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Creating culture with remote teams

“What are ways you are building a ‘lean culture’ with remote team members?”

I posted this question on Twitter and a LinkedIn group because during the 25 years of my professional career, I’ve seen working from home (telecommuting as we used to call it) go from a special once-per-week privilege to a common status of working from home multiple times a week.  A growing number of workers are also now considered full-time remote. Some factors contributing to this change:

1)The technology for connecting employees to the company network is ubiquitous.

2) Companies realized they can recruit workers regardless of location and expand their talent pool.

3) Commute time is a factor affecting employment decisions.

Weaving together disparate blocks is like building culture with remote workers

In our knowledge economy and bit-driven world, location is irrelevant for completing work and contributing to mission of the team for many of us. But how do we create and maintain a group/company culture when workers are not co-located? How do we build a new culture when we see each other through conference calls?  My group is in the early stages of a ‘lean’ culture transformation and geographically dispersed. So I’ve been wrestling with this question and concept.

I read some online posts about others’ experience with building a culture and it’s quickly apparent the answer depends on the environment, value, and people in the company. There is no magic elixir or secret equation. Each company has a set of beliefs they strive to follow and a set of tools they use to connect their daily operations fit their desired company culture. It’s apparent, culture isn’t based on tools, ping pong tables, free lunches, etc. Culture is built from a shared set of beliefs and practices for how to deliver products and services to a customer.

In my own journey to answer this question, I’m focusing on a few fundamental building blocks to promote and build ‘lean’ into our team culture:

Explain the why.

When people understand the root of ‘lean’ is to add value for the customer, it’s easier to gain momentum as compared with getting momentum from cost reduction and cycle improvement tasks. Reducing costs is important, but will come as the result of adding value to products and services the customer wants. Lean doesn’t come by osmosis. There should be training involved to reinforce the daily operations of the team.

Build leaders that focus on creating flow and reducing waste.

It’s unusual for anything to survive in a company setting if there is no support from executive management. For ‘lean’ to survive, the team needs to see more than verbal affirmations from executives. They should see a leader who engages with local and remote workers in the tasks they are assigned (Go to the gemba). They should see a leader that actively promotes and discusses the benefits of completing recurring root-cause-analysis events for problem solving. They should see a leader that examines metrics and assigns actions to improve performance through counter measures.

Attribute action and results to the mission of the organization/group.

The mission of the organization states why it exists. The mission is a connecting statement between organizational actions and providing value to the customer. To develop culture with remote employees, they should understand how their daily activities map to the mission. Strong leaders frequently remind employees of the mission so it becomes a source of motivation and a common bond.

Promote team over individual efforts.

This last building block requires additional focus from remote employees or it can become a stumbling block to results. Include the voice of remote team members by making sure there is adequate participation and polling for their input. It’s through actions like these, the bond between remote workers will develop as strong as two co-located workers. It promotes helping co-workers when they have a question or need some extra man-power. It promotes the cultural feeling that we succeed together and we fail together. It promotes clearer understanding of team roles and boundaries.

Lastly, I realize I must have patience because this isn’t a sprint. Culture is built over time and through actions. Culture isn’t built on hanging platitudes, rah-rah speeches, and lofty goals. Rather it’s built-on working together, investing in each other, coaching, gemba walks, and shared experiences.

Onward and Upward!

Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/oFffVN – Porch Weave by Kay Hayden on Creative Commons

Turning employee survey results inside out

Making sense of employee survey results.

This week I reviewed the 2018 employee survey results with my department. I’ll be honest; deciphering survey results is a challenge for a variety of reasons. Questions are interpreted differently. Similar questions with slight nuances yield measurably different answers. Survey results are influenced highly by what is happening at that moment in time (mergers, hiring freezes, large customer wins, new managers, etc.)

I first reviewed the results with the managers in the department. We discussed questions with the highest and lowest favorable scores. When we did this within a small group, we found different interpretations of the survey question. The process was useful because we had a healthy dialogue about the findings. But there was enough diversity of opinion that I wondered how employees would feel about our resulting actions.

Traditions.

The guidance from human resources and my history with employee surveys fit a set model. Employees take a survey. Management reviews the results. Then management responds with actions to address the areas with the lowest favorable scores. In this model, all the responsibility for action is on the management team.

Then I dug deeper and realized,

getting the most value out of employee survey results requires a more holistic approach than a set of management action items.

I reviewed all the question categories and realized they touch on interpersonal actions between all employee classifications in the company. So why would we respond by assigning action items only to the management group?

Changing the survey results approach.

I used the core findings in the results to create action items for the entire department. We can’t transform culture within a group only by having managers changing rules, policies, and workflows. To improve in areas like collaboration, trust, empowerment, and agility requires all employees work together as a cohesive unit.

I challenged the team with this thought, the first step on a journey for job satisfaction is looking in the mirror. 

It’s age-old advice to focus first on your own behaviors and attitudes. I followed with a paradox for success,

our personal success and how we view our job depends on how successful we make our colleagues, manager, and customers.

The employee survey questions had little to do with technology, tools, or things. The questions focused on communications and interactions between people. Our definition of success, or our inclination to mark a favorable answer, is directly influenced by how successful we make our coworkers and customers. If we think more about how we can give, rather than how we receive, then we’ll go farther and find more job satisfaction. This is a better recipe to maximize employee engagement.

Onward and upward!

Photo Credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie via Creative Commons

Is the rabbit big enough to chase?

Stay the course.

Six weeks into the New Year is when many people lose their motivation to follow their New Year resolutions. It’s difficult to have the discipline required to change behavior.  It’s also around this time when we are tempted in our businesses to shelve the new annual plan. It’s not intentional. We get busy with the day-to-day steps to run the business and solve immediate problems. Years ago I decided I couldn’t let this happen. I make the IT annual plan in a portable format. After reflecting on using this approach the last few years, I’m thinking about how to introduce technical margin in the plan next year.

Rabbits, squirrels, and other tempting things.

Throughout the course of a year distractions tempt us to wander from our plan. Some of the new things we see are good and worth making adjustments to achieve. But most distractions are industry fads, marketing mind tricks, or situations of minor inconveniences we make into urgent matters. I call them office squirrels or rabbits.

Every week my voicemail and email have unsolicited messages about products and services to make my life easier. Every week someone suggests a new project to solve an opportunity they see in their work area. Every week unplanned requests enter the organization from a variety of sources including customers, auditors, and executives.

“Is the rabbit big enough to chase?”

The question is so easy to ask but difficult to answer. The rabbit begs us to chase it. It lures us with the temptations of rewards and the fear of not catching it. The annual plan consists of activities to support long range goals, the organizational mission, and the core values. The rabbits may support organizational improvements too. But something I’ve learned is to accomplish the plan of great things we often have to learn to say no to some good things.

“Is the rabbit big enough to chase?”

The rabbit hole.

I’m not advocating sticking to the approved plan without the ability to make tactical course corrections or even the ability to alter goals. Executing and closing projects on the plan is hard enough without the distractions of office rabbits. We make calculated decisions through the course of the year. Changing course on a whim, or because an influential requestor swayed opinions, is expensive to the productivity of the organization. Changing course quickly promotes short-term thinking and often results in mistakes. How many times has a ‘must-have’ project for a customer never used or cancelled halfway through implementation? That’s when the rabbit disappears down the hole and we look up to discover we’ve wandered from the path and deeper into uncharted woods.

I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down.

I’m passionate about following the plan, or going on the hunt every week. But I make mistakes and follow rabbits that run down holes. So I’m trying to grow wiser through experience. I want to make decisions with the long term success of the organization in mind, keep the annual plan readily available to maintain focus and alignment, and make decisions through consensus to support the mission and core values.  

In the book of Nehemiah in the Bible, Nehemiah was tempted by adversaries to stop rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. He stuck to his plan saying “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop, while I leave it and go down to you?” He was intentional and focused on his plan. He considered the cost of leaving the work for what his adversaries promised. By doing so, he avoided the rabbit and completed his goal. I like it. Let’s stay focused.

Onward and upward!

Photo Source: Ballad of the Lost Hare – Public domain book.

Creating Technical Margin

While I was reviewing the IT annual plan this week I remembered some of the recurring challenges that exist with annual plans. One of the biggest challenges is determining how to service and solution work that is not originally on the plan. The usual work initiators that meet this criterion are new business won, compliance/regulatory requirements, and custom requests from existing clients. When this happens, managers and business leaders have to determine how to shift priorities and possibly even postpone goals on the annual plan until the next year. It happens every year.

Leaving contingency funds for the unexpected is a key concept in personal finance budgeting. A best practice with budgeting is to leave margin between your income and monthly obligations. This margin can be used for savings as well as unexpected expenses that occur during the month.

What if we created business plans that provided margin between the capacity of the organization and number of goals/objectives on the plan?  For IT, I would call this Technical Margin, but a more general term is Work Margin.

The tendency with annual plans is to fill them with objectives that are beyond the capacity of the organization. Our appetites are always bigger than what we can accomplish and we tend to underestimate the time projects will take. Even without new unplanned work we have challenges accomplishing everything on the plan. If our plan leaves margin then it allows us to adjust goals easier during the year when new work appears.

In 1992 Ward Cunningham first noted a comparison between software code and debt that became known as technical debt.  For IT leaders, creating technical margin is a perfect way to have some time to eliminate technical debt as well as service the unexpected.

The concept looks like this:

In a formula the amount of work margin is variable depending on the amount of planned work you choose to put in the annual plan. The decision is based on how much risk tolerance you have for unplanned work adjustments through the course of the year and how much room you want to leave for retiring technical debt.

Onward and upward!

Level the workload for development team leads

Incoming work.

If you work in IT you know that some days it feels like work requests appear from every direction possible and then some. The IT group is a service organization at its core and there is a strong drive to satisfy all customer requests in a timely manner.

For the development group within IT, incoming work results in new projects to create code, fix defects, or mitigate security vulnerabilities. It’s very easy to over allocate the development team leads because the natural tendency and customer desire is to solve all the requests quickly. Inevitably, unchecked incoming work will overburden a development team lead. That creates a large bottleneck in the flow of work and then the rate of production code pushes becomes erratic as the amount of work-in-progress increases!

Load level.8560840624_c67c5c1fef_z

Many modern workflow systems, including Lean, Six Sigma, and Theory of Constraints show the benefit of leveling the load within a production system. Effectively, the idea is to eliminate overburden on people and machines to make production more even and eliminate wastes. In my IT shop we have evolved to a regular prioritization meeting to review current projects in progress, prioritize work not started, and look at the allocation of team leads responsible for executing the work. The intent of the meeting is to level the load of current work that the team is processing.

But the team lead assignment review is a newer component of our process. We realized that even though we were meeting to assign priorities to projects that we had not considered the capacity of the team lead when assigning work. Initially, we looked at the capacity of the entire team and quickly overburdened our team leads. This clog of work stressed our team leads and disrupted the flow of work output for the team.

Now we look at our active work and continuously ask the question, “Have we over allocated our team lead in this area?” When the lead has capacity for new work then it’s pulled from the backlog of prioritized project requests.

This is a simplified look at a much larger concept, but an easy practical step to implement. Maybe it will spring an idea for you to use if you face the issue of over allocation.

Onward and Upward!