Making Work More Effective

Here is what leaders often do – when faced with a complex situation at work, they add more meetings, task forces, new procedures and governance structures that makes things more complex. What we need to handle complex challenges is simplicity that leads to effectiveness.

Simon Terry, whose thinking I really admire, wrote a short post titled “Five Ways to Make Work More Effective” offering vital ideas about efficient work.

Meetings, unending email threads, too much focus on consensus building, siloed thinking and lack of experimentation are some of the biggest wastes in an organization. They sap productivity, hurt engagement and kill accountability.

If you are a leader or a manager, this might just be a reminder you need often to ensure that you create an environment of effective work – smart work as they call it!

Here’s a quick sketch summary of the post!

Related Reading at QAspire

Six Rules to Simplify Work

Most re-organization efforts either focus on hard stuff (processes, strategy, structure, KPI’s) or on soft stuff (culture, values, relationships, feelings). I have seen very few reorganization efforts in my career that are focused on the most important aspect of how value is delivered to customers: Simplicity

Simplicity stems from decentralization of power. “New Power” as they call it, is all about empowering people, creating conducive ecosystems for performance, learning collectively and encouraging collaboration. Most complexity in organization is introduced in an attempt to centralize power. The focus then is on adding more checks, processes, structures, metrics, KPI’s, incentives, coordinating offices and such.

Yesterday, I saw a very interesting TED talk by Yves Morieux (Boston Consulting Group) where he says,

Complicatedness: This is your battle, business leaders. The real battle is not against competitors. This is rubbish, very abstract. When do we meet competitors to fight them? The real battle is against ourselves, against our bureaucracy, our complicatedness. Only you can fight, can do it.

The talk sets the context on how organizations increase complexity and offers useful ideas on how work can be simplified. Here are my notes from the talk and I recommend you watch this insightful and provocative talk to gain a more well rounded view.

More Posts on Simplicity at QAspire

Consume Less, Create More

That was my mantra in 2015 and beyond. As we start a new year, I revisited this mantra and a few additional thoughts came to the fore.

Consume Less

Consumption is a critical element in one’s ability to create anything. So, consumption, by itself, is not all that bad. The problem of our times is  consumption by default. We first consume and then think if we really needed it. This is true for almost everything – from stuff we buy to the content we read, from events we attend to conversations we engage in. Unfortunately, technology has made consumption all the more easier which only adds to the problem. Have we not seen people who are constantly busy on their phones consuming stuff without moving a needle for anyone? We need to jump off the consumption treadmill.

The goal, then, is to consume mindfully and there seem to be two ways to do it:

1) Consume mindfully by having right set of filters that help you decide if something will *really* add value and increase your ability to create. When you consume mindfully, less is actually more. When you have better filters, you gain that which is relevant. Consuming mindfully also means being in the moment while you consume and not rush through the process.

2) Practice the fine art of subtraction – we don’t need more and more. We need less that is more (useful/helpful/enriching etc.) Sometimes, the only way to find if something is useful is to “try” it. But often, once we try something, it stays with us because we are not so good at subtracting stuff – at eliminating that which we don’t really need.

“Minimalism is not subtraction for the sake of subtraction. Minimalism is subtraction for the sake of focus” – Source

Create more

Most of us, I assume, long to create stuff that changes us and others for better – whether it is a radical new product or a one-on-one conversation with a colleague. Mindful consumption increases our capacity to create.

“Create what?” – you may ask.

When we exercise mindfully, we create health. When we consume food mindfully, we create wellness. When we travel mindfully, we create enriching experiences. When we converse mindfully, we create relationships. When we create what we truly love, we create joy and meaning. When we share generously, we create connections and conversations. When we connect mindfully, we create learning. When we work mindfully, we create remarkable results. When we prioritize mindfully, we create focus. When we serve mindfully, we create contentment. When we meditate, we create wellness. And we make a positive difference to ourselves and others through our creations.

To be mindful is to be present in the moment, immersed in doing whatever you choose to do. The fact that individually, we can only do so much, we have to choose our battles carefully and subtract the rest!

The time saved through mindful consumption is the time spared for engaging in creative pursuits.

So my mantra for 2016 (and beyond) is the same as it was in 2015 – Consume Less, Create More. I look forward to doing better and raising the bar for myself.

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Also read at QAspire:

In 100 Words: On Blind Rituals

 

A cat that lived in monastery distracted evening meditation of the monks. One day, teacher ordered that cat be tied up daily during the evening meditation. Years later, when teacher died, the cat was still being tied up in the evening. When the cat died, another cat was bought and tied up to maintain the tradition. Centuries later, learned descendants of spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about significance of tying the cat during meditation.

In organizations and in life, complying with traditions without understanding them is a huge waste. When context changes, our thinking needs to evolve too. Isn’t it?


Also Read: Other 100 Word Parables

Agility: 8 Pillars For Building Self Organizing Teams

Last week, I was invited to speak as a panelist at Agile Carnival, Chandigarh where I expressed my thoughts on Agile as a method and as a mindset. Agility in our approaches is one of the most potent ways to deal with the challenges of a constantly changing world.

Here is the summary of a few thoughts I shared (and a few more):

  1. Agile is not just a method or process, but a mindset. Which also means, if your organization wants to be agile (and strategically nimble footed), you have to invest in building a culture of agility.
  2. You need to build a system of management methods, rituals, processes, tools and motivation where people are more likely to exercise their choice of doing a good job versus doing a great job. Their discretionary effort is so vital for your success. If you are aiming to build teams that are self-organizing, this is even more crucial.
  3. To be a part of a self-organizing team, people require maturity, skills and expertise to deal with technical challenges and manage conflicts constructively. Without required technical and functional competence, team will just not be able to take decisions to move forward.
  4. Narrowly focused reward programs kill self-organization within teams. When people have narrow and conflicting goals, they will do everything to meet their goals and yet, system might fail. Setting up systemic goals are vital to encourage collaboration (everyone wins when the system wins) rather than competition.
  5. Self-organizing teams also need a leader (read coach) – only that the role of a leader is to guide self-organization and clarify the direction relentlessly. A leader enables self-organization between team members and plays the role of mentor or a coach to the team. For this, leaders have to adopt an abundance mindset and give up on old ways of leading others through command and control.
  6. You cannot manage what you cannot measure, it is said. But you only get what you measure. We need to measure right things for right things to happen. E.g. if you only measure utilization, you may get high utilization but lower efficiency.
  7. Learning – collective learning – is the currency of self-organization in a team. The job of a leader is to establish forums where collective learning can happen. I have seen leaders who use forums like technical reviews and retrospectives to guide collective learning.
  8. Prioritization is at the heart of self-organization. When you have too much on your plate, you cannot deliver excellence. I have seen so many teams  derail when multiple and conflicting priorities don’t allow them to focus. Lean methods like Kanban therefore suggests that we limit the work in progress (through effective prioritization) and make the flow of work visible.

Over to you: What have been your experiences in building a self-organizing and agile team? If you were on the panel, what would you have shared?

Not Invented Here

Organizations, teams and individuals are obsessed with doing things themselves when a similar or better solution is already available elsewhere. Thinking that if you have to get it done right then you have to do it yourself is no less than some kind of obsession.

I have seen people rejecting better ideas just because they did not contribute in the ideation. Organizations spending enormous amount of effort in developing internal systems when a majority of what they want is available off-the-shelf. Teams trying to solve technical problems themselves when a solution is available already in other teams sitting under the same roof!

One of the possible reasons for ‘not invented here’ syndrome is that people find it hard to accept (or trust) something that they have not created or contributed to. Fear (and insecurity) of using someone else’s solution may also be a reason. Sometimes, people just don’t know that better solutions are readily available.

In any case, valuable time is lost, money is spent and opportunities are missed just because you choose to invest your effort instead of reusing what is already available.

In lean terms, this is a huge waste.

Because “not invented here” is almost the same as “lets reinvent the wheel”, unless there are strong and legitimate reasons to invent a newer kind of wheel.

Optimize the Whole

When we think in parts, we improve in parts. Most of the business improvement is the game of ‘sub-optimization’. You optimize pieces without looking at the whole.

When a customer reports problem with your software, you do an incidental root cause analysis and address the code quality problem. You deploy tools, introduce new processes, measure constantly and yet – a few months later, you encounter a similar problem.

But when you look at the whole system, you might figure out that the real root cause is in something which is immeasurable yet important – may be, collaboration with other teams or how you sell. May be, inefficiencies rooted in how you support your customers after product is delivered.

We optimize the silos and the whole misses our radar. If ‘customer centricity’ is one of your key values, you should consider optimizing the whole customer journey with your organization – not just your development processes.

Often, we also optimize that which is measured. If your metrics are narrow, you will never be able to focus on systemic metrics that may really help your business and the customer.

Here are a few important things to consider when you optimize the whole:

We need to cultivate “a discipline to see the wholes, a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than snapshots

  • Focus on Value Stream. Value for customer is created in a series of interactions between various processes that starts right from first contact with the customer. Value stream mapping is a lean tool to identify a series of events right from conception to delivery of product or service.
  • Define what “complete” system means. Too often, we think of complete product as a set of completed features. For customers though, complete product is an experience they receive through each interaction with the organization. It helps to define what ‘complete’ means.
  • Measure Right. When you have narrow functional metrics, people in each function will work  hard to achieve their goals and yet, organization will not realize benefits of having such metrics. However, if you have more systemic metrics (and rewards) where people win only when the system wins, it aligns everyone to the same set of goals to ensure that ultimately, customer wins too.

Sub-optimization in organizations is a thinking problem. When you fail to see the whole, you undermine your capabilities as an organization.

And this may be the precise thing that holds you back from delivering a superior performance to your customers.

On Simplifying Through Subtraction

I am on a mission to minimize. It started with this website which went minimal a few months back. It was hard to give up on all those fancy pages, content and images that I had created before. I kept adding more pages to this website till it started feeling like a burden. Now that clutter is gone, it feels so much better. I am now extending the same fundamentals in other areas of work and life.

Outside of mathematics, it is easy to add but far more difficult to subtract.

Adding more stuff at the home, more thoughts in the mind, more pages on the website, more services in business, more features in the product, more property assets, more tasks in the day and more everything else. That’s easy.

Try eliminating what you accumulated and it is way more harder. In a world that is getting more and more complex, we seek more and more simplicity. It seems to me that subtraction is at the heart of simplicity and hence effectiveness. Lao Tzu really got it when he said,

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day”

This may sound paradoxical but the act of subtraction is actually the act of addition in some other form. When I eliminated graphics, I added focus to the content. When we stop doing many things at a time, we create a room for more effort/focus on a few important things.

Methodologies like Kanban promote the idea of limiting the work-in-progress items. When you limit the “stuff on your plate”, you decrease distractions and increase the possibility of finishing what you started without compromising on quality.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” – Peter Drucker

This applies in almost every aspect of business and life. I have seen senior leaders spending days (and nights) doing meetings to frame a grand strategy when it is really the small and basic things that they are really missing. What would happen if they trade grandeur of strategy with simplicity?

Further, what would happen if we simplify the meeting agendas and subtract the number of meetings from our work day? If we reduce the slack in each and every process to get the work done? If we stop trying to load up our teams for doing more work in less time and set them up to focus more on less number of active tasks?

These are all possibilities. To realize these possibilities, we have to actively pursue simplicity through subtraction.

You can’t juggle too many balls for long. What balls are you ready to drop? What will you subtract?


Note: I have learned a great deal about simplicity and subtraction from Matthew E. May’s blog and his book “The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything” is definitely on my reading list.

Book Announcement: Implementing Lean Six Sigma in 30 Days

I am so glad to announce that my next book is just released. It is an actionable guide titled “Implementing Lean Six Sigma in 30 Days” that aims to help readers in understanding the Lean Six Sigma methodology and solve problems that undermine quality and inhibit efficiency.

This book is for business owners, quality improvement professionals and anyone in general who is driven by the desire to improve their team performance.

I co-authored this book with my colleague and friend Gopal Ranjan (to whom I am so grateful) and this book is published by ImPackt Publishing, UK.

As also written in the book introduction,

How can we improve? This is one of the most fundamental, but challenging, questions an organization can ask itself. It is never easy, but the ability to drive significant change that can bring positive results is immensely important for a business that wants to be successful in a rapidly growing market. Lean Six Sigma offers a way of answering this question, combining the approaches of both Lean and Six Sigma in a way that offers an opportunity for exponential improvement in a way that is manageable, flexible and sustainable. Spanning a month’s implementation process, this book will take you on a Lean Six Sigma journey, where you will gain a clear understanding of the fundamental principles, and develop a clear perspective of the process as it unfolds. From defining the problems to be tackled, to their measurement and analysis, this book leads you towards the stage of innovation where you can take steps that ensure and sustain improvements.

So, if you are a quality professional or an improvement consultant, you can use this book to guide your clients/organizations through their Lean Six Sigma journey.

Available on: Amazon and PacktPub Website

And yes, when you guide your customers through improvement journey, do not forget to align the content (the concept and implementation method) to your client/organization’s unique business context.

Because in the end, any methodology or best practice only delivers results when content intersects with context. It is this intersection where meaning is created.


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How To Get Better? Focus on ‘Touch Time’

In manufacturing, “touch-time” is when the raw material actually touches the machinery and moves one level up in the production cycle. In a factory, more capacity to produce does not yield results if “touch-time” is low. In lean methodology, it is also referred to as “processing time”.

As a professional, you have required skills and knowledge that increases your capacity to deliver. But that is of no use if your “professional touch-time” is less i.e. time when your unique abilities and talents are at work to produce meaningful results. In a typical work day, how often do we get sucked into activities that adds no or little value but just ends up filling the time?

If you are a programmer, what percentage of your time is spent in actually writing/improving code and building awesomeness into your software? If you are a sales professional, how much of productive time do you spend on reporting/MIS versus actually talking to a prospect and making a sale? If you are a CEO, how much of your time goes into driving strategy versus implementing tactics? If you are a writer, how many hours per day goes into actual writing?

When you are in “touch” with your work, you become better. You concentrate. You start spotting opportunities to improve. You optimize it. Nuances of your work start showing up. You build a serious expertise and get creative. You start adding “real value” to the customers.

The only way to improve quality of our work is to do the real work – not just preparing for it, but doing it.

Critical questions then are: When did you last measure how you spend your productive time in the day? What is your professional touch-time?

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The Promise of Gemba

In an organization, work flows horizontally but organizations are structured vertically in hierarchies. With seniority and promotions up the order, a person tends to drift away from the place where real business value is created; the place where real action happens; where problems are clearly visible. They end up expecting results without caring about the process and its purpose.

That’s where the promise of “Gemba” kicks in. “Gemba” is a Japanese word which means ‘the real place’. If senior leaders demonstrate understanding of how work is actually done by going to Gemba regularly, engaging people and noticing things, a lot of business inefficiencies can be identified and improved. Tom Peters defined this as “Management by Wandering Around”. Gemba allows leaders and improvement managers to appreciate what people really do on the floor and more importantly, how they do it.

You cannot take any meaningful decisions about work unless you know how the work is actually performed. 

We talk endlessly about engaging our teams and the starting point of engaging others is to engage yourself with the real. When people see you interested in how value is created, they start engaging actively too. You build trust that is vital for building a high performance organization. You may be surprised by how much potential your people have to contribute.

We have fallen in trap of meetings. In face of crisis or problems, things like meetings and brainstorming can be comforting, but unless you go to the floor, you will never understand the context of the problem. Going to Gemba also requires leaders to give up on their ego.

W. Edwards Deming said,

“If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realize they have one in the first place.”

Bottom line: Spending some time every day to see the action with the intention of learning is invaluable for a business leader. So, go out there and see the real.

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Also download:The Quality Manifesto – Getting the Basics of Quality Right in a Knowledge World” [PDF]

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Check out the collection of great leadership posts in November 2012 Edition of Carnival of Leadership Development at Dan McCarthy’s Great Leadership Blog.

A Steve Jobs Story on Simplicity and Focus

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is on my reading list and I was curious to have some initial reviews about the book. Matthew E. May recently reviewed the book on his blog.

In a post titled “The Zen Master of Subtraction: Steve Jobs”, Matt shares some very interesting stories/snippets about how Steve Jobs generated extreme focus by virtue of elimination.

I borrow the following story from his blog:

Once a year Jobs took his most valuable employees on a retreat, which he called “The Top 100.” They were picked based on a simple guideline: the people you would bring with you if you could only take a hundred people with you on a lifeboat to your next company. At the end of the retreat, Jobs would stand in front of a whiteboard (he loved whiteboards because they gave him complete control of a situation and they engendered focus) and ask, “What are the ten things we should be doing next?” People would fight to get their suggestions on the list. Jobs would write them down, and then cross off the ones he decreed dumb. After much jockeying, the group would come up with a list of ten. Then Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, “We can only do three.”

With all the clutter around us, thinking about simplicity is hard. As individuals and organizations, we can do so many things with our abilities that we end up running in different directions to attempt all of them, spreading ourselves thin.

Most people (and organizations) do more on more. More work on more number of priorities. The key is to do more on less – more focus and better execution on a fewer set of priorities. That is what “being lean” is all about – focus on being effective, eliminate clutter, clarify your priorities and then execute like hell.

Check out Matt’s review. I now look forward to reading the book and peek into the life of Jobs.

Creating a Learning Organization: 10 Actions For a Leader

Jack Welch said,

“An organizations ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the greatest competitive advantage.”

Continuous learning and its respective implementation to generate desired business outcomes is at the core of successful organizations.

Peter Senge defined a learning organization as the one “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

Here are top 10 actions for a leader to create a culture of continuous learning for individuals, teams and hence an organization:

  • Drive people to learn by doing. People learn the most when they implement their knowledge to generate meaningful business results.
  • Realize that training is just a tool to impart knowledge. Learning is also about sharing lessons, telling stories, doing, making mistakes and improving constantly.
  • Align middle managers to create a learning culture, because they are the ones who drive learning, not just the HR team.
  • Incorporate learning into your processes. Establish rituals like periodic review meetings and retrospectives to track what went well / what could have gone well.
  • Expose your teams to diverse learning resources like books, social media, online videos, working with cross cultural teams/geographies and so on.
  • Use technology to accelerate learning and ensure accessibility of knowledge. Great thing is a lot of useful tools like blogs, wikis and forums are free.
  • Involve people in important change initiatives to ensure that they learn about managing change (one of the most important learning) and working with diverse set of people.
  • Promote the abilities of people to generate alternative ideas and open up to different view points. (Related reading: On Leadership, Opening Up and Being Prepared)
  • Move beyond metrics to realize that learning is a long term thing which cannot be measured in numbers. Learning is tacit and visible only through results delivered by team.
  • Allow people to make mistakes (and learn from them). People never experiment if they have to pay a price for trying new things out.

Critical Question: What methods have worked for you in ensuring that your team/organization learns constantly, and applies that learning for positive impact on organization/customers?

Join in the conversation.

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“Value” and “Waste” – Watch Them Constantly

Delivering Value” is the buzzword these days. Companies are working ways out to deliver more value, people in organizations are evaluated based on value they create and clients seek “value-adds” in products and services they purchase.

It is all a value game, I agree, and focusing on value delivery is at the core of any business.

To deliver higher value to customers, business leaders implement complex strategies, restructure the organization periodically, lay out new initiatives, improve upon they existing processes, focus on sales, training, people etc.

Somewhere, in this process of constant realignment and improvement, ‘waste’ is introduced. Unwanted complexity, bureaucratic structures, complex systems, increased time on unproductive activities, rework and time spent on things that may not contribute directly in delivering value.

It almost becomes cyclic – in pursuit of adding more value, you are creating more complexity. Waste resulting out of this complexity keeps you from delivering the value to your customers. Waste, in simplest terms, is any activity within the process that does not add value to the customer. “Eliminating Waste” is the key to a lean and productive organization.

Bottom line: In pursuit of increasing value delivery to customers, do not add more complexity and waste, because it may just be the thing that keeps you from delivering value. Eliminating waste, is the one of the best way to increase value, simplify and quality of outcomes.

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Related Thoughts at QAspire Blog

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P.S.:

"The HR Carnival" by Mike Haberman (at Omega HR Solutions) features my post "Don’t Just Punish Them If They Don’t Comply" along with 32 other great posts on HR, Leadership and Organization Development.