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.

Values in an Agile/Lean/Innovative company

This is part of my Lean Disruption Series where I’m looking at Lean, Agile, Innovation, and Lean Startup.

None of these methodologies can be adopted for free. They require a great deal of firm introspection. Understanding how processes interaction with people and values is vital to adopting any of these approaches let alone a combination of these approaches.

Metrics are one of the best examples of how there can be conflicts between stated values, values in making decisions, how resources are handled and how processes are structured. The famous saying “You manage what you measure” is right in a lot of ways. Many companies claim that they value customer satisfaction, however many of these companies do not actually do anything with the satisfaction surveys they do get. Comcast is the most obvious example of this. Comcast doesn’t really value customer satisfaction because they measure their customer support on how much they can upsell to the customer anytime they are on the phone. This changes the processes their customer support must use, rather than designing processes to enable single call resolution, their processes are designed to enable selling more products. Their employees, the resources, are rated based on this and if they don’t meet those goals they are unlikely to do well. Considering the Verge’s Comcast Confessions series most of the resources at Comcast do not feel valued. This all points to the true values for Comcast being retention at all costs and more revenue per user measured in Churn and ARPU (Average Revenue per User) respectfully.

Agile Manifesto from ITIL’s blog

For a company to adopt an Agile approach to developing software, the paradigm of what the organization values must radically change to align to the Agile Manifesto. In most software development the concepts on the right are what are valued through a Project Management Office. The concepts on the left are typically considered only at the beginning or the end of the project or not at all. Working product is the goal of a project, while customer collaboration inclusive only in the beginning getting requirements.

Switching from the right to the left creates massive cultural upheaval at an organization, where power is shifted down and out. It is shifted down to the team level, where managers in the past made all the important decisions Product Owners, Scrum Masters, and developers make the decision now with the customers. Power is shifted out through increased collaboration with the customer. Customer centricity forces the company to understand what the customer really wants and more quickly respond to changes in their understanding of their needs. This does mean that the “requirements” change, however, in many cases due to the uncertainty in a technology, interface, or some other aspect it was impossible to properly articulate the actual need until there was an example in front of the customer.

With these value changes there must be process changes to that properly reflect the change in the way the values require work to be completed. In the case where Single Call resolution is the most important metric reflecting the value of true customer satisfaction, processes must be built to enable that – such as training, information repositories, and authority to truly address customer needs at a single point of contact. In software development rapid iteration with continual feedback is a process that must be built to enable that.

This changes are not free and require true commitment from leaders across the organization. Without their commitment any adoption of these frameworks is doomed to failure.

Customers Don’t Know What They Want, But You Don’t Know What They Want Either

This is part of my ongoing series on Lean, Lean Startup, Agile, Innovation, and Disruption.

This topic always gets a lot of press and it is truly covered in just about any business book these days. In fact the Disruption perspective offers the suggestion that a product is hired to do a given job, so you need to understand what the customer is trying to do and then start figuring out what how to best solve that problem.

Typically, people start with the solution. Engineers, designers, programmers have an idea for a solution a product that they think people will like because they find the solution to be a cool idea. So without consulting true customers through interviews they do other “market” research which may or may not really ask the right questions because they might not truly understand the problem that they are truly trying to solve. A solution might sound good and people might say they are interested in it, but if it truly doesn’t address their problem. This is why the Lean Canvas is powerful, because if forces you to truly confront the problem your solution is trying to attack.

The point isn’t that you or anyone else know better than your customers, you truly don’t. You might have an idea that could be something that your customers could use. You don’t truly know. Having confidence if vital for success, but you truly need to test that through interviews and planned conversations.

The iPhone wasn’t successful because it was truly novel It really wasn’t, the phone wasn’t able to handle 3G, it didn’t have copy and paste and many other features that Blackberries had for years. Things that standard businessmen needed. However, that wasn’t the market Apple was going after initially. They were going after high value customers that were not having their needs met with existing smart phones. They knew their customers would be willing to pay a premium because of the more and more advanced iPods the company was selling. Apple was able to look at the competition and see what was working well, what was not working well, and what features customers truly needed. The first iPhone was truly an MVP, but the problem Apple was trying to solve was different than Blackberry or what Nokia was thinking of solving. This is why they were successful. They understood the problems their customers had. They didn’t have the most innovative phone on the market from the hardware perspective. They figured out how to attract customers through an easy to use UI. The problem people had with with Smart Phones was that it was terrible to use. Solve that simply and elegantly, you can rapidly expand into different customer segments. Then quickly move into those other segments as businessmen bought the iPhone as a personal phone and wanted to replace their Blackberry.

Assuming arrogantly that you know what the customer wants will likely lead to failure as much as asking the customer what they want/need. Identifying a viable problem and validating through experimentation is the best way to determine if it’s truly something your customer wants.

The Power of Kanban

This is part of my ongoing series on Lean, Innovation, Lean Startup, Agile, and disruption.

Kanban is a tool in Lean which is used to help send messages downstream without needing to actually talk to each other. Which is powerful in a manufacturing setting as communication might be difficult depending on the environment. Kanban translate as card from Japanese and typically has information related to the number of items that need to be in a bin and what the item is that needs to be in a bin.

Example of a Kanban board on Trello

Example of a Kanban board on Trello

Some Agile practitioners have adopted Kanban to be a set of steps in the process for developing software. This could be as simple as Ideas, To Do, Doing, Completed, or as complicated as Backlog, Wireframe, Coding, QA, Testing, Integration, Complete. Ideally, simpler is better, because more bins make management of the lists much more complicated than if there are that many phases in the Kanban board, but this is really up to the preference of the team and whatever works best based on the Build measure Learn approach.

Even developing a Kanban system for software development the team should view it as another possible to learn how to work with each other better. This includes the information that’s required for a piece of work to be started. For example, determining what information is the minimum for a User Story is something that must be agreed upon by the team. Furthermore, the Acceptance Criteria can help reduce the number of steps on the Kanban board as these may simply be part of the acceptance criteria for a complete story.

Using stories and Kanban board can help with Innovation through creating bite size pieces of work that can be designed to reduce the environment of uncertainty the product is being developed in. Since uncertainty is the greatest risk to the project it is vital to write user stories and use the kanban board to maximize efficiencies with developing a new product.

The Kanban board is also extremely effective for ensuring that startups keep their energy focused on the most important thing. No work should be done on an item if the work is not on the Kanban board. If the work is vital to the startup, then it needs to be recorded and validated that it’s the right thing to be doing. Yes, it might slow things now, but the Kanban board is an effective tool to help people understand who is working on what and how those interact with other problems out there. This doesn’t meant that immediate issues shouldn’t be resolved immediately, but for development purposes no new work should be done without having an item on the Kanban board.