Beware the surge

Storm Surge by jedidogbert

Storm Surge by jedidogbert

I have witnessed or been a part of multiple process improvement efforts – whether they are small in nature and affect only a few people, or large, transformational endeavors designed to reshape the culture of an organization, if not its entire business model.  Some of them succeed, some of them fail, all of them go through a period of a quick, immediate up-tick in performance that looks and feels like success.  A while later, however, there is a let-down.

Some organizations commit to the new direction, usually only when there is a large investment into something tangible – like a major software implementation, office redesign or relocation, or acquisition or merger.  When the intended change is not tangible, however, and the desire is simply to make things go better or to reduce cost, the immediate surge feels good but then tends to end sliding backwards until old, ingrained habits settle in.

The pattern is well documented and observable, of course.  The dynamic is very similar to the classic marketing problem of “Crossing the Chasm” that takes an idea from the early adopters to the mainstream.  Sure, there are always people who want ot have something new just for the sake of having something new (watch the lines form around the corner at the next iPhone release), however, most people will wait a while before making a decision to try it out, and even longer before committing to the idea entirely.

There are plenty of discussion on how to bridge the gap, too.  Most will focus on the role of leadership in driving the organization and, more importantly, the people within the organization to adopt the new reality, whatever it may be.  This is done with coaching, hand holding, engagement, and so on, each of which is intended to match people’s habits with the expected behavior.

I suspect, however, that the problem when it comes to facilitating adoption isn’t so much one of driving people to the intended outcome, but in allowing people to change the outcome.  Consider the marketing analogy – if a product fails outright, would it have succeeded if the consumers themselves could have changed it into what they desired, rather than what the producer wanted to produce?  This is, in many ways, the essence of the Lean Startup movement – introduce something minimal and iterate as quickly as possible with measurable data as input.

Perhaps, when it comes to change initiatives, a similar approach should be adopted?  Rather than rolling out major process and culture-changing implementations all at once and driving people to the expected behavior, change can be conducted as a sort of crowd-sourced endeavor?  Leadership at the top is usually concerned with industry trends and overall company performance, and (unfortunately) doesn’t necessarily interact day-to-day with the the rank and file.  This places them in a poor position to determine what’s best for  the rank and file (not to mention what’s best for customers), how they’ll react to change and, therefore, how they will react.

Nonetheless, Leadership does have the authority to decide when change is necessary.  Rather than deciding the course, speed and direction unilaterally, however, I have to wonder if the better approach is to initiate the change and then step out of the way.  Let the crowd determine when course corrections are needed in order to align Leadership’s perceived need for change with people’s need to feel empowered and lasting, sustainable changes just might occur.

The value of delayed decisions

decisions by mihaibrrr

decisions by mihaibrrr

Most conversations about improvement revolve around finding ways to speed things up.  Whether by focusing on the elimination of unnecessary activities, doing less more often, reducing clutter, training the mind to avoid multitasking, or any other approach to speeding up decision making the prevailing message is clear:  do things faster.

The desire to do things faster necessitates making decisions faster, of course.  Process improvement schools of thought are, essentially, designed to speed up decision making to one degree or another.  Last year, I came across Frank Partnoy’s Wait, however, which advocated something different – slowing things down.

Partnoy investigates the cognitive science of decision making across multiple situations, from athletes making decisions in milliseconds to investors like Warren Buffet who delay decisions for weeks, months or years.  In his investigations, he discovers a seemingly simply truth:  That the longer you can delay a decision, the better decision you will make.

Partnoy’s take seems to be out of synch with improvement methods that look to speed up our ability to make decisions. Nonetheless, I think there’s more in common than might meet the eye.  What I see in Partnoy’s book  is that decision making needs to be slowed down in order for genuine improvement to occur.  Adopting continuous improvement methods allows  for as much information gathering as possible prior to making the final decision.

The iterations surrounding any approach that looks to fail fast and learn constantly are all doing 1 thing – allowing for as much learning as possible prior to making a decision that can’t be undone.  Partnoy’s work reinforces the wisdom of this approach and makes it clear:  slowing down your thought processes, rather than speeding them up, results in the best possible outcomes.


Project problems can’t be solved with an operational focus


loves distance by peggyopal

Straight from the Project Management Institute’s web site (and the PMBoK) is this definition of a Project

It’s a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.

And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal. So a project team often includes people who don’t usually work together – sometimes from different organizations and across multiple geographies. 

 Unfortunately, very often, projects are assessed by using metrics that are not about identifying unique & temproary activities.  Rather, persistent, on-going measures such as average weekly costs or hours worked or material dollars spent are used to determine if a project is running as it should.

Unfortunately, these sort of measurements are more attuned to understanding operations because they establish linear costs over time.  Project have peaks and valleys, spikes and low points, periods of tremendous activity and periods when they have very little at all.  Whether or not they should is a different question – there’s certainly plenty of room for levelling out the workload in projects and avoiding these ups and downs on the individual person, however, there are still times in the life of a project when you  may have multiple people working simultaneously on different sub-projects, and times when only 1 or 2 activities need to be going on.

As such, run rates for a project are erratic, as they should be.  Attempting to smooth costs on the entire project is dangerous.  It leads to people lingering on the project with little to do, just to keep the expenses constant.  Individuals or the departments they report to in a matrix need to keep spending flat.  Projects, however, are characterized by their temporary nature, and the ramping up and down of expenses can be considered an indication of efficency, not inefficiency.

There is, of course, much merit to the argument that bouncing people on and off a team leads to a loss of learning, mometum and flow – so it is better to have folks on the team continue to add cost, even if there is little for them to do.  I agree – right up until they begin producing work just for the sake of producing it.  If there is nothing of value for them to contribute, but disassembling the team creates a long-term problem, then look for learning opportunies within the project.  Have people sit in on working sessions outside of their functional area.  You might find people are adaptable to lots of different tasks, and this type of cross-training is invaluable when you need a pinch-hitter for an unexpected crisis.

Nonetheless, even when analyzing the cost reports for these activities, be very aware of who is doing what, such that you can distinguish between time spent adding genuine value through the transformation of work products and time spent in learning & watching.  Doing so will prevent assessing projects as the outcome on-going costs and, instead, allow you to determine the specific costs that create specific results which, in turn, allows for investigations into better methods for producing the same results.



What to do when you don’t know the way to go

plot a course for home
plot a course for home

plot a course for home by wildwinyan

My 3-year-old is following in his 7-year-old brother’s footsteps and taking an intense interest in Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer.  After a couple years of not having to listen to the theme song ad nauseum, we’re back into the thick of things.

For those who are not familiar with the show, Dora frequently goes on adventures and isn’t certain which way to go.  In those situation, she calls upon her trusty map, which shows her the way.

If only we were all so well prepared.

In business and in life, we all need a map.  Too often, we move without thinking or jump in without looking.  We buy into the paradigm that says we ought to fail fast, but we don’t bother to ask, “Fail at what?”  Failing for the sake of failing isn’t the path to enlightenment, it’s just stupid.  Even if you’re prepared to accept failure – that failure needs to be leading in the direction of some intended destination, meandering as the path may be.  Otherwise, the exercise never ends and nothing is ever learned.  It’s just activity for the sake of activity.

Activity without planning at any level is just folly and entirely wasteful.  Planning is the result of consulting the map  –  we can see the current location, the destination, and the obstacles in between.  Without a destination in mind, and a plan for getting from here to there, all that results is misalignment of goals, fits and starts, lost momentum and, quite frequently, situations where people are more than happy to clear an entire forest just to deliver a toothpick.  The purpose, after all, was to show activity over and above the value of delivering the end product.

The guiding principles of an organization are what the people working within that organization turn to when they don’t know the way to go.  Those principles align people and, even if there is no certain way to go, will at least tell you which way you should not go.  In effect, they become your map.  They let you know where the terrain is flat and clear, or rocky and overgrown, and allows you to see all the other route options to help you adjust course and still reach your destination.

Any organization, regardless of size or complexity, needs to have guiding principles (see the Shingo Model for more elaboration on the impact of guiding principles).  When all else fails, adhering to these principles will offer assurance that people are still operating within the spirit of your organization.

Think small, even when you’re big

Nearly all of my career has been spent in large organizations.  Whether publicly traded or wholly-owned subsidiaries, most of these companies have thousands, if not tens of thousands, of employees in nearly every corner of the globe.

Recently, however, thanks to nothing more than a lot of dumb luck and maybe a smidgen of effort, I’ve gained a little bit of exposure to some tiny companies – from 3-person startups to proven ventures with a dozen or so employees looking to make the leap into the growth stage.

The biggest difference, I’ve realized, is the amount of information that gets shared.  When you are part of something small, especially if you have an equity stake, the information is much, much more open and flowing freely.  Even if things aren’t directly in your area of responsibility, you’re still aware of what people are doing, why they’re doing it, the tradeoffs that were evaluated in order to decide upon that course of action, and the overall performance and health of the company.

In a large organization, information is often tightly controlled, provided on a need-to-know basis, and when it is shared, it is usually edited for content and to run in the time allowed.  Why must this be so?

Whether a large organization or a small one, the people who rely upon the business deserve to know what’s going on.  Those same people, however, also have an obligation to stay abreast of the decisions being made and to understand why they were made.  Many a company has to deal with rumors and speculation born of cafeteria conversation among the rank and file, which are every bit as bad as executives who keep information to themselves in a paternalistic attempt to tell people “only what the need to hear.”

All people have a stake in the performance of the organization.  Even without equity and stock options, people still look to their company for stable income, which enables them to lead their lives.  When information is withheld or doctored to depict a situation for the sake of not causing a panic, or raising undue concern, it portrays an attitude that states the rank  and file simply aren’t able to understand the complexities and must be prevented from learning the truth – as a parent withholds details of an R-rated move from a child.

The better path, both for esprits-de-corps, as well as for simple efficiency, is to share information with all stakeholders.  Make people feel like they have a genuine impact on the success of the organization, and you’ll find a much more engaged workforce than anything you’ve seen before.