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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!

Special Sauce

Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun. I remember that McDonald’s commercial like it was yesterday. Now, decades later, I’m still fascinated with ‘special sauce’, just not the sauce on a Big Mac. The topic is universal. What makes companies and groups successful?special-sauce

This article from Harvard Business Review about corporate survival examines the increased failure rate of companies that start today versus those that started before 1980. Their research found that, “firms listed after 2000 spent more than twice as much as earlier firms (in percentage terms) on organizational capital and half as much on physical assets…..But that advantage is a double-edged sword, they add: The good news is the newer firms are more nimble. The bad news for these firms is that their days are numbered, unless they continually innovate.”

Innovation encompasses special sauce. Some companies find it by creating a new paradigm like Cirque de Soleil. They created a new mold for a circus by removing animals and focusing on adults with a more sophisticated form of entertainment. Chic-fil-a uses customer experience and community involvement for their special sauce to make a chicken sandwich more than just lunch. Innovation isn’t limited to technology. The special sauces from Cirque de Soleil and Chic-fil-a have staying power. While competitors can see it, they haven’t really been able to imitate it. I found the Big Mac special sauce recipe online.

Keep searching for your special sauce.

Onward and Upward!

IT Manager Leader Standard Work

In 2015, I started on a lean production system journey. My aim is to improve my personal level of leadership by learning to focus on reducing waste activities and increasing customer value-add activities.  One concept in lean philosophy is leader standard work. It’s not easy to set a baseline for metrics and desirable activities without first having a play card for leaders to follow. Without a play card, the actions of a leader will be random and more subject to putting out the fires that pop-up each day.

 

I documented my first draft of leader standard work by first writing down all of the recurring activities that I already do. Then I examined each activity to see how they aligned to lean principles and noted what visual controls I have to measure and control each activity. If my activity didn’t align to a lean principle then I eliminated it.

 

Activity Lean Alignment/Leadership Influence Visual Controls
Daily
Review service metrics for open tickets Check SLA adherence/Conformance to schedule
Provide assistance with at-risk tickets.Stop and fix the problem, Standardized tasks
Open ticket report by age
Ticket system dashboard
Weekly
Change log review Make sure production changes are reviewed for communication, interdependencies, and quality testing.
Audits / Compliance
Change log database
Team Lead meeting Communicate company and team results.
Discuss escalations and commitments.
Develop countermeasures
Discuss performance and adherence to standard work (Gemba walk chosen project board in TFS)
Develop exceptional people and teams
Change log

Portfolio dashboard
Software development system board

1:1 meeting with direct reports Coaching (Advanced problem solving, Development)
Review standard work (weekly team standups, communication to stakeholders)
Ensure high productivity and engagementIdeas for improvement
Grow leaders who understand the work
Software development system board
Portfolio dashboard
Open Tickets
Gemba Walk – Go see for yourself Understand the work
Coach and connect
Demonstrate commitment to lean system
Software development system board
Monthly
Portfolio review Prioritize WIP and near-term backlog
Level out the workload
Create continuous process flow and bring problems to the surface
Portfolio dashboard
Status Report Leader check understanding of work
Review progress towards meeting goals (Actual vs Plan)
Develop countermeasures
Become a learning organization through reflection
Order source metrics
Financial metrics
Service level metrics
Portfolio dashboard
Capex/Billable Hours Financial account reclassification for capital work or billable  to customer Billable hours report
Steering Committee Regulate intake of new work (ROI, Current WIP, Capacity)
Make decisions by consensus
Group presentation and Discussion
Semi-Annual/Annual
Mid-year check-in/Annual review with direct reports Check progress toward meeting goals with each employee
Adjust goals if necessary
Career development discussion
Develop exceptional people and teams
Annual plan
Annuals goals
Annual Policy and Standard Work Review Review and update all policies and leader standard work documentation
Standardized tasks are the foundation for continuous improvement and employee empowerment
Policy documents

Leader standard work is a precursor to managing for continuous improvement and culture change. It is the basis for a job description. But it’s way better than that because it focuses on a systematic and repeatable approach to collaboration, employee development, problem solving, and understanding the business.

After creating the list I set my calendar with recurring entries corresponding to the tasks (for those I didn’t already have set). It’s a start and continuation of the lean journey.

Onward and upward!

 

What your infrastructure guy wants you to know

Looking for exceptional project leaders.

I have a special place in my heart for project managers. I was once a project manager and yet I still am a project manager. I expect I’ll always need to be a project manager. The skills of a PM are needed outside of the business environment. I use them in everyday life to plan, organize, and execute projects at home.

I previously wrote about the one the biggest challenges of a project manager. They sometimes struggle to find respect in a business setting and have to learn how to earn respect through business acumen and relational skills. When a PM gets the respect of the team they are leading then the project operates with efficiency and smoothness.

But not all projects in the portfolio have a PM. There are more projects than what the Project Management Office has capacity to fill. I’ve noticed projects without a project manager will most likely not get done or will struggle to make progress. That’s obvious right? Yes. It’s easy to reach that conclusion and it’s very logical. I call it Organizational Entropy.

The silent voice in the room.ServerRack

Without someone guiding and leading the team members on project tasks and timelines they are drawn by other competing tasks in the organization and will respond to the loudest voice.

The infrastructure and network team usually get the projects without a PM. I’ve noticed this in every professional position that I’ve served. It’s the software development projects that typically get a PM while the hardware projects are left to the engineers to manage.

Those poor network engineers. They are like the road crews that need to repair, widen, and repave roads. They have to work on weekends and at night when the traffic is the lowest. But they often don’t get someone to help them plan and execute.

This creates a focus problem. The engineers are pulled into changes that the software teams need. They get pulled into break-fix help desk tickets. Then it’s hard to focus and the loudest voice calling them gets the attention. It’s no wonder that many of their own projects fall behind or don’t get done.

What’s the best answer for this? I haven’t been able to answer it yet. Perhaps giving some volume to that silent voice is the first step.

Let me know if you’ve found the answer.

Onward and upward!

Photo Credit: Gene Selkov via creative commons.