Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Remove Waste in Management

Executive Summary:
Sometimes our day-to-day office habits are sources of waste and frustration.  Examine your regular meetings and communications and look for ways to take the waste out of them.  Everyone involved will be more productive and work life will improve.

The Rest of the Story:
When we think about eliminating waste, we most often look to our production, manufacturing, or assembly areas.  It’s an important place to look and clues like inventory, product at rest, and the money trail make it possible to find opportunities, predict improvements, and calculate the benefits.  However, the office is also a generous source of waste.  Unfortunately, it’s not at easy to see work at rest, inventory, or to follow the money.  The good news about waste in the office, however, is that many times it is easier to eliminate, even if it’s harder to calculate the benefits.

There is one fairly easy way to put your finger on waste in the office.  Instead of looking for the tangible work, which is difficult to see because it typically exists as digital information in your computer, seek out the pain.  Waste manifests itself as frustration, anxiety, and stress.

Many times the changes necessary to eliminate waste in the office amount to simple changes in habit, changes to the way we communicate, or how we accomplish the few tasks that repeat.  The first place that I suggest you look for opportunities to wipe out waste is the regular or repeatable event.  Let’s take a look at a couple of typical examples.

Meetings are a great and frequent source of waste.  Here’s the clue.  We dread going to meetings because no one gets any work done in meetings.  So, why do we go to meetings?  The answer is a long list of reasons, but perhaps two reasons are most common.
  1. To communicate
  2. To make a decision

Conducting a meeting to make a decision is, in my experience, the best reason to hold a meeting because it actually makes the meeting what is called a value-added activity in the Lean lingo.  Meetings to communicate are generally non-value-added activities, though communication is vital. 

Do you attend a regular meeting, perhaps it’s weekly, where a bunch of people sits around and listens to each other give one or more managers a status update since the last meeting?  If this is the only time, and the best way, for everyone involved to find out what everyone else is doing, then the meeting may be necessary.  However, if attendees already know the information because they work closely with each other, or if the information is only important to the manager who called the weekly status report, then everyone in that room who is not speaking is wasting time.

Consider this.  When we dictate a weekly status meeting or status report, information tends to inventory until the next meeting or the next report.  Wouldn’t it be better if information came to you and everyone who might need it real-time instead of in weekly batches?

My first suggestion for eliminating waste in meetings, is to eliminate the meetings altogether.  If you can communicate another way that generates less waste, do so.  The answer may mean that the manager who calls the meeting has more activity, but if that means that a large group of others have less, then there is less waste.  Beware; everyone’s favorite solution to eliminate communication meetings is to call for reports instead.  My second example, below, for sources of waste is the regular written report.  Instead, eliminate communication meetings by going direct to the people, frequently, and talk to them one on one.

Sometimes, we absolutely must conduct meetings to get everyone caught up.  There are some very good practices to help eliminate waste in meetings.  Ironically, many of them predate Lean and the quest to seek and destroy waste.  They are left over from the Total Quality Management movement.

Here are some suggestions to eliminate waste from meetings.
  • Don’t have everyone give a story about status; have a pre-populated status chart (not started, on track, late, and complete are useful status “lights”), go through the status board quickly and get an explanation only from those that are not in a desired state or that changed state
  • For decision meetings, send out the proposed options before the meeting with pros and cons for each proposal.  That saves meeting time reviewing proposals in detail.  Instead, review questions, voice concerns, and decide.
  • Prioritize the meeting’s discussion so that an important topic doesn’t fall at the end and cause the meeting to run long
  • Assign a time limit for each topic and hold to it
  • Eliminate texting, late arrivals, and early departures by scheduling your meetings from 5-minutes past the hour to 10-minutes before the hour and get in the habit of communicating or deciding in 45-50 minutes instead of 60; it gives you the leverage to strictly enforce a code of conduct because you gave time for the other stuff
  • If your plan or list of activities can be communicated in visual form, use that form in the meeting and focus only on what has changed, and what should have changed, but didn’t.  From the visual everyone can see the expected status of everything else, without long discussion.  Make sure the visual is quick and easy to manage, and not a new source of waste.

Meetings to present proposals, or explain analyses with presentations are huge time consumers, but are often vital and frequently are the genesis of important business initiatives or important decisions.  Eliminate the waste that goes with missing vital audience members or preventable long discussion, but don’t eliminate the communication of these vital ideas, even if we know they are a considerable investment.

Another common example of regular activities that generate waste is the periodic written report.  In my assessment, reports are valuable if they contain data, analyses, or conclusions that should be preserved for posterity, or if the details of some circumstance must be laid out in no uncertain terms for a group of people who must receive and consider the data or information with absolute consistency of delivery and understanding.  If a report is used to convey status updates, or similar information, chances are there is a better way.

A few years ago I managed a particular group of engineers and reported to the Director of Engineering.  The way things worked was for each of my personnel to e-mail me a status report of their projects and progress every week.  By the way, we all sat in the same office, and my engineers all shared the same row of cubicles with me.  I would assemble their information into my own report for the director.  He would assemble the reports from the engineering managers into his own for the VP and so on.  Sound familiar?  It’s a common phenomenon. 

One particularly lucid morning, as I was following up on most of the reports I got, to get clarification or to ask questions, I realized just how wasteful the whole process was.  I told my team that we would no longer e-mail status reports, I would just visit everyone one or more times each week to discuss it, and I would update my own status report from our discussion.  I was already doing it anyway with my questions and clarifications. 

I won points with my team.  Engineers want to engineer, not write status reports.  Additionally, I developed a much better understanding of everything going on, and could provide better support because of the conversations.  I felt like a genius for the improvement, and an idiot that I hadn’t done it from the beginning.

Well, it seems that one or more of my engineers was so happy about not having to write reports he had to talk about it, or one of the other manager’s was so unhappy about the reports he had to complain and one of mine boasted.  In any case, word got around and the director asked me why I wasn’t collecting status reports.  I explained it and pointed out how much better my involvement was with no extra time on anyone’s part. 

Two weeks later, we had changed the way we reported to the director.  We created a visual status of the activities (a simple list in this case) and met to discuss the changes in status.  Instead of passing status and meeting to discuss it as we had been, we met in the director’s office, and helped him build his status report for the VP.  Our inter-team understanding improved, and the Director no longer needed to translate reports.

Now, I’m not relating this story for appearances.  The important element of the story is not what I did, but what we all realized.  We made a painful, wasteful weekly event into a much more valuable and easier activity because we realized that the way we were doings things, as much like protocol as it had become, was not the way we had to do things.  When we realized we could write our own rules, we did.

Look at the various activities in your own work life and your own office.  Start by identifying the regular repeated events like reports and meetings.  Seek out the pain.  The pain is the indicator of waste.  Come to the realization that the way it’s done is probably not the way it has to be done.  Break tradition and make changes.  You probably won’t need fancy process maps or statistical analyses.  You will become more productive, your teams will become more productive, and the relief from the pain will make you appreciated. 

Stay wise, friends.

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