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How lean improves individual productivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Going to the (food truck) gemba

Roy Choi, the inventor of the Korean Taco and one of the fathers of the food truck craze, was interviewed on Fresh Air last week. He's a restaurateur, a cook, an author, and clearly a man who understands the power of "going and seeing." The interviewer, Terry Gross, asks Choi how much time he spends in food trucks -- between his book tour and the challenges of running four restaurants in addition to the food trucks, he's a pretty busy guy.

GROSS: So, how much time do you actually spend in trucks?

CHOI: I'm there every day.

GROSS: Oh, really? I just assumed that you had other people doing that.

CHOI: No, I have a crew, you know, that cooks, just like a chef has cooks in the kitchen. But the trucks are my kitchen, and so that's where I am. You know, if I'm not doing something crazy like this [interviews] or doing a book tour, I'm with my trucks, on the streets with the people. I don't know where else I would be. It's my life.

GROSS: But you have several restaurants now, too.

CHOI: Yeah. Every day, I wake up. My only goal every day when I wake up is to try to see every single person within my organizations and shake their hand and give them a hug and then check the food, and then go back through at night. . . . I have four places, four restaurants. So I'll hit all the restaurants during the day, check on prep, say hello to everybody, hit one lunch truck, hit the trucks in the morning, as well, to check on prep, and then do some office work. And then I go back out and check on the trucks again, and then I go back out to the restaurants and then enjoy the crowd and enjoy the people and see them eating. I really get a lot of energy and my information from how people are eating the food. So that's where I am.

Sometimes when the lean community talks about "going and seeing" (particularly as part of leader standard work), it comes across as a perfunctory, mechanical, activity. I think Choi's comments really get to the heart of what "go and see" is all about.

It's about showing concern for your employees -- even if you don't actually give them a hug. It's about respect for people and by seeing how they're working and making corrections or providing help, if necessary. It's about getting close to the customer, and learning by observation when you see how they interact with your product or service.

I don't know about you, but I call that leadership.

You can read the entire transcript or listen to the interview here.



You can do low cost iteration anywhere.

Go to the gemba. Go and see. Stand in a circle and observe what's happening with your own eyes. The planners of The Porch in Philadelphia did this in spades for an analysis of how customers were using the new public open space area in front of Philly's 30th Street Station. The data they gathered from simple observation has enabled them to modify and iterate the layout of the space to better serve the community.

University City Design, the organization responsible for creating the open space, wanted to go light, flexible (and cheap) shortly after starting the project, and then study what happened next.

"In the office, we started looking at pictures of Bryant Park, of Rittenhouse Square, and fantasizing about what [this] could be," says Prema Gupta, the director of planning and economic development for UCD, recalling the earlier stages of the whole project. "It's almost like there was a fork in the road. We could have built out that vision at that point, and we would still be fundraising for it, and it would still be a blank stretch of sidewalk."

So they learned that a farmer's market doesn't quite work in The Porch, but a food truck rally does. Bistro chairs are nice, but Luxembourg chairs are better. After all, If you can only afford some lighter interventions, you can at least ensure they serve exactly how people move through and use public space.

UCD's approach is just another example of PDSA skillfully deployed to improve quality and reduce costs. Call it "trystorming," call it 3P, call it MVP, call it "design thinking," call it whatever you want. The important point is that improvements don't -- and shouldn't -- require massive investments in time, money, and resources until you know for sure that the improvement is going to work.

Check out this story, the cool graphs, and analysis at the Atlantic Cities website.



Respect for people -- Marissa Mayer edition

Good god -- the blogosphere and the press is full of judgments on Marissa Meyer's decision to end telecommuting at Yahoo. Depending on who you read, she's either a savvy executive making the tough choices necessary to rescue the sinking Yahoo ship, or she's an industrial era luddite clinging to an old work paradigm who, not incidentally, has betrayed women. Of course, none of these armchair quarterbacks (as near as I can tell) actually work at Yahoo. None of them know what the real situation is, either in the head office or in the home offices of the telecommuters. Without actually spending time at Yahoo, passing judgment on her decision violates the "go and see" principle of lean.

I have my own opinions about her decision, but in the absence of observable fact, my opinions are based on preconceptions, personal biases, and assumptions. It would be both foolish to judge her decision without knowing what's really going on.

Before we condemn Mayer's new policy as showing a lack of respect for her employees, we should show *her* some respect by going to the gemba and seeing first-hand what's happening at Yahoo. Until then, we have no right to opine on her new policy.




(Dis)Respect for People, Hospital Edition

How much do you about what's really going on at the front lines of your company? I was talking to a retired physician the other night, and he told me a story that sums up how  a lack of knowledge can lead to disrespect for people -- especially in academic medicine. Forty years ago, when he was a 32-year old junior attending physician, he researched the possibility of having his hospital become a 911 center -- which means that they'd accept public EMS ambulances, not just private ones. To his surprise, he found that the hospital was already accepting them; in fact, about 1/3 of the ambulances were public.

At a meeting, he told both the president of the hospital and his boss, the chief of surgery, that the hospital should become a formal 911 center because they were already serving that function. The meeting didn't go well:

Roger: "We're already accepting public ambulances. We should just go ahead and become a 911 center." Chief of Surgery: "No, we don't accept them. Only private ambulances come here." Roger: "Actually, that's not right. I looked into it. About 1/3 of our trauma visits are from EMS ambulances." Chief of Surgery: "And I'm telling you that we don't accept them. I'm the chief of surgery, I've been here a long time, and I know: we only take private ambulances." Roger: "But I looked into it, and that's not the case." Chief of Surgery: "I'm telling you, you're wrong." Hospital President: "Son [he's from the south], when the President of the Hospital and the Chief of Surgery tell you that we don't accept EMS ambulances, then we don't accept EMS ambulances. Is that clear? Roger: No, it's not. It's wrong. And I'll get the data to show you.

Sure enough, Roger gets the hospital logs from the previous year and finds that, in fact, about 1/3 of ambulance visits were EMS vehicles. He sends his report to the hospital president and chief of surgery with a note that says, "Isn't data wonderful?" Shortly afterwards, they applied to become a 911 center.

You can take away a lot from this story -- not least of which is how much courage Roger had in standing up to his bosses, which in medicine (like the military) is pretty difficult to do. (Roger says that data made him brave.) But for me, the big lesson is how disconnected leadership can be from the daily activities of front-line work. They may think they know what's going on, but when they get to the rarified air of the executive offices, it's far too easy to lose track of what the customer service reps, or the sales team, or the credit department deals with daily.

Going to the gemba is the antidote. You have to see for yourself what's going on where the work is being done. If you don't know, you're at serious risk of disrespecting your workers.


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Going to the email gemba.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting back to your roots.

The Daily Show's John Oliver was interviewed on KQED's Forum a few weeks ago. Along with some very clever observations, he mentioned how he loves doing stand-up comedy and tries to perform a few times per year. He also mentioned that Jon Stewart -- despite the administrative and creative burdens of producing four shows per week, to say nothing of writing a book and organizing the Rally to Restore Sanity -- also goes on the road to do stand-up. (Again with Jon Stewart? What's with me and Jon Stewart?) And that's nothing compared to Jay Leno, who still does about 150 nights of stand-up each year on the road. All three of these comedians have their roots in stand-up. Going back on stage is a way to refresh themselves, challenge themselves, develop new ideas, and perfect their art.

If you're an engineer, or a doctor, or an architect, and you've moved out of your area of specialty into "management," are you still in touch with the techniques needed in your field? Or have you lost a feel for what it takes to get the job done?

In most organizations that I've seen, many of the managers and executives no longer have a feel for how long it takes or how difficult it is to do something. As a result, strategic initiatives from management are often divorced from the reality of actually getting the task done. This leads to unrealistic timelines, missed deadlines, overburden, stress, and frustration.

Getting out of the corner office and into the gemba on a regular basis means that you see and learn what it takes to accomplish daily work. You'll know how long it takes to perform preventative maintenance on a machine, how difficult it is to update a critical spreadsheet, or how time-consuming writing a proposal can be. And that knowledge will either lead you to help figure out how to do the job more quickly and easily, or, at the very least, will give you an appreciation for how the sausage is made.

Whether you want to call it getting back to your roots or simply going to the gemba, the act of seeing (and if possible, doing some of) the work will sharpen your skills and help you to execute on your strategy more effectively.

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One snowstorm. Three leaders. One lesson.

The snow fell again in NYC this past Friday, and with it came a new spate of commentaries about how Mayor Bloomberg mishandled the big blizzard on December 26. For those who don't know the story, in the wake of a 20" snowfall, Manhattan streets were plowed quickly, but streets in the outer boroughs (Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island) remained unplowed for days. The mayor apologized, promised a thorough post-mortem to understand the root causes of the poor municipal response. . . and then demoted and reassigned three people. Thee mayor's approval ratings are now at their lowest point in his administration.

In New Jersey, where up to 31" of snow fell, Governor Chris Christie is taking heat for vacationing at Disney World with his family instead of returning to the state to help with its recovery efforts. He's made matters worse by defending his decision to put his responsibility to his family first: "I wouldn't change the decision even if I could do it right now. I had a great five days with my children. I promised that." The governor's nearly bullet-proof image, constructed during a year of tough leadership and emphasis on taking responsibility, has taken a beating.

Then there's Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, NJ. Mayor Booker was not only present during the blizzard, he personally responded to several calls for help, showing up with a shovel to help some motorists who were stuck in the snow and bringing diapers to others. The mayor kept up a constant stream of tweets so that people knew what he was doing, even asking citizens to send him tweets letting him know where help was needed. The mayor is now a hero in Newark, where he faced a difficult re-election last year.

The PR experts will undoubtedly begin talking about best practices for crisis management (if they haven't already). But from a lean leadership perspective, what strikes me is the fact that only one of these leaders went to "the gemba" -- the streets where the work was actually being done.

You could argue that a mayor has better things to do with his or her time than shovel snow (that's why we have children, after all). But I disagree. People need to see (and in the case of Mayor Booker, hear via Twitter) that their leaders are willing and able to work in the trenches.

Of course, Mayors Bloomberg and Booker, and Governor Christie have other, higher-level, leadership tasks to ensure that these service failures don't recur. But it's important for all people in the state, the city, or any organization to see that their leaders are present and doing everything they can to help ease their pain. And if the problem is something that requires specialized skills that the leader doesn't have -- shutting down a nuclear reactor, tunneling into a mine shaft, performing surgery -- then the leader should be supporting those that do have the critical skills by bringing them coffee and donuts, or cold water, or fresh bandages.

It's no coincidence that the salient memory of Rudy Giuliani is him standing atop the World Trade Center rubble, while the lasting image of George Bush during Katrina is him peering through the window of Air Force One several thousand feet above New Orleans.

No one expected Giuliani to spend all day, everyday at the World Trade Center. No one expected Mayor Booker to spend all day, everyday shoveling snow. But people do expect their leaders to at least be present where the work is being done for some amount of time.

Lean bloggers and teachers often talk about the need to get out of the corner office and the conference room and get to the gemba as part of their standard work. That need is even greater in an emergency.

One snowstorm. Three leaders. One lesson.

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