Mike Gilronan, a Boston local knowledge management friend, has a nice piece on collaboration in the Boston Business Journal, Five ways to improve collaboration among remote teams. Mike has worked in the collaboration world for a long time, so these topics are familiar. Mike is currently doing enterprise content management at McGladrey.
As we learned in Boston this past winter, the ability to be productive and collaborate with team members, even if nature or other circumstances prevent us from being in the same place at the same time, is critical to success in modern business. More and more, our workplaces and teams are virtual, with remote workers and teams being asked to connect and collaborate. Teams that do so effectively can build a real competitive advantage by providing access to the best resources, delivering products and services more efficiently, and accelerating the pace of innovation.
His five items are sometimes obvious, and yet do we use them all?
- Hire for it.
- Foster a culture of collaboration.
- Connect securely, from any device, anywhere.
- Invest in tools that work the way your teams do.
- Know when to escalate.
And of course, other people write about this stuff as well, such as my friend Johanna Rothman's thinking on remote Agile teams, where she focuses on trust, flexibility and internal cohesion.
In 7 Wastes That Impact Business Growth Jon Terry, one of the founders of LeanKit, presents a nice way of thinking through the Lean / Toyota Production System idea of waste and how one my think about it in the context of business growth in any type of organization.
Since LeanKit tends to serve software developers and knowledge work environments, it feels like these ideas particularly apply to knowledge work, even though the blog post talks about business growth in general. I also love how the writing here dovetails very nicely with more recent thinking in the TOC community around flow and how the primary goal of any system has to be around flow of value to the customer. And a big implication of that statement is the removal of impediments to flow. These wastes are one way to think about those impediments!
Here is the list from the article with some of my thoughts.
- (Too Much) Work In Process. This is one of the biggest killers, and it is one of the hardest to see - particularly for those of us wrapped up in work that is invisible. Getting this out into the open is one of the best ways to start the conversation around improving this. And I have to love the comment that there is always a bottleneck (constraint) that limits the flow.
- Delays. This seems obvious to state - delaying delivery to a customer is clearly bad. But think about the flow of work from start to finish: how many delays, pauses, downtimes are there? In TOC, we often talk about the customer tolerance time - will they put up with a one week lead time, or do they want it right way?
- Extra Capabilities.
- Technical Debt. This a term I only see in IT / Agile circles, but it equate to quality in my mind. I think there is also a context behind technical debt around developing usable products or products that don't require a lot of work arounds.
- Handoffs. I like the Relay Racer analogy. Handoffs have to be well-practiced, and well-understood for the whole race to succeed. The same goes in projects - handoffs happen, but we have to understand they are a source of friction in projects.
- Task Switching. I usually think of task switching and too much Work In Process as heavily intertwined. Too much WIP means people are switching between activities without getting anything done. They might also be in a situation where they are forced to switch due to delays, poor handoffs, defects, etc.
- Defects. Goes without saying - no one wants to pay for defects. Pure waste.
For reference, here are the classical Lean Seven Wastes (from the Muda article on Wikipedia): Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over-processing, Over-production, Defects. There are other lists and other articulations, of course.
I've had Stephen Bungay's The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions, and Results on my reading list for some time, as it has shown up in a number of overlapping communities as relevant thinking. Most recently, his name came up in my last post with respect to the Spice Girls Question.
The book is a study of military history as a guide to seeing how leaders might deal with uncertainty - in particular the German military thinker Carl von Clausewitz (18th-19th Century). Of course, while the military angle is interesting, there are clearly parallels into the business world. And that is why Bungay wrote the book in the first place.
A lot of the discussion in the book had to do with the sources of uncertainty. In war, this is classically the "Fog of War" and more. It isn't clear what the enemy are doing. Even more, it isn't always clear that your own people and equipment - and the plans for them - will do what you expect. And doesn't this happen in business too?
Of course, the opposite of accepting and working with uncertainty is to try to remove it. While there are good concepts around reducing the sources of uncertainty, sometimes the effort required to do so is more expensive than simply expecting and working with the uncertainty. This is the direction Bungay goes in the book. Dealing with uncertainty and various knowledge gaps is the reality of any business - businesses need to move forward, regardless of those knowledge gaps.
There is a quote about one of the military leaders described in the book, "He remained calm and unruffled because he never expected his predictions to be correct." This eventually led to a discussion of the idea of Leader's Intent and strategy and tactics. And how these things should be discussed and communicated within organizations. Bungay's claim is that many organizations spend a lot of time on strategy and tactics without clearly articulating the intent behind them. He also suggests that many people find themselves being overly-specific in giving direction to their people, and this then leaves those people without much flexibility and power to make their own decisions. It is as if the managers in these situations believe if they force certainty (in the form of specific direction), then everything will work out fine. But this doesn't acknowledge the fact that we can never know everything - nor can we wait until the level of uncertainty becomes "acceptable."
This was a good read, as it coalesced many of the concepts and ideas I've been hearing and reading about elsewhere. With some colleagues, we had even been using the "intent" language more often, though it is nice to see it brought together with the other elements discussed in the book.
In my work the idea of "flow" is all about ensuring the right work gets started - work that will create value for the organization. And, once it has started, that it doesn't get stuck or stopped or held up until the value is created. Ideally: customer buys the results; savings are truly achieved. Once this idea is stuck in my head, I see the implications in many areas.
I flagged this article to read and ponder back in April, but only just got around to it recently. Arne Roock wrote about his company on InfoQ, Culture is the True North - Scaling at Jimdo. Good stuff.
In essence, he talks about the situation at his company, particularly as they grow their business. They don't want to (and can't) just "throw money" at the situation, so they have to be more careful.
At Jimdo, our approach to scaling relies on three major factors: culture, communication, and kaizen. Let's discuss them in reverse order.
In this discussion of kaizen (from Lean terminology), he describes the heavy use of the Kanban Method, which I've used and written about previously. Interesting to me, though, as he highlighted the six core practices, I saw something new in them. They are (bolds intentional)
- WiP limitation (WiP = Work in Progress)
- Flow management
- Explicit policies
- Feedback loops
- Improvement through collaborative experimentation
I've been referencing the Four Concepts of Flow that Eli Goldratt came up with in looking at Ford, Ohno and others (in the article Standing on the Shoulders of Giants):
- Improving flow (or equivalently lead time) is a primary objective of operations.
- This primary objective should be translated into a practical mechanism that guides the operation when not to produce (prevents overproduction).
- Local efficiencies must be abolished.
- A focusing process to balance flow must be in place.
While the language is not the same, the underlying concepts align closely. It's all about flow - explicit in both of these lists. "Preventing overproduction" is most often connected to limiting the work in process (WIP), whether that is in a manufacturing, projects, sales, or in retail. And the policies that Kanban wants to make explicit are tied to the flow idea #3 around local efficiencies - changing away from metrics that unbalance the flow to policies that encourage more and more flow. Kanban Method makes the improvement process more explicit, where the Four Concepts of Flow put it into the focusing process (and in other aspects of Theory of Constraints).
There are other great ideas in Roock's article in the sections that he categorizes as communication and culture. I particularly like items in there on focus - the Spice Girls question, "Tell me what you want. What you really, really want!" from Stephen Bungay that has led Jimdo to talk about "Goal #1" - the one thing that will move the company towards its goal. Again, one of the primary ideas in Theory of Constraints is that there is one constraint that limits your ability to get more of what you want. Understanding that goes a long way to improving the system overall.
[Photo: "Flow" by Carlo]
The latest HBR Ideacast interview with Erin Reid talks about Why We Pretend to be Workaholics (based on a related HBR article). I enjoyed the discussion, but what really got to me is this idea of "pretending to be busy."
This relates to observations I have made in working with organizations on critical chain project management. I have found an interesting dichotomy with respect to the question how busy people might be. Some project modeling tools allow you to model resources required on project tasks. Taken in aggregate across many projects, this should give a sense of how much (project) work is upcoming for those resources. And this should give a sense of how "busy" they are.
What I often find is that the "busyness" based on the project models and the busyness claimed by the people on these teams is vastly different. Of course, there might be discrepancies because the project models aren't right or because people do a lot of non-project work. This can be checked. But the interesting thing I've found is that there are many situations where it is not possible for team members to admit that they have available capacity. They believe (and it may be true) that they are in an environment where "nothing to do" means they will be punished - even if that "nothing to do" is actually important protective capacity to enable fast response to emerging situations.
Of course, this links back to the HBR Ideacast above. People have figured out how to appear busy, whether or not they truly are. They operate in a system that almost forces them into this pattern of operation. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to help people realize there is extra capacity. And that this extra capacity can help improve the whole organization.
It's hard to NOT link to this article (which is probably the point). First impressions depend on our assessment of the person's warmth and their likelihood to do us harm. Science of Us provides a nice way to think about this in The Simpsons First-Impression Matrix.
I've been listening to Megan Murray and Euan Semple's Shift podcast since its inception. In Episode 35, they talk about a bunch of things (as usual) related to the idea of how people take on the idea of improvement - mostly around improving themselves and their business practices.
In this episode two masters at the art discuss navel gazing and how it might just be a key business skill for the future.
The thing that struck me hard enough to do a quick blog post is the idea that some people get wrapped around the axel of self-improvement without thinking why. On the opposite end are people who have no interest in self-improvement (but who are happy to point out situations in which they are unhappy).
I have always liked the idea that if I am upset about something / someone, it is because something inside me is out of kilter. It is not the other person / situation is necessarily wrong, but my take on it has me upset.* In other words, it is my responsibility to figure out why that business meeting made me so angry, and then DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT. Take responsibility for which I have control, rather than pointing the finger at things I don't like.
To me this is the point of navel gazing, so that I can change those things over which I have control. And where do I have control? It's inside.
* Yes, there are some world situations that are truly horrible, and I should be upset. But I think even there, what is my part in it? How can I make it better in my part of the world?
[Photo: "Navel Oranges" by Madhu Madhavan]
Franklin D Roosevelt is credited with telling anyone doing public speaking to "Be sincere, be brief, be seated". In the video below, Bill Dettmer throws out this quote in talking about his time in the military, doing briefings for various commanders.
And then we have the Theory of Constraints logical thinking processes that are anything but brief. It's one of the frustrations for people who build these logic diagrams. Dettmer's Logical Thinking Processes has an appendix that talks about an "Executive Summary Tree" that takes a detailed Current Reality Tree (CRT) and simplifies it for presentation and discussion with others.
I like this concept. It's been one of my frustrations - and it has been one of the things I like about how people do this well. They essentially build up the executive summary in conversation - and expand those sections which aren't clear to people as they talk.
Here is the high level overview on how to do this:
Step 1 - Do a proper CRT with the complete solution. Probably over 30 items. It must be robust / completely finished).
Step 2 - Identify the UnDesirable Effects or UDEs at the top
Step 3 - Identify the few critical root causes at the bottom
Step 4 - Identify the main causal paths between
Step 5 - Identify where the paths converge
Step 6 - Identify the 2 or 3 key intermediate entities. They represent the longest leap of logic you believe the executives can understand.
The resulting Executive Summary Tree should have about a dozen items.
A colleague sent along this video from Smarter Every Day where he shows how he "unlearned" how to ride a regular bike and learned to ride a bike which handles opposite to the expected way. And then tries to re-learn normal bike riding. Fun ensues. And the interesting comment that just because you know something, it doesn't mean you understand it.
In the January 2015 HBR, Andrew O'Connell has a brief piece in the "Managing Yourself" column that talks about multitasking and the research that generally suggests it doesn't work as well as we like to think. The Pros and Cons of Doing One Thing at a Time - HBR
The idea that it’s better to finish your tasks in sequence than to jump around from one to another is very hard to accept, at least for me.
The negatives of multitasking have been reported over and over again. People struggle when they switch from one task to another to another without finishing. The tasks themselves take longer, and when those tasks are part of larger projects, those project suffer from loss of speed and flow (waiting for something to finish so the project can move to the next step).
But then the author looks for the loopholes in the "multitasking is bad" statement. He finds it in the idea that it helps keep the creative juices flowing and there are even examples of artists who find they do better when they have multiple pieces going (and out in the open in the studio, not buried on their computer). Of course, people need mental breaks from intense work. But these breaks are not moving from one intense activity to another equally-intense item.
The point behind these conversations is to help people see that things that block flow of work do much more damage than slowing down that one item. It slows down all their work. And it slows down the work of people who are dependent upon the results. If I were completely independent of others, then multitasking would only affect me. But I am not - my way of operating affects those around me. And visa versa.
Eli Schragenheim has continued his thinking about handing uncertainty with his latest blog post The current TOC achievements in handling uncertainty. He describes four key elements of how TOC thinks about uncertainty and why they are important. Here is my take on these elements.
Buffers: TOC explicitly calls out time and stock buffers, rather than hiding or not acknowledging them. Explicitly creating buffers and deciding where to put them is a planning decision that lines up with the concept that there will be uncertainty in execution and that we must to plan for it more systemically, rather than assuming we can manage it locally. When buffers are hidden, they are always wasted.
Buffer Management: Now that we have buffers, the execution process makes use of them. Eli highlights a key aspect of buffer management: it only works if the buffers are usually partially consumed. If they are fully consumed, there is nothing to manage. And if they are un-consumed, there is no information from the buffers to guide operations.
Protective capacity: The very common belief that we must have high efficiency everywhere leads us to hide the capacity in internal buffers. Or it leads to the concept of trying to balance capacity. When variability strikes, a balanced system is easily thrown off, whereas a system with those buffers can more easily absorb the variation. And more specifically, the system must have capacity to absorb the variation - there must be excess capacity. And looping back to buffer management, the statistics about buffers can point to the resources/work centers which are often the sources of significant buffer consumption, which then leads to focused improvement efforts - improve the items that are linked to the heaviest buffer consumption and the whole system will improve.
Thin and focused planning: Eli calls out this phrase - never articulated in TOC directly - as another result of the TOC Five Focusing Steps. The mindset in TOC is to focus on the one thing that is limiting the business from achieving more of its goal. We have the buffers to manage variability, in combination with protective capacity. Rather than planning everything down to the minute, getting the flow right and letting people manage the details reduces the planning effort and simplifies even the idea of "replanning."
A superior level of performing well in spite of significant uncertainty will be achieved ONLY when a decision making process is established that verbalizes the uncertain potential results and lead the decision makers to contemplate decisions that would achieve high gains most of the time, but also take into account that in some cases limited damage will occur.
We have generally left the days where people were regularly recommending new blog reading, which I still miss. But Eli Schragenheim, author of a number of Theory of Constraints books and an active participant in ongoing TOC thinking has started writing his own blog. And, as I have heard him speak a number of times, I can hear his voice in his writing style, which is always a plus.
For example, his recent post talks about The problems with “Common and Expected Uncertainty”, which is a familiar complaint that when people use estimates but then report only one number, not the possible range around that number. He articulates a variety of bad effects that result from this common practice, such as this comment about sales forecasts:
The reliance on one number allows top management to judge their sales and operations people, however that judgment is flawed and the sales and operations managers have to protect themselves from the ignorance of top management.
Good stuff. If you care about these topics, go have a read!