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Root Cause


Here's why productivity tools waste your time.

Yesterday's WSJ article, "How Productivity Tools Can Waste Your Time" highlights an uncomfortable fact: the infinitely expanding universe of systems, apps, books, and gizmos doesn't seem to be making people more productive.

An explosion in technology aimed at helping people manage their time and tasks may actually be making it harder.

New productivity products "have skyrocketed in the last couple of years. There is way too much out there to make sense of it all," says Whitson Gordon of Los Angeles, editor in chief of Lifehacker, a website on using technology to be more productive.

Speaking as a guy who has published his own time management book last year (A Factory of One), I can say with confidence -- and some degree of knowledge -- that most people love my ideas, but they struggle to actually implement them. As a result, they wallow in the same quagmire of email overload, metastasizing to-do lists, and behind-schedule projects as those who haven't read my book.

The failure of most people to implement classic time management ideas begs for a root cause analysis. I see two causes. First, there's the failure of self-discipline. As the WSJ article puts it,

Improving your productivity isn't about searching for a better app or finding the right software. "Ultimately it comes down to managing yourself."

If people struggle to diet, or exercise, or quit smoking, why should it be any easier for them to shed their lousy time management habits? The self-discipline required is formidable -- and most people, frankly, don't have it.

Second, and perhaps more important, is our work environment. You can try to establish new, more productive behaviors, but the ugly truth is that you'll get steamrolled by the bureaucratic inertia of your organization. Let's say that you vow, in Julie Morgenstern's words, to "never check email in the morning." (Pretty much every productivity coach recommends that.) Sounds great. But that resolution will last only until your boss chews you out for missing a critical email that she sent at 8:15am. The same holds true for running better meetings, for throwing out old/obsolete files, etc. If your work environment punishes you for productive behavior, you'll go back to the old ways of working.

So, before you download new apps or buy new books, consider whether or not you're disciplined enough to actually implement the ideas, and figure out how to get your company (or at least your boss) to change expectations.



Don't use training to fix performance problems.

Leave it to Google to bring a robust, problem-solving mindset to HR. In a recent NYTimes interview, Karen May, Google's VP for people development dismisses the reflexive approach to training that so many companies have:

Don’t use training to fix performance problems. If you’ve got a performance problem, there is a process to go through to figure out what’s causing it. Maybe the person doesn’t have the knowledge or skill or capability. Or is it motivation, or something about relationships within the work environment? Or lack of clarity about expectations? Training is the right solution only if the person doesn’t have the capability. But what I have seen in other places is sort of a knee-jerk reaction by managers to put someone in a training class if somebody isn’t performing well.

Having spent more than my fair share of time delivering training classes on time management, I can say with confidence that she's on the money. More often than I like to admit, my training classes were failures, if you measure success by sustained behavioral change. The failure wasn't due to quality of my teaching skills or the content. (At least, I don't think so!) Rather, it was due to root causes that were beyond my ability, or the ability of the participants, to fix.

As I've written before, time management problems are really just manifestations of dysfunction in one or more of the following areas: strategy; priorities; internal systems and processes; corporate cultural expectations; or individual skills. Training addresses the last area only -- but usually, the time management problem has its root cause in one of the other areas.

Remember: the performance problem you're seeing is more than likely just a symptom. And just as you'd look for root causes of defects in a manufacturing or administrative, process, you should look for root causes of "defects" in human performance. After all, your organization, and the people within it, are infinitely more complex than the products or services you provide. It only makes sense that any performance problems require at least a similarly probing analysis, rather than the simplistic fix of training.



What problem are you trying to solve?

NPR reports that Virginia's new set of education goals are higher for white and Asian kids than for blacks, Latinos and students with disabilities. According to the story, Virginia's state Board of Education

looked at students' test scores in reading and math and then proposed new passing rates. In math it set an acceptable passing rate at 82 percent for Asian students, 68 percent for whites, 52 percent for Latinos, 45 percent for blacks and 33 percent for kids with disabilities.

Winsome Sears, one of the Board members, explained the new goals this way:

"So why do we have these different subgroups? Because we're starting with black children where they are. We can't start them at the 82 percentile because they're not there. The Asian students are there. And so the real question is why aren't black students starting at the 82 percentile? Why? Why are they not there? That's the problem the board wants to solve."

Perhaps it's because I've spent much of the last week with a client working through A3 thinking and root cause problem solving, but the inanity of the Board of Education's decision really struck me. I mean, what problem are they trying to solve? No offense, Mr. Sears, but how exactly does lowering the bar to 45% help you fix the problem of black kids missing the 82nd percentile?

If they really want to improve educational performance, lowering the standards hardly seems like the right countermeasure. That's like lowering food safety standards and claiming that the food is now safe because only 1 out of 1000 hamburgers are tainted with salmonella instead of 1 out of 100. Or saying that a car has achieve the highest quality rating because it didn't exceed the 25 "allowable" defects.

It seems to me that the Board of Education is solving an entirely different problem: how to avoid getting penalized for failing to meet the academic goals of No Child Left Behind. If that's the case, then this countermeasure -- changing the standards -- is wonderfully effective.

Now, you can make a good argument that No Child Left Behind is a heavy-handed, poorly designed, ineffective tool for raising academic achievement. (And as a former teacher, I'm more than happy to make that argument.) However, if Winsome Sears and the rest of the Board want to solve the problem of why black kids aren't starting at the 82nd percentile, it's difficult to see how re-jiggering the standards is going to help.

The truth is that most problems have multiple root causes and require a suite of countermeasures to improve the situation. Developing those countermeasures requires a deep understanding of the true problem, and a great deal of time, effort, (and possibly) money. It's so much easier to just change the standards.

For me, one of the great powers of an A3 analysis is that the format makes it easy to read your argument "backwards." Because the analysis is laid out on one page, you can look at the proposed countermeasures, see whether they address the root causes you've identified, and decide whether they really help you close the gap you've identified in the problem statement. The Virginia Board of Education decision clearly fails that test:

Lower academic standards -> Help under-achieving kids -> Get all kids to 82nd percentile. I'm missing the logic.

And my guess is that if you look at many of the countermeasures your company puts into place, you'll see similar gaps.



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.



The Iceberg that Sinks Performance

I'm back. The last few weeks have been hectic for me: I finished the manuscript for my book, A Factory of One, and submitted it to Productivity Press, who will be publishing it in November or December this year. Many thanks to all of you in the lean community who provided feedback, comments, stories, and challenges to my thinking along the way.

I've also spent a long week clarifying my thinking about how lean concepts and tools tie into time management and individual performance. In the spirit of visual management, I thought that drawing this relationship would be helpful. This is what I came up with:

Obviously, I'm no Rembrandt. But I think this iceberg does a pretty good job of expressing the actual situation that I've seen over the past few years when people complain that they're overwhelmed, or that their group needs time management training, or that they simply don't have enough time to do everything. Their complaint -- the visible symptom, the part of the iceberg above the water -- is not the problem at all. It's a symptom. The root cause -- the real problem -- lies below the waterline. And while it's invisible, it can -- and will -- sink the ship.

Time management "problems" are really just manifestations of dysfunction in one or more of the following areas: strategy; priorities; internal systems and processes; corporate cultural expectations; or individual skills. And this is why very often time management programs fail to improve the lives of the people who so diligently construct lists, who carefully discriminate between urgent and important, who pursue inbox zero, who never check email in the morning, etc. All those approaches -- as valuable as they are -- only address the problems in individual skills. They ignore the systemic issues that undermine individual performance. You can try not checking email till 11am, but if your boss reams you out for missing an urgent email she sent at 8:15am, you're probably not going to stick with that 11am plan for very long.

Carrying the iceberg metaphor a bit further, even if you do lop off the top -- even if you address the symptoms by adding staff, or bolstering a person's individual skills, the problem will just rise to the surface again. At some point you'll have to get to the root causes, or you'll end up sinking the ship.


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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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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.