A Business Technology Place

Level loading straight talk

Listen to the clues.

This week was not unlike many others. I had multiple conversations with colleagues about the amount of work expected of them. Common phrases include:

“We don’t have enough resources.”

“I’m overworked.”

“We are working hard, but are we working smart?”

“I’m drowning.”

“Are we working on the right things?”

“I plan my day with important activities, but then urgent activities take my time.”

Thoughtful answers to this classic dilemma usually involve some form of level loading to try to even-out and prioritize the work expected from employees. Last year I wrote about one technique my group uses to try to control the volume of input on our development team leads.  One the biggest challenges in controlling work inputs is a concept I call organizational entropy. I define organizational entropy as a measure of disorder or randomness by which work is created within a company.  This ultimately causes workers to be out of alignment.  The misalignment isn’t necessarily with organizational goals; rather it’s more so a timing alignment with other workers and expected delivery dates for projects.

It’s chaotic in the middle of it all.

A common scenario helps add color to my thought. Jane is a manager of a team that provides customer service functions. Jane is asked by HR to complete a new required training by a specific date. Jane is asked by a process improvement analyst to participate and own tasks in a customer service improvement project. Jane is asked by a Sales manager to participate in a project to onboard a new customer. Jane is asked by a compliance analyst to update a process because new compliance regulations require it. Jane is also asked by her manager to complete managerial and process tasks related to her day-to-day operational jobs. The chaos ensues when the due dates conflict with each other.

Unfortunately, situations like this are not uncommon. All the colleagues that asked Jane to complete work by a certain deadline do not know if their due dates overlap or cause conflict with Jane’s schedule (and truth be told, they usually only care about their project deadlines). So it’s very easy for Jane to quickly become over-tasked. If Jane is late on a task, then the project leader may escalate to management. Escalation does have a purpose, but it also can easily promote more organizational entropy.

How do we find relief?

There are no easy answers to this dilemma, but I have a few thoughts that may drive conversation between employees and managers to reach a better understanding of what is happening and to better load level expected work:

  1. Managers need to acknowledge the employee may have been asked to do more than is possible in a standard week. Seek more input from the employee, examine their workload. Ask for visibility to the situation in a tangible format. You can’t help level load and employee’s work for what you don’t see or acknowledge. This is the best way to help lead your employee and position them for success.
  2. The employee should provide visible proof of the situation and not just say “I’m overworked”.  This means listing tasks, requested due dates, and effort required to complete them. You can’t expect a manager to help level load your work unless you give them specific and actionable evidence. This isn’t a call to make excuses or place blame. It’s a call for an honest assessment of your situation and to make it visible.
  3. Time management techniques like the Eisenhower Method provide good tactical methods for organizing multiple tasks.
  4. As much as possible try to perform level loading before committing to new work. Over extending commitments creates more unmet deadlines, causes irritation with requestors and customers, and creates more process waste. But remember to use the tangible evidence when making your case.

Maybe this topic is proverbial elephant in the room for you and others. I don’t proclaim to have all the answers. But I’m wrestling with the concept and looking for ways to improve.

Onward and Upward!

Photo Credit: Graeme Newcomb via creative commons

Easier password rules

Somebody give these guys a high-five.
Finally. There is a glimmer of hope for resolution to the insanity that has become password complexity rules. The National Institute of Standards and Technology recently revised guidelines for password complexity. The prescribed password complexity recommendations are detailed in Appendix A – Strength of Memorized Secrets. The NIST findings not only acknowledge the impact to usability of the existing recommendations for complex password rules, but they reveal the impact to improved security is not significant. This will make you smile and is sure to get a round of applause from everyone. Here’s an excerpt:

“Humans, however, have only a limited ability to memorize complex, arbitrary secrets, so they often choose passwords that can be easily guessed. To address the resultant security concerns, online services have introduced rules in an effort to increase the complexity of these memorized secrets. The most notable form of these is composition rules, which require the user to choose passwords constructed using a mix of character types, such as at least one digit, uppercase letter, and symbol. However, analyses of breached password databases reveal that the benefit of such rules is not nearly as significant as initially thought [Policies], although the impact on usability and memorability is severe.”

The new advice is to consider the length of the password more important than the complexity. Shorter passwords are easier to break for computer programs. Longer passwords are more difficult to break after they have been encrypted and stored. The NIST acknowledges the over complex password rules we’ve been subjected to only enforce bad behavior when we strive to make the password easier to remember. In other words changing your password from “Password1!” to “Password2!” doesn’t really help the password to be more secure.

Randomly generated passwords are OK as long as they don’t create a usability hassle. Some users, like me, use a password vault tool that can randomly generate passwords to use with specific sites. Again, longer password length is better even when using random characters.

I looked at my accounts.
I used this guidance and examined three financial services sites where I have accounts. Here is a look at the current password complexity requirements from each site:

Site 1
At least 8 characters in length
Has at least one letter
Has at least one number

Site 2
Must contain 8 to 20 characters including one letter and one number.
May include the following characters: % & _ ? # = –
May not contain spaces

Site 3
Minimum of six characters
Must use a mix of letters, numbers, or symbols

The good news is I can use my random password generator to create passwords longer than say 8 characters. It’s no more work for me because I go to my password vault tool to retrieve passwords anyways. But even if you don’t use a password vault tool, you can make your password much more secure by creating a phrase that complies with the existing rules. For example: ILove2seemygrandmother would fit the requirements. It is easier to remember and more secure. Hopefully, the new guidelines will find a place with technology compliance and regulation and we’ll be able to more freely submit password phrases in the future.

Onward and upward!

The Yin and Yang of Security Patching

 

My computer is working, don’t change anything.

As an IT manager I observe this behavior regularly with end-users and product managers of eCommerce applications. It’s understandable. When a computer system is working and doing its job then “updates” are sources for creating failure. Updates change code. Updates rock the boat.

If a computer security update hasn’t bitten you yet, then it’s probably just a matter of time. My experience is the number of system issues related to operating system updates is growing.  It’s hard to test all the dependencies of code updates against every combination of hardware and software that exists on computing equipment. A couple of examples I can point to in 2017 are Microsoft Edge no longer working after installing the Windows 10 Creators Update.  Then there was the issue of Microsoft Outlook unable to open attachments which was later resolved with another hot fix.  

But we all know security updates are necessary. Why would we risk our personal data to thieves? In a business setting, why would put our customer’s data at risk? Why would we put the reputation of our business at risk?

Therein we find the yin and yang of security updates. We don’t want to upset the balance of a stable system, but we need to update the system so that it can remain stable in the future.

In the name of audit controls and security principles.

In the business environment, audit standards require staying up-to-date with security patches. ISO 27001/ISO 27002 and SOC2 have controls specifically addressing vulnerability patch management policies and procedures. To meet the requirements of the controls, a discipline in process and procedure is required.  These standards are there to help nudge all of us to change because we all know we resist change.

Plug those security gaps or face the consequences.

The consequences of not installing security patches can be devastating. In the worst case of cyber theft reported thus far, Equifax was robbed of information for 143 million individuals. The attackers found a weakness because Equifax failed to patch a known security vulnerability in website code they use.

Now hundreds of millions of people are exposed to the whims of criminals. The reputation of a large credit bureau is blown. The two highest ranking security officials within Equifax are out of a job. Patching known security vulnerabilities is serious business.

Complementary forces at play.

The next time someone schedules a security update for a system or application, understand the potential consequences fully. Intruders are at the gates. They make a living on our resistance to change.  But if we support the change and work with administrators to report any malfunctions, we can all help to build a safer tomorrow.  That’s how another yin and yang can make a more complete whole.

Onward and upward!

Employee Growth Chart

Childhood memories.

Did your mom mark your height on the door frame as a child? Let’s admit it. Those pen marks on the door-frame each year were exciting. It was even more fun if siblings, or other relatives, were marked on the door as well. What was it about the marks that made it so fun? Was it that we could see how much we were growing each year? Was it that we could see how close we were to a height goal? Or was it that mom would see our progress? Whatever the reason, one aspect that jumps out to me is the childhood growth chart was a visual control. We didn’t think about that at the time, but using visual controls play an important part of business life.

 

Employee growth.

A few years ago I wrote about a key concept for employee development, “employee development is better executed as an ongoing part of a business rather than an event.” As I map and transform many of my business activities to TPS and Lean principles, I think about how this relates to Principles 9 and 10.

 

Principle #9 – “Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others.”

Principle #10 – “Develop exceptional people and teams who follow your company’s philosophy.”

 

The verbs ‘grow’ and ‘develop’ describe an ongoing process. To measure progress of the growth journey, we’ll need visual tools and controls.

 

Make a chart.

One tool I started using a few months ago is a flow and performance board for visual management. This is a good spot to track employee growth metrics. I’m doing this with an eye towards professional skills enhancement and team cross-training.

 

Step 1: Create a skills matrix of the staff to document the current state

Step 2: Create an individual training plan for employees that addresses their personal growth as well as overall coverage the team provides to the business.

Step 3: Make it visible just like mom did. J

 

Here’s a very simple chart framework.

(Ratings 1-5)

Skill A Skill B Skill C
Employee A 2 4
Employee B 3
Employee C 2 3

Here’s a simple action plan (employee development plan).

Task Due Date Notes
Employee A increase skill A to level 3. December 31
Employee B learn skill A to a level 2. October 31 Currently employee A has no backup for skill A
Employee C increase skill C to a level 4. November 15

Onward and upward!

 

Photo Credit: Rochelle Hartman via Flickr Creative Commons

 

Conquer the antagonist

Yardwork reflections.

I often use yard work as a time for self-reflection because what else is there to do while drawing shapes with a lawn mower? Sometimes I reflect on personal interactions and plans, but I also use the time to consider business activities. As I edged the lawn this week, I wondered how was it possible that some business leaders are able to leave behind a successful blueprint for the philosophy and culture that drive and define an organization. This isn’t a new question, but it’s a thought many business leaders go through on their professional journeys. Jim Collins spent an entire book on the subject in Built to Last. He discusses how companies find enduring success. More on that in a minute.

The antagonist.

As if by fate, I read a story tonight on NPR.com about implicit egotism that links to a study published by the Harvard Business School (HBS) called the Ikea Effect. The Ikea Effect suggests we have a preference for and place greater value on things we personally create. The HBS paper adds, “labor leads to increased valuation only when labor results in successful completion of tasks.” Meaning, when we are successful in a task, we tend to place a greater value on our creation than something someone else created.

I quickly realized the Ikea Effect told me something I’ve already observed and participated in during my professional career. Typically, new leaders and managers bring their way of doing things to a company. They want to establish a change in the company by doing what worked for them in the past. Maybe they were hired for the purpose of bringing change to the organization. On the flip-side, I bet you could think of some successful companies that started failing after a change in executive management. Considering the Ikea Effect and the thought of enduring greatness and consistency, the antagonist may very well be me!

Grow leaders from within.

One of the principles of the Toyota Production System is to “Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others.” We read this same finding in Jim Collins’ books Built to Last and Good to Great. A key observation from Collins, is companies that found success spanning multiple leaders most often promoted insiders to the CEO position. Constancy of purpose, culture, and philosophy is a key ingredient to enduring success.

Know thyself.

My take-away from tonight’s mental exercise is to look and reflect on the Ikea Effect in my own decision making. Am I prone to shut-out other ideas because I didn’t create them? Am I over-valuing methods, procedures, and systems I created? Can I create sustainable systems that will be maintained by those who succeed my position in the company? The Toyota Production Systems uses the phrase “the right process produces the right results.” So success is not about what I create or what you create. But it’s more about results that are right for the company or organization.

 

Onward and upward!

Photo credit : http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/photo-1207142