Leadership, Culture and the Situation of Marissa Mayer

marissa_new4Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, sent a shock wave across the internet and the blogosphere last weekend when she announced that Yahoo’s policy of allowing people to work remotely would be ended, and that remote-working employees would need to begin reporting to the office by June 2013.

The debate has raged over the wisdom of the move, with a heaping ton of criticism coming from culture-change advocates who point to research indicating that remote work programs are beneficial, while the other side of the coin points to lost engagement and productivity.  A short, quick summary of the debate can be found over on the Huffington Post:

What I find interesting is that, in an era when so many are advocating culture as the basis for an organization’s effectiveness, as well as the need for leadership to take charge of establishing that culture, that so much criticism is being thrown at Mayer for her decision.  All this even as some insiders report that the move was utterly necessary because the work-from-home policy had created more problems than it solved, and the abuses of the policy were significant.

All of the admonitions and warnings and tirades thrown at Mayer, or in support of her, all seem to be coming from outside the company – by folks who have a voice, but who are not, necessarily, informed.  Like them, I do not know Marissa Mayer.  Unlike them, however, I won’t assume that she’s a short-sighted crazy person or an idiot.  Her ideas do have some merit, even if we disagree with them.

What’s daunting, however, is what we are seeing is a high-profile CEO doing what everyone is demanding of high-profile CEOs – to take bold steps and to lead an organization through the establishment of a company culture.  If Mayer believes that her organization will perform best when people are interacting face-to-face, then she must act with integrity and follow her beliefs by bringing that dynamic into her organization.  It has become the stuff of many an article and business school essay at places like Facebook and Google.

Of course, that’s also exactly where the problem lies.  Mayer is attempting to benchmark against other organizations and believes that worked over there will also work at Yahoo.  That’s a bit short-sighted, however, it’s also the exact same dynamic being offered by her critics – finding the best case example of a situation just like your preferred alternative, and then using that as evidence that the alternative is the right one.  For example, the creators of ROWE responded to Yahoo’s policy decision with an Open Letter to Marissa Mayer, citing The Gap as an organization that has done well by implementing ROWE.  Unfortunately, you can’t claim the Gap’s implementation of ROWE was a success and ignore the fact that performance at Best Buy, where ROWE was created, just sucks.

Likewise, you can’t say this was the right move and not wonder why there was not a declaration of the need to identify the root cause of these behaviors.  If people are abusing the system and failing to collaborate – face time might not be the root cause.  There is likely something else going on.  Perhaps that something else can be attended to by having people co-located, or maybe not.  Fact of the matter is, none of us knows for sure, and all anyone is contributing is an opinion, if not an agenda.

There is clearly a clash of cultures occurring as well, as most of the criticism is coming from tech/software/internet company founders and their employees who have embraced remote work.  Others outside of the tech community are much more supportive of the move.  If we believe the insider’s view, then this was the right move for Yahoo at this time – and maybe it is, or maybe it is not.  What the critics themselves should be chastised for is campaigning for executives to lead and set the tone within their organizations and then criticize those same leaders for not setting the tone the critics preferred.

The truth is that no one knows if this will be the right move.  It is, quite clearly, going to be something of an experiment.  Those who believe remote work, in general, is a good thing based on their experience or beliefs and, therefore, a good thing for Yahoo are about to have that hypothesis tested.  On the other side of the debate, those who advocate face-to-face interaction as the core that fuels innovation, will also have their theory tested.  What all must do now is what everyone who has conducted an experiment must always do – establish the parameters of the experiment and observe the results.

If Yahoo’s performance improves over time then we will have evidence over which to debate this decision, and not just relentless opinion.  If, however, it turns out that the performance of the company declines, then we’ll know that the performance problem was not due to attendance, but to other, deeper flaws in the management of the company.  Either way, some years from now when the evidence is available, I suspect no measure will be given to the dynamics of the system and I’m certain Marissa Mayer will either be celebrated or blamed.

Netflix culture and the Core of Operational Excellence

netflix_defeats_blockbuster_by_plaidklaus
netflix_defeats_blockbuster_by_plaidklaus

netflix defeats blockbuster by plaidklaus

The slideshare below describes the core concepts that define the culture at Netflix.  First released in 2009, it provides insight into what co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings calls the “Freedom and Responsibility Culture”

There are several elements of the document that sound just like the ROWE movement that I discussed quite a bit on this blog last year.  Just as I found with ROWE, however, the Netflix culture manifesto fails to deliver a significant “Wow!” factor.  Why?  Because Lean and Operational Excellence provide a much deeper management philosophy that takes into account every aspect of either the ROWE or Netflix schools of thought, and then some.

Consider these 9 Core Values from the Netflix presentation:

 

  • Judgment
    • You think strategically, and can articulate what you are, and are not, trying to do.
    • You smartly separate what must be done well now, and what can be improved later.
  • Communication
    • You listen well, instead of reacting fast, so you can better understand
    • You treat people with respect independent of their status or disagreement with you
  • Impact
    • You accomplish amazing amounts of important work
    • You focus on great results rather than on process
  • Curiosity
    • You learn rapidly and eagerly
    • You seek to understand our strategy, market, customers, and suppliers
  • Innovation
    • You re-conceptualize issues to discover practical solutions to hard problems
    • You challenge prevailing assumptions when warranted, and suggest better approaches
  • Courage
    • You take smart risks
    • You question actions inconsistent with our values
  • Passion
    • You inspire others with your thirst for excellence
    • You care intensely about Netflix‘s success
    • Youcelebratewins
  • Honesty
    • You are known for candor and directness
    • You are quick to admit mistakes

All of that sounds an awful lot like some terms that are familiar to anyone with a knowledge of Lean:

  • Lead with Humility
  • Respect for Every Person
  • Experimentation
  • Seeking perfection
  • Constancy of Purpose
  • Deliver customer value
  • Achieve results 

To be certain, the slideshare below appears to demonstrate many of the common misunderstandings of what process is, or should be, and especially of what process means in the Lean context.  Nonetheless, there isn’t anything in this document that isn’t already a part of Lean philosophy, or that isn’t represented in the Shingo Model.  Even the stated distaste for process is met later in the document by a healthy awareness that good processes vs. bad processes actually enable creativity, not prevent it.

In spite of the supposed revolutionary nature of Netflix culture, however, what I am more inclined to believe is that Reed Hastings, like the creators of ROWE, has stumbled upon the same core operational Excellence fundamentals that have already been developed, practiced, and that continue to evolve in Lean.

View the presentation below and share your thoughts on whether or not this is Revolutionary, or simply the re-discovery of some universal truths that are already well incorporated into Lean thinking.

 

Raising awareness of ROWE and Lean, redux

Upon_Reflection_by_Cynnalia

Upon_Reflection_by_Cynnalia on deviantart.com

It has been some time since I’ve written about ROWE and Lean, thanks to some personal ups and downs and the need to sit back and reflect a little on what I learned after bringing the ROWE and Lean communities together.  So, I thought it time to re-visit the situation and report on what I’ve learned so far.

In my investigation of ROWE and Lean, I initiated the process with the belief that ROWE could help Lean.  My conlcusion is a firm and definite…..maybe.

ROWE has shortcomings.  They are well explained here, via a blog by Scott Rutherford.  ROWE, if left alone and perceived as the end goal, leads only to suboptimization.  The approach is incomplete.  It might help get Lean off the ground, but that realization only solidifes ROWE’s role as a launchpad, not as an overall management philosophy, which Lean is.

In his comments on a recent post to his site, Dan Markovitz stated “Respect without tools leads to feel-good mediocrity.”  Which serves as a warning that ROWE, without an overarching framework for continuous improvement, does not have the ooomph! to prevent or rescue failing organiztions.  ROWE is incomplete.

That’s not to say it is without its merits.  ROWE can create engagement, but there’s a lot of care needed to make sure that engagement is for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.  Taking the day off due to burnout is good.  Taking the day off because I’m sick and tired of dealing with bullshit is not.  Fixing the problem, or learning how to influence the problem, or experimenting with methods for identifying problems,  is a much better result  for everyone than disappearing for the afternoon because there’s “nothing to do.”

Where ROWE is cool, and I mean really, really cool – is when it acknowledges the people side of things – that there are concerns outside of work that might keep me from being in the office, and if you let me take care of those things when I need to, I will pay you back with interest.  THAT is a good thing.  But when the people that do the work are left entirely on their own to organize themselves, without anyone to oversee the process, that is not good management – that is the acceptance of bad management as some kind of innate, inevitable truth.  Yes, we need to be much more centered on allowing people the freedom to perform without paternalistic, demeaning oversight.  Even the best of flocks need shepherds to guide and direct the herd, though.  When the humanistic approach gets elevated, everyone wins.  When it gets glorified, everyone loses.

Look at this post called Go the F**k home, courtesy of Tim McMahon’s blog.  I don’t want people who get fed up and go home.  I want people who are so fed up they begin to investigate the means of identifying mura and muri, and the countermeasures for reducing and eliminating waste, to the point that no one ever is so overburdened that they NEED to work late, or want to just to keep up appearances.

Yes, everyone would like to work where they want, when they want, to be known as a responsible agent capable of determining their own impact on the organization and entrusted with the responsibility for doing what is right or needs to be done.  Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-well-known reality of problem solving that a person has to exist outside of the process that created the problem in order to truly see where the errors occur.  That means a wizened and experienced group of people have to be monitoring that process and the system within which those processes occur.  This means LEADERSHIP.  The real problem we seen in so many organizations, however, is that leadership is absent or weak, and defines itself as the ability to push people around rather than push obstacles out of people’s way.  We are left, instead, with a caste of managers whose greatest wish is to never have to deal with their staff on a personal level or report a problem upwards…which is the antithesis of leadership.

With good leadership, any approach can be successful.  Without it, any approach is doomed.  The question, then, is which is likely to produce good leaders – ROWE or Lean?  If the situations at Best Buy and Toyota are taken as examples, the answer to that question is obvious.

ROWE is enticing, as are any other arrangements that promise more freedom, respect, responsibility and control.  Unfortunately, too many of those things leads only to under-performance and, at the extremes…chaos or stagnation.  Direction and organization are mandatory, too, and they often can’t take place without a good, swift kick in the butt taking place.

ROWE, at its best, might be able to point out Fake Lean and help Lean initiatives get off the ground, but that only highlights that embarking upon a Lean journey ought to focus on True Lean from the outset.  Doing so would invoke the same concern for individuals, in all respects, that ROWE focuses on anyway.

In the end, my conclusion is this – ROWE is, clearly, the way people want to work.  Lean is, equally clearly, the way that they should.

Unlimited vacation, unlimited responsibility….for management

working outdoors
working outdoors

Studying outdoors by ubul on deviantart.com

There’s been a lot written recently about companies that have adopted a very ROWE-like approach to vacation time:  It’s unlimited.  Simply get your work done, or make sure someone can do it in your stead so that work processes can continue, and go ahead and do whatever you need to do.  This article on inc.com demonstrates how the unlimited vacation ideal has been implemented at Red Frog Events.

The policies are certainly enticing and might be a useful countermeasure to a long understood problem – that people are not treated like adults and, if left alone in an environment of enthusiasm and trust, will not abuse the privilege.  Not abusing the privilege, however, somehow implies that the individual contributor has full knowledge of the entire flow of work within the office and their role in it.

That is an ideal – a completely engaged workforce with a 100% clear understanding of the value stream and its day-to-day operations.  If that occurs, and you believe in people’s intrinsic motivations to always do the “right thing,” then unfettered vacation policies make sense and seem to be a good idea.

Unfortunately, there are some fatal flaws in the concept, which a good dose of Lean thinking addresses.  As I mentioned in response to some comments left on the ROWE: An attempt at achieving the Lean Ideal? post, if you have 2 employees working on the same task, and one takes all week while another is finished on Tuesday – that’s not necessarily an indication that you have one super-capable person and on slacker.  It could simply mean you have 1 innovator and 1 very hard worker who gets results even with the most inefficient methods – and they are not talking to each other.  While traditional management would say this is a fine way to go about work, enlightened thinking realizes the hard-working person is going to burn out and the other person has simply developed a better method, for which he or she gets to leave the office rather than share the wisdom.

The true burden for making unlimited vacation work rests not on the workers for knowing what’s coming down the pipe and, therefore, which days they can take off.  The burden rests on low-level managers who are aware of not just the workflow – but also have an emotional connection to the individuals placed within their area of control.  If you have a person showing signs of burnout, it’s not enough to just tell him or her to take the day off.  Someone needs to assess the costs of having that person out of the office vs. the decrease in productivity or creativity (or anything else that is valued deeply).  Any action must be judged by someone able to see the entire system.  Most normal, healthy individuals are going to look for more time away from the office.  A more wizened professional, however, should have more visibility into how losing a resource has far greater impacts across the organization.

The role of management in an environment that supports unlimited vacation is a crucial one.  It necessitates that managers have a handle on the value stream and the ability to establish multiple workaround paths and redundancies to ensure work continues no matter who is in the office or on the shop floor.

Which, when you stop to think of it, isn’t just  a necessary component of good culture – it’s a fundamental for good business management practices.

ROWE: An attempt at achieving the Lean Ideal?

Roundabout

Roundabout by juiCZe on deviantart.com

In the past few months that I’ve been blogging about ROWE, I have been poking at how the two concepts might help to reinforce each other, with the premise that ROWE-thinking could help to enable Lean-thinking by overcoming the tools-based focus that is so prevalent in Lean implementations and, instead, returning the focus to the culture where I believe it belongs.

I managed to pursue my curiosity to the point that I was able to have one-on-one discussions with one of ROWE’s creators, and I sparked the curiosity of several recognized Lean thought leaders as well.  After stirring the pot and looking for the common ground between the two, I am now wondering if my original theory – that ROWE could enable Lean – was a bit backwards.

Tuesday, when Mark Graban appeared on the Results-Only Live radio show, the conversation centered around the similarities both the Lean and ROWE community face when attempting to change the leadership styles and culture I posed this question via twitter (and, yes, I realize the irony in the fact that I wasn’t able to call in because I was busy at work!):

Is Lean enabled by ROWE, or is ROWE an attempt to achieve the Lean ideal?

Whereas I began this comparison of ROWE and Lean believing the former, I am starting to believe it is the latter.  ROWE, as Mark indicated on the show, is a response to the same problem Lean sees – people are underutilized and non-value-added activities are everywhere.  So, what ROWE has attempted to do is eliminate that waste and utilize people to their fullest.  It also does so in an intuitive fashion, and returns the gains back to the workers in terms of control over their time and freedom to work when and where they please.  All of which is very enticing to all ranks of the organization, at a personal level.

Lean’s bad rap stemming from the terrible implementations of the practice due to a misunderstanding of Lean principles is an issue to be addressed, to be certain.  What I am currently considering, however, isn’t how much ROWE’s perspective can be used to help overcome bad implementations, but why a whole other paradigm should be layered on top of “Bad” Lean just to make it go better.  Why not just focus on making True Lean, which has a well-developed set of principles and tools, the norm?  If we’re focusing on making Bad Lean more palatable, aren’t we missing a focus on the root cause and, instead, focusing on doing expertly that which should not be done at all?

As I have mentioned on this blog and others is that the countermeasures to that problem are much more well developed in the Lean school of thought.  Which begs the question, if “Good” Lean and ROWE are seeing the same problem, with the same end goals in mind, and Lean has a much more robust and mature tool set – shouldn’t we be focusing on understanding on making the adoption of “Good” Lean the norm, and not on adopting ROWE to overcome the bad?