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The Fall of the House of Jargon

Inspired by Poe, ghoulish tales, and corporate jargon.

I arrived at the House of Jargon on a windy day, overcast, with a steady drizzle of rain. The letter from Roderick Jargon arrived late because he didn’t follow best practices and the large attachment exceeded the size of my mailbox. His words said he had fallen ill trying to synergize members of his house and needed assistance to flesh-out ideas and restore his health. Visible on the outside of the house, was a large crack extending downward to its foundation.

I was greeted by Madeline, Jargon’s chief of staff. Her eyes showed she was weary from restless nights. In a trance-like state she murmured, “We’ve been expecting you. We have not been able to herd the cats and Mr. Jargon has fallen ill.” As I entered the foyer, I was awestruck by the size of the house. It was small enough to hide the reasons for underperforming expectations but large enough to hide an elephant in the room. I knew immediately, my visit would test my senses and resolve. The air was stale and smelled of mold, rot, and decay.

Madeline escorted me to the studio, where Mr. Jargon sat listless and pale in his chair. “Your painting collection is impressive”, I said as I tried to lighten the mood. “Yes, I have searched the world and found pieces to promote increasing productivity and doing more with less”, he replied. The lights suddenly went out as the rain outside intensified. Madeline lit some candles so we could continue our conversation. Our shadows, now present on the walls and floors, intensified the feelings of doom and despair.

Mr. Jargon started singing a song. It told the tale of a business filled with low hanging fruit the workers couldn’t pick because they couldn’t find ways to collaborate and harmonize with each other. Ultimately, the business failed to live the mission because the workers forgot their purpose. “I wrote that song about my business”, he said. “I believe my fate and legacy is connected to this house. Can you help me?”

A few days later, Mr. Jargon informed me Madeline resigned her job and would leave the house. He insists I help him define an exit strategy for her because she was the nucleus of the team. During Madeline’s last two weeks the mood in the house grew more somber. Any glimmer of hope, excitement, and purpose were lost. Mr. Jargon’s condition continued to worsen and even I felt agitated over trivial things.  The mood of despair dampened my spirit.

During the fifth week, a large storm moved into the area. Once again, power was lost at the house and we moved about mostly in the dark. Mr. Jargon and I, retreated to his bedroom hoping to find rest and relief from fear of the storm. As we talked, I looked out his window and noticed a faint glow on the lake surrounding lake. But yet, there was no light from the house and the heavens provided no help to see. The house appeared to be alive, casting its own light to those who dwelled within it. Mr. Jargon soon became more delusional and started to recount stories of past successes. He was living in the past while grasping for tomorrow.

Hoping to calm Mr. Jargon I began to read a book about a knight who sought shelter during a ferocious storm. A small house caught the eye of the knight, but there is a dragon guarding the entrance. As the knight prepares for battle, he notices a shield hanging on the wall with the inscription:

“Whoever enters this house, accretive growth is before you;

Slay the dragon, and the shield is yours to help increase productivity against the forces of complacency.”

The knight, empowered by the words and vision, slays the dragon and reaches for the shield. But the shield falls to the ground with a resounding clang.

Suddenly a loud shriek breaks our concentration from the book. As if from within the DNA of the house, the shriek reverberates off the walls and furniture. Mr. Jargon becomes increasingly agitated murmuring words about organic growth and not enough resources to win the battle. He shouts “I should have listened to Madeline, when she told me to move the goalposts to higher objectives so we could leverage our core strengths!”

A huge gust of wind pushed the windows open and extinguished our candles. In a faint light from the moon above the house, Mr. Jargon and I noticed Madeline is standing in front of the open bedroom door. She runs to Mr. Jargon and releases a scolding monologue with accusations about missing alignment, collaboration, and buy-in from key stakeholders.

I knew my time had come to leave. Frightened by the distrust and accusations, I felt like I would soon be thrown under the bus like so many others in the House of Jargon. I ran for the door, leaving my belongings. Passing through the outer courtyard, I continued to run not wanting to look back.  As if on cue, the moon broke free from the clouds and cast a light upon the surrounding wilderness. I stopped to look back upon the house. The crack in the exterior I had noticed when I arrived widened, and soon split the house in two. The house began to sink as if under the heavy weight of non-value added activities. It vanished into the ground and my view was consumed by howling winds and blinding rain, as I lost sight to the House of Jargon.

 

photo credit: Greg Clarke via Creative Commons

concentration so intense…

One of my favorite things is reading a book and finding a statement that makes me pause and reflect. It’s the highlighter worthy statement. It’s the one I might write about or use to start a conversation with a colleague. It’s a statement the author uses to convey the point of their writing. For me, it’s a statement that feels right because it connects with my own experiences.

It happened today as I was reading Lean Thinking by James Womack and Daniel Jones. Womack and Jones recapped the findings of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi by saying,

“The types of activities which people all over the world consistently report as most rewarding — that is, which makes them feel best — involve a clear objective, a need for concentration so intense that no attention is left over, a lack of interruptions and distractions, clear and immediate feedback on progress toward the objective, and a sense of a challenge.”

At work, I have an ongoing conversation with a few colleagues that the most rewarding department in the company is shipping. The product comes to them and leaves them, piece-by-piece. They check a box, mark it complete, mark it shipped. This is not the type of stimulating work Csikszentmihalyi mentions. But shipping personnel are gaining the sense of accomplishment by starting and completing work without interruptions.

Here’s a challenging situation. Today’s office of matrixed organizations working on multiple projects, makes replicating the experience described by Csikszentmihalyi extremely difficult. I’ve been wrestling with the puzzle of transitioning IT work from batch-and-queue into single piece workflows. Part of that puzzle is finding solutions for how best to keep technology workers satisfied and inspired by their work. Project requests come simultaneously from multiple stakeholders including customers, product managers, and compliance teams. Project requests also originate from events like mergers, acquisitions, facility closures, and company reorganizations. All this results in what I call organizational entropy. It’s very difficult for a professional worker to achieve “a concentration so intense that no attention is left over”.

One way to minimize the number of stops and starts is by level-loading assignments to workers by prioritizing work and regulating the in-take of new work from entering the flow of production. This takes discipline from the managers to see the entire system and to manage with an eye towards uninterrupted work. It requires discipline from the workers not be distracted by upcoming work or work not requested by the customer. If I think about my typical day, I start with a set of defined work tasks for what’s important and due. It takes concentration to complete a task from start-to-finish without pausing to look at emails, new requests, or other project assignments. But when I do stick to the plan and complete the work, I find the work more rewarding.

Picture this – “Concentration so intense that no attention is left over”. Office squirrels might go extinct.

Onward and upward!

Root Cause Analysis Playbook

One of the staples of our Lean journey is a monthly root cause analysis (RCA) effort. The results of the team standard have surpassed my expectations, and I anticipate more potential positive results as we mature our approach. Our playbook is simple to execute, but requires disciplined execution and adherence to standard to recognize benefit and produce long term benefits.

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Prerequisite Activities

  1. Train team members on the fundamentals and business reason to use RCA.
  2. Create team standards for documentation and frequency of RCA events.
  3. Establish place on visual management board to post active, completed, and future RCA documents.

Execution

  1. In the frequency designated by the team standard, determine the process,procedure, or result as the subject for the RCA.
  2. Decide who the point person is to manage the current RCA effort.
  3. Analyze and document
    1. Define the problem
    2. Determine why the problem happened.
    3. Determine a solution to prevent the problem from happening again.
  4. Post results to management board

Organizational Adhesive

  1. Review progress of active RCAs and results of completed RCAs during weekly team meetings.
  2. Use managers as both participants and assignment owners.
  3. Audit adherence to department standards and post results on team audit board.
  4. Use the management board to put placeholders for RCAs that will happen in the future.

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A monthly cadence works well for our environment. It is frequent enough to keep problem solving active, but not so frequent to disrupt operational activities. We have found that RCAs which require more than a month of work to resolve should be classified as a project so we can keep the monthly cadence of RCA events.

The best part is living with the results and preventing problems from repeating. So far, we’ve not had any of the problem repeat that we’ve solved for in a RCA. I guess that’s the whole point.

Onward and Upward!

Bearing Fruit

During summer I turn into a recreational gardener hoping to grow a few vegetables for some delightful dinners. The first couple of summers I learned plants need plenty of sunlight and soil that drains well. This year I witnessed firsthand the effect of overcrowding in a garden plot. In my exuberance to increase my vegetable harvest, I overcrowded my plot at the community garden. A bell pepper plant was quickly overshadowed by squash, zucchini, and tomato plants. It stayed green, but did produce a single pepper from May through July. After an insect infestation killed the squash and zucchini I removed all the surrounding plants to leave the bell pepper plant alone with nothing else to compete for sunlight. The result from this single plant was over 35 peppers during August and September.

Like a gardener, I want to know how to get more fruit from my labor at work. I’m passionate about working smarter, finding efficiencies, and eliminating wasted outputs. My experience with the pepper plant this summer reminds me of load leveling work in our groups through prioritization. Too many plants competing for sunlight is analogous to an overload of active projects that force our people and equipment into constant context switching.  The resulting work output is delayed and often suffers more quality problems due to the lack of focus.

Our appetites for the amount of work we want to produce (collecting fruit) typically far exceed our ability to produce work (bearing fruit). Managers have to protect the capacity of people and equipment by releasing work when it can flow uninterrupted. Sometimes expanding capacity is an option, but other times, we need to work within the capacity boundaries that exist to produce work in a controlled and focused cadence.

Protect people and equipment so they can deliver more fruit.

Onward and upward!

Getting rid of the compliance mindset

To follow, or not to follow the rules.

Have you noticed following established rules is a paradox of behavior? In some situations, we admonish employees when they don’t follow procedures and rules. We create manuals of standard procedures for consistent experiences and output. But when someone doesn’t follow the standard procedure and the outcome is wrong, they are reminded of the procedure and possibly disciplined for it. Yet in other settings, we applaud and recognize those who think beyond the rules to discover and create new things. Apple’s Think Different campaign, Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard, and Michael Dell dropping out the University of Texas are examples of people who didn’t follow the prescribed rules of society, but were later recognized a genius path makers.

In the modern office, there are entire departments for compliance to enforce rules, regulations, and requirements. This translates into mounds of extra paperwork and procedures, much of which is non-value add for the customer. Being honest, I’ve always taken a deep breath when the word compliance was mentioned. Wait for it…….

The biggest problem with compliance is when we treat it as a box to check. If we stop to think about the rule or compliance control, we might just see possibilities to improve our service or organizational stability. But it’s tough to get beyond the mask of compliance rules.

Checking a box.

In our most recent employee survey results, there were many write-in responses that questioned the value of visual management boards. The employee was frustrated because they found the process of keeping information up-to-date on the board a waste of time. They saw the entire process as mere compliance. Someone was checking a box.

In another example, my department didn’t follow procedures to keep ticket history updated so the customer stayed informed. It’s an expected standard to update tickets in a timely manner. But when the act is seen as compliance and not understood as a value-add communication vehicle, team members don’t complete it. When a standard is interpreted as “checking a box” rather than understanding the ‘why’ then the activity is rarely done.  

Ask the right questions.

I find myself falling into the compliance trap when I audit our visual management board for department adherence to standards. It’s easy to get into the mindset of completing the task so I can mark the audit complete. I generate a score, publish it, and forget about it until the next week.

But that mindset misses the opportunity to work ‘on’ the business rather than ‘in’ the business. Reality is, if the team standards are set with a meaningful purpose to help eliminate waste and add value to the team then the compliance audit of the standards is the ‘check’ in a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. A proper audit (check) also creates countermeasures for action. A proper audit digs past the standard/compliance control. It seeks to understand the flow of work through the department. It identifies opportunities to improve.

I think of all this as a battle between compliance and engagement. If I want mere compliance then I’ll find limited value in the time spent auditing and continue to be consumed with non-compliant behaviors. If I ask ‘why’ and seek to understand the behaviors behind the compliance requirements then I may just find myself called a rule-breaker. If breaking the rules leads to continuous improvement then sign me-up.

Onward and Upward!