A Business Technology Place

Battling Urgent

Picking my battles

Every day I am tempted to work more on what’s urgent than what’s important. Somedays I do better at working on important tasks, but it’s a constant wrestling match. Important tasks help to achieve my overall goals. Urgent tasks usually involve fixing something that is broken for someone else. Urgent tasks may not always be beneficial to everyone and tend to be subject to interpretation of the one asking for something to be completed. In other words, if I ask someone how urgent something really is, I will usually receive varying answers.

For me, it all starts with a service desk ticket, a system-outage, equipment failure, unexpected email, etc. Something happens that seems to always turn my time management routine upside down. Even if I’m working on important tasks related to larger goals, there are interruptions for urgent things by way of phone, in-person office visit, text, email, etc.

7am quiet time

At one time, the 7am hour was my stress-free plan-the-day time. It was quiet and I could plan the day or work on important tasks. Nice.

But I’ve noticed lately, the battle-of-urgent is starting more often during the 7am hour. More colleagues and customers are working flex-hours and home office hours these days. That means more workers are online at 7am trying to use computing equipment or starting to go through their daily tasks and reaching out for help.

Different Perspectives

I realize my purpose at work is to help others and to connect them to solutions. So while I may have lost my 7am hour as a planning time, I need to adjust and think smarter about how to approach the battle of urgent versus important.

I also realized the reverse is true; my important tasks could be someone else’s urgent tasks. If our goals are not aligned then it’s easy to create this type of mismatch.

Battling Urgent

A great approach to time management is defining leader standard work (LSW).  When I documented my leader standard work, I defined the important activities I perform daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually, etc. If I plan my day around leader standard work activities I should see the following benefits:

  • Working on what’s important – LSW defines activities that are important to the execution and management of my team and work.
  • Addressing what’s urgent through assignment and delegation. Whenever possible, I should delegate urgent work.  My LSW is structured in such a way as to review work queues for the entire team and make assignment shifts or inquiries as necessary.
  • Leading by teaching – LSW should be setup to make me more visible to my team and customers not less visible because I’m hidden behind a computer screen. LSW creates opportunities for engagement with other team members and customers.
  • Reflecting and 5S – I fail most often on this task because I work until I reach that stopping point at the end of the day.  If I can take 10 minutes at the end of the day to reflect and jot down any important tasks for tomorrow then it should help towards a great start against battling urgent.

Battling urgent never ends and some days I do better than others. But I try to prepare for the battle everyday by defining what’s important first and then executing that plan.

Onward and upward.

Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/21aTYi5 – Marco Verch via Creative Commons.

Root cause analysis for team building

Early in my career we used a process that loosely resembled a root cause analysis after a severity 1 production outage. The intent of the process was to determine why the severity outage occurred and then fix the problem so it didn’t happen again. No one liked process and the documents we produced were rarely used to influence process improvement. It was a checkbox and an exercise to fill-in-the-blanks to say we completed it. I always thought the name post-mortem was bit odd as well and we were certainly dead to the process. Looking back, I see post-mortem efforts can be valuable if championed and executed correctly. But there is a better way.

Twenty years later, we are learning to implement root cause analysis (RCA) into our recurring operational procedures. Like a post-mortem exercise, a RCA is typically done after an event has occurred with the intended benefit to prevent problems from recurring. If done correctly, this can reduce waste and downtime.

But a RCA is distinct with its own set of advantages. Our team is using lean A3 problem solving techniques as the backbone for RCAs.  It is apparent to me the RCA process, if supported and executed routinely, can shape a culture of continuous improvement. Here are a few practical ways:

  • The outputs can be used as a proactive measure to predict and prevent future failures. Problem solving focuses on examining why events occur coupled with action items and sustainment activities. This is a great way to identify potential future problems.

In one recent 5-why exercise about a database failure we identified a few weaknesses in a process in addition to the root-cause of a failure. Our corrective action plan addressed multiple weaknesses and has undoubtedly prevented some of the weaknesses from becoming service outages.

  • A systematic approach to RCA involves setting a recurring cadence for problem solving. RCAs require a wide range of knowledge to identify problems, compile documentation, and create sustainment activities. Individuals will struggle, but teams can thrive solving problems like this.

We post our RCAs on our department flow-and-performance board to make them visible, promote discussion, and to keep the process top of mind. Our standard is to perform one RCA per month. This reinforces that RCAs are part of the culture of the team.

  • Done correctly, RCA focuses on resolving process deficiencies instead of blaming people. It’s not always easy but we remind ourselves to focus on behaviors and results over individuals.

Onward and Upward!

Photo Credit: ResoluteSupportMedia via creative commons – https://flic.kr/p/88Kdgw

Forced change vs Needed change

A few weeks ago I read a passage from John Maxwell in his book The Maxwell Daily Reader about scurvy. The passage summarizes difficulties in implementing the cure for the prevention of the disease during the time of European exploration of the Americas. Multiple sources knew about the effect of fresh fruit and vegetables, but due to poor communication, stubbornness, and pride of the medical establishment, the change needed to prevent the disease was delayed.

I polled a couple of my colleagues to ask them what they thought is a modern day business scurvy. One of them replied, “This is a good question. Sometimes, forced change can hide needed change, and the two become hard to distinguish for relevancy and value with so much activity happening at once.”

His answer summarizes both the challenge faced by European sailors as well as leaders in our business environment today. I thought about this for a few minutes and then wrote a quick list to try to distinguish between ‘forced change’ and ‘needed change’. I did this quickly so as to record my “gut feel” and then observed the list as a means of reflection and learning.

Forced change

  • Reporting structure reorganization
  • Technology platform adoption
  • Technology platform migration
  • Compliance
  • Outsourcing

Needed change

  • Removing waste from processes
  • Adding value to a customer relationship
  • Cross-department collaboration improvements

When I read the list a few patterns occurred to me:

  1. The items in the ‘forced change’ list concern people, tools, and rules. The items in the ‘needed change’ list are about process, value, and communication.
  2. The items in ‘needed change’ are more impactful and longer lasting to the business.  The items in ‘forced change’ can be tactical tools to help drive needed change if executed for the right reason. For example, some technology adoption is aimed to reduce the process steps in product delivery (remove waste) to the customer. Likewise, some compliance changes will help an organization tighten their processes to be more secure in how they handle data (add value to customer relationship).
  3. The challenge with the items in the ‘forced change’ list is we often implement before there is a common understanding with all the employees about why those changes are enacted. Implementation of forced change truly feels forced. When that happens, the change will either fail outright or fail to achieve the desired results.

So what is our modern day business scurvy? I would answer; it is the failure to align the reasons for needed change in an organization with the tactical implementation of change. With that thought, I see signs of scurvy in my own management and leadership approach. Ouch. It’s time to find some citrus for my business diet.

Onward and upward!

Photo credit: Pablo Vidosola via Creative Commons – https://flic.kr/p/pGWebT

 

More or Less?

Truth.

There will always be more work to do than is possible to accomplish by my team.

Think more. Whine less.

Earlier this year I penned some thoughts about thinking through resource contention, Do more with what you have!, because I was looking for better ways to address resource contention than to simply say more people are needed. Getting stuff done is as much a mindset as it is a collection of work output. I’ve learned that when I am overwhelmed with size of the backlog of tasks then the frequency of my output decreases.

In the book, ReWork,  Fried and Hansson address the value of staying lean with less,

“I don’t have enough time/money/people/experience.” Stop whining. Less is a good thing. Constraints are advantages in disguise. Limited resources force you to make do with what you’ve got. There’s no room for waste. And that forces you to be creative. “

Do I believe that? The words do inspire me to look at my backlog through a different set of lenses. One thing I know is this. If I’m able to produce consistent output that adds value to the customer and mission of my team then conversations about the priority of the backlog are easier.

In the book Blue Ocean Strategy, Kim and Mauborgne say it this way,

“instead of getting more resources, tipping point leaders concentrate on multiplying the value of the resources they have.”

The Theory of Constraints management paradigm teaches us to first find the constraint within a process and then to exploit the constraint by shifting resources, managing work queues, and possibly adding capacity. With this lense, value is unlocked by first examining the underlying process instead of trying to add more people.

More or less?

As I sit writing this, I’m led to these conclusions:

More is contentment with less because having less allows me to get more done.

Less is obsession about more, because having more often leads to getting less done.

Onward and upward!

JIT Action Items for the Office Worker

Just in time.

Picture this. You are reviewing a list of tasks that was assigned to colleagues in your business. You remind one of the task owners their action item is due tomorrow and they respond, “I have it on my list, but I’m operating just-in-time.”

This happened to me recently. The word choice “just in time” (JIT) is from a Lean concept in which production output is managed by when the customer requests delivery rather than when the producer can complete the task. Most office workers today don’t match-up their behavior with Lean Principles. But even if you aren’t a Lean practitioner, there is tangible value to considering the JIT approach.   One of the primary goals of JIT is to eliminate waste by not working or storing excess inventory. For this blog post, I’m writing about assignments, tasks, and action items for office personnel. Think of excess inventory as assignments that are completed but never used or maybe action items that are started but never finished. That is considered waste and our time is too valuable to spend it producing work that doesn’t add value for the customer.

Three ways to structure a task list for JIT delivery in the office:

1. Purge non-value added activities.

 

 

So often we spend our time prioritizing tasks to stack rank them for the order they should be worked. With ‘Lean’ thinking the first question should be “do the results of this activity add value for the customer or is it a necessary non-value added activity?” (i.e. compliance task). My experience with tasks prioritized low is over time they eventually fall off the list because they are no longer needed. This most often means it was never a value added activity and just clutter on the backlog (unnecessary inventory). It’s a good idea to review the backlog of tasks on some recurring interval to purge non-value added activities.

2. Group items into buckets already covered by standard work activities.

 

 

Some action items may fit into already established recurring work activities where standards and time allotments exist. If that is the case, then it’s not necessary to create additional time for one-off production of work output. An example of this recently happened to me. A compliance control required the review of at-risk vendors and documentation of the results. I already had time assigned on my calendar for a quarterly review of security and risk related items as part of a security committee agenda. Rather than add a new task for myself, this compliance control was added a responsibility of the Security and Risk Committee. The concept for this idea is to examine recurring activities already part of standard routines. Some assigned tasks may naturally fall into those routines and intervals.

3. Use a calendar of due dates to help with priority sequencing.

 

 

Putting due dates for action items on a calendar provides several nice features for structuring work. It enables the ability to preview the calendar for upcoming work (Daily or Weekly) which triggers work execution. The concept of JIT relies on keeping inventory of unused work at a minimum. With this thought in mind, try to avoid having active progress on work that isn’t due because it may take away time from working on tasks that are due.  The challenge with this method is estimating how long a task will take to complete and being able to work through unplanned interruptions.


So being a JIT employee isn’t quite like being a Jedi employee. But then again, if you can consistently deliver action items in the expected time frame, it won’t take long to reach Jedi status in your office.

Onward and upward!

Photo Credit: Philip West via Creative Commons.