Letting Go

When was the last time you tried something new? How did it make you feel? If you’re adventurous, you probably felt thrilled. If you’re fearful, you are probably still wondering if the experience was worth the risk. So it is with organizations. Adventurous (or proactive) organizations thrive; the fearful (or reactive) survive—just barely.

Organizations (and individuals) that cannot let go of “dead ideas” are doomed to failure. Think about how many processes your organization manages every day. How many of these processes are preventing you and your staff from being maximally productive? Why aren’t the processes updated? Is it because everyone is so overworked that there is no time to address the issue?

If there is no time now to address the issue, then when? Constantly relegating issues to the backburner is like clinging to the old ways in the hope that the old ways will somehow magically reinvent themselves. These old ways are nothing more than dead ideas. And there is no place for dead ideas in productive organizations.

The sad news is that this way of thinking is not confined to individuals or the executive boardroom. Governments also think this way. This inability to let go of tired thinking is decaying everyone and everything.

Much has been written about change management because change is difficult to accomplish (think about changing just one of your habits—it takes at least three months of solid effort to build a new habit). But what seems to be coming through in organizations is that for change to occur, all employees need to be onboard. This requires changing old ways of thinking.

So how do we let go of old ways of thinking, of dead ideas? According to Matt Miller, there are three steps.

  1. Identify the ideas that matter. Since we can’t boil the ocean, pick the projects or ideas that will really make a profoundly positive impact on your organization or your life. These ideas will typically be strategic—those “sacred cow” ideas that no one has dared question until now.
  2. Understand each dead idea’s “story.” This comes down to identifying the root cause. How did this process become so entrenched with sub-processes? Why did this process seem to make sense in the first place? By understanding the root of the idea, it’s much easier to discern an action for change.
  3. Reach for new ways of thinking. Don’t dismiss ideas because they seem counterintuitive. If they seem counterintuitive, this may be a sign of how skewed our thinking has become; entrenched with only one way of doing things. Brainstorm. Look at possibilities. By reaching for new ways of thinking, we expand our minds.

In the end, we owe it to ourselves and our organizations to continuously improve and grow. By shedding old ways of doing things and inventing and implementing new concepts, we all thrive. Don’t get stuck in an outdated paradigm just because it’s been there all along.

Time and Money—An Organizational Focus

Poorly run organizations waste time (and time is money). This inhibits the company’s ability to hit markets at optimum times. Allow me to give you an example

Several years ago, I worked with a company in the wastewater treatment industry that consistently put in long hours to meet deadlines. Why all the long hours? The owners relied on one individual to make all of the decisions. This was far from a wise use of corporate time and resources. The result was burn-out, missed deadlines, and in the end, the company went out of business.

An inaccurate assessment of the time needed to conduct a project, write a report, develop a product, etc. is critical to organizational success. If the estimate of time is over or under, money is wasted. And if your company is in the business of bringing products to market, the window of opportunity is open only for so long.

Another huge time and money guzzler that takes away from strategic organizational focus is technology. If an organization is “wedded” to its technology and refuses to alter its approach, it often consumes more cash before realizing too late that it must change direction. Don’t keep throwing good money into bad software under the assumption that it costs less to “update” what you already have. It usually doesn’t.

A recent client was sometimes spending upwards of seven or more hours trying to print a 15-page report. If software is causing so wasted time, why spend time and money trying to fix a problem that in all likelihood cannot be fixed? Stop, scrap, and start over to save money. Knowing when to let go of technology is a management skill that cannot be underestimated.

Mismanaged organizations consume budgets without ever hitting milestones necessary to achieve success. In the process, they produce frustrated and burned-out staff along with the possibility of business shut-down.

Don’t be afraid to let go of products and processes that no longer work effectively or efficiently, regardless of the cost to replace them. In the long-term, replacement will yield far greater productivity results.

Benchmark studies over the past 15 years have shown that organizations can reap tremendous rewards with modest or no capital investments. Some of these gains have resulted in, for example:

  • Doubled outputs and profits with the same staff allocation
  • Doubled productivity across all levels of the organization
  • Reduced throughput time and defects by 90%
  • Reduced supply chain inventory by 75%
  • Reduced space and unit costs by 50%

What’s your organization doing? Is it surviving or thriving? If it’s not thriving, take a look at how your staff’s time is being used. You may be surprised at the potential savings that can be had through simple changes.

Brainstorming—Not for Everyone

Many of us have participated in a brainstorming exercise at some point in our business careers. In fact, brainstorming seems to be the preferred technique by which organizations generate creative ideas and solutions for problems. However, it may surprise you to learn that brainstorming is no more effective for developing creative ideas than having individuals work on their own.

Alex Osborn, author of the 1948 book, “Your Creative Power,” popularized brainstorming. But a study in 1958 at Yale University refuted Osborn’s claim the many of us work more creatively when we are teamed up. The study found that those who worked on their own came up with twice as many solutions as brainstorming groups and their solutions were more “effective.”

Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis states that “decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.” In other words, brainstorming does not unleash the potential of the group, but, rather, makes each individual less creative.

While rules are important when working with groups, perhaps the most inhibiting rule to creativity is to not criticize other’s ideas. The rules for brainstorming (as originated by Osborn) are:

  1. Come up with as many ideas as you can.
  2. Do not criticize one another’s ideas.
  3. Free-wheel and share wild ideas.
  4. Expand and elaborate on existing ideas.

If group members are not allowed to provide criticism to ideas, how is creativity expected to flourish? Certainly reviewing ideas later is an option (and this is what typically happens after a brainstorming session), but it is far more creative to dispel bad ideas from the onset.

Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley has repeatedly shown that groups engaging in “debate and dissent” come up with approximately 25 percent more ideas than those engaging in brainstorming. In addition, these ideas are typically rated as more original and useful.

However, using criticism depends on the make-up of the brainstorming group. Members that are comfortable and well-known to each other may benefit from a bout of criticism to ideas, while engaging in lively idea generation. But allowing criticism when there are new members or where members are highly introverted may do more harm than good.

From my perspective, there are only two ways in which brainstorming can be effective:

  1. Creative brainstorming can only occur with members that are comfortable with accepting and giving criticism.
  2. An effective facilitator must guide the group to allow an invigorating debate of ideas and allow participants to be honest about what ideas are good and what ideas do not merit further consideration.

There is no need to suffer through rubbish ideas during brainstorming. And if you happen to be on the receiving end of the “thumbs down” for your idea, do not become offended. Remember that the “thumbs down” is not for you, but for your idea. And we all occasionally have both good and bad ideas.

The Productivity Mindset

When I first visited Croatia in the 1970s, I was struck by the negative attitudes of retail workers and their reluctance to provide assistance to customers. I remember entering one shop where I felt I wasn’t allowed to touch the merchandise, let alone ask for assistance. I quickly exited.

Years later, I am reflecting on this earlier experience and comparing it to my recent visits. What a difference a government makes! In the 1970s, Croatia was ruled by a communist regime, but today its government is learning and applying democratic principles. The change in worker attitudes is unmistakably positive. This trickle-down effect can be applied at any level, macro or micro, such as at the corporate level; literally anywhere there are leaders and followers.

Imagine working in an environment that does not encourage innovation, is change averse, and does nothing to reward employees for extra effort. If you are an employee in this environment, what is your attitude? It may very well be negative and perhaps, obstructionist. Because you are not given the tools and experiences with which to flourish, your organization’s operations may even be compared to those of a Third World country.

While it is true that we, as individuals, can choose to have a positive or negative attitude, employers have a responsibility to provide an environment that encourages positive attitudes. However, this does not admonish the individual. It is simple to blame our employer for our negative attitudes, but we also need to consider that we do have a choice. We can choose to be positive or negative, no matter what our circumstances.

Some psychological studies suggest that negative attitudes may prevail when one is dissatisfied with one’s lot in life and this leads to resentment of anyone else getting ahead. A resentful person in the workplace may exhibit behaviours such as not getting things done on time, not being helpful to others, not freely offering information that they know can save time, etc. There can also be a general reluctance to behave in a businesslike or professional manner.

What does this negative behaviour contribute? It contributes obstacles to increased productivity, obstacles to higher salaries, obstacles to more jobs, obstacles to advancement, and other work-related concerns. Effectively, growth and development is stifled; not only for the individual, but also for the organization (or the country, as the case may be).

A lesson can be learned from citizens from underdeveloped countries who immigrate to developed nations. These same individuals who held negative and obstructionist attitudes in their homelands hold markedly different attitudes in their new homes. The opportunities provided by governments of developed countries help these individuals acquire positive attitudes (or, perhaps, shed the negativity that they learned in their native land). These citizens work hard to be successful because their positive attitudes propel them to succeed.

If your organization is struggling, start the evaluation at the top of the hierarchy to determine what leaders are doing to help their employees have a positive and productive mindset. Like opportunities in developed countries, positive attitudes and strong work ethics trickle down from the top.

Accelerating Project Success

Ahh…the project. Who among us has never had to do one? No matter what line of work we’re in, we all have at one time and/or another engaged in projects. Anything from planning an event such as a small dinner gathering to building infrastructure like bridges and highways comes under the purview of a project. But did you know that the success of projects is determined in large part by the amount and quality of project planning?

The Project Management Body of Knowledge defines a project plan as “a formal, approved document used to guide both project execution and project control.” However, there are many occasions when a “formal, approved document” may seem over-the-top (e.g., dinner party planning). But no matter the size of the project, having some type of documentation to guide you through execution is recommended.

Consider this. Successful projects can typically be traced back to planning work that can take up to 80% of the project manager’s (and others’) time. What, you ask? When do they have time to actually execute the plan? You may be surprised to learn that the process of planning projects touches all nine areas of project knowledge control areas, whereas the execution process covers only five areas. In fact, of the five project processes (initiation, planning, execution, control, and closing), only initiation and closing have less steps than execution.

How do you make sure you have a fool-proof project plan? Here are five considerations:

  1. Define the purpose. Why are you doing the project in the first place? If you don’t know why, then you won’t know how to plan for the project, either. Knowing the purpose will help you define what success looks and feels like for the project.
  2. Allow freedom to happen, but don’t lose control. Identify what needs to be in place (e.g., policies, procedures, standards) to ensure project success. Then put this in place and trust your project team to move the project forward.
  3. Engage your team. Use brainstorming to fill in the gaps in your plan. Mind mapping used during brainstorming allows everyone to “see” the gaps and makes them easier to fill. A picture is worth more than a thousand words.
  4. Write the plan. Organize your plan in a logical sequence so that both left-brain and right-brain people will be able to glean understanding. Use a simple “at a glance” template and add detail in an appendix. Below is a template that I really like. It captures the “define-measure-analyze-improve-control” principles from Lean.
  5. Make decisions. As you implement your project plan, regularly keep checking the plan. Modify the plan during implementation, as necessary. Remember, plans are just that – plans. They serve as a guide in the process. Adjustments can and should be made to fit the reality of implementation.

Your complete project plan will include assumptions and decisions about the project as well as the project’s estimated (and approved) scope, cost, and schedule. Another advantage to having a project plan is that it helps to facilitate communication among stakeholders – they don’t need to guess about the project, since all the details are written in the plan. And that in itself can be counted as a successful outcome of your project!

Worry, Worry, Go Away, Don’t Come Back Another Day

Have you ever thought about how much more productive you become when you don’t think? You’re probably re-reading this question and asking, “Huh?” Let me clarify. When we avoid thinking about what it is that we should be thinking about, we tend to worry because we aren’t getting done the thing that we’re avoiding. So if you stop thinking about the things that you’re not doing, there is a greater likelihood that you are thinking only about the task at hand, making you more productive.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about the eight sins that impact our efficiency – defects, overproduction, waiting, non-utilized talent, transport, inventory, motion, and extra processing (“DOWNTIME”). Add to this list Sin #9 – worry. Worry is a waste that can affect your productivity dramatically.

When you worry about things, you are not in the present. When you’re not in the present, you’re not at your productive best. In addition, worrying can cause anxiety which can turn into stress. Now think about how worry is impacting not only your productivity, but your health, as well.

Worry is a negative way of thinking. It drains you of your energy, time, and capability. To be more productive and to help you stop worrying about the things you aren’t doing, prioritize, use lists, and schedule your work. Do this daily, weekly, and monthly. The more you organize your thoughts in writing, the less chance of worry seeping into your thinking.

To help you stop worrying, here are five things you may wish to try:

  1. If you’re a self-proclaimed worrier, schedule your “worry time” for the same time every day. For instance, mid-day for 30 minutes. During this time, write down all the things that you’re worried about. The power of this exercise is that it allows you to “dump” your worries to where you can see them rather than having them clog your thinking time. When you’ve reviewed and updated your list, you can stop worrying because you’ll have a chance to review the list again tomorrow. This allows some predictability for the worrier.
  2. Evaluate your worry list every day and ask: What on the list is solvable? What on the list is an imaginary problem? By imaginary, I mean the problem is not based in fact; it is based on an unknown prediction of some future event. If the problem is solvable, move it to your list of priority items and schedule time to work on the problem. If the problem is imaginary, strike it off your list. If you can’t strike it, keep returning to it until you convince yourself that the problem is imaginary and not solvable. Therefore, it needs to go!
  3. Accept uncertainty. This is probably very difficult for someone who worries, but it is a reality of life. Worrying about an unpredictable future is counterproductive, but planning for it is worth your time and effort. Plan for your future by creating a monthly or annual plan. Include all the uncertainties that you’re worried about and address how you will solve each one. Then work your plan.
  4. Use mindfulness to focus on the present. Be aware of your thoughts. When worry seeps in, turn to your list of priorities to gain perspective. Once there, you are able to turn off worry and focus on the task that you should be doing. This will make you more productive.
  5. Use your old worry lists as reminders of accomplishment. The worries that you’re able to strike off your list (that you created in point 1 above) are indications of progress. If they’re off your list, that means you are managing to turn destructive thoughts (worries) into constructive problem solving.

In addition to the above tips, try talking out your worry with a friend or colleague. Sometimes just talking about a problem provides much needed clarity that can lead to resolution.

Whatever you do, the trick is to funnel your worry to a solution and go from destructive worrying to constructive problem solving.

The Fast Track to Change

Here’s a hypothetical situation. Company A has been experiencing dropped calls in its customer service department. This has led to an increased number of customer complaints. To handle this, the customer service department’s overtime hours are going through the roof. As you can imagine, this is costing Company A a lot of money not only in overtime, but in lost customers. What should Company A do? There are two options. They can choose a traditional approach to problem solving or apply the Kaizen method.

Here is how this problem will be solved using a traditional approach:

  • A committee is formed to analyze the situation.
  • The committee will take several days or weeks to determine the root cause of the problem (meetings are required, committee members all need to be involved, and their schedules need to be coordinated).
  • Once the problem is identified, the committee will reconvene to determine how to correct the problem. Recommendations will be proposed and agreed.
  • Recommendations will then be presented to management for a decision.
  • An implementation plan may be written.
  • An implementation committee will implement changes.
  • Employees will be advised about changes and they will be expected to adapt.

Using the Kaizen method, this is how the problem is solved:

  • A multidisciplinary team (from across the organization) is formed to analyze the situation.
  • The team meets over a five-day period to conduct its analysis, make decisions, and implement changes.
  • Since the team is multidisciplinary, adapting to change is seamless: Employees have been involved since the start.

There are two key differences between these two methods. The first is that in the traditional method, it can take several weeks to months to implement change; whereas, the Kaizen method sees change implemented within days. The second key difference is in change sustainability. In the traditional method, the process is typically “closed door operations” until a solution is determined and only during (or after) implementation are employees informed or involved. In the Kaizen event, employees are involved from the start, so change is much easier to sustain.

If you were Company A, which method of problem solving would you choose?


Understanding What Causes Problems

Mary shares a five step methodology that will help uncover the root causes of problems. They are:

  1. State the problem
  2. Collect data
  3. Observe problems
  4. Develop an issues template
  5. Identify the critical issues

This podcast is also available as an article: Understanding What Causes Problems

The Power of Why

One of the best ways to get to root causes of problems lies in the question “why.” Why does it take 30 days to pay an invoice? Why does Finance require five signatures on the cheque? Why is the Contracts Division involved in payment processing? Why? It is such a simple question, but it can generate powerful results.

The key to using the “5-Whys” is to ask “why” five times (sometimes the answer you’re looking for will be revealed in less than five questions, but usually not more than five). Each why question builds on the answer provided to the previous question. Here’s an example of how to use it to get to root causes of problems, starting with the problem statement.

Problem statement: Our suppliers are unhappy because they aren’t getting their payments within two weeks of invoicing.

1.  Why aren’t suppliers getting paid within two weeks?

Because it takes Finance at least two weeks to get approvals on the invoice.

2.  Why does it take Finance at least two weeks to get approvals on the invoice?

Because it takes at least two weeks for the contract manager to approve the invoice.

3.  Why does it take at least two weeks for the contract manager to approve the invoice?

Because the contract manager doesn’t always know that they have invoices waiting for their approval.

4.  Why doesn’t the contract manager know that they have invoices waiting for their approval?

Because invoices aren’t separated from other work, the contract manager does not know that they have high priority items like approvals mixed in with lower priority work.

5.  Why aren’t invoices separated from other work?

I don’t know.

In this case, you can see that it took five Whys to discover that the delay in payment is a result of ineffective approval processing.

The 5 Whys can also be used as part of a cause-and-effect diagram. This is also known as a fishbone or Ishikawa diagram. Here is an example of this diagram. You will notice that process has the most issues, so this is an indication that process may be the root cause of the problem you are seeking to resolve.

While a very simple tool, the power of the 5-Whys in rooting out causes of problems is invaluable to those interested in improving organizational processes. Why, you ask? Because it is simply one of the easiest tools to use; that’s why.

Productivity or Greece?

Productivity is a very complex topic and even among experts it is difficult to exact a prescription to improve productivity. In its simplest form, productivity measures the efficiency of production. It is the ratio of production output to what is required (inputs) to produce the output. In terms of economic growth, governments look at productivity as the product of labour based on the average number of hours each employed person works and the proportion of the entire population that is employed. Labour productivity drives living standards. However, just because a person is employed does not mean that they are productive.

At the macro level, investments in physical capital, human capital and innovation drive productivity. At the micro level, productivity depends on the individual and their ability to improve their relative standard of living as a direct result of their ability to improve their personal productivity. While investment in productivity at the macro level is necessary and important, investment at the micro level is even more important. Can you imagine productivity without the individual?

Investing money to hire more people, to improve business infrastructure, and to fund more innovation won’t help if the issues directly impacting human capital, physical capital, and innovation aren’t managed first. Consider the following. An organization’s current workforce is not producing at expected levels, so the organization hires more people to improve its productivity. Is this the solution? Not necessarily. To improve productivity, first review the process to understand the contributing factors to lack of productivity. Employees are one part of the overall process, so adding more people to the process without knowing the cause of low productivity won’t solve the problem. Other factors impacting productivity may include the equipment that is being used (and how it is used), steps in the process, how steps are executed, waiting time, information management, etc.

Consider another example. British Columbia’s productivity performance is consistently below the Canadian average. One issue for this is that driver-specific issues of productivity performance within areas such as human capital are not being addressed. To improve productivity and performance, the elements that contribute to improved human capital (for example) need to be improved. This includes such things as the quality of the educational system, on-the-job training, skills shortages, capacity of workers to serve stakeholders, etc. These are all important determinants of success for overall economic growth.

British Columbia is lacking a “culture of productivity.” This is based on a report from the BC Progress Board in 2008. In recent years, other jurisdictions lacking a culture of productivity saw their economies stumble. Paying attention now to the details of productivity at the lowest level will ensure a vibrant and sustainable future. All the policies in the world won’t help improve productivity if the workers themselves are not productive. Greece learned the hard way. The rest of the world can learn from Greece.