supports my argument. He believes that 70% of a tech CEO's time is spent sub-optimally, and his countermeasures come straight out of the lean playbook.

Creating Standard Work: Bill suggests identifying the core processes -- which are often repetitive -- that drive the company, and creating standard work around them.

For anything you do more than three times, write down your process in detail. Build playbooks that you can hand off to someone else, so they can execute something exactly the way you would. Never get held up by people asking what the next step is or whom they should ask about a process.

This is how Uber in particular scaled so quickly. They’ve grown to over 70 cities and they’ve killed it in all of them. How did they do it? With a playbook. They have a list of the things they do in every single city when they launch, with slight regional adjustments. They have practiced this method and tested it and wrote it all down. So now they just execute, like turning a key.

The startups that I have seen succeed the most at scaling are the ones who have systematized their common actions and core procedures early, and made a habit of it as they grew.

Reducing the Waste of Over-processing: Bill takes on the always thorny issue of managing email and sees stupendous over-processing waste in the way we read and re-read our messages:

Think about postal mail for a second. Do you pick your letters up, look at each one and then put them back down only to pick them up and put them down again and again? This is the definition of insanity. Yet that’s exactly what most of us do with our email.... If you can respond to or act on any email in under two minutes, just do it immediately. If it’s going to require more than two minutes, move it into your task manager to process later. When you do this, you have the ability to prioritize tasks and emails in relation to each other, and your inbox no longer owns your time.

Improving Flow: The psychological research is unanimous on this point -- multitasking doesn't work. Email interruptions, whether self-inflicted or from someone sending you a message, kill your ability to create psychological flow. How to improve the situation? Like me, Bill recommends doing it in chunks to avoid fragmenting your attention:

I recommend the batch route. It lets you focus on email when you need to, and give other tasks the attention they deserve. Constant context-switching makes you mediocre at everything.

Go and See, and Leader Standard Work: Using daily standup meetings (or something similar) as part of leader standard work so that you can identify and solve obstacles quickly is critical in the factory and in the office. Cribbing from both the agile software and lean playbooks, Bill goes to the gemba:

[One of the most productive CEOs I know] circulates the office, stopping to talk to his team members one-on-one or in small groups throughout the day. He asks them:

  • What’s holding you back from getting more done?
  • What are your blockers? Are there any bottlenecks or barriers I can remove for you?
  • What resources or processes would let you move as fast as you want to?

Get the answers to these questions and get it done for your team. If you want them to model speed, you need to model speed yourself. Give them the help they need to do their best work in record time. Responsiveness is key.

Bill's post is a good reminder that lean concepts are not just applicable to factory -- or office -- processes. They're applicable to the way that you, as an individual, work. You can remove waste, improve quality, and increase the value you create in the time you spend at the office. It's the only truly non-replaceable resource. Use it wisely.



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.



Emails & meetings, signifying nothing.

I've been wondering recently why people are so busy at work. Is work really that much more demanding than it was 20, 60, or 100 years ago? Are customer demands that much more onerous? Lean thinkers spend a lot of time trying to reduce the amount of waste in a process -- an admirable goal, to be sure. But sometimes the root cause of waste lies less in the process, and more in the mindset of the people working within the process.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Tim Kreider writes about the self-imposed "busyness" that afflicts so many people. They’re busy, he argues, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence. (To his credit, he points out that people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs don't complain about being busy. Those people are tired.)

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

In my own consulting, I see an awful lot of activity that really doesn't need to be done. One client spends his time -- everyday -- creating elaborate 50-100 slide PowerPoint decks for his boss. Wouldn't a single page document, or even a meeting, be a more efficient way of communicating the ideas? I've seen HR professionals crafting policies and procedure manuals that are so verbose, turgid, and unnecessarily complex that it's a wonder they have time for any real, value-added work. I've seen engineers attending meetings from 9am-5pm, but are only relevant to them for the 30 minutes from 1-1:30pm. And I haven't even mentioned the often pointless trolling through the email inbox that consumes so much of modern work life. How much of this activity is really necessary or value-added?

Tim writes,

I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

Me, too.



Librarian vs. Archaeologist

Michael Schrage writes at the HBR blog that getting organized is mostly a waste of time:

When it comes to investing time, thought and effort into productively organizing oneself, less is more. In fact, not only is less more, research suggests it may be faster, better and cheaper.

IBM researchers observed that email users who "searched" rather than set up files and folders for their correspondence typically found what they were looking for faster and with fewer errors. Time and overhead associated with creating and managing email folders were, effectively, a waste.

Six years ago, I would have disagreed with Schrage: I recommended that people embrace their inner Linnaeus and set up elaborate folder structures for their electronic files and their email. The goal was a comprehensive taxonomy that would allow people to locate any message in seconds. But when Google desktop can find anything within .03 seconds, why bother taking the time to do all of this organizing? Yes, you'll have to cull through some irrelevant results, but the time you spend sorting the informational wheat from the chaff is far less than the time you'd spend painstakingly cataloging and filing each individual message and file. (And that's assuming that you don't mistakenly put the Henderson invoice in the Hernandez folder; then it's gone forever.)

As Schrage points out, this approach is actually very much in keeping with lean thinking, insofar as we're moving from a "push" approach to information management -- organize now, whether or not you need it -- to a "pull" approach -- organize and sort your information when you need to find it.

What Schrage doesn't address is the reality that not all of our information is electronic and suitable for search. There's no Google search for carpet swatches and spec sheets, Etruscan pottery fragments, or pathology samples. There's also no random search for plenty of publications that aren't digitized. For these things, there really is value to "getting organized."

Even when information is electronic, sometimes it's easier to organize it than to search for it. My wife, for example, handles the scheduling for the 13 interventional radiologists in her section. Each month she sends an email to her colleagues asking them if they have any vacation requests, conference commitments, or other scheduling issues she needs to account for. She'll get responses like this:

"I'll be at the ASCO conference from Jan 22-26." "I'm taking my kids skiing from Jan 20-24." "I'm visiting Dana Farber Cancer Center Jan 18-19." "I'm taking a couple days off from Jan 25-28."

With no keywords, there's no way to search her mail for these messages. And the messages can't even be threaded, because people don't always respond to her original email. As a result, she keeps distinct mail folders to handle scheduling requests as they come in.

I think the organized vs. disorganized dichotomy is a false one. Your information takes many forms, and requires different treatment. Sometimes it's better to be a librarian , and sometimes it's better to be an archaeologist. The method you take depends on the problem you're trying to solve. That's real lean thinking.



December 2011 Newsletter: The Waste of @Waiting For

If you're a fan of GTD and you use an "@waiting for" folder, you're wasting time, effort, and energy. There's a better way. Download PDF



The siren song of technology.

My friend Kyle works at an insurance adjuster that's the corporate equivalent of Andy Griffith's Mayberry, RFD. According to Kyle, everyone is just so nice to each other that they can hardly get any work done. Every birthday, anniversary, child's graduation, promotion, deal closing, hand-knit scarf, and new haircut gets noticed and praised. Usually through a blast email that everyone in the company receives. The company is awash in messages providing feedback, coaching, and thank-yous, and Kyle says it's a small miracle anyone can find important customer communication amidst the deluge. The CEO is very proud of the tight-knit culture he's created, but recently he noticed the downside: people were spending inordinate amounts of time reading and writing emails of questionable utility, while responsiveness to internal and external customers declined. So he bought and installed Rypple, a "social performance platform built for teams to share goals, recognize great work, and help each other improve" (according to their website). Surely, he thought, this would keep people from spending so much time on email. And it did. People's email usage plummeted.

Unfortunately, they put all that time into communicating via the Rypple interface, so there was no improvement in customer service.

The CEO fell into one of the oldest traps in the book: he assumed that technology would be a panacea for his problems. Just slap some fancy hardware or software on the problem, and it will go away. But as Kevin Meyer & Bill Waddell have noted many times before, and as Mark Graban pointed out recently, automation is seldom the answer. Add technology to a broken process and all you get is a faster and more expensive broken process.

In the case of Kyle's company, the culture valued and promoted that kind of close interaction. In fact, the quantity of "Attaboy! Nice job!" emails was part of the annual performance review! It's no wonder that installing Rypple had zero effect on time spent e-schmoozing.

Kyle has gotten permission to disable Rypple for his team of adjusters, and now he's trying to revamp the criteria used in performance evaluations. He's not trying to turn the company into a Dickensian sweatshop, but he is trying to get the underlying process right -- in this case, the measures used to track real performance as valued by the customer.

Next time you consider buying a fancy new toy, remember: buying software for your process problem is like buying a bigger pair of pants for your weight problem.



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.



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.


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Going to the email gemba.

One of the core principles of lean is the notion of going to the gemba -- the place where the actual work is being done, so that you can see for yourself what the situation really is. This principle is particularly powerful when you're trying to solve problems. Why discuss a manufacturing failure while sitting in a conference room when you could go to the actual production line and watch the process? What's the sense in developing plans to spur sales of a new running shoe without first actually hanging out at the store and watching customers try it on? I thought about this principle when I read this article by Michael Schrage: To Improve Performance, Audit Your Employees' Emails. Schrage argues that

Because the rhythm and rhetoric of effective email exchange is a critical success factor in business performance, mismanagement of email may in fact be a symptom of other weaknesses in your organization.

Okay, okay, I know the title of the article sounds (more than) a bit Big Brother-ish. But Schrage isn't advocating that you actually monitor all the messages they read and write. That's insane. Rather, he suggests that you should make email an intrinsic part of performance reviews.

Ask people to present three sets of correspondence that demonstrate how well they've used the medium to manage successful outcomes. In other words, have them select examples illustrating their own email "best practices" for results. You, and they, will find this review and prioritization process revealing.

When you think about it, the concept actually makes sense. It's kind of like going to the "email gemba." It gives you a chance to deal with concrete communication examples, rather than vague abstractions, like, "Your direct reports say that your feedback and suggestions are confusing." Examining these self-selected emails may also reveal that the employee does a poor job of analysis, or excels at building teamwork.

To be sure, this tool is as compromised as any performance review by the delay between writing the email and the date you actually review it. But as a tool for seeing the actual work and helping to spur self-reflection and improvement, it's actually a pretty good idea.

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Too many "priorities."

Maggie Jackson, the author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, is eloquent on the topic of multitasking. In an HBR blog interview, she explains that

It fosters a culture of lost threads, stunted thinking, and stress. When we're constantly losing the thread of what we're trying to do, it becomes difficult to define and pursue goals. New ideas get abandoned and forgotten before they have a chance to develop. . . . Hierarchies of knowledge become flattened. When what we pay attention to is driven by the last e-mail we received, the trivial and the crucial occupy the same plane.

Of course, if you've been following my blog, these ideas aren't exactly a Copernican insight. (Eloquent, yes; cosmos paradigm-shattering, no.) The reason that I bring up this topic again is that I've been thinking more about the root causes of this problem. Certainly, there are environmental issues -- visual distractions on the desk, the prevalence of cubes with low walls, and the ubiquity of technological connection. There are cultural norms at play as well: companies in which there's an expectation that emails will be responded to within five minutes, or tolerance of meetings in which people spend more time focused on their Blackberrys than on the speaker.

But recently I've been thinking that at root, one of the major culprits is management unwillingness to limit their corporate priorities. Many organizations I work with have so many "strategic priorities" that it's inevitable that there won't be time for reflection, problem-solving, and innovation. Indeed, all those priorities make it nearly impossible for any individual or team to have a prayer of executing on them.

In part this overburden is due to the layoffs of the past few years. Fewer staff, combined with aggressive goals, is a recipe for what Maggie Jackson calls a "culture of distraction." But it's also a result of a lack of management discipline. Two or three priorities, sure. But 16? No. You're dooming yourself (and your organization) to impotence and frustration if you fracture people's time, effort, energy, and focus among so many "priorities."

Fact is, you can't do two things at once, and you can't implement a dozen priorities at once, either. At the end of the year, the only thing that matters is execution. Your company's performance is measured not by how many priorities you have on the list in January, but on how many you've actually executed by December.

Take it from Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest Airlines, who once said, "Of course we have a 'strategic' plan. It's called doing things."

Sounds like he has his priorities straight.


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"A wealth of information creates a paucity of attention."

Tachi Yamada, the president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program, mentioned last year how important it is to be 100% present when you're with someone:

I don’t have a mobile phone turned on because I’m talking to you. I don’t want the outside world to impinge on the conversation we’re having. I don’t carry a BlackBerry. I do my e-mails regularly, but I do it when I have the time on a computer. I don’t want to be sitting here thinking that I’ve got an e-mail message coming here and I’d better look at that while I’m talking to you. Every moment counts, and that moment is lost if you’re not in that moment 100 percent.

Recently I gave a presentation to the MBAs at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I was amazed by the pressure the students felt to be constantly connected and to respond instantly to email messages. And remember, these were students, not heart surgeons.

Why is it so difficult for us to simply be in the moment, wherever we are? (Incidentally, I'm not setting myself above the rest of humanity here, by the way -- I fight the same urge to continually play with my iPhone and check email as everyone else.) But as Marty Neumeir, author of The Designful Company says,

A wealth of information creates a paucity of attention.

Dr. Yamada's point about every moment counts reminds me of my friend Paul's comment that there are no rollover minutes in life. When that moment is gone, it's gone. With so much information around us, it's terribly easy to stop paying attention to what's in front of us.

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What would happen if you played with Barbies?

I'm working with a company whose managers regularly put in 12 or 14 hour days. They stay at the office till late or bring home a big pile of work. No choice about it, they say -- there's just too much to do. That made me think (again) about Terry Gross's interview with Jon Stewart. Stewart not only explained how he and his team use a seriously structured process to plow through the vast quantities of media and write all those jokes each day, he also talked about how he places a hard stop at the end of each day when he goes home.

Terry Gross: You work so hard on the show. It's so obvious how much work you put into writing and performing it and how long your day must be and how it probably never ends, particularly doing an event like this rally [the Rally to Restore Sanity].

Jon Stewart: You'd be surprised how easily I turn it off when I go home.  I've gotten really good at when I go home, the kids and I watch "Wizards of Waverly Place," and I don't think about it again.

TG: Have you changed the amount of time you're willing to devote to the show and to work now that you're the father of two?

JS: What I have decided is when I'm home, I'm home. And to me, that's the difference. You know, I can't not be at work but the real challenge is when I'm at work, I'm at work. I'm locked in, I'm ready to go, I'm focused. When I'm at home, I'm locked in and I'm ready to go and I'm focused on home. And we don't watch the show. We don't watch the news. We don't do any of that stuff. I sit down, I play Barbies, and then sometimes the kids will come home and play with me and then….

So here's Stewart -- a comedian -- with both a rigorous process to write jokes and a total focus on the job at hand. "Locked in, ready to go." And that combination allows him to go home and play with Barbie dolls (with or without his kids).

How about your day? My guess is that you don't have such a structured process for your work, nor do you have such single-minded focus on your job. (I know that I don't.) And as a result, when you go home, you bring your work with you. At the very least, you check email at night -- and you probably do a whole lot more.

Okay, I know that your job is so different from Stewart's, that you get urgent emails that have to be answered at once, that the company will very likely collapse without a steady stream of your trenchant business insights.

And yet.

Isn't it possible that the very reason you need to handle email at 11:30pm is because you're not totally focused during the day? Or conversely, isn't is possible that your willingness (even if it's somewhat reluctant) to answer email at 11:30pm is part of the reason that you don't have that focus?

I've written before (here and here) about what Toyota calls "lowering the water level" -- reducing the inventory/resources in a system to expose the problems. What would happen if you lowered the water level by reducing the time you spent at work, and instead committed to getting locked in, ready to go, and totally focused on being home?

Isn't worth an experiment?



24/7 availability does not create peak performance.

Mark Graban's latest post on Chrysler's CEO, Sergio Marchionne, reminded me of a recent visit to a client's R&D facility. Two of the managers bemoaned the incessant demands on their teams. Even as recently as a few years ago they would have downtime after the completion of a project when staff could go on vacation, work shorter hours, and generally refresh themselves. But no more. Layoffs and increasing pressures from the executive team means no more breathers. It’s constant pressure year-round now. Unfortunately, as psychiatrist Edward Hallowell says,

Making yourself available 24/7 does not create peak performance. Recreating the boundaries that technology has eroded does.

In an interview with CNET earlier this year, Hallowell explainted that “attention deficit trait” is

sort of like the normal version of attention deficit disorder. But it’s a condition induced by modern life, in which you’ve become so busy attending to so many inputs and outputs that you become increasingly distracted, irritable, impulsive, restless and, over the long term, underachieving. In other words, it costs you efficiency because you’re doing so much or trying to do so much, it’s as if you’re juggling one more ball than you possibly can.

Organizations are sacrificing their most valuable asset, namely the imagination and creativity of the brains they employ, by allowing ADT to infest the organization.

Pick up any business journal this year and at least once a week you’ll read about the need for innovation. Companies hire consultants, conduct off-site retreats, install “chief innovation officers” (whatever that means — probably a sign of a non-innovative company), and give employees toys from the Fisher Price catalog in an effort to spur innovative thinking.

But maybe they’re missing the mark. (In the case of the “chief innovation officer,” there’s no maybe about it.) Maybe what the staff needs is some time away from the office, away from the Blackberries, away from meetings. Maybe they need to go hiking and rafting away from their electronic tethers.

Of course, you don’t have to go that far. As Hallowell says,

It’s not that hard to deal with, once you identify it. You need to set limits and preserve time to think. Warren Buffett sits in a little office in the middle of nowhere and spends a lot of his time just thinking.

Back to Sergio Marchionne: you could make a powerful argument that his job above all requires innovation, creativity, and imagination. Does answering his six Blackberries within minutes or seconds, 24/7, have a negative effect on his own performance? (And for that matter, the fact that so many decisions are funneled through him surely has negative consequences. The always-available executive subtly undermines the people around him by telegraphing that his team is incapable of running things on their own. A good question might be why Marchionne has to make all of these decisions at all times.)

Think about it: getting more with less — less energy, less time, less effort. If we can apply lean thinking (creating more value with fewer resources) at the macro-level to manufacturing and services, why can’t we apply it at the micro-level to individual output?



Why not just add a video game to your car's GPS?

Microsoft just introduced "Outlook Social Connector" for all versions of Outlook. This nifty little bit of software will enable you to integrate  and view updates from your various networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace from the convenience of your Outlook inbox.

As you read an email from a friend or colleague, Outlook Social Connector shows you real-time updates about their activities on Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, or Windows Live Messenger. You can also add contacts and expand your social and business networks directly from the Outlook People Pane.

I don't get it. I mean, I understand the appeal of social media, and I think that in many situations it has real value, but to integrate it into your Outlook? Like you're not getting enough garbage pumped into your inbox already?

Most people I know already complain that the volume of email they deal with is an impediment to getting their real jobs done. And the highly addictive nature of email is mirrored by that of social media feeds. So adding more tasty distractions to one of your primary work environments (your computer) seems like a really bad idea to me. Kind of like moving your office into a bar, or a playground, or a museum. Or putting a miniature version of Tetris or Asteroids on your car's GPS. Sure, you could try restricting  your attention to your budget spreadsheet or the road ahead, but you'll probably fail. Pretty soon you'll be checking out the blonde at the table next to you, or trying to kill alien invaders during your next drive across Wyoming.

You don't see games and distractions right next to a table saw. Why would you want to add that to your email?


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Getting to the root cause.

While out for a bike ride with a friend of mine today, we talked about the class on A3 thinking that I'll be teaching this fall at the Stanford Continuing Studies Program. As I described the importance of finding the root cause, he told me about a fascinating example of root cause analysis by the National Park Service. (My source for this story is here.)

There was excessive wear on the Lincoln Memorial from all the cleaning it was getting because of bird droppings. The Park Service experimented with different cleaners and brushes to cut down on the wear. That didn't work so they looked at it differently and asked "Why are we cleaning it so much?" Because of all the bird droppings.

They put up nets to keep the birds out and it worked some but not well enough and the tourists complained about them. They went one step further and asked "Why do we have so many birds coming to this monument?" After studying it they determined it was because of the insects that swarmed the monument in the evenings. They tried different types of insecticides but nothing seemed to work for long. So they asked "Why do we have so many insects swarming the monument?"

They determined the bright lights that illuminated the monument in the evenings were drawing the insects. They found out that by turning on the lights 1 hour later each evening they could eliminate over ninety percent of the insects and the resulting bird droppings. The brushes and cleaners, nets, and insecticides all addressed symptoms of the root cause. The Root Cause was the lighting and once it was addressed the problem went away.

This story really exemplifies lean thinking at its best. The Park Service solved a major problem without spending large amounts of money or reallocating huge numbers of resources. By taking the time to understand the problem instead of jumping to solutions, they were able to institute a cheap, effective countermeasure.

As you know, I'm fascinated by the dysfunctional relationship people have with email, and the waste that it often creates. This story makes me think of all the technological solutions that companies are peddling to fix the email blight. Yes, they may work. But I'm not sure that they're really addressing the root cause of the problem. You can categorize, prioritize, analyze, sort, thread, and color-code your messages all you want -- but you're still going to spend a preposterously large amount of time dealing with mail. Perhaps it would be better to figure out why you're getting so much, and how you can prevent its creation in the first place.

How are you going to stop the (metaphorical) bird crap from invading your office?

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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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Information overload vs. filter failure

I'm a big fan of Nathan Zeldes' blog. Aside from his seminal piece on "Infomania," he's a clear-eyed observer of the email hell in which most corporate employees find themselves trapped. Recently, he rebutted Clay Shirky's argument (here and here) that "It's not information overload. It's filter failure." Shirky's maintains that (since Gutenberg at least) there's always been more information than any individual could possibly process -- but it's not a problem, because as long as reading it all isn't mandatory, who cares? But Zeldes rejects that argument. As he says,

It is not that there’s a lot of information; it is that there’s a lot more information that we are expected to read than we have time to read it in. It’s about the dissonance between that requirement and our ability to comply with it, and this requirement was not there in Alexandria or in Gutenberg’s Europe: you were free to read only what you wanted to and had time for. This is what has changed, not just the filtering....there is an expectation (express or implied) that you must go through all the mail in your Inbox.

I think Zeldes is exactly correct in this analysis. And to his credit, he points out that along with the obvious reasons for the growth of email (it's free, easy, and instant), there are powerful cultural reasons as well: CYA, publish or perish, mistrust, escalation, and so on.

Okay, these aren't exactly Copernican insights here. So what?

Well, as Jamie Flinchbaugh constantly reminds me in regards to A3s, getting the problem statement right is at least half the battle. And I think that the problem statement, "I/We have too much email" isn't very good. After all, how do you define "too much"?

Instead, I think it's worth asking questions like "Why is so much communication done via email?" Or, picking up on Zeldes' point, "Why are we expected to read all that mail?" These questions lead to much more interesting -- and fruitful -- conversations about corporate culture, service level agreements, allocation of authority, etc.

In an earlier post, I talked about how Peter Drucker viewed an excess of meetings as a sign of a dysfunctional organization. He wrote that

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.

I wonder if you could say the same thing about too much email. Yes, when you're collaborating with teams located in different offices around the world email is a incredibly useful communication tool. But lord knows that there are plenty of people, teams, and companies that don't have that convenient excuse.

The root causes behind our biblical email plague are myriad -- and almost certainly don't involve something we can't fix, like a vengeful god. Asking questions that reveal the root causes can help you take appropriate countermeasures. It's a better approach than blaming email on "filter failure," or meekly accepting the worsening status quo.