Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Beyond Six Sigma

It's time to launch a new consulting business. Name?

7 Sigma - For When You Just Can't Get Enough Sigma.

Or,

5 Sigma - When You've Had Enough of Sigma

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Myth of Proof

Stephen Covey was fond of using the lighthouse as something that symbolizes guiding principles. I prefer to think of it as something that symbolizes a state of transition.

A lighthouse is a warning for a boat. Its message is simple - you are entering a point of transition and what you've been able to do up to this point will no longer work. Save for a few amphibious crafts, most vehicles are designed for either water or land - to try the transition from one state to the other, from water to land without a change from boat to car is to court destruction.

Right now, your business has proof of what works and what does not. That's fine and reliable as long as the context, the state, in which you work does not change. But once that happens - once the demographic of your customer changes, the competition introduces new solutions, the market transitions from national to international ... when you see such a change, you are seeing a lighthouse. The proof you have about what works in the water may prove irrelevant once you find yourself on land. Motor boats and sail boats alike move poorly on land.

Don't become complacent about proof. We're entering the end of the information age. The point is no longer to disperse more information to knowledge workers. The point is to disperse more decisions, more market signals, more autonomy, to knowledge workers. It is unlikely that you have much proof about what works in such a context. And reliance on past proof will only confuse you.

What should you do? Start generating theories. Test them in small and rapid experiments. Proof is valuable, but to get proof about what works in a new context you have to approach the situation with an open mind about what works and what does not. Proof is like yogurt - it is never entirely clear when it has gone bad with age, but it does go eventually go bad. Be sure that your proof is fresh.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Myth of "Focus"

"Just focus on your work."
"If we could just get our people to focus on their work, to not be so distracted, we'd get twice as much done."
"I really do have trouble focusing at work. Emails, meetings, conversations, sounds drifting into my cubicle all distract me."

Two things seem to be generally accepted in today's modern work place. One, if only we didn't live in an information age so ripe with distraction, we could focus on our work. Two, such focus would be a huge boon to productivity. Maybe.

Our minds simply don't work in a vacuum. Deming used to say that if you were to tell an employee to "clean a table," they wouldn't have a clue about how to proceed. Do you want the table cleaned off so that we can do our paperwork on its surface? Do you want the table cleaned off so that we can eat? Perform surgery? Assemble microelectronics? Until she knows why you want it cleaned off, she can't work.

Our brains need a context, a purpose, an environment in which they can place our work. Without that, brains wander unmoored. One job of leadership is to create a context for employee tasks. This is not so much a matter of "focusing" on the particulars of a task as it is a matter of "connecting" the task to the outside world. Creativity is almost invariably a matter of connection - and that requires us to be aware of our environment, not disconnected from it.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Myth of Productivity Without Creativity

I was in some meetings with two heads of a health care company’s new business division who are obese. From what I could glean, they didn’t take the time for exercise largely because they worked so many hours. They’ve compromised their own health as they are busily pursuing business solutions to health problems.

The boundary between work and home has disappeared along with the wires we once needed for phones and computers. Work hours are steadily creeping upwards.

For me, the worst thing about this is that it overlooks what research into the mysteries of the mind has repeatedly proven: gestation is a necessary component in creativity. When people are continually rushed to translate problems and information into solutions, the solutions they arrive at are almost invariably clich├ęd, predictable, and of little value. Research indicates that people need time after immersion in a problem to let it gestate before expecting a breakthrough.

My work with dozens and dozens of organizations has convinced me of this: there is no shortage that creativity cannot overcome. Whether the organization is short of customers, cash, or talented employees, the shortage can be overcome by creativity. Creativity, however, has trouble overcoming a shortage of time. And as organizations become less creative, they feel compelled to work longer hours, which further reduces the level of creativity.

Lest you think this hypothetical, you may be interested to know that Darwin worked only two to four hours a day. Last I heard, his insights had led to research and products worth hundreds of billions - perhaps trillions of dollars by now. You can't calculate the productivity of creativity any more than you can calculate the number of apples in an apple seed.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Myth of Rating and Ranking

Once or twice a year, supervisors all over the world sit down and solve for X in the following equation:

Y * X = 47

X = the employee performance.
Y = the system they perform within.
47 (or whatever value) = what the employee was able to create within that system.

There are so many things that are wrong with this equation, literally.

For one, the value of 47 is itself subject to massive amount of measurement error. The performance of an individual in a system typically results in indeterminate and hard to measure outcomes.

If Y is the value of the "system" in which the individual performs, this system is constantly changing. Even if the company is static, its environment, its markets, its technology are all changing. Y is a dynamic variable, not a static value.

Nonetheless, supervisors around the world are sitting down right now to solve for X. The scariest thing? Most will actually think that they've found "the" value of X and will never realize that as long as they attribute complementary values to Y, they can justify any value of X that they want.

[And yes, alert readers, this is basically a recap of an argument that Deming repeatedly made onto deaf ears. Apparently, the millions of administrators demanding grades and managers giving performance reviews all understand systems, and variability more than the departed Dr. Deming. Either that or they just don't get it and feel compelled to continue with a system of grading and ranking only slightly less archaic than sinking women in water to determine whether or not they are witches.]

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Myth of Motivational Distinctions by “Class”

An often-observed myth held by senior and executive management is that subordinates, especially those well down the hierarchical chain, are motivated solely by a subset of the things that motivate managers higher up the chain. What do we mean by this?

Specifically, when you sit in the boardroom listening to senior executives talk about what motivates the ordinary worker, the character of their conversation takes on a distinctly paternalistic and condescending flavor. The whole conversation seems to descend from an attitude that the senior executives are the caretakers of those in their charge, and that the meek and the poor workers will be ever so glad just to have a minimal set of needs satisfied in order to attain happiness. So the conversation tends to center on the company’s pay scale compared with the industry’s, fringe benefits as a percent of salary, and small rewards and discretionary bonuses for employee suggestions. The dialogue continues with a focus on how much merit increases should be and how happy workers should feel to get them. It next centers on how benevolent the leadership is for paying such a large percentage of health care costs, and how lucky everyone should feel that the company helps pay for long-term disability. Finally, the corporate “fathers” talk about how beneficent they are by having better than average vacation or time-off policies. And what about the company’s 401K contributions?

But when these same senior managers talk about what motivates them—in addition to their big fat paychecks, incentive compensation, stock options, and restricted share awards—other factors arise in the conversation. They talk about the specific challenges of their job and the enjoyment and satisfaction they derive from meeting those challenges. They talk about the range of experience they have gathered and their desires for increased visibility and accountability. They talk about their accomplishments and the pride they take in them. They talk about their ability to contribute to the company’s bottom line. The talk about the challenges to their organization, the steps they’ve taken to overcome them, and their specific achievements. They also talk about their future goals and what it will take to accomplish them.

What we have almost never heard during our time in the executive boardrooms during conversations such as these is a focus on incentives that might otherwise interest a host of employees at least as much, if not more, than the pale subset mulled over by management. Not commonly discussed were things like added responsibility, changing job status to gain experience and knowledge, increased organizational visibility, flexibility in career assignments, greater autonomy, participation in more entrepreneurial activities, more time for personal development and innovation, and participation in more technically challenging work. Why is this?

What if managers saw their employees as having the same potential they see in themselves and devoted time and energy to creating similar kinds of positive incentives and opportunities to fulfill those potentials? What would a company be like then?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Myth: It’s OK to Create Personal Goals in a Void

We have to admit that we’re always amazed when a supervisor of ours comes to us once a year and asks us to write up our personal goals for the next year and have them on his desk the next Tuesday. (We’re not talking for the moment about personal development goals, but those that target discrete activities to improve the business, its processes or its products.) How is it that anyone in management thinks an employee can set meaningful goals for improving the business without reference to some framework, some overarching strategic context, to guide him or her?

Our first and immediate reaction is always to ask the same questions, if not out loud, at least in our heads: (1) What are the corporation’s goals for the next year? (2) What are the primary strategies the company is employing to realize those goals? (3) What are the departments’ goals for the year and how do your own personal goals tie with and support them? (4) What specific activities do you think we’d be best suited for that would support all of the above, and (5) How do you see us being best able to align our goals with those at each layer of organization to make sure that what we’re doing is fully supportive of and synchronized with them?

Why does it not seem to dawn on management that one of the most powerful forces they can harness inside an organization is to make sure that everyone is aligned around the strategic objectives the company has set for itself for the ensuing year? Everyone under the sun has heard about “rowing the boat together in the same direction” to maximize efficiency and effectiveness. If these goals truly meant something to the corporation, wouldn’t they want everyone's to contribute maximally to accomplishing the company’s annual goals? Wouldn’t they want to make sure this happened by paying particular attention to synchronizing them at every level (from the company's marketing and product development strategies down to departmental work instructions), and across all the functional silos, as people developed and planned them. And wouldn’t they want to make sure that both up and down and across the organization everyone knew who was doing what, so they could harmonize their efforts throughout the year to produce the greatest effect?