Viewing entries tagged


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.




Hiding from Managers is not the sign of a Kaizen Culture.

Harvard Business School professors are at it again. Last week, I was incredulous about their research suggesting that maintaining "strategic inefficiencies" in a hospital is a savvy way to discourage physicians from ordering unnecessary tests. This week I'm gobsmacked by their research suggesting that decreasing observation of workers increases productivity. I'm sure that Bill Waddell will soon be fulminating about Harvard's ivory tower view more convincingly than I will. But in the meantime, check out what Professor Ethan Bernstein calls the Transparency Paradoxthat watching your employees less closely at work might yield more transparency throughout the organization. In his studies at a global contract manufacturer's plant in Southern China, his team of researchers

were quietly shown 'better ways' of accomplishing tasks by their peers-a 'ton of little tricks' that 'kept production going' or enabled 'faster, easier, and/or safer production,'" he writes. "Then they were told 'whenever the [customers/managers/leaders] come around, don't do that, because they'll get mad.'"

The official company practices happened to be less effective than the tribal tricks of the trade—tricks that the employees hid from the higher-ups, thus thwarting the goal of learning by observing. Bernstein says that there was no ill-intent or cheating behind such hiding behavior, but merely a rational calculation about human behavior: Operators were hiding their freshest, most innovative techniques from management so as not to "bear the cost of explaining better ways of doing things to others."

In the paper he recalls a worker telling [a research team member], "Even if we had the time to explain, and they had the time to listen, it wouldn't be as efficient as just solving the problem now and then discussing it later. Because there is so much variation, we need to fix first, explain later."

To be fair to Professor Bernstein, he points out that the workers did share ideas with their supervisors after testing and perfecting them:

"There was a pride in ownership leading to the desire to share," Bernstein says. "And so they did. But only after they had data to support their new approach."

But what's troubling about this study is the assumption that there's an innate and immutable human tendency inside any organization to hide work so as "not to bear the cost of explaining better ways of doing things." Now I don't know anything about the organizational culture in this global contract manufacturer in China, but I do know that Toyota, Autoliv, Wiremold, Lantech, and hundreds of other companies have demonstrated that you can create a culture that prizes, rewards, and elevates the habit of sharing information and improving processes through constant application of the PDSA cycle.

Professor Bernstein goes on to explain that

On the manufacturing floor, the workers were trying to manage the attention of the managers. They knew that if they did something that looked weird, it would draw attention and, quite frankly, would disrupt their current work process. If they didn't look weird, then that wouldn't happen. And they knew that just for the sake of getting the production numbers, sometimes it would be good to attract attention and sometimes it wouldn't.

Professor Bernstein's research was particularly irritating to me because I'm in the middle of reading Jon Miller's excellent book, Creating a Kaizen Culture. Jon argues convincingly that the highest performing organizations avoid the implicit assumption that managers and employees are on different teams (at best) and antagonistic (at worst).

A culture that has as its raison d'etre human improvement  doesn't need to shield workers from managers. When supervisors' and managers' primary function is the nurturing and development of front-line employees, there's no need to hide "for the sake of getting the production numbers."



Focus on value, not deliverables.

If you missed it, check out the recent HBR article, "Six Drucker Questions That Simplify a Complex Age." Here they are:

  1. What does the customer value?
  2. What is our business, and what should it be?
  3. What is the task?
  4. What are your ideas for us to try to do new things, develop new products, design new ways of reaching the market?
  5. Who in this organization depends on me for what information?
  6. What would happen if this were not done at all?

The author suggests asking the first two from the standpoint of your overall organization, asking those who work for you the second two, and asking yourself the final two.

It's more than a little presumptuous of me to use Drucker to reference one of my blog posts or my book, but these six questions force you to do precisely what I've advocated before: focus on value, not on deliverables.

All too often our personal expectations or our organizational metrics push us in the opposite direction. How many hours did the person work today? What does the latest PowerPoint presentation look like? How many calls did the customer service rep handle last hour? None of these measurements capture the value that the person creates in the eyes of the (internal or external) customer, because they're concerned with a measurable deliverable.

First, think about value.



Maintaining inefficiency is a good thing? Seriously?

Leave it to the professors at Harvard Business School to demonstrate a complete lack of lean thinking. A recent HBS Working Paper points out that increasing ordering capacity of the ultrasound service in a hospital led to longer wait times for that service. It turns out that the increased capacity led physicians to order more ultrasounds.

This type of finding isn’t new – transportation experts have known for a long time that building more road capacity doesn’t ease traffic congestion. The extra road room encourages more people to drive, with the result that the new, wider roads have just as much gridlock as before.

What’s so utterly disappointing, however, is the authors’ recommendation: retain the inefficient step in the process in order to discourage physicians from ordering ultrasounds. They write:

to improve hospital performance it could be optimal to put into place "inefficiencies" to become more efficient.

The authors have correctly recognized that given the opportunity, doctors will order more tests. But their solution of keeping inefficiencies in the system is as absurd as saying that we should make cars less stable in order to keep people driving within the speed limit. Or that we should have smaller freezers so that we can’t keep as much ice cream in the house and get fat.

The right recommendation – the lean recommendation – would maintain the local level efficiency improvement, while also including a structured problem solving initiative to reduce the number of unneeded ultrasounds. As Dr. Deming pointed out, the system in which people work drives the vast majority of their behaviors. The doctors aren’t simply ordering more ultrasounds because they can, irrespective of the benefit to the patient. They’re doing so because the system rewards that behavior.

You’d think that a Harvard Business School professor would know that.




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.



The absurdity of the 40 hour workweek

Hopefully you read Jason Fried's (co-founder and CEO of 37signals) OpEd in Sunday's NYTimes. If you haven't, read it now. Go ahead. I'll wait. Jason advocates (compellingly) for the value of taking time off from work -- not simply to promote the squishy concept of "work-life balance" or to improve employee morale, but to improve productivity:

From May through October, we switch to a four-day workweek. And not 40 hours crammed into four days, but 32 hours comfortably fit into four days. We don’t work the same amount of time, we work less....The benefits of a six-month schedule with three-day weekends are obvious. But there’s one surprising effect of the changed schedule: better work gets done in four days than in five. When there’s less time to work, you waste less time. When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time.

This result is no surprise if you're familiar with Parkinson's Law. As I've pointed out before, this approach is similar to Toyota's policy of continually reducing the resources available in order to drive improvements in their production processes.

Jason's experience at 37signals also reminds me of what Leslie Perlow discovered at Boston Consulting Group -- that eliminating the "always on" ethic drives the creation of more efficient work habits:

When people are “always on,” responsiveness becomes ingrained in the way they work, expected by clients and partners, and even institutionalized in performance metrics. There is no impetus to explore whether the work actually requires 24/7 responsiveness; to the contrary, people just work harder and longer, without considering how they could work better.

Ultimately, this ties into the frequent disconnect between "deliverables" and "value," something I've been thinking about a lot recently. Even if you're not a plumber or a lawyer, there's a tendency to focus on the amount of time you spend on a project and what the output is. But the first step in adopting a lean mindset is to identify the value of your work -- and that value is determined by what the customer wants. The customer doesn't care how many hours you work; the customer only cares whether or not you deliver the product or service that she wants.

Jason Fried has asked his programmers to deliver products that the company's customers want, irrespective of the time they spend in the office. If they can do it in 32 hours per week, great. He's overthrown the tyranny of the 40 hour workweek by decoupling the link between office time (deliverable) and meeting the customers' needs (value).

There's a huge difference between deliverables and value. Between effort and results. That's a lesson that we can all learn from.



Sowing the seeds of our own demise

Leslie Perlow, author of the seminal study on "time famine," is at it again, this time with a new book called Sleeping with your Smartphone. The book is based on experiments that she did with the Boston Consulting Group (and which I described in an earlier blog post) to reduce the need -- or the perceived need -- to be "always on." In a new HBR blog post, Perlow points out that

accepting the pressure to be "on" — usually stemming from some seemingly legitimate reason, such as requests from clients or customers or teammates in different time zones — in turn makes us accommodate the pressure even more. We begin adjusting to such demands, adapting the technology we use, altering our daily schedules, the way we work, even the way we live our lives and interact with our family and friends, to be better able to meet the increased demands on our time. Once our colleagues experience our increased responsiveness, their requests on our time expand. Already "on," we accept these increased demands, while those who don't risk being evaluated as "less committed" to their work.

She calls this the "cycle of responsiveness (although I'd probably call it the "vicious cycle of responsiveness"), in which our willingness to respond to increased requests simply leads to increased demands. Like ocean waves gradually wearing away a sand castle, these demands end up eroding any vestige of time that we can unambiguously arrogate for ourselves.

From a lean perspective, there are two major problems with this cycle of responsiveness. First, there's the waste of overproduction. I've argued before that if the only thing you're providing your customers is a fast response, you'll soon be replaced by someone cheaper in Shenzen or Mumbai. Your job is to provide real value -- value which most of the time doesn't need to be delivered within 12 minutes of receipt of the email. In other words, being "on" all the time isn't necessarily what your customer needs. Yes, your customer may appreciate it, but that doesn't mean that they need it. And that, from a lean perspective, is overproduction.

Second, the cycle of responsiveness prevents (or at least impairs) the ability to do kaizen and reflection. If you're always "on" and responding to customers, you never have the time to stop, to reflect, to figure out how to improve your processes and systems. You end up racing faster and faster in a desperate attempt to stay in the same place on the treadmill, like George Jetson.

Perlow provides valuable suggestions for how to break the cycle. Check them out here.



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.


1 Comment

It's not a Maginot Line. It's happiness.

As a strategy, building walls is frowned upon. The Great Wall of China. Hadrian's Wall. The Maginot Line. AOL's "walled garden." Defensive moves -- all failed. But maybe in certain circumstances walls can be beneficial?

A New York Times article describes how researchers used an iPhone app to contact some 2,200 individuals and get a total of roughly 250,000 replies as to how each person was feeling and what they were doing at the time they were contacted. Forty-seven percent of them reported that their minds were wandering when contacted -- in other words, half of them were not focused on whatever it was they were doing. Most interestingly, there was no correlation between the joy of the activity and the pleasantness of their thoughts.

Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing.

This finding jibes perfectly with the focused attention inherent in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of "flow," in which a person so completely immersed in a task that feelings of time, effort, and energy disappear.

The problem today, of course, is that the state of flow is increasingly difficult to achieve. Psychologist Edward Hallowell says that

30% to 40% of people's time in the workplace is spent tending to unplanned interruptions, and then reconstituting the mental focus the interruption caused. I'm sure that was not the case 20 years ago simply because the tools of interruption were not so plentiful. And all the distraction has created blocks in thinking and feeling deeply. We're being superficialized and sound-bit.

In fact, when he asks people where they do their best thinking, the most common response is, "In the shower." Apparently, the shower is one of the last places left where we're not often interrupted.

That's where the Maginot Line comes in. While it's not possible (or advisable) to completely wall off the outside world all the time (who wants to end up like France in 1940?), it's essential to recreate some boundaries around your work time so that you can think without interruption. Close the door. Go to a conference room or a coffee shop. Spend a weekend at a meditation center. Whatever works for you. But for god's sake, put away the iPhone and turn off the internet connection.

Thinking and creating is hard work. It requires energy. Often it isn't very much fun. The prevalence and ease of distraction -- particularly electronic -- is a seriously enticing alternative to hunkering down with your thoughts and a blank piece of paper. But if you can maintain your focus on that blank piece of paper instead of mindlessly and reflexively following another distraction, you'll be much happier.

What's your Maginot Line going to be? What kind of defensive walls will you build?

1 Comment


Choice kills.

Choice kills. Okay, that's a bit dramatic. But as Bob Pozen (chairman emeritus of MFS Investment Management, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, and board member of Medtronics and Nielsen) demonstrates, eliminating complexity and making choices simpler can go a long way towards keeping you focused on your strategic goals.

In a recent HBR blog piece, Pozen explains how he makes he reduces the number of choices he has to make.

On a daily basis, I try to keep the material aspects of life as simple as possible. I get up every morning around 7 a.m., shave, shower and dress by 7:15 a.m. Then I read two newspapers while having breakfast and leave around 7:30 a.m. The night before I set out what I'm going to wear. I have five winter outfits and five summer outfits to simplify my life. I get up, take a shower the same way, and sit in the same place to tie my shoes. I basically eat the same thing for breakfast every morning in the same place at our kitchen table. I'm very boring in the morning.

This is a common theme among prolific people. I've written before about the way Stephen King gets himself ready for work:

There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places.

Sheena Iyengar, Columbia University professor and author of The Art of Choosing, designed a famous study in which she demonstrated that too much choice is paralyzing: after we hit about seven items, it's too difficult for our brains to sift through the competing options. As a result, we default to the easiest choice: doing nothing. And since doing nothing at the office is usually frowned upon by your boss, the default choice usually ends up being email, instead of real work. (Incidentally, this is another reason why I'm not a big fan of the infinite to-do list: too many options makes it difficult to settle upon the things you really need to do.)

Mark Graban once wrote that

I've heard Toyota people say you want to eliminate the hundreds of LITTLE repetitive decisions so that the person involved can focus on the FEW major decisions with a fresh mind that's not fatigued from constant decision making.

You may not want to go to Pozen's extremes -- you may want to have more options in the morning than Cheerios or Life cereal -- but it's worth thinking about what you can do to reduce choice, routinize what can be routinized, and free yourself up to make complex decisions.



The Productivity Myth.

Tony Schwartz asks this question over at the HBR Conversation blog:

But is it [the productivity gains in the economy since the market meltdown] good news? Is more, bigger, faster for longer necessarily better?

Tony argues that the fear of layoffs is driving workers to sleep less, work more, take fewer vacations, and have less downtime during the day. He says that this amped up work pace "ultimately generates value that is narrow, shallow and short-term." Personally, I think he takes his argument a bridge too far when he blames the more, bigger, faster ethic for Toyota's problems and the sub-prime mortgage crisis (more sales, more profits, damn the torpedoes).

And yet, there's an element of truth in his argument. Mark Graban penned a wonderful piece today on the perils of 100% utilization, whether for a system, machines, or people. As he says,

The goal of 100% utilization leads to dysfunction and waiting time. Yes, we don’t want the doctor to be idle anymore than ZipCar wants its vehicles to be idle, but you need some “slack capacity” in any system for things to flow.

I've never expressed this idea as concisely as Mark, but I talk about this all the time when I consult to companies. I see people who are stressed and overworked, and they come to me for ideas on how to get more done during the day. To be sure, there's often a high level of waste and inefficiency in the way they work, and we have no problem coming up with ways to reduce that waste. But if all they're going to do is fill up their new "production capacity" (usually with more stupid email, pointless meetings, or non-value added work), then their efforts are ultimately self-defeating. By pushing themselves up to 100% utilization, they're guaranteeing that the system will break: they'll get sick, they'll make mistakes, they won't be a good bosses or husbands or dog owners.

Bottom line: you need some slack time to relax, recharge, and you know, actually think and reflect for a bit. Your performance will improve (as will your health).

Schwartz say that

Getting more tasks accomplished — say, writing and responding to scores of emails in between other activities — may technically represent higher productivity, but it doesn't necessarily mean adding greater value.

I couldn't agree more.


1 Comment

Why companies don't experiment.

A recent HBR article by Dan Ariely, "Why Companies Don't Experiment," posits that listening to experts creates a false sense of security.

When we pay consultants, we get an answer from them and not a list of experiments to conduct. We tend to value answers over questions because answers allow us to take action, while questions mean that we need to keep thinking. Never mind that asking good questions and gathering evidence usually guides us to better answers.

He goes on to say that

Companies pay amazing amounts of money to get answers from consultants with overdeveloped confidence in their own intuition. Managers rely on focus groups—a dozen people riffing on something they know little about—to set strategies. And yet, companies won’t experiment to find evidence of the right way forward.

I think that in a larger sense, the experts might take the form of internal Lean Six Sigma Black Belts, the senior engineer, the department chair, even your mother ("always make the chicken soup *this* way, with the parsnip added last"). Even if you don't have direct authority from your position in some organizational food chain, you might have authority that stems from your expert status. And that's something to be wary of.

As a consultant, this issue -- leading with no authority, combined with the danger of prescription -- is on my mind. My clients consider me an "expert" (which makes me squirm) on time management. The truth is, I've worked at dozens of companies and with hundreds of people, so I see patterns that are often repeated -- but that doesn't mean that I can prescribe an off-the-shelf solution for an organization struggling with getting the right things done. Each organization is unique -- and for that matter, each individual is unique. Not only are the root causes of their problems likely to be different, but the solutions and countermeasures will differ. The only way to find what will work is to really understand what's behind the problems and then experiment with changes.

And yet, most managers I see are reluctant to try different ways of working. I think that's partially due to inertia -- after all, they've done pretty well so far by working the way they have. But that reluctance is also driven, in part, by fear. What if people don't like working in this new way? What if the CEO doesn't like the fact that emails aren't being answered within 45 seconds?

Ariely says that Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, is

trying to create a culture of experimentation in which failing is perfectly fine. Whatever happens, he tells his staff, you’re doing right because you’ve created evidence, which is better than anyone’s intuition. He says the organization is buzzing with experiments.

Experiments require evidence and data. So if your gut tells you that you're not working as efficiently as you could and you want to change in the way you work, benchmark the current state, run experiments, and measure the change. You don't need experts to tell you what will work for you.

1 Comment