Monday, 24 November 2014

Community of purpose

A client runs a large team conducting several complex projects in parallel for an international company in the US. He has been going through a difficult personal time and was saying that his management had slipped as a result 

To wit: his team recently invited him to attend a project management meeting. This is the kind of meeting that he would normally call and lead himself, but which he'd uncharacteristically not organized for a while. His team saw a need and did it for him. 

He was, in his own words, hurt and upset that his team had felt the need to "do [his] job for [him]". His managerial mojo was being challenged, but he put on a good face and ultimately thanked his team for taking the initiative for this much-needed meeting.  

Upon reflection, we came upon another reading of this situation. His team allowed itself to take a risk: to call a meeting and thus signal a need (and a minor slip on his side). They were able to take this risk, albeit small, because they know that he trusts them and their motives, and because they trust him, his fairness, and goodwill. Further, they respect him and thus wish him well, as they perceive his success to reflect positively upon them. They know he respects them and would react accordingly. 

In other words, the carefully crafted mutual trust and respect that he has fostered over time has created a community of purpose and goal. It is within this community that his team could reach out to him, to help him and themselves simultaneously. As a manager, building such a community is significantly more difficult, long lasting, and valuable than tracking projects on a spreadsheet, or running team meetingsthat is the mark of a true leader.

Monday, 17 November 2014

What is your takt time of change?

We've grown up with bureaucracies who's main purpose is to fend off change. We love the thrill of new, but we hate to have to change our habits on anything to do with daily logistics. We've been told change is external, something to be managed, something supposedly good but to which we're naturally resistant.

And yet, we're now building a world of transformation. Google, Amazon and Apple think in terms of how many lines of code changed by second. Transformation is not a machine in which I change this or that - it's constant, messy, on-going change.

In the old xeroxed Toyota manuals, they hit it on the nail. They said the purpose of standardized work was to train people to change - by knowing what we know, and seeing where we fall short, we can kaizen small step change, regularly. Learning to kaizen is the best training to constant change.

What was the last specific thing you changed in how you work or live? What is the next? How can we learn to see ourselves as work in progress, as non-complete beings in becoming and not as finished machines with broken parts that need to bee fixed? What is your takt time of change?

Friday, 14 November 2014

What's the point of it all?

I've been asked: what's the point of teaching companies to make a profit? Shouldn't we help people who really need it instead?

When companies make a profit they do something or other than is profitable, and they're more likely to create jobs.

People working in profitable companies feel better because, by and large, motivation comes from success, not the other way around.

Profitable companies are also likely to be doings something their customers like, and are ready to pay the asking price for.

But in the end, it's not the profit: it's how we achieve it. Human beings crave meaning and purpose in what they do, to varying extent. Keeping a boring or unpleasant job for the cash is never much fun. Teaching companies to be more profitable by putting purpose back into every job is the aim - this is where individual fulfillment aligns with the company's destiny.

This is the point of it all: how can we create the conditions so that every person sees the point of their job and leads in putting purpose ahead of procedure.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Nothing is ever solved

A man works and then walks on, turns around, starts again, works some more goes left, goes right, stops, thinks, goes back, does the same work again. Inefficient? Badly organized?

Picture this man as a gardener: every move makes sense as he tends his various different plants. He is not building a bridge. The is not digging a ditch or paving a road. Going from A to B is not always a straight line.

We were taught to be bridge builders, not gardeners. We want to solve all problems with definitive solutions to move on to the next thing and never have to go back. But the forces that create problems are still there.

No process is ever perfect, yet people are locked into processes by the computer or the procedure. So problems will always come back. Every new customers has a new concern - and is a new opportunity to either excel or piss them off. Like a garden, processes are full of weeds and uneven earth. They need to be carefully tended across the vagaries of weather and bugs.

No problem is ever solved, but we learn to deal with some issues better, faster, more confidently. So the garden can grow and prosper.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Can we speed up learning?

When the people I work with come across an improvement, they invariably ask me: how can we speed this up? What they usually mean is: how can we spread this around the company. Hmm. Not so fast.

Any improvement comes from learning. Very locally, the guys doing the job in specific circumstances have enquired into their own practice, found a better way to do so, tried it, ironed out the kinks and eventually adopted it. This is when leaders finally see it and go wow! (and wow, how do I spread this around).

Problem is, of course, that other units have not followed the same path and no risk to be told to do something different without understanding either the reasons or the ins and outs of the next best thing. It might also simply not be appropriate for them.

Enquiry is unique to us human animals. And still, we find this hard. We need a lot (as in: a lot) of self confidence and low anxiety to actually enquire as opposed to jump on the next available solution as a drowning person grabs a floating plank. Enquiry requires a kinder immediate environment even as it can be stimulated by a pressing overall challenge. Enquiry is hard - certainty is easy.

Businesses have learned to learn inasmuch as they've learned to identify best practices and then organize catch-up. It is learning, in a clumsy, inefficient, and not very nice way. It is a huge improvement from not learning at all.

But it's slow because whenever people are confronted with the instruction to catch up, they immediately push back against it - and who can blame them.

Faster learning is fuzzier and more reflexive. Faster learning comes from the learned habit to question one's own assumptions on the face of facts. Faster learning comes from the ability to parse cases and distinguish where any statement works, works somewhat or doesn't work at all: there are a few clear cut white cases, a few black cases and many grey areas.

Accelerating learning is possible, but it means slowing down catch-up learning to take the time to consider whether the new practice considered actually works, where, how or is a tactical special case slipping into a policy choice. Why does it work? How does it work?

Why? How? Where? By how much? You want to speed up learning? You can, but it means slowing down force-feeding solutions and developing the habit to ask why? and how? and where?

Monday, 27 October 2014

Simulate this!

Have you watched kids play the latest video games? Don't you wonder at how good the simulations look? At how fast they've progressed since we played packman or tetris? Does Moore's Law work in simulation quality? If it does, simulations will no doubt progress to the point that our limited beleaguered senses won't be able to distinguish simulated from real - Welcome to the Matrix.

The kicker is that these geeks of the future will, in all likelihood, industrialize the production of sense-perfect simulations. They won't produce one, they'll make many, many. So, the probability is very hight that we currently live in a simulation designed by the geeks of the future rather than in the real world - the odds are one to... how many simulations they've invented.

Yeah, alright far-fetched. Truth is, you already live in a simulation: your own. I'm not saying that there is no bedrock, common reality. I have no doubt that it is. But the fact is that the way each of us experiences this reality is the product of the simulation run by the mind software on the brain hardware. And it has gaps:

We don't need to worry much about alternative worlds. We should worry far more about our ability to pick up alternative interpretations to our own world. No matter how unlikely it sounds, every one's story is their story and there is no single story.

When someone states something outlandish or bizarre - how can we reconstruct a mental image of their brain simulation that makes them believe this? What kind of universe is this person simulating that makes their statement 100% true? We don't need to be opened-minded as much as multiple-minded.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Is 100% the goal?

When we have a problem, our instinct is to want to solve it - completely and finally. We crave for final solutions, cross the line off the list, move on to something else and not have to worry about it again.

If I see I have 100K in unpaid bills, I want to make sure bills will be paid on time. How about a late payment penalty in the contract? How about harassing clients until they pay up? Or better still, how about no longer working with bad payers?

Improvement is different. The question now is how do I cut my unpaid bills in half - say to 50K. in doing this I'll discover that there are all sorts of reasons why clients don't pay on time - or should I say in my time. Some are contractual, some are logistical, some are indeed inefficiencies on their part, but some are also due to my own screw ups or lack of follow up. Maybe I don't send my invoices at the right time for them? Maybe I haven't filled in the paperwork correctly because I find it stupid?

Solving half the problem changes things. The countermeasures I will discover to improve are different from the 100% solution I'd need to solve the entire problem. Changing things through countermeasures also changes the entire situation and maybe, when I'm down to 50% of the problem, things look different: some doors have closed and others have opened.

100% solutions rarely work and are often quite scary. Improvement means cutting the size of the problem by half, stop, breathe and take another look at it. The lay of the land already looks different.