Is There a Disconnect Between Knowledge Workers and Business Leaders?

The past two weeks I’ve read a number of articles about the End of Agile and subsequent rebuttals. Yesterday I read an excellent article asking “Whatever Happened to Six Sigma?” Both of these articles are fascinating. The rebuttals to the first are incredibly enlightening. I don’t think these are the last of these sorts of articles. I expect to read “The End of Lean” down the road as well.

I think there are a few reasons, one of them is common between Six Sigma and Agile. Snake Oil Salespeople. Basically, what has happened with all methodologies (except for PMI’s Waterfall approach – which I’ll get to) there reaches a point in time where it becomes impossible to determine the quality of credentials for a given certification. At that point, the certification is valueless even if the training, like you dear reader received, was actually the top of the top. Because there’s no actual way to determine if the quality is any good or not.

I experienced this first hand while I was teaching Lean Six Sigma at AMD. I had some fantastic mentors when I was working there, that lived and breathed Six Sigma for their entire careers. They knew this stuff inside and out. Which made me gain a much deeper appreciation for the methodology. However, there was another small company in Austin that also taught Six Sigma to their employees, Dell. Whenever we hired people from Dell with a certification in Six Sigma, a Green Belt or even a Black Belt, we essentially had to retrain them. Many of them, did not truly internalize what they were taught, or the material was less rigorous. This was likely a trade off the Six Sigma training team had to make to ensure their team remained relevant to Dell.

However, whenever you cannot trust the training from an organization like Dell, it makes it a lot more difficult to trust training for any other organization. You just don’t know the standards. Agile’s currently experiencing the exact same issue. There’s been a huge influx of organizations giving certifications. Not all of them have the same level of quality.

I think as a reaction to this, the software development industry has created DevOps and DevSecOps. Which doesn’t have a certification process, but a general set of ideas, such as Trunk development, rigorous testing, continuous integration, and on the extreme continuous deployment.

I think all this goes back to a basic premise though. Knowledge workers, like engineers and software developers look at problems very differently than business leaders. I first experienced this while I was in college. I was studying Industrial Engineering (which pulls in elements from Six Sigma, Lean, Network Theory, Simulation, Human Factors, etc…) while a good friend was studying Business. We had a few conversations about how businesses should be run and it was very obvious to me, that we were talking about two completely different views of how a firm should be run.

I was arguing against (in 2003) off-shoring, because it decreased the efficiency of engineering and collaboration between manufacturing and engineering. Both Agile and Lean argue against off-shoring due to these reasons. Given the change in the approach, the salary savings, overall, didn’t make the effort worth it, because of the reasons I listed. My friend thought lowering cost was the right thing to do.

This isn’t just an anecdotal thing though. If you read books about Agile, Theory of Constraints, or Innovation, they all make the same arguments. The ideas taught in business school are causing business leaders to make bad ideas. Theory of Constraints was popularized in the book The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt and came out in 1984. The ideas he espoused in that book were considered counter intuitive. If you read the Phoenix Project by Gene Kim which came out in 2013, which is written to model The Goal, you’ll find the characters running into, literally, the exact same type of thinking by managers and other team members. To me, this means there are other cultural organizations that are pushing back against the approaches technical leaders find work best and what our business leaders find work best for their goals.

The two most obvious cases for this are Accounting (which The Goal sets up as something of an antagonist) and Executives. Accounting has the weight of Law on its side, which is problematic, because Accounting organizations has their own reason for maintaining a status quo. They have their own certification process to become a CPA. From the executives standpoint, in many cases these folks are presented as having an MBA and excellent business training.

Despite that, they are still making poor business decisions for the technical team, poor decisions about how to structure their organization, and poor decisions about how to run projects. Most projects are run using a Waterfall approach, because that is the defacto approach we’re all taught throughout school. We manage to dates and push to get things done. The Project Management Institute has managed to corner the market on this approach, because most people can “do waterfall” without needing a certification. You learn through osmosis, by doing. The certification certainly elevates some PMs in some organizations. However, I don’t really think that having a PMP matters to most hiring managers.

So, where does this leave us? It leaves us with Knowledge Workers using ideas like Six Sigma, Lean, DevOps, Agile, and more to dress up their structured problem solving approaches to add structure and credibility. They need structure to compete with the Date Managed Waterfall approach. They need credibility of a methodology to put their approach on the same level as a PMP certification. In the case of Six Sigma, I’d argue its biggest success was internalizing the cost saving analysis. This helped translated the output in terms of money, which executives understand.

Every other approach tries to create an alternative measure. Elimination of Waste or “Working Software is the Measure of Progress” are nice alternatives to reducing costs or meeting due dates.

However, most share holders don’t care about that. They only care about what’s going to make them more money. Ethics and approach be damned. Until that is resolved. We’ll continue to have more fads or business fashions, as Knowledge Workers push back against Business Leaders.

On the Efficiencies of Business

So, I’ve been going to therapy for a few months now to deal with depression. One of thing that has come up is how I don’t really release a lot of the emotions that I am feeling and one of them is anger. I typically swallow that to stay diplomatic and deal with whatever situation as well as I can. I think that I’ve been stewing about this for a while and mentioning it to my friends periodically. I don’t feel that business leaders respect my career path and don’t understand how to actually make their businesses more efficient.

Excluding the past two years, the majority of my career has been focused on Lean, Six Sigma, or Lean Six Sigma (yes all of them are different in terms of how you approach continuous improvement). I have run projects, developed courses, facilitated strategic planning events for companies like AMD, but the entire time, I never truly felt secure in my role. At Samsung, we had lay-offs and last some employees, at AMD, we definitely lost some and my Director actually decided to be let go to save a number of my coworkers. This is in spite of the fact that our group had saved the company measurably millions of dollars over the 1.5 years I worked at AMD. We were always on the chopping block. Then while working at Cambia (Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield) I was laid off, even though the result of my training program included winning a national Blues award and saved the company a lot of time and money. My team easily paid for itself more than once over while we were there (my team was me and my employee Phil).

As we all know Insurance companies are always raising premiums. The underlying assumption is that these businesses are actually working to continually drive down their financial overhead, but those damn regulations keep getting in the way to drive up cost. This is just flat out wrong. These businesses don’t actually know how to drive improvement in their organizations. The only way they can even imaging improving their business is to hire an organization like McKinsey or BCG which costs millions and gets little to no result. The results they do provide are typically brought about by recommendations internally to the organization that leadership is unwilling to implement unless told about them by an expensive consulting group.

This is problematic because it doesn’t actually change the culture of the organization to drive continual improvement and innovation. As I’ve written in the past Innovation and Improvement are positively correlated. Furthermore, these training classes help expand people’s networks, which also significantly improve innovation as well.

So, first of all, I’m pissed off at corporate leaderships for not understanding the value of continuous improvement. Second, I’m pissed off that it’s just accepted that businesses always figure out ways to be more efficient. This isn’t true. If it was true there wouldn’t be a large number of people in their mid-50’s looking for work after a very successful career in continuous improvement. If these businesses didn’t think that the best way to improve efficiencies was to cut costs and then have someone else do two people’s work, this wouldn’t be a problem.

You can reduce headcount and drive up efficiencies, but only if you provide your people with the right tools and the requires true investment in the business. Although, all continuous improvement efforts pay for themselves if you aren’t just looking at how much a few people cost that are part of the team. You need to weight that against the positive gains they are making for the organization.

I’m pissed off about this because I feel like Michael Bolton from Office Space “I shouldn’t have to change, he’s the one who sucks.” I have had to completely change my career, which I was really passionate about because I don’t trust corporate leaders to try invest and buy in to continuous improvement. Maybe this is short sighted and I just need to find the right company. But I’ve looked I’ve been at a number of them and I’ve heard stories from other people that have been laid off (while i was interviewing for the position Phil filled) for exactly what I’m talking about here. So as a response I’ve tried to protect myself from that by avoiding applying for those jobs.

I loved doing that work because I knew at the end of each day and each project, I made someone’s work life better. Which is awesome. You listen to their problems, which helps them, but then you provide them with the tools to make change and to fix their current situation. When they look at how that aspect of their job is going to work after you finish the project, you can just see how much happier they are. You can see that it allows them to focus on the thing they were hired to do, not deal with some bullshit that was there because it’s always been there.

Businesses need more of this. The culture needs to change from top to bottom. It’s the role of the Lean Manager to change the culture so that people want to do continuous improvement. It’s the role of the business leader to provide the right incentives to do this as well.

Starting with Lean

I had a great conversation with a new friend yesterday. He’s a dentist and is looking to drive continuous improvement within his small organization. He’s feeling overwhelmed, since he’s busy with being a dentist, running an office, and managing a small team adding any extra responsibility seems like it’d put him over the top. He wants to do process improvement because he things that there’s a lot of waste in his small organization but he is terrified of starting because it seems like more work that he doesn’t have time for.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of a Dentist wanting to improve processes or go Lean. While working at Samsung I watched a Webinar about the Lean Dentist, Sami Bahri, who several years ago began to implement Lean at his dental practice. He’s since gone on to write two book, one of specific importance to both Healthcare and Dentistry: Single Patient Flow. This really turns the concept of provider centric care on its head. The goal of Single Patient Flow is to maximize the “utilization” of the patient. No, this doesn’t mean treat patients with unneeded tests to keep them “busy.”

No it means that we need to measure the value added component of their time in the clinic and set a goal of that as close to 100% as possible. This means warm hand-offs between any assistants and the doctor, it means no waiting in the waiting room. No waiting in the office for people to come. None of this is something that we’re willing to pay for, yet we must pay for it. Actually in most cases our employers are paying for it through lost productivity at our jobs.

Moving towards patient centric offices also changes the how the patient expects to interact with you. They will know more because they did some research coming in, this information could be wrong so it will take more time to explain to them the correct diagnosis. People using WebMD is a result of dissatisfaction with existing doctor offices.

Becoming more patient centric is a big deal and takes a lot of work. Where do you start? With anything. Yes that’s a bit of a cop out statement, but it’s also true. Pick anything that is causing pain for either your staff or your patients and map it out. Figure out what the process currently and where the wastes are. Work to eliminate them. Start with something small like how you answer the phone or greet the patient when they walk in the door. Figure out who should be doing this and how to ensure it’s the right person doing this work.

Start somewhere. Start where you can have a quick win. Start where you think it will help the patient quickest first.

Enabling Innovation Through Lean Improvement

This is part of my ongoing Lean Disruption series where I write about how to combine Innovation Theory, Lean, Lean Startup, Agile, and Lean product development.

Since values and metrics drive processes how can you enable innovation in an organization that isn’t completely willing to support innovation? As I mentioned before Skunkworks are a key component in this process. Using emergent strategies with Lean Startup tools such as the Lean Canvas are another key method to enable innovation with the skunkworks approach. However, not every organization can or will truly allow this approach.

In organization that cannot or will not support a skunk works approach to innovation what options are available? In the case where you are a manager of more than yourself you have the ability to implement Lean within your small organization. Owning the processes within your organization and becoming a coach to your employees, can begin enabling metrics that drive customer centric focus.

This is possible by taking a single step and picking a metric that will move the metrics that your bosses care about. Focus on improving one process at a time. Start with something that is completely in your control, such as how you hand off material within your group that goes to other groups. Measure the number of errors your group introduces, however do not blame people. If things are wrong investigate the root cause of the problem rather than accusing your people of causing the problems. Problems can come from the group that handed off the work. In those cases, create a process to review the work looking for errors and then work with the team supplying that work to eliminate those errors where you can.

In the case where there are errors within your team, you work together to uncover each source of the problem. As a manager you own the processes as much as the result of the work your team does. The final output of your work is 100% dependant on the processes that lead to those output. Another important step is to work on converting your daily meeting, assuming you have one, into a daily standup rather than a typical beat and greet. These meetings instead must cover the goals for the day, issues from the day before, and follow up to address those issues. In the case where the team has projects they are working on, this can become an opportunity to being pulling in some agile stand up practices, such as “What did you work on yesterday, what do you plan on working today, and do you have any impediments?” These questions can help change the way projects are run within your group.

To improve processes within your group, the best way to do this is to go to where work is being done. You must actually watch as work is being done, while keeping in mind that the way work is being done will change as you watch people work. Make sure they are aware that you are not going to be critical or even record who is doing the work at the time. Record the information and move on. You should not use this information in their next 1 on 1 or review. The goal is to learn how people are doing work especially across work types and workers. After you map the process review the results in your daily stand up to discuss potential issues. Partner with your team to find the root cause of the problem and empower them to make changes to their processes.

Before you change the process it is important to measure current state and measure the impact of those changes on the metrics that matter to you. Keeping in mind that you must make all changes from a customer’s perspective. These are the easier things to implement. However, making changes and getting support in this change from your leadership isn’t going to be easy, so you must show that you’re making wins and improving the result of your work. That’s all leaders care about.

Successful process improvement opens the way to broader innovations. Start small and then move into larger projects as you have a better understanding of what you are trying to do.

Values and Metrics Drive Emergent Strategies

This is part of my ongoing series on Lean Disruption. Where I write about combining Innovation, Lean, Lean Startup, Agile, and Lean product development methodologies.

Clay Christensen argues that there are two types of strategies corporate leaders engage with, deliberate and emergent. Porter’s 5 Forces analysis is an attempt to use tools to pull emergent strategies based on changing environmental landscape into the corporation’s deliberate strategy. A deliberate strategy is the strategy that leaders have vocalized and intentionally invested money and resources into. Emergent strategies on the other hand are strategies that develop through metrics and actual organizational behavior. While a leader may intentionally push resources one direction another metrics that has much more value to lower level managers may require those resources to be redeployed in another context. Resulting in a different strategy to develop than what executives had originally planned.

Hoshin Kanri (Policy Deployment) plays a similar role to the 5 Forces in the Toyota Production System where leaders start with their stated 3-5 year goals and turn those into annual goals, projects, and finally the metrics by which those projects will be measured. However, the process isn’t done after a single meeting, this policy is reviewed monthly and if conditions change enough can be completely reworked or modified based on what conditions are emerging. This is important because it can, in fact, feed changes the whole way back at the the 3-5 year goal levels where if serious issues are occurring in multiple projects associated with a goal, such as lack of resource commitment, that goal must be re-evaluated or there needs to be other changes to incentivize resource commitment to those projects.

The Lean Startup and Agile approaches are likely the most closely tied to emergent strategy development. The Lean Startup approach values experimentation and customer engagement above all else which can result in initially a great deal of change in project/corporate strategy. In the Running Lean the author uses the Lean Canvas as a tool to maximize the power of emergent strategy develop and smooth the transition from emergent to deliberate strategy development. In many cases that transition is relatively easy anyway, however it is possible to see that transition occur as a corporate leader iterates through versions of the Lean Canvas resulting in less and less changes to the Canvas.

Agile similarly promotes engagement with customers and using iteration to eliminate uncertainty. In this way Agile is closer to Lean Startup than traditional Project Management and leads to emergent based products. Where the customer need is truly met. Which, over time, results in a deliberate strategy to maximize the resulting product. This product is still, likely, within the initial deliberate strategy of the leaders of the company, but may be very different than what the leadership had initially wanted or planned. This is the best of both worlds as the leaders get a product that fits their strategy, but is more effective in serving market needs than what they ever could have planned.

The values and metrics the organization uses to manage the work that it does heavily influences the direction any project or product develops. The tighter the control over metrics with less flexibility for innovation leads to more tightly aligned products to deliberate strategies. However, this can come at a cost of less innovative ideas and poor-market fit. In the case where something might significantly change the direction of the company, for that product to survive it is best to move that into a skunkworks or protected space where funding is secure with appropriately aligned staffing levels. This will allow the metrics and values to coalesce around the product, the customer, and the market needs.