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Make your meetings more effective with 3Ps

Three things in life are inevitable: death, taxes, and the inability of organizations to conduct meetings that aren’t a soul-sucking waste of time. You’d think it wouldn’t be that hard to have productive meetings—after all, Robert’s Rules of Order have been around since 1876, and legions of intelligent business consultants have written extensively on the topic. Yet survey employees in any organization about their meeting effectiveness, and you’ll be met with groans, eye rolls, and complaints about how low-value added they are. An easier approach to making meetings effective and productive is to follow the 3P Principle: ensure that you have the Purpose, People, and Process right.

Effective Meetings
Effective Meetings

Purpose: A clearly defined purpose for the meeting is essential. Purpose is not a topic or a subject; it’s a clear description of the desired outcome of the meeting. It’s a goal that everyone is driving towards. Purpose is often, but not always, a decision—whether or note to open a new office, or to delay the introduction of a new product. But purpose could be brainstorming (to generate 15 new brand names), or gathering information (to get the sales team’s perspective on the new bicycle frame material), or to ensure that everyone understands a strategic shift in direction (we’re abandoning the low-end of the market, and here’s why). Having a clear purpose focuses the discussion, keeps the meeting from wandering, and increases the likelihood that you’ll get there.

People: Are you sure you have the right people in the room? Meetings often deteriorate into irrelevance because the right people aren’t there. This isn’t news, of course, but it’s surprising how infrequently people take the time to figure out who should attend. Job responsibilities change without formal notification, and the person nominally handling a function may no longer be doing it. Moreover, even if you have the right person in the meeting, she might want a specialist from her group to join her so that she can offer better opinions. Therefore, in order to get the right people in the meeting, you need to talk to the participants in advance, explain the meeting’s purpose, and find out from them who the right people are for that purpose. Organizing and conducting a meeting is a team sport—you can’t do it alone.

Process: Is a meeting the right process to accomplish your purpose? Although meetings are a near-Pavlovian alternative to other forms of communication, it’s a good idea to first ask whether you actually need a meeting. Status updates don’t require people to be in the same room at the same time, and can be handled more effectively with asynchronous communication like email, memos, Sharepoint documents, internal Wikis, etc. Moreover, even when a meeting is the appropriate process for your goal, you need to examine the preparation for the meeting. For example, you can’t expect management to sign off on a major capital expense or a significant engineering change in a single meeting: you need to engage in the process of nemawashi (consensus-building) in advance to ensure that the meeting will be effective. Advance one-on-one conversations with key people provide the context for the request, enable you to understand potential objections, and ensure that you can present all the necessary information to enable participants to make a decision.

Time is the most valuable resource individuals have. Time that many people can spend together is even more precious and difficult to schedule. It’s incumbent upon us to use that resource as wisely as possible. If you can get the Purpose, People, and Process right for your meetings, you will make it more likely that the limited time you have together isn’t a waste of time.



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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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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We are creatures of our environment

Stories about rotting garbage and table scraps aren't the place you'd expect to find powerful lessons about running your business. However, a story the other day on NPR about food waste in restaurants (about 10% of the food a restaurant buys ends up in landfills) provided this interesting insight:

The hardest part for many restaurants may just be getting the workers to become aware of how much edible food they waste every day. A few years ago, when [Chris Moyer of theNational Restaurant Association] was managing a big chain restaurant, he wanted to show his cooks there were plenty of opportunities to reduce waste. So he took away the garbage can.

"You'd be surprised, once you take away the garbage cans, if people have to ask permission to throw something away how little you throw away," says Moyer. "It was really quite amazing."

Let's put aside for the moment the issue of whether taking away garbage cans demonstrates respect for people. (It doesn't.) What's striking is how behavior changes in response to environmental conditions. If taking away garbage cans results in less food thrown away, what might happen if you took away the comfy chairs in the conference room? Or required that all meetings are stand-up? Most likely they'd end on time or early. (And, in fact, there are plenty of stories about companies doing precisely that.)

What if you rearranged where people sat in an office? I've been working with a company that complains about poor communication and coordination between the various groups involved in the product development process: the R&D and manufacturing engineers get last-minute changes dropped on them by the product marketing team. Perhaps not coincidentally, the marketing team sits at the other end of the building from the engineers. While it wouldn't be a panacea, I guarantee that if they mixed the marketing and engineering teams together, communication would be better.

Many years ago when it was still in start-up mode and cash was tight, the employees at Giro bike helmets asked Jim Gentes, the founder, to install a shower in the office. Gentes was afraid that he'd pay $5000 to put in a shower, and people wouldn't use it that much. So he came up with a simple solution: he put a piece of paper next to the shower showing the cost, and told employees to put their names down when they showered, and calculate the average cost of each shower. In other words, the average cost of the first shower was $5000; the average after two showers was $2500; after three showers, $1667; etc. By making the cost and the usage of the shower, Gentes ensured that people didn't take it for granted, and probably increased the usage, as people were motivated to drive the average cost down.

Think about it: what environmental changes can you make to improve the coordination, collaboration, and effectiveness of your teams?

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First, identify the value.

If you want to improve the effectiveness of your organization, start focusing on value, not on deliverables. When you look at job descriptions or examine organizational expectations, you see that they're usually driven by a focus on deliverables, not value. To wit:

  • you need to be at the office from 9-5
  • we have an open door policy, and expect you to keep your door open at all times
  • everyone must attend the monthly all-day, division-wide meeting

Notice that the focus isn't on the value you're providing, it's on the deliverable of your presence during certain periods of time. But if you focus on the value your customer wants, you can remove the manacles of arbitrary expectations.

For example, a woman in a class I recently taught told me that her boss expects her to keep her door open all the time. In this case, the "deliverable" is the open door. Of course, that makes it difficult for her to get her own work done, because she's constantly interrupted by her team. But what's the value she's providing? Her team needs her to answer questions and solve problems as they arise -- and if you've ever managed a team, you know that many of the questions are the same ones, over and over. So why can't she put up a list of FAQs on the server, or post videos answering the most common questions, so that her team can access the answers when they need it, without interrupting her? Of course, she'd be available for more complex issues, but at least this method provides the value while improving her ability to do her own job.

Another example: a company I worked with used to have a quarterly, all-day meeting for its 75 directors and VPs. No one wanted to be there for the full 8 hours -- the "deliverable" -- but it was mandatory because the exec team wanted ideas to cross pollinate throughout the company. Once they focused on the value, however -- the cross-pollination -- they saw that there were other ways to accomplish the same goal. Now they have a much smaller, much shorter meeting, and the company pays for a giant pizza lunch once a quarter where  everyone can exchange ideas about what they're working on and why it's interesting.

It's often difficult to see the distinction between the value and the deliverable, because we're so used to thinking about (and being rewarded for) the latter and not the former. So try focusing on the problem you're trying to solve, rather than the format of the solution. Then consider multiple solutions to the problem. You'll likely find that within that solution set lies a better method for delivering the value to your customer.


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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.


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The use -- and abuse -- of parking lots

A reader writes in:

I've been in organizations that use parking lots in their meetings. But too often, those ideas never go anywhere - the company just ends up with a bunch of flip chart sheets that contain good ideas that never get fleshed out in subsequent meetings, because they're just not "big enough to hold a meeting on" or because "we don't have enough time/resources to investigate this right now" so they're constantly de-prioritized or put on a back burner.

It's a good question. Lord knows you've probably seen more than your fair share of those flip chart sheets rolled up and lying in an unused closet like Dead Sea Scrolls. So what to do?

Given my (ahem) rather strong opinions on the need to live in your calendar (or to set up a personal kanban), it's not surprising that I advocate carving out a specific time to revisit the ideas that have been relegated to the parking lot. You can choose the first or last 10 minutes of the next meeting, or you can schedule a new meeting specifically to clear out the parking lot. It doesn't matter.

Specificity is the key to making this work. You won't just "get around" to talking about those ideas any more than you just "get around" to tackling tasks that aren't on your calendar or your task list. This doesn't mean you have to do it every week: there's nothing wrong with deciding only to review the list monthly, quarterly, or semi-annually. Just be sure to block out sufficient time for the review on your team's calendar.

It's important to bring evaluation criteria to the parking lot review. You'll undoubtedly have way too many potential projects to take them all on, so you'll need some way of selecting the winners from the losers. Some possible criteria are:

  • Ease, benefit, and urgency
  • Revenue vs. risk
  • Alignment with organizational goals vs. departmental goals

It doesn't really matter what criteria you use, just that you have some consistent way of determining whether or not the item is worthy of your organizational time and attention.

Now, the hardest part: throw out the losers. Get rid of the flip chart sheets and move on.

The parking lot is exactly like your personal to-do list: there's an infinite amount of stuff clambering for your attention, but only a finite amount of stuff that you can actually do. With an organization, there's an infinite number of potential projects, but a finite amount of people and money to take on those projects. So you have to cull the list. You have to divest yourself of the fantasy that you might actually take advantage of the opportunities that have been previously languishing in the parking lot. After all, the company has survived this long without implementing these ideas, so clearly they aren't all that vital to its success.

If you don't cull the list, you're sowing the seeds of the parking lot's demise. The list will be 83 items long, and no one wants to attend a meeting with 83 items on the agenda. Eventually, your colleagues will all find themselves too busy visiting their customers or washing their hair, and you won't have any more parking lot reviews.

But at least you'll have a nice collection of Dead Sea Scrolls in the closet.

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Faster decisions, less stale coffee

Want to make decisions faster? Want to avoid having your best people squandering their days drinking stale coffee and guiltily sneaking glances at their iPhones? You've heard it before, but here's the data: switch to stand-up meetings.

Bob Sutton recently wrote a piece on the virtues of stand-up meetings. The benefits are not just apocryphal or perceptual: a study found that groups that stood-up while making decisions took 34% less time to make the assigned decision, with no significant differences in decision quality between stand-up and sit-down groups.

Bob goes on to quote David Darragh, CEO of Reily, a New Orleans-based company that specializes in southern foods and drinks:

The importance of the stand-up meeting is that it can be accomplished efficiently and, therefore, with greater frequency. Like many areas of discipline, repetition begets improved results.  The same is true with meetings. The rhythm that frequency generates allows relationships to develop, personal ticks to be understood, stressors to be identified, personal strengths and weaknesses to be put out in the light of day, etc. . . .With frequent, crisp stand up meetings, there can never be the excuse that the opportunity to communicate was not there.

I know a lot of people who've been involved in a stand-up meeting that over time devolves into a leaning meeting, then a slouching meeting, and then finally a sit-down meeting. (Kind of like a reverse "evolution of man" cartoon.) The Wall Street Journal reported on some of the creative countermeasures that people have developed to avoid this problem:

  • at Hashrocket, a team passes around a 10-pound medicine ball during stand-ups.
  • at Steelcase, they play Elvis's "A Little Less Conversation" as a reminder to keep meetings brief
  • at Facebook, one team holds 15-minute stand-ups at noon, sharp: the proximity to lunch serves "as motivation to keep updates short"
  • at Microsoft, one group convenes stand-ups in an unheated stairwell

Obviously, there's still a need for longer meetings to address critical strategic issues. But the stand-up is a powerful way to identify problems early, strengthen relationships, and maintain alignment within a team. It's easy to default to the standard way of working (weekly, one-hour sit-down meetings). It's even easier to claim that you don't have the time for daily stand-up meetings. But why would you? I'm willing to bet that most people in your company aren't particularly satisfied with the flaccid, bloated, soul-sucking meetings that devour their calendars each week.

Try something different. Follow Jason Yip's guidelines. See if you don't make decisions faster, and drink less crappy coffee.



The C-Suite Double Standard

When I was at the AME Conference in Dallas a couple of months ago, I started noticing what I call the C-suite double standard: leaders and executives who are ferocious about improving manufacturing processes and eliminating waste, but who passively accept waste in their office operations and individual work. Do any of these hit home?

On the shop floor: Looking for a tool is waste. In the C-suite: looking for information is part of work. We’d never accept a skilled machinist spending time looking for tools. That’s classic waste, and we’d embark on a 5S program to ensure that the worker has the tools he needs, when he needs them, in order to do his job. In the C-suite though? Who hasn’t spent 2, 3, 5 minutes—or more— looking for important information in piles of paper or long email strings? If we’re so passionate about making sure that the machinist can deploy his skills without wasting time, why aren’t we equally passionate about making sure that the VP of Marketing can do the same?

On the shop floor: Do everything possible to ensure that people can work without interruption. In the C-suite: Interruptions are so commonplace that they’re hardly even recognized. A friend of mine tells me that Toyota has andon cords hanging everywhere so that workers can get help when there’s a problem, but the company does everything possible to protect the workers from interruptions. He says it’s remarkable how hard the company works to shield them from anything that would break their focus. But between open door policies and a lack of forethought, people in the office suffer an interruption every 11 minutes, with serious consequences for the quality and efficiency of their work.

On the shop floor: Standard work is the foundation for improvement. In the C-suite: Standard what? Production workers continually create and refine their standard work processes to improve quality and safety, reduce variation, and lay the foundation for improvement. C-suite workers run from fire to fire, have no cadence or structure to their day/week, and allow themselves to be driven by external forces—often at the expense of getting to the gemba, helping people develop problem solving skills, and focusing on strategic issues.

On the shop floor: Everyone is on the lookout for the waste of waiting. In the C-suite: On-time meetings are a joke. If materials, parts, and supplies aren’t delivered on time and workers are forced to wait, the team is expected to do a 5 Why (or A3) analysis to understand and eliminate the problem. Everyone understands the waste of waiting, and uses that problem as an opportunity to improve. Now, consider meetings in the C-suite. People wait all the time for the whole group to arrive and meetings to start. This colossal waste of time and resources is viewed as natural and inevitable as a John Boehner crying, or the Cubs missing the playoffs. Even worse: executives actively create this condition by scheduling meetings back-to-back without a break to travel between rooms/floors/buildings—and unless they’ve unlocked the secret to teleportation, that’s a recipe for having people sitting around a conference table playing Angry Birds on their phones.

On the shop floor: Machines and production lines have a finite capacity. Avoid over-burdening. In the C-suite: "I need this tomorrow morning!" People accept that machines have finite production capacity. You can’t get 100 parts an hour out of a machine that can only make 70 parts per hour. Even trying to operate an assembly line at 100% capacity guarantees a longer cycle time, due to the problems that inevitably occur. But in the C-suite, there’s no hesitation to overload people: ridiculous deadlines (“I need this in an hour!”) due to lousy planning and scheduling are rife. Sometimes there are emergencies, of course, but asking people to operate this way is a recipe for slower response in the long run.

On the shop floor: Improving our processes is essential to our long-term success. In the C-suite: This is the way it's always been done. Annual performance reviews. Enough said.



Why your meetings always suck (and what to do about it).

It’s not just your meetings that suck. I spent a week at the AME Conference in Dallas talking to continuous improvement/performance excellence/lean transformation leaders at over a dozen companies, and every one of them said their meetings suck. Mind you, these are people who are specially trained to improve quality, lower costs, and reduce waste. And yet, by their own admission, their meetings are the epitome of waste: waste of time, waste of human potential, waste of space, waste of energy.

If their meetings suck, what chance do you have?

Why are crappy meetings so pervasive? Why is it so hard to focus on value when you’re working in a group? I mean, it’s not like there’s any big secret to running a good meeting: Robert’s Rules of Order and its variants have been around practically since the Mesozoic era, and they all say the same thing. Start on time. End on time. Have an agenda. Assign a notekeeper. Etc. And yet, meetings still end up in New Yorker cartoons and Dilbert comic strips—and for good reason. They suck.

Jim Womack and Dan Jones introduced the concept of Purpose, Process, and People. I’d like to suggest that these three Ps could be applied equally well to meetings. Instead of getting bogged down in Robert’s Rules, consider:

What’s the purpose of the meeting? Can you explain it clearly, concisely, and compellingly? If not, you’re heading down the road towards a lampoon-worthy, soul-sucking time waste, because you don’t really know why you’re meeting. If all you have is a topic (“We need to talk about Project Applesauce”) without a clear goal, don’t have the meeting. I’ll go even further: if someone calls you into a meeting and it’s clear there’s no clear purpose, gracefully excuse yourself, leave, and go do something productive.

What’s the process you’ll use in the meeting to ensure that each step of the meeting is, in Womack’s and Jones’s words, valuable, capable, and adequate? Do you have the right information to fulfill the purpose of the meeting? Do you have the right format (large group free-form discussion, small-team problem solving, short stand-up meeting at the gemba, quick update around a visual management board, a series of one-on-one conversations, etc.) to accomplish the purpose? In my experience, the process is often misaligned with or inappropriate to the goal.

Who are the people you’ll have in the meeting? Who needs to be there? And the corollary: who doesn’t need to attend? These questions aren’t as simple to answer as they may seem. You’ll need to have many small discussions before the actual meting to determine who should be there. Think about all the times you’ve been halfway through a meeting and someone says, “Oh, we really need to have Susan’s input on that. She knows all about that alloy, and I’ll defer to her on the issue.” Think about all the times you’ve sat in a meeting and wondered, “Why the hell am I here? I could be drafting the marketing plan for our new line of Ibex fur mukluks.”

I’m not suggesting that making your meetings all value and no waste is any easier than making your production line of jet turbine blades, or the cardiac catheterization process at your hospital all value and no waste. But the irony of continuous improvement champions focusing all their effort on a product production line and none on their own knowledge production line is almost laughable. After all, if their days are so waste-ridden that they don’t have time to get rid of waste in the larger organization, how are they ever going to achieve their goals?

More to the point: if you're leading a company, a division, or a team, and you passively tolerate, accept, and contribute to a culture of pointless, bloated, and ineffective meetings, then you're unlikely to make the progress you desire.

Remember: the only truly non-renewable resource is time. Don’t squander it as though it’s limitless—and free.



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?



Apparently, you're in the same boat as the White House.

Think your company's meetings suck? Well, it may be cold comfort, but you're in good company. Apparently the Bush White House's meetings stunk, too. This is an excerpt from Donald Rumsfeld's memoir -- an extended gripe session about Condeleeza Rice's NSC meetings.

I had other issues with [Condeleeza] Rice's management of the NSC process. Often meetings were not well organized. Frequent last-minute changes to the times of meetings and to the subject matter made it difficult for the participants to prepare, and even more difficult, with departments of their own to manage, to rearrange their full schedules. The NSC staff often was late in sending participants papers for meetings that set out the issues to be discussed.

At the conclusion of NSC meetings when decisions were taken, members of the NSC staff were theoretically supposed to write a summary of conclusions. When I saw them, they were often sketchy and didn't always fit with my recollections. Ever since the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration, NSC staffs have been sensitive to written notes and records that could implicate a president or his advisers. Rice and her colleagues seemed concerned about avoiding detailed records that others might exploit. This came at the expense of enabling the relevant executive agencies to know precisely what had been discussed and decided at the NSC meetings. Attendees from time to time left meetings with differing views of what was decided and what the next steps should be, which freed CIA, State, or Defense officials to go back and do what they thought best.

In one August 2002 memo to Rice, I raised this lack of resolution. "It sometimes happens that a matter mentioned at a meeting is said to have been 'decided' because it elicited no objection," I wrote. "That is not a good practice. Nothing should be deemed decided unless we expressly agree to decide it." Rice started putting a note at the bottom of draft decision memos: "If no objections are raised by a specific deadline, the memo will be considered approved by the principals." That, too, was impractical. [Secretary of State Colin] Powell and I were frequently traveling. I did not want to have others assume I agreed with something simply because I missed an arbitrary deadline.

Happy Thursday.


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Unfortunately, the medium is the message.

I recently endured a turgid, three-hour meeting at a client's office. It stretched on for three hours, engorged by a seemingly endless series of PowerPoint slides, and it was all I (or anyone else) could do to hide the hypnic jerks that demonstrate, beyond a shadow of any doubt, that the meeting has gone on far too long. Marshall McLuhan's famous insight that "the medium is the message" wasn't targeted at PowerPoint presentations, but lord does it ever apply. His point was that

"we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. Whenever we create a new innovation - be it an invention or a new idea - many of its properties are fairly obvious to us. We generally know what it will nominally do, or at least what it is intended to do, and what it might replace. We often know what its advantages and disadvantages might be. But it is also often the case that, after a long period of time and experience with the new innovation, we look backward and realize that there were some effects of which we were entirely unaware at the outset."

It's fascinating, really: when you give people a clicker and a PowerPoint deck, they stop talking to their audience and begin talking at them. Instead of communicating in a normal, information-rich manner, they begin to break their thoughts and ideas into micro-chunks that are so laborious and time-consuming to process that you might as well be dealing with a reading primer book. Except in this case, instead of getting "See Dick. See Jane. See Dick and Jane," you get something like this:

"We have a huge opportunity in front of us. But there are at least two serious competitive threats. First there is Acme Manufacturing. They have Wile E. Coyote as a well-known spokesman. He embodies determination. Second, there is Pillsbury. The doughboy has a high Q-Score. Plus, he's well-fed and has a great laugh."

Of course, there's a bullet point for each of these sentences, just in case you didn't get it -- and as a result, the meeting goes on and on and on. This meeting could easily have been cut by one-third had the presenters dispensed with the PowerPoint and instead simply talked to the audience.

Garr Reynolds writes extensively and compellingly about what he calls "naked" presentations -- presentations that are stripped of artifice, and that present ideas in a simple, powerful, and fresh manner. Naked communication is effective because the message can be communicated without the medium getting in the way. Naked communication also avoids the waste of unnecessary processing that PowerPoint almost always entails -- both in preparing the slides, and then in making the audience listen to you slowly read through them.

Do yourself a favor: make the message the message.

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Decision Sclerosis

Recently I've been hearing companies lament that they're no longer as nimble as they once were. Decisions require more meetings and take longer. People at all levels are frustrated because they can't implement new ideas quickly. Even the simplest issues seem to require endless rounds of discussion and debate. Eventually, the organization is either outflanked in the market, or talented people leave to find opportunities with faster-moving companies. I see at least two causes creating this problem. First, as companies get bigger and there are more zeroes attached to their budgets, the risks inherent in any decision seem to grow. It's one thing to screw up the colors on a running shoe when it only sells 8,000 pairs; it's quite another to screw it up when it accounts for 800,000 pairs. You really want to be sure that the fluorescent colors of the 80s are back before plastering them all over your new high-end shoe, and as a result, you end up consulting with sales, marketing, manufacturing, account management, IT -- pretty much anyone who has even the most tangential relationship to the product.

The fallacy here is that compared to the scale of the business, that product or initiative isn't really any more significant or risky. It's not the absolute number that's important; it's the relative number. A $5000 investment decision for a start-up is just as meaningful and fraught with danger as a $5 million decision for GE -- maybe even more so, since GE can absorb that loss without going out of business.

Second, as organizations get bigger, consensus rather than action becomes the driving force. When companies are small, everyone either sees eye-to-eye (that's why they're there, after all), or they're at least comfortable with the inevitable interpersonal conflict. But as organizations grow, employee diversity grows, and management is increasingly sensitive to the need for harmony and agreement. People may have the titular authority to make decisions, but in reality they don't: they have to gain consensus before acting. If one group doesn't agree, nothing proceeds.

The problem here is that when no one has the power to make a decision, either nothing gets done, or everything gets pushed up the the CEO for a judgment. Neither option is acceptable. Decision-making authority must reside with individuals within an organization, not be diffuse within a group.

So what is to be done? Establishing clear decision-making criteria is an important start. Set thresholds based on money, say, or risk for involving other groups. Also, allow some decisions to be made by majority, rather than consensus. Neither of these are easy changes to make, but if you don't want to become a sclerotic, lumbering dinosaur, you'll have to pursue these changes at some point.



Hacking Work

Stop doing stupid stuff because that's the way it's always been done. Stop using crappy tools because that's what the company offers. Stop following inane rules because that's the policy. Over at AMEX Open Forum, Matt May brought the concept of "hacking work" to my attention. He interviewed Bill Jensen (author of Hacking Work) about this idea -- because let's face it: in a lousy economy where people feel lucky just to have a paycheck, breaking corporate rules doesn't seem like the smartest thing to do.

Jensen explains that

overall, the design of work sucks, and a lot of stupid rules persist. The tools we use in life have leapfrogged over the ones we use at work. What available for people to do their work is out of sync with what they really need to do their best. . . . People are being asked to do their work with a massive anchor wrapped around their leg. In today’s economy, that anchor—the corporate-centered design of work—is making it really hard for everyone to keep their jobs, let alone do their best work.

Jensen provides two examples of hacking that illustrate his idea:

we know of one manager couldn’t get her customer-focused project approved, even though the senior team declared customer focus as a strategic priority. So she secretly videotaped customer complaints (that her project would address) and posted them on YouTube. The public outcry was so huge that the senior team quickly reversed their decision, not only approving her project, but they actually increased her budget.

Or take the trainer that told all her trainees that she knew her mandatory courses “sucked” due to circumstances beyond her control—several years of zero funding—so she sent everyone to free online courses outside of the company, tested them on what they learned, and validated their certificates in courses they never attended.

Jensen is passionate about hacking. He believes that it's practically a moral imperative for the engaged employee to try to improve his or her work. Doing stupid stuff and following pointless rules is a soul-sucking waste of time and energy.

A few months ago, I started an online "community A3" project to figure out how to eliminate the waste of crappy meetings. One of the participants figured out that their team (like groups in most companies) had their meetings on a "push" basis: they scheduled meetings with a certain frequency and followed that schedule regardless of need. They shifted to a "pull" mode -- meetings were only held when needed to solve customer problems -- and reduced their collective meeting burden by 1/3. It wasn't the "way things are done here," but they freed up 56 hours per month to actually solve problems.

Matt points out that the hacker spirit is really another way to describe the mindset at Toyota, where people are constantly trying to find ways to banish waste and unnecessary work. So whether you call it "hacking work," or "A3 thinking," or "kaizen," the point is to stop doing stupid stuff so that you can do great work.



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?



Call for Community A3 Participants Redux

Much to my surprise, the response to Joe Ely's and my call for participants in our community A3 project has been, um, underwhelming. After some reflection with Joe and others, I've come up with the following possible explanations:

  1. Companies are so magnificently efficient that there's no wasted managerial time, and therefore no need for a community A3. No problem, no A3.
  2. Companies may have a problem, but have no desire to be involved with Dan and Joe because, after all -- who the hell are they?
  3. Companies may have a problem with all their really smart people stuck in unproductive meetings, but it's just not really a priority compared to all the other stuff they're doing, lean and otherwise.
  4. Companies may have a problem with all their really smart people stuck in unproductive meetings, but they're reluctant to share those inefficiencies with the public -- even the lean community.

I've ruled out #1 because having flushed more hours than we care to count down the toilet of flabby, pointless meetings, both Joe and I know better.

#2 is a good possibility. Aside from our devastating good looks and wonderful blogging voices, neither Joe nor I have double-top-secret Lean Six Sigma Infrared belts. (Actually, Joe might, but since it's double-top-secret, he hasn't told me about it.) But we're pretty good as coaches nonetheless, if only because, as outsiders, we can ask questions.

#3 is quite likely. After all, it's hard to measure the cost of waste of really smart people checking their Blackberries in a conference room for two hours instead of being out on the floor solving problems. It's a real opportunity cost, but it doesn't show up on the income statement. If this is the case, do me one favor: before you mark this RSS feed as read and move on to your next job, just try calculating how much time you've spent in the last week in meetings, and how much of it was waste.

Now, if #4 is the issue -- you're afraid of making either yourself or your organization look bad -- let me put your mind at ease: the purpose of this A3 is to share ideas for improvement with the lean community, not to embarrass anyone. We're more than happy to keep all participants anonymous. There's no need to put your name on your A3 -- we'll share the content (root causes, countermeasures, implementation results, etc. -- but not your identity.

So, with all that said, we still have room for a few more people or organizations to join us. Welcome; we'd love to have you.



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.