A Business Technology Place

IBM reverses course on work-from-home

We can improve business results with this change!

IBM recently announced the end of work-from-home for the Marketing department as it moves towards regional offices for co-locating the Big Blue workforce. They aren’t the first to do this. Yahoo reversed course in 2013 by banning work-from-home and Best Buy followed their lead. Could this be another business cycle forming? Companies have been centralizing and decentralizing organizational layout for years as they switch between shared service cost-savings and greater focus on customer needs. Now it appears working-from-home, telecommuting, and flexible work arrangements may start going through similar cycles.

The debatable points.

Working-from-home has many characteristics and touch-points to create debate:

  • Team collaboration vs private think-time
  • Consistent schedules vs flexible schedules
  • Meetings together vs conference calls
  • Productivity of the group vs productivity of the individual
  • Commercial office cost vs home office cost
  • Relationships and culture
  • Employee retention
  • Commute time

The irresistible force to change something.

It’s easy to see how business leaders are drawn towards this policy as a means to improve efficiency and productivity of their workforce. The debatable items can all impact workforce productivity. But change is initially disruptive and must be executed properly to yield the desired results.

Obviously there is no single right answer. Organizations must weigh options and make decisions based on their business environment, their workforce, and their culture. Workers have preferences based on their life-stage, distance from the office, position in the organization, and personality.

Regardless of personal preferences, it does not change the mission of the organization or the commitment required of the workforce to produce great work. Ultimately, managers make a decision and move forward with it to create the culture and environment they want to achieve the mission of the organization. The work-from-home policy attracts or repels would-be workers. But the workforce needs to understand the interests of the company must survive to provide services customers will buy and to provide long-lasting security for employees.

Onward and upward!

photo credit: Debra Roby via creative commons.

Visual Management Board for Lean IT

A note from my Lean journey

A few years ago I was introduced to Lean concepts and principles at work. After several months of studying the topic I realized that many of my professional activities for both managing processes and people already mapped to some of the core components of Lean. That makes sense as many of the leading management philosophies and programs of our time share foundational elements.

One of the important principles of a Lean is visual management.  Visual controls are used to communicate information to people that indicate if the current condition of a system is acceptable. The Toyota Production System says to use visual controls so that no problems are hidden. It’s like the old phrase, “you can’t fix what you can’t see.”

On my personal Lean journey, my next task is to develop a Flow and Performance Board.  This will be a form of visual management that displays information to use at recurring team meetings. The contents on the board support the Lean principles of continuous flow and reducing waste. Effectively, the board becomes a visual control to see how flow of product is progressing for customer value-added activities and where waste exists in the system.

Flow and Performance for IT – My 1.0 version

I used the following guiding principles when designing the 1.0 version of a Flow and Performance Board for my IT shop:

  1. Show elements of product flow – At what stage work is in the system.
  2. Show key metrics – If possible show actual vs expected. The focus of the board, and Lean, is process flow and eliminating waste (as opposed to traditional boards that focus only on results).
  3. Show flow influencers – These are items that may influence the production system such as holidays and customer audits. The intent is to make the influencers visible ahead of time so it’s possible to manage through them instead of reacting to them.
  4. Show audit results – Part of the Lean journey is having leaders that inspect our work to see if we are following standard process. IT also has a rapidly growing set of requirements for compliance, which customers require, that fits in this space.

My 1.0 version of a board looks like this:

Since IT team members are geographically dispersed and most of our tools report data electronically then this will be an electronic board. Content will vary for different groups within IT. My first board is targeted towards and enterprise level view.

The board is intended to be referenced during recurring team meetings so that team members have a visual control as they inspect pieces of the product flow. As such, it should be easy to read and process information. The contents of the board must be current to be relevant. Ideally the board will updated dynamically to reduce the amount of non value-add work of administrative processes.

I anticipate I will wrestle with screen real-estate, content, and compactness with each future iteration.

Onward and Upward!

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.

Corralling your task list and action items

The Chaotic Symphony.

Throughout the course of a typical week in the office I attract action items and tasks like mosquitos on a summer night. They appear from every direction and often without notice as part of what I call organizational entropy. Most professional workers today have this dilemma because there are so many sources tasks can originate:

  • Meeting minutes (usually in a word file or email)
  • Meeting minutes (verbally given because no one wrote the minutes)
  • Emails
  • Ticketing system / Service desk
  • Project plans (Excel, MS Project, Software Development System)
  • Personal notebooks
  • Hallway conversations
  • CRM
  • Customer requests for information

It’s easy to get to a state where the loudest voices get my attention during the week and I lose all sense of priority. Having tasks in multiple places makes it easy to lose them and really difficult to see what is most important. Help!

Make a Corral.

I’ve tried different systems over the years to corral tasks into a reduced number of areas. I try to group personal tasks outside of ticketing systems and email together into one tool. Getting down to one tool is part of a simplification plan that makes managing action items achievable. A single location allows me to group, sort, and prioritize the list.

I’ve tried a number of electronic solutions over the years and at times I just use pen and paper. There is a no perfect tool or system. What we choose to use is a personal preference based on how we think, how we mentally organize data, and what we can make part of our routine.

Personally, I prefer a tool that puts a task into the context of the larger body of work. I like a task list that is easily searchable. I like a tool that allows me to add notes and related documents to the task.

Some action items, like service tickets, are assigned in group workflow tools. These tasks require interaction with the customer/requestor or project manager. Using group workflow tools provides communication back to the requestor and keeps a record of the interaction.

Two important attributes for tasks.

To create an effective system for tracking my tasks and action items I try to focus on two key attributes. If you are evaluating methods or tools then consider these:

  1. Communication – Keeping the requestor current with clear communication is the best way to reduce the number of status report inquiries.
  2. Visibility – It hurts when I forget about a task. That’s like letting someone down because I forgot about something that is important to them. I need to pick a tool that I will both use and will see through the course of a day.

Making it routine.

Since I have tasks in both a personal to-do list and group workflow systems, I created an entry in my leader standard work definition so they receive recurring attention. Without some definition of routine our day is ruled by the loudest voices. That’s not productive.

Let’s do this.

Onward and upward!

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!