A Business Technology Place

IT Annual Planning

These customers want the basics.

Wired Magazine published an entertaining read about the preferences of public transit riders.  The results showed that it wasn’t the technology services like WiFi and charging stations that topped the list of what riders wanted; it was the basics like reliability and predictability of the service. We so often hear the phrase “get back to basics” and this study supports that thought. But the nature of progress and business has a gravitational pull to do more than the basics. We want to add more features and more services. We want to be the most competitive solution provider with more to offer. We provide more service to justify higher pricing. I feel this pull for bigger, better, faster as both a consumer and business professional offering a service.

But really.  

Is all this really important to customers?

Back to basics for business planning.

Last year I started using the A3 problem solving approach for annual planning. The output of the A3 process is a single sheet of paper. That’s important to me because it forces my team and I to narrow down our communication to what’s truly important and necessary to communicate with our audience. The Information Technology group is not immune to making problem solutions more complex than they need to be. An approach like the A3 technique creates a framework to get us to think about the basics of problem solving and communicating in a succinct manner that adds value.

Here is the template I have used thus far. The process involves documenting prior year results (current state), current year goals, rationale for the goals, action plans to achieve the goals, and follow-up items. I put the initial plan in an A3 format for discussion with managers and business department heads (suitable to print). Then I translate the plan to a single power point slide for when presentation and projection to a larger audience (suitable to project).

IT Annual Plan A3 IT Annual Plan

 

Follow it!

I keep a printed copy of the annual plan on my desk and reference it each week. I use it in discussions with my management team and as part of the performance management process with employees. Monthly I will make updates to the plan with progress on the activities timeline or updates to unanswered questions.

Continuous Improvement in business planning.

In addition to the annual plan, I’m also starting to think about converting the long range plan to an A3 process as well as my monthly status report. I don’t claim to have achieved an optimal approach to this process. But what is happening is that I’m thinking through the basics of the lean problem solving techniques and how to communicate them with my audience. That’s the beauty of the A3 approach for planning. It creates a conversation with the audience. More than just sending a large report loaded with information that people probably won’t read, this approach gets the conversation to something manageable.

 

Onward and Upward!

 

Long term thinking – right now

“If you don’t have a real stake in the new, then just surviving on the old – even if it is about efficiency – I don’t think is a long-term game.” – Satya Nadella

Is any business safe surviving on “the old”? Managing a product or service that is in decline requires skill. Companies that do it well can use the cash to fund investment in other areas and to support their long term vision. I’ve spent a large portion of my working life in the print industry with declining product sets. The business of print is, and has been, a good business to run. But all products run the full life-cycle. Continuing to focusing on getting more efficient at a specific product or service is like a race to zero when competition is factored in the equation. At some point the financial margins have been squeezed and re-squeezed to a point that it becomes difficult to sustain and support the business for future growth.

How is long term thinking connected to now?Vision

One of the principles of the Toyota Production System (TPS) is to base management decisions on a long term philosophy. That’s easy to agree with, but more difficult to focus on in a business environment that demands quarterly results to shareholders. I’ve had a hard time seeing this principle supported over the years. Just how do I connect long term thinking to the here-and-now?

Inspiration comes when you aren’t looking for it.

This week I had lunch with a few colleagues and the conversation drifted to automobiles. Everyone at the table had a story about a car that was impactful to their lives. Each of our stories shared a common theme; each of us placed the most value on the vehicle that was reliable, required the least maintenance, and lasted well beyond any loan payments. As I reflected on it later, I realized that no one spoke about add-on features, engine sizes, or even gas mileage. The most important thing was reliability, predictability, and service. These are all characteristics of transportation that transcend the offering of an individual vehicle.

So I asked myself, what are the characteristics of my business and workgroup that transcend an individual goal or project? What are those characteristics that define an ability to create new and adapt the old with the changing conditions of the business?

How can I think long term in the now?

Engage with people

Investing in people at work is a long term commitment for both the relationship and the value the employee brings to the organization. When I stress the importance of a weekly one-on-one meeting it is intended to coach, mature, and grow the individual in the values of the company. When I make an objective for employees to seek continuing education, it is an investment in the long term skills of the employee and their ability to contribute to the company in the future.

Stick with the plan

Make long term goals part of the annual goals and objectives process. Sometimes these goals are a continuation of key metrics for more efficient processing. Sometimes these goals are to expand into new markets, launch new products, or improve efficiencies. The point is to make sure the goals align with the long term vision of the organization. This links to my current day activities because the work that I’m doing to satisfy an individual goal should support the long term vision. The work is a building block in moving the organization toward a future goal.

Be persistent

Another principle of TPS is that the right process will produce the right results. I know personally, I don’t accomplish every goal and objective I set for myself or group. But if the goal is aligned to the long term vision, then it shouldn’t be abandoned. Long term thinking ‘in the now’ means I should stay persistent to win the day. I should work through setbacks by rethinking my approach.

Those are three characteristics for long term focus that I see in my day-to-day. How do you push long term thinking into your everyday routine?

Onward and upward!

Photo Credit: C.P. Storm

A manager’s guide to the annual plan

Creating the annual plan is like solving a puzzle.

Participating in the annual plan has always been a challenge to me to a certain extent for two reasons:

  1. In the past, I viewed the activity as more forecasting than planning. The plan was a list of goals and objectives that we hoped to achieve but we never knew what changes in the business might alter the plan. Inevitably something like customer mergers, acquisitions, unplanned results, or even customer defections would alter our plan. For me it was puzzle challenge number 1.
  2. The annual plan received focused attention before starting the year and then became a dead-document.  In this sense I’m referring more to the goals and objectives. I worked many years where we didn’t relook at the goals and objectives again until it was time to write the annual performance reviews. It was always a mystery to me why we didn’t go back and look those plans. This was puzzle challenge number 2.

Working the puzzle.

The good news for me is that I like working puzzles. I’ve always enjoyed the journey of solving puzzles even more than the end result. As with most cases in business processes and management there isn’t one best way to create an annual plan. There are many variables such as culture and industry that will influence the approach. As my responsibilities have grown over time I’ve been able to influence the annual planning process more with my thoughts and learnings.PlanDoCheckAct

I like the A3 problem solving method that is used by lean practitioners. The method looks for root causes with an attempt to prevent recurrence. It addresses the dead-document issue by including steps for checking and following-up on the solution. The approach is also attempts to simplify the whole process by focusing on what is most important. Get the plan on a single page and then execute it.

Creating the annual plan.

For the 2016 year I used past learnings and tried an approach to put the annual plan in A3 format (source:Lean.org).

Step 1 – Get input from other department heads to focus on alignment.

Nothing spells dysfunction like an IT department out-of-synch with other business departments. I’ve always said that IT is a service organization. It exists to enable the other business functions to be successful. Asking for input on business objectives from marketing, operations, customer service, sales, and finance should be a natural first step to create the IT plan, roadmap, and budget.

Step 2 – Learn, repeat, and stretch.

The A3 approach for planning focuses on a structure approach to thinking about the plan. It allows us to state what was learned, repeat what works and to stretch to set new baselines.

Plan Template

Step 1 – Targets/Goals for the coming year (where are we going?)

Step 2 – Results from last year (where we came from , hits and misses )

Step 3 – Reasoning for new plan and targets (what we learned)

Step 4 – Action plans for the coming year (how to get there)

Step 5 – Unresolved issues/questions (items that need more clarification and research)
Big plans are complicated to write and can leave the audience overwhelmed. The A3 approach keeps the message concise and focused on the most important things. When I wrote the A3 based plan it required that I make decisions about what to purposefully include. That doesn’t mean that our group doesn’t have other planned actions, but those actions should support the larger initiatives. The plan is intended to give business partners a chance to see a consolidated statement of how the IT group intends to contribute to the overall business objectives.Step 3 – Get the story on one page.

Step 4 – Review the plan with other department heads to check and confirm understanding of alignment.

The plan ends right back where it started. The best way to check understanding is to confirm the plan with the other department heads. It’s a quality check. But it’s also a touch-point for IT-business alignment and the start of the momentum to execute the plan activities.

Onward and upward!

Photo Credit: Jurgen Appelo

 

Think to plan. Plan to think.

Time to think and plan is elusive.

During the normal patterns of a work week I tend to get pulled into the daily operational tasks of keeping the business running and solving for immediate needs. That stuff is ultra-important because it involves the daily interaction of servicing customers.  But what about the long term planning and more strategic thinking? I try to plan that into a work week, but it’s difficult to keep many weeks due to the daily needs of the business. I’m not alone. Others try to solve for this by having off-site planning meetings and management retreats. The common theme is that it’s difficult to make and keep time for thinking and planning when we are in our normal weekly routine.

Vacation for thinking?

As I write this, I am towards the end of a vacation and it’s been a great week to relax, see new places, and to get away from the daily grind of work. As I was pounding out miles on a treadmill it occurred to me how much easier it is to think while on vacation.  Maybe I’m an odd ball, but I get energized about my career during times of rest and relaxation. When I see others in the travel and entertainment industry putting forth their best effort it inspires me. The architecture, design, and preparation that I see with travel and entertainment services makes me want to spend time excelling in my professional field as well. But I can’t take vacations as often as I need to think more strategically.

How can I create time to think and plan during a normal work week?

Relaxation yields clarity of thought.  Vacation re-energizes me. That’s the point of vacation right?

My thoughts on some classic options to make time for thinking:

  • Block time on the calendar for thinking. That works until I violate my own reserved time or someone schedules a “must attend “ meeting.  This is option is what I make of it or what I allow it be. I have the same principle for writing/blogging. I use a set time during the week to think and write.
  • Use time at home for planning and thinking. That’s not really an option for me with a busy kid’s schedule at night. Working long hours like that isn’t really sustainable either, unless I want to give up something like good health or my family.
  • Get up an hour earlier. Use the time to think and plan. I do try this but have not been disciplined with it. Plus I mixed it with time to exercise. Maybe I should get up two hours earlier for both exercise and thinking?
  • Go off-site and sit in a coffee shop. Do it on the way to work or take an extended lunch break. I just hope my boss doesn’t call to find me because there is a major emergency at work. Seriously though, I think there are ways to accomplish this without interrupting my normal schedule.
  • Don’t get overwhelmed with all the elements of planning. Break the strategic thinking into smaller areas or smaller bits of thought. This approach isn’t as intimidating and allows me to accomplish it in smaller pieces of time.

Avoid the transactional disruptions.

A key for me is to avoid the short transactional oriented messages for a time so that I can think. This means not checking emails as they come in. It means avoiding social media traps. Ultimately these become distractions that get in the way of thinking.

Velocity

We spent time this week in strategic planning discussions. One challenge is how to separate the vision for the future from the desire to get better at existing services.  That is to separate the transformational changes from the incremental changes. Both are needed.

The factor that sticks out to me in both conversations is velocity. The rate at which a company can change and with what purpose will often dictate the how successful or unsuccessful it is in growing business or even surviving.

Blockbuster comes to mind. In 2004, this home entertainment company had over 9,000 retail store locations. In 2010 the company filed for bankruptcy and in 2013 the last store was closed. Home videos didn’t go away. In fact home videos are more popular than ever. But the format and methods by which consumers receive home videos changed quickly and BlockBuster didn’t react with the velocity to stay relevant in the market.

It’s a mistake that almost every company would have made. Hold on to your bread-and-butter while making small changes to adapt. But in this case, the primary generator of revenue for BlockBuster (retail stores)  became almost unused over the span of just a few years.

So how do we approach strategic planning? Certainly there should be an eye for improvements to the core products and services offered by the company. Look at changes to the environment,markets,supply chain, etc. to determine the strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats.

But the vision is just as important. Where are we headed and how do we get there? What intentional decisions are made now to keep the company moving in that direction?

Velocity describes more than the speed of change. It also describes what direction a company is moving. So the velocity of change by a company represents both its strategic direction as well as the speed in which it moves to get there.

I do remember this from the grade school playground. When running a race to see who is the fastest one to the finish line, you can’t win by turning around to look behind you. The winner is focused, dedicated, and always moving straight towards the goal. That sounds like a building block for a strategic plan.