Thursday, March 10, 2011

Decisions Should be Made, Not Manhandled

Executive Summary:
Indecision is a big source of waste in the forms of waiting and rework.  Be aware of your own indecision and make sure that it isn’t affecting your teams.  If you are the one waiting or risking rework, take action to help the decision process along.

The Rest of the Story:
Yesterday we mentioned that failed communications generate a great deal of waste.  Another big source of waste is indecision.  Watch your own behavior today, and see if you agree.  Indecision can affect us in very small ways that add up over time, or it can affect us in very big ways, causing significant stress, rework, or delay.

Here is a common phenomenon that affects us in small ways every day.  Sometime today, you will finish a task or otherwise come to some stopping point where you need an answer or piece of information, and you will take a short break before jumping into the next task.  No problem.  In fact, many studies of human productivity demonstrate that short breaks between tasks that allow the mind to reset can increase productivity.  If you know in your mind exactly what you need to be working on, you will quickly reset and get busy on the next priority.  However, if you are not absolutely clear on what the next best thing to work on is, you’ll likely take a longer break.  Maybe you’ll get coffee, and stop by a friend’s cubicle or office to chat about your weekend, or latest sporting event of mutual interest, or just gossip.  When that’s over, you’ll return to your desk and ponder what to work on.  Probably, if you are like me anyway, you’ll decide to work on the easiest, or least dreaded task.  I know this seems like a small thing when it comes to perceiving waste, but think of how much time and productivity could be saved if you just knew what to work on next instead of taking a long break and ultimately procrastinating on an answer.

Now, lets look at some bigger wastes that also happen quite often.  Again, see if you or any of your teams are experiencing a phenomenon like this one, today.  You know perfectly well what agenda is your biggest priority and are very eager to make headway because you have deadlines to meet and have both personal pride and performance evaluations depending upon your success, but you need a decision from one or more of your leaders.  You and your team have some choices to make. 
  1. You can nag your leader into making a decision
  2. You can make your best guess what that decision will be and work in that direction
  3. You can wait

The first choice is probably the right one, but, depending on our leaders and our relationships with them, can be a delicate exercise in managing our managers.  This is especially true if our urgency and priority is not our leader’s urgency or priority.  The second choice is a gamble.  If we guess correctly, we are golden.  If something in the final decision or direction changes, though, we have rework.  As far as the third option, well the waste is already identified in the option itself – the whole team waits.  Needing to manage these options drives anxiety and stress.

So, What should we do about it?  Well, the first thing I suggest you do is look in the mirror and determine if anyone you are leading is experiencing this phenomenon because they are waiting for a decision from you.  If so, make a decision and save them.  If you are the one experiencing waste because you need another to make a decision, I offer you the following practice that has worked for me in many cases.

To help a leader understand that you and your team need an answer, first allow at least a reasonable time for the decision to be made before getting proactive.  A good habit is to ask when to expect a decision when the question or proposal is first made (or explain when you need it to avoid delay).  When the appropriate time has passed, make a call or send a note that politely explains how many team members and what schedule is hinging on the answer.  Sometimes, it is easy for we leaders to lose track of the urgency or priority of others when our own priorities are becoming a challenge to juggle, and a polite reminder can help us focus.  I believe that a phone call or in-person discussion is absolutely the best way to close this sort of conversation.  Many times, it’s as simple as saying, “Our team needs this decision because we are starting to delay progress while we wait, or are working on assumptions that may be incorrect.  Can we proceed with (whatever you assume is best)?”  This works great if the decision is already clear, but hasn’t been communicated.  Sometimes it’s not already clear, but you have just triggered the dialogue necessary to get the issues and questions on the table, discussed, and by the end of the dialogue you have your answer.  Sometimes, others need to confer with your leader about the decision.  If so, offer, “What can I do to help the group reach consensus?  May I call a meeting to answer everyone’s concerns?”  By being willing to take action, sometimes we drive it.  I had a change agent who worked for me that used the last approach on me frequently.  I learned from the receiving end how effective it is at demonstrating urgency and making a leader share some of it.

I’ll offer some tools in tomorrow’s post that can help us make decisions when we’re stuck.  In the mean time, examine yourself today and see if you can catch yourself procrastinating on deciding what to work on next.  More importantly, determine if someone you lead is waiting or risking rework because they need a decision from you or your mutual leadership.  If so, make a decision, or help them get a decision.  You and your team will both experience less stress and will be more productive.

Stay wise, friends.

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