Lessons Learned

The Question on the Wall- A Lesson Learned

Its not easy wanting to be a change agent but having to figure it out on my own. It is so hard to know what to do: when to take a risk, when to hold back, what direction to take. Sometimes I fail. Here’s what I learned from a recent experiment.

I was inspired by the book, Leading with Questions. One of the book’s premises is that asking questions gets an organization to change and to learn together. It got me thinking. How can I use this tactic?

My last company had this white board in the break room that posed questions to the employees. Just before I left, I had volunteered to pose a question. The answers received generated discussion among management. The last I heard, positive action was being taken and it was all because of asking the right question. Could I replicate this experience at my new company?

We have these dry erase white walls all over the floor at my present company. The idea of posing a question that generated discussion seemed like a good idea to me. But which question to ask?

I was listening to a podcast with Mark Graban and the topic of culture came up. This interested me because our company has been conducting surveys about our culture and how we can improve it. Mark said one question he would pose regarding culture was “What is wrong with your culture that you wish to change it?”

I figured this would by my question, so I went into our break room and on the wall wrote:

Question

I was curious to see what would happen. Would it generate discussion? Would people write answers? Would it just sit there for a few weeks with no engagement? Would people demand to know why I posed such a question and become angry?

When I came back the next day to see if it had gotten any activity, I found the question had been erased.

I asked one of my co-workers, who knew I wrote it, why she thought it had been erased. It turned out she had erased it. Here was her reasoning:

She said the question was being viewed as negative. People wanted to know why someone on contract and not a full time employee had the right to ask a question such as this. It seemed to be an attack on the company. She also said people wanted to know why someone would pose such a question in the first place. What was its purpose? She said her concern was that the wrong people would see it and I would be fired for it. She said she let my supervisor know about it just in case there was backlash. To protect me, she erased it. She said the survey that was about to go out regarding culture would generate a discussion among leaders who would figure out how to make a positive change. She also said I should go through proper channels if I had concerns such as using the suggestion box (I pointed out to her that its never used), having the Best Places to Work Committee address the issue (she believed the question may have stepped on the committee’s toes) or go up the chain of command–not write a question on a wall.

I’ll make no bones about it. Her words hurt and I was also embarrassed. I thought she was probably being overly cautious, but she had some points I could think about. A lot of what she was saying boiled down to perception. The question is– was her perception indicative of what everyone thinks? Or was it just her? This person was obviously afraid of the ramifications for posing the question. Is she the exception or the rule?

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised by the backlash. Mark said his question often upset people, so why should this have been any different?

After some thought and bouncing it off others, I believe the question’s phrasing may have been what got it into trouble. I used the word ‘wrong’ which is negative. If I had instead phrased the second part of the sentence, “what is it about our culture that you feel needs to be changed?” perhaps it wouldn’t have hit nerves.

The story doesn’t end here. Our new leaders held a Town Hall meeting and were inviting questions. I thought about posing this same question. However, our department director told me explicitly (in front of the whole floor) not to ask any provocative questions. I was angry, but perhaps this is indicative of the perception people have of me—am I being perceived as a rabble rouser? I would guess that the IT director does not want me to embarrass him or the department in front of our leadership. In other words—he doesn’t trust me. Not a good situation to be in (or, admittedly, he may just not trust leadership).

So, lesson learned– I just found a boundary of comfort for this organization. I definitely shouldn’t have been unilateral about it. Change is not something I can do flying solo. I have to be careful of people’s perception of me and what I do. I’m also going to have to get more people’s trust. I need to better understand how I can do this.

My next step— find a better forum to ask questions: one-on-one, in social situations, during meetings. Get feedback on how people perceive me. Continue to look for things that are working and things that are not. My goal is to get people to have a dialogue about what can be improved so we can come together and make a positive change. Perhaps I should have started with this goal in mind before I posed the question.

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It Starts With Us

I don’t practice what I preach. This became a hard reality for me recently. I was reading Mark Graban’s book and he talks about how easy it is to find fault in others and not see what we may be doing wrong.

morpheus-red-blue-pill

WARNING: Studying Deming will haunt you for the rest of your life!

Deming talks about the transformation of the individual. Its really true. I equate it to taking the red pill. Afterwards, I was often angry with others—why didn’t they get it?? It was too easy to climb up on my soap box and start preaching. It wasn’t really getting me anywhere, though. This added to my own frustration. But wait, didn’t Deming talk about the need for understanding Psychology? Wouldn’t I need to understand it in order to change people’s minds? If so, why wasn’t I doing that? Worse, was getting angry and telling people what they should believe increasing their own knowledge and adding to their joy? I wasn’t practicing what I preached!

And what about my own life? I’m out of shape. I don’t eat the greatest. Was I chasing short term pay offs instead of focusing on the long term like I had been preaching? And then there’s my own family. Was I improving their life? Was I teaching my children the importance of collaboration and helping them find pride in their work and showing them how to continuously improve?

I read a book some time ago about how we influence others and I remember taking away from it that my strongest ability to influence was by modeling. People are watching me. Whether its my Kanban board at work or just watching how I interact and treat others. When one chooses to take the red pill, you’ve entered a new world and have a huge responsibility to help others.

Some things I could be doing better:

  1. How’s my constancy of purpose? Do I even have one? Once I identify it, do I even have the willpower to pursue it and achieve it?
  2. I need more energy and focus. In order to do this, I need to eat more healthy and exercise. In order to do it, I’ll need discipline. I need to go out and get some.
  3. If I want to help others improve, I need to learn how to influence them. I need to be studying psychology more.
  4. I need to be reducing variation in my own life. I can do this by building quality in. For example—just maintaining what I already have (oil changes, taking care of my clothes, keeping my house tidy and clean, finding ways to simplify).
  5. Identify when I’m being short-term minded. I’m stunned at how easy it is to fall into this trap.
  6. I need to be conducting my own experiments and PDSA. Currently I’m experimenting with meditation to boost my will power.
  7. Be more humble. I don’t have it all figured out and I never will. There are others out there who have knowledge.
Untitled

So easy to get into this mindset. I need to check it at the door.

Implementing Change Using Kanban- Part IX

Team Kanban

Ultimately, Kanban is about people. Its not about me and my cool board. These are the good folks who helped me with the project and used the board. THANK YOU!

This is the last install for the Kanban board. The project has ended. Lessons learned have been gathered. A new project has begun with its own board.

Recent Comments

  • “Have you seen his board? You have GOT to see his board.” ~ One of our PMs to our visiting PMO managers.
  • “I love coming over here. It inspires me.”~ One of our PMs referring to our board.
  • “You must fear the cleaning crew.”~ One of our PMO managers after seeing the board.
  • “This is one of the most innovative things we are doing here.”~ One of our employees showing the board to visiting students.
  • “I was skeptical about using the board and the post-it notes, but it worked out pretty well.” ~ One of our team members during Lessons Learned.

Observations

  • I’ve gotten better at explaining the board to people. My go to explanations:
    • “It allows me to sleep at night.”
    • “It leverages the concept that the project is a system and this is a visual representation of it.”
    • “It allows me to easily identify bottlenecks and recognize areas of concern.”
    • “It leverages psychology in that human beings are visual creatures and we process visuals or patterns quicker than text.”
  • I suspect people know I’m busy because they can see the board. Another project manager made this same observation recently. People don’t have to ask if I’m busy. They can SEE I’m busy.
  • Board discipline can be difficult—especially when you are getting overwhelmed with so many demands. I have to be careful not to let it get behind.
  • We had a situation where the board and a spreadsheet were not in line. While neither were exactly correct, the board was more accurate. In some ways, this didn’t surprise me, I’ve noticed the board is often more accurate than any spreadsheet. I’ve often said, “the board knows all.”
  • Our process can be extremely complex. I would need an entire room to create “In Progress” and “Done” columns. I’ve had to consolidate some of these.
  • The board seems to have become a part of the IT department. It doesn’t get the skepticism it once did. People have come to accept it for what it is and understand that it works. Its not a fad.
  • All in all, I would guess 10% of the people think the board is cool, 10% don’t like it, and the remainder are somewhere in between.

Lessons Learned

  • Sometimes your work can take a different path than the one you have created on the board. This can be frustrating. This is usually due to variation and complexity built into the overall system. You have to learn to roll with these, get creative, and adjust.
  • ALWAYS include the team. When I finished the project, I took a picture of just me with the board. Wrong move. Maybe I worked on it the most. Maybe I championed it the most. Maybe most people didn’t quite get it. But we all used it. I took a picture of all involved later and posted it on our company Yammer page. I was told they appreciated it. I should have had them help me take down the post-its and the board. Opportunity lost.
  • You never know how your work can influence others. The team that assisted me is now using their own visual management board. I was more than happy to help them come up with something. I must keep doing this.
  • Share the wall. I want the team next to me to enjoy the “easier-to-sleep-at-night” feeling when using a visual management tool. That means I will gladly surrender some of the wall (they get half!). I’ve started using OneNote to track things where I don’t have enough wall space. I just put on the wall what management wants to see.
BAU Wall

The team that helped me has started their own visual management system. I love this picture. To see Patty taking so much joy in her work and knowing it helps her better understand her workload might be the project’s biggest accomplishment. I’ll ALWAYS be there for you guys!

Experiments

One experiment is posting on the company’s Yammer page. I’ve been inviting people to share in the experience of using Lean and Kanban concepts. I’m going to sneak Deming in there as well. I have one follower so far. Heh.

WIP Limits

Toward the end of the project I was getting more into experimenting with WIP limits.

My biggest experiment was limiting WIP. It got to the point late in the project where I was pretty much the only one working on the project, so I didn’t have to struggle convincing people to limit their WIP. I just did it. I also realized there was much I didn’t realize about why it was important limiting WIP. Things I learned:

  • Dependencies is a huge problem. In one instance, I have a WIP limit of two. Its full. However, I’m waiting on a dependency before I can move both of them forward. This is very common.
  • Because I am waiting, my instinct is to take on more. But what happens is I soon have so much in progress I can’t remember what all I was working on and the problems of context switching sets in. It takes discipline to limit WIP. Fortunately I didn’t have any outside pressure to increase it otherwise I would have.
  • When I find myself waiting, I go work on something else—for instance—that 30 minute side project someone asked me to complete two weeks ago—I can go work on that now.
  • WIP can mysteriously increase. For instance, I had a team member tell me something they were working on needed my help. Suddenly, my WIP increased by one. About an hour later, something we thought was fixed wasn’t fixed at all. It came back. My WIP increased again. This is a challenge and I’m still figuring out how to handle this.
  • I’ve been increasing and decreasing WIP limits. Because of the external dependencies, you have to try to find a balance. Because of variation, these can shrink and expand regularly. I don’t think one should ever set their WIP limits in stone (unless their system has little variation).
  • I now understand the importance of limiting WIP. Its really quite simple and what I was told in the first place—it reduces context switching. If you reduce context switching, you get more speed. This is a hard concept for folks to grasp. Even me.
  • The tendency to start something else without finishing another is very strong. Especially when you have a line of people wanting something from you now. The problem is, you are actually making them wait longer by starting them early. It might make them feel better that you have started them, but ultimately, you will frustrate them because they have to wait a long time and they will begin to wonder, “WHY DOES IT TAKE SO LONG?” Best tell them to wait. They will be better off for it. This takes tremendous courage and discipline.
The Last Pic

The board just before I took it down. Post its to the right! All done! Pinks are external dependencies. Those still in progress go to the next project.

Links to the rest of this series:
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII
Part VIII

Implementing Change Using Kanban- Part VIII

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Our new board! Actually its a wall!!

The board has moved. While it took longer than I thought it would, it still wasn’t too bad. A lot of people in the company were curious as to how I was going to do it. Some were openly skeptical.

This is what I did.

First I had to make sure the board would fit. I measured the length of the current board against how much wall space I would have at the new location. The old boards are actually longer (cumulatively), but the new wall has more height, so I was able to condense. Also, some of the old columns could be condensed. One was even removed. This gave me enough space.

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I measured the columns or rows with post it notes. (example, one column is 5 post its tall and 8  wide). I adjusted the sizes based upon what I thought would be needed for the new wall. I wrote these on the board to help me remember.

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I clipped the post its together with paperclips or binder clips depending on how many post its were in a column and put them in a bag with the name of the column and a number for the sequence of appearance working right to left. In hindsight, I didn’t need so many plastic bags. I could have made due with just a few gallon bags. A post it note on top of the individual piles indicated where they went.

I also took a few pictures of the old boards to help me remember where things were. This helped putting the board back up.

Total time for takedown- 45 minutes.

Starting right to left, I started drawing out the board. I used the post its to determine column width and row height.

I put up the post its. It was important to have poster putty handy. A lot of the post its have lost their sticky, particularly the older ones. This is actually the part that took the longest when putting them up—adding the poster putty.

Total time for putting up- 2 hours.

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All Done. With the height provided by the wall, I could divide the board up into sections (at the top–“TTU”, “Disconnect”, etc.). Charts showing progress are to the right. A quote from one of our satisfied sites is in the top right corner.

Comments once it was up:

“Its like a giant rainbow! . . . but its SO much!”

“I like how you are organized.”

“Dan, people are noticing all the post its on the left side of the board are disappearing.”

“Did Kris (our director) REALLY say you could have the whole wall?” Yes, he did.

One of the remote team members saw a picture of the new space. “What are all those notes doing on the far wall?”

“We’re putting you on another project, but you don’t get any more wall space.” (said in jest, but at the same time I think they were serious also).

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This is the view of the IT production department right outside the director’s office.

Observations once it was up

The board got a lot of stares. I used to be tucked away in a corner, but now the whole IT department is on one floor now and in a big open space. Some had never seen it before, others had seen it, but now it was in their face in a big way (see above). I was glad the board was getting the attention it needs, but at the same time, it also became a target. A couple of people thought I was taking up too much room and taking up white board space (the whole wall is a white board). One manager asked me if I could shrink it so her people would have room to write. I asked her team if they wanted more room, but they said no and thought the board was fine.

I saw people clustering together and looking at the board. I knew they were talking about it. Negative? Positive? I don’t know. I admit for a day or two I was a little paranoid that someone was going to make me remove it or condense it.

The team using the board is now in the same area. Its easier to get to and they can clearly see what needs to be done. There is more interaction with the board.

Challenges

I felt bad that it was taking up so much space. I felt like I was being selfish. What would people think? Why should I get a whole wall just for me?

Leadership still does not come to the board. I wish they would. We always have good conversations when they do.

Links to the rest of this series:
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII
Part VIII

Implementing Change Using Kanban- Part VII

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The latest version of our board. Tip-use dry erase markers. Our board changes regularly as we evolve our processes or try to accommodate management demand.

Here is the latest observations, challenges, lessons learned, triumphs, etc. of the Kanban board experiment in my current project.

Recent Comments

“I love the post-it notes.” ~A visitor for one of the other teams.

“It’s so pretty!” An interviewee for another team.

“Hey, whatever works.” ~ Our newest project manager (this is a common comment and bothers me for some reason).

“Its actually pretty ingenious.” ~ Our IT director to our visiting global PMO (who were visibly skeptical of the board). This is the first positive comment to come from him about the boards. I love it!

“And here we are investing in tools.” Global PMO member.

“Are we trying to save money?” Global PMO member.

“I have to tell our leadership that the greatest risk to the project is wind.” ~ Our IT director referring to the post-it notes.

Observations

  • Bottlenecks become more apparent when the time frame is shortened and the work load increases. Ex. I’m the main one updating the board. If others could do it when they complete their work, that would mean I wouldn’t have to do it all the time. At the same time, if I don’t do it, we lose insight into what is happening on the project.
  • The boards take up a lot of space (and is actually growing). What if every project used a board like this? Would we have any wall space left? Would we be fighting for wall space?
  • As numbers/WIP increased and the pressure to hurry up and finish increased, it became more apparent how much time it takes creating post-it notes. The short-term thinking side of me wanted to stop doing it and just get on with the work, but I reminded myself how the initial time spent creating them paid off in the long term. I was surprised at what feels like my ‘instinct’ telling me not to use the board.
  • A pretty big negative for the board is stats gathering. It takes me up to 2 hours gathering the info from the post-it notes and putting it in a spreadsheet for reporting.

Lessons Learned

  • My supervisor didn’t like our process for shipping and scheduling equipment. He wanted us to change it because he thought it was creating bottlenecks. Our team didn’t like the idea. We thought it complicated matters and created a risk. In the end, everyone decided to try an experiment based on what he wanted. The board was updated and after a few hiccups and adjustments, the new way worked just fine. Lesson Learned—Don’t be too resistant to an outsider’s suggestion for changing your process. They might be on to something and you can always try an experiment to see if it works. If not—just go back to the old way. We are fortunate my supervisor simply did not force us to change our process and allowed the experiment.

Triumphs

  • For a couple of weeks, it appeared I wasn’t going to be able to bring the board to the new location. I had a team member come up and talk about possibilities of where we could put it. And here I was thinking no one cared. That really meant a lot. In the end, it boiled down to the IT director, who is determined to make the project a success. I told him the board was critical to the project’s success. He agreed there would be a spot for it in the new building.

Experiments

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The boards’ first attempts at limiting WIP.

  • I’m attempting to limit WIP (without the team members realizing it). It seems to be working. I’m sure if management knew I was doing it, though, they would get mad.
  • I put up a brief synopsis of what Kanban is near the board. My supervisor read it and it sparked some good conversation. I’m hoping others will read it as well. Perhaps I can alter it so its more readable.
  • I think I need to stop giving logical explanations for using the board. I’m trying to ‘testify’ instead. The idea is to appeal to a person’s heart, not their head. I’m trying to remember to say things like:
    • “Its the best tool I’ve ever used.”
    • “It didn’t make much sense to me when I first saw one.”
    • “It saves my bacon on a daily basis.”
    • “It allows me to sleep at night.” (my favorite)

Challenges

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Post-it notes on top of post-it notes–sign of too much WIP!

  • Because there is so much WIP, we have tons of issues identified on the board (highlighted with blue post-its). There are so many, its now become noise and I need ANOTHER post-it (white) to identify higher priority items we need to discuss as a team. Having no WIP limits suck!
  • Limiting WIP is such a foreign/difficult concept here (though the seeds may have at least been planted). I tried to explain why limiting one of my team mate’s WIP would help her but I was told, “No—just send them all to me.”
  • Global PMO visited our office and saw my board. I was happy to see our IT director talk it up (see his comment above). I gave a brief explanation of how the board worked. There seemed to be some skepticism (their comments are above). Its kind of odd to me that a PMO group doesn’t recognize a Kanban board.

Opportunities

  • Another project manager asked me about the board. He said he’s struggling with the organization of his project and needs something. I let him borrow my Kanban book and Stop Starting, Start Finishing. He quickly discovered Kanban was being used elsewhere (one of his team members said they used one at Hyundai). I’ve seen him walking around with the Kanban book and he said he wants to sit down and talk with me about it. One of his teammates has been wanting to try Kanban for some time. He even took my class. This gives us a champion on the inside.

Wishes

  • I really wished our partner could see and use the board. I think it would help them tremendously (which would help us). They seem to be so overwhelmed. I know they are in spreadsheet hell. I’ve been thinking about looking into Lean Kit (though I am skeptical of electronic Kanban boards over physical ones).  It may be too late to use it for this project, but perhaps we could use it on the next one???

Links to the rest of this series:
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII

Implementing Change Using Kanban- Part VI

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Our board. Note the graphs to the left indicating trends. I’ll post about those soon.

Here are some recent goings-ons with the Kanban board.

I’ve told this to others in my organization and I’ll continue to say it, this board is central to the project’s organization and understanding. It saves my bacon daily–simply because I know what the heck is going on. I highly recommend one.

Just to remind my readers—my organization does not embrace Kanban, Agile, or any type of improvement methodology or philosophy. This series documents the challenges, failures, and triumphs of trying something different.

  • There are many who still just don’t get it. I still get teased:
    • “Watch out! Don’t knock off any post-it notes!” as a group of people walk by.
    • “What if someone just comes along and . . .”  Person moves post-it note to elsewhere on the board (actually, I can figure out where its supposed to go just by looking at it).
    • “What if there is a fire?” often said with a smirk. (“Everyone grab a post-it note!”
    • Of these comments, I know some of its just good ribbing and some its genuine disbelief. Regardless, this is something I’ve learned just comes with the territory. For the most part, I feel people have come to respect what I do even if they don’t quite get it.
  • The series was featured on the Deming Institute! One of my team members, who had lived in Japan, immediately understood the significance of this. “Everyone has GOT to know about this!” he said. This is about as far as the excitement went, though. I told my supervisor, and he seemed to think it was cool, but didn’t say much about it. When I told our PMO lead, he asked, “Whose Deming?” After I explained, another colleague laughed and said, “It sounds like a cult.” This sucked some of the wind out of my sails.
  • Team members are starting to interact with the board after some encouragement. I’ll be at my desk and here the pop and soft rattle of a post-it note moving on the board from behind me. Its a good sound—the board removes me as a bottle neck. The board is showing the team what needs to be worked on without me telling them!
  • One of our team members, a former navy man, compared the board to boards they use in the navy to monitor ships that are all over the world. He said he likes the board.
  • I’ve said this before and will say it again—it would be better if all those who use the board were right next to it. Those who are at my location work in another room. They have to get up, walk out of their room, down a hall, and in to my area to see what is going on. Up to a hundred feet. I can understand why they might think the board is a pain. I also think this causes the board not to always get updated like it should.
  • Related– it would be better if all our remote partners could see it. I believe one of our partners suffer from cumbersome internal processes and systems and I think our board could give them some clarity. There are things I regularly see that I have to keep bringing to their attention, but if they could see it themselves, they wouldn’t need me to point it out. Ideally, the board would be electronic so all remote team members can see it, but also retain its current size so those in its presence can read it and discuss it.
  • We’ve had new people come on board to help me with the project. I asked them to use the board. There was some resistance to it, including from their manager, at first. This company is used to working in spreadsheets (which I’m seeing more and more of the problems of). One member openly said, “I’m not going to use this.” I think she was intimidated by it, but once I told her why it was important to the project and I showed how it worked and told her not to worry about all the nuances, she chilled.
  • One of the new team members seems to really like the idea. I think he may become a champion of convincing others of the board’s merits. I think a board like this would help them with their own work. I’m wondering if he is starting to see this.
  • The new people have been taking the post-it notes back to their desks. I allowed this because they needed the information on the notes to complete their work. The negative– sometimes I’m looking for a site and can’t find it. I’ve started wondering if this was a good idea. I’m worried the post its will get lost. This again drives home the point that it would be better if we were all in the same location.
  • While everyone knows I’m very aware of what is going on with the project, they are not happy with the results they are seeing (the project has been behind schedule since the first week). This make me concerned that people will conclude that a board like this does not help get a better result. My argument—what type of predicament would we be in without it?
  • Its official. We are moving to a new location and there seems to be some disagreement on if there is room for the board. My supervisor and teammate think so, but others have told me there won’t be any room. I wonder sometimes if I am going to be made to conform. I wonder if anyone has any idea how important this board is to understanding a very complex project and how its central to the project’s organization. Of course, if it can be accommodated–all who currently use the board will be in the same location and that would be very, very good. We’ll see what happens!
  • Someone told me that one of the manager’s admired the fact that I did what I believed to be right despite strong pressure not to. He said we needed more people to do that. I believe they were referring to the board.
  • As I study Lean, I’ve come to the conclusion that the board actually duplicates effort which is wasteful. I have to write information from an e-mail or spreadsheet onto the post-it note. This is the downside. The upside, it puts the information in a form where I am able to synthesize it. I am unable to do this when its in its original form. I wonder if there is a way to get both worlds?
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See the column on the far right? That’s how many we have actually completed! Conclusion- we have plenty of starting and not enough finishing. See those blue notes? Those are things we have to revisit. That’s a lot of rework and only adds to the WIP. I’m not certain how to convince others that this is an issue.

  • This company does not believe in (or understand the importance of) limiting work limits and finishing before you start something else. As a result, the board is getting cluttered with tons of post-its and its getting harder to find specific posts its. There has also been times where I have duplicated a note.
  • During my last post on this series, I wished our partner would start sending over smaller batches at more frequent intervals so we could create flow. I was able to convince them to do that. However, we are still not getting the results we want from them. Because I don’t have a clear insight into our partner’s processes, I’m unable to understand where the bottlenecks are and where to help fix them. Management is getting frustrated. We asked the partner to double their batch size, but because still don’t see good results, leadership has insisted they do them all at once. So much for the concept of flow. . .
  • Because management has asked for everything to be released at once, I predict our board is going to get very crowded and our WIP is going to explode. I wonder sometimes if the board will be any of any use at that point. I might be spending all my time just updating it and that’s not going to help us get any work done. That could just be the fear talking, though. Who knows?

What I wish for

  • I wish management would visit our area more often to understand what is going on and help us solve our issues. The board (and all the charts I display) is just as much for them as it is for our people. They don’t come by, though, and we usually only talk during reporting meetings (which often results in their frustration). Without management being able to ‘see’ what is happening they have to revert to my interpretations. They aren’t getting the results, though, and as discussed, they are very much getting more and more frustrated.
  • I wish there was some way (technologically) for everyone involved in the project to see this board without us losing its size and “physicallness” it currently has. Even if I were to create this board in OneNote (which would be a large undertaking) so everyone could see it, I’m not certain everyone would use it and I would lose the benefits its currently giving the project. This is a risk I’m not willing to take.
  • I wished people at my company would read my blog. Maybe I’ll get ballsy and send my blog to our IT director. Hmmm . . .

Links to the rest of this series:
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI

Making Promises We Can’t Keep

promisesAt my last company, our team was  behind in our work (we had been since I first arrived there). What was left was overwhelming and would require an enormous effort, sacrifice, and possibly working ourselves to the point of exhaustion to get it completed (people were already getting sick or leaving the team).

I told one of the managers we needed to reduce our scope. The reply was the scope had always been what it was and would not change. When I protested, I was told quite flatly– “We promised our customer this and we honor our commitments here.”

This stung. It made me feel like if we didn’t follow through, we would be dishonored by breaking a promise and lose the trust of our customer.

But wait one damn moment.

“Hold on,” I said. “I didn’t promise this and neither did the team, our executives did. Our team was not consulted on if they would be able to do deliver all of this in the time allocated.”

I was told if I didn’t like it I could talk to the execs about it.

For the rest of my time at the company, I’d hear off and on about execs making promises or commitments to our customer and then hear about those expected to deliver being unable to make good on the promise. The execs couldn’t understand why we were always behind or why the quality was poor. “We’re going to lose our contract!” they would say.

So they came down on us. We were told to work harder and were often made to feel like pussies if we couldn’t keep up. I remember one exec prowling the room, looking intimidating, and criticizing us for having the audacity to laugh during a critical time. Fingers were quick to point. Overtime became common (though we remained behind). Burnout, frustration, and people quitting often followed.

One project manager told me this was just our lot in life. The execs promise and we have to figure out how to produce. Really? Does this really have to be the way it works?

This happens not just with our own companies but also our partners and suppliers. I recently had our director tell me that because one of our suppliers is unable to keep up with our demand like they had promised, we would go with a different supplier. I asked how we would know if this new supplier would keep up with the demand? He said they would if we gave them the proper incentive. I replied, didn’t we offer the same incentive to the current supplier? How do we know we won’t just get the same result or perhaps something worse?

 

patton

American mythos on accepting a challenge. Is something wrong with you if you don’t accept? Many would say yes. Are they right? Is this mentality one reason we continue to fail and destroy trust?

So why are we making promises we can’t keep? I can think of a variety of reasons. Some will make all kinds of promises if offered enough money or incentives (is this a form of prostitution?). Also, its part of our mythos–Americans simply don’t back down from a challenge. We just roll up our sleeves and get to work no matter how big the obstacle. Perhaps the decision makers are just ignorant or overconfident in what their organization is possible of producing. Its also possible the folks making the promise have the skill, knowledge, and wherewithal to do it themselves, but forget they are surrounded by mere mortals or forget they haven’t given their people the resources or skills or knowledge to complete the task. Much of it could be fear related–we don’t want to look like pussies in front of our superiors or peers or we are afraid of losing business or losing our jobs by saying no. Perhaps its a combination of all or any of the above. Regardless, this greed, arrogance, bravado, ignorance, fear, and lack of candor is destroying our trust with both our employees and our customers. Something must be done.

But what?

Two things–data and character.

We must be keenly aware of our capabilities. What does the data say? Have we done something like this before? How did we do? What does our current quality look like? What are our lead times? What rate of quantity can we produce? What is our defect total? Is it reducing? Are we making every effort to reduce variation? Are we committed to improvement and do we make good on that promise? What does the team who will be performing the work think? Have they been given the opportunity to speak candidly on their ability to produce? We have to ask this of ourselves but also of our partners and suppliers as well.

 

just-say-no

Be like Nancy!

Once we know this, we can better evaluate our customer’s needs and rely on our character to give a solid yes or no. Only the wise and honest will know when to say yes. It will also require courage when its time to say no.

If we currently don’t have any influence at the management level for these types of decisions, we can at least practice our own ability to say no within our sphere of influence. If you haven’t the capability to make good on a promise, have the courage to say, “NO.” Perhaps you will start a new trend in your organization and begin a much needed revolution.

Following in the Footsteps of Assholes

I’ve been wondering lately if one of our biggest hurdles for improvement are the heroes of American industry. When people become successful, we want to know how they did it, and then we copy.

Here are four men I think most of the world admires and a summary of their management style.

13678_bill_gates_surprised-pngBill Gates— Founder of Microsoft. Wealthiest man in the world. Enough said. Well known for his dictatorial style. The articles I’ve read about him describe him as sarcastic, aggressive, and having a fixation on winning no matter what. He was known to bring his staff to tears. Many would say this is what made Microsoft. Do the ends justify the means and should we emulate his management style to become successful ourselves?

thp83ralslSteve Jobs –No one can deny his vision. He had an uncanny ability to predict the future. At the same time, he was described as arrogant, controlling, and mean-spirited. People who didn’t impress him were called “bozos.” Mark Graban, who I greatly admire, also questioned Steve Job’s leadership style. I work with a lot of tech heads and to them, Jobs is like a god. Should we emulate him?

muskElon Musk– It seems this guy is always in the headlines. He possesses tremendous self confidence and is absolutely unrelenting in pursuit of his vision. One employee said she would follow “him into the gates of hell carrying suntan oil.” At the same time, Musk is infamous for breaking an employee. One of his staff said Musk is “best compared to a master who berates and smacks his dog for not being able to read his mind.” The articles I read suggest he bleeds some really good employees who just can’t keep up with him. Of course, there are some who say this is what makes working with Musk so great. They say he brings out the best in them. Is Musk doing something right and should we look to him as a model?

jeff-bezosJeff Benzos– He’s know for his straight talk: “Are you lazy or just incompetent?” We hear of his infamous e-mails with the subject line “?” and how it elicits waves of panic and instant action. It seems instilling fear gets him the results he wants. At the same time, Benzos is on another level in the intelligence department. A former vice president, said that Bezos’ criticisms tend to be right – even when he has no real knowledge of the field. Should all our leaders be like Benzos?

When you look at it collectively, there seems a strong argument that these management styles are the way to go in order to achieve success. The proof is in the pudding, right?

I’ve worked with some brilliant, super-driven people (though perhaps not at the level of the above four). Management put the company in, what they believed, was their capable hands.

Is this the recipe for success?

Here are my observations from working with these managers:

  • No one could keep up with them. They could outsmart and outwork anyone under the table.
  • They always believed they were right. Always.
  • These managers were resentful that everyone wasn’t as smart or as committed as they were and as a result were abrasive to work with. They were often insulting or degrading and had little tolerance for people who couldn’t do the same thing they could.
  • Their personalities created high turn over. People got physically sick and were often demoralized. People quit or asked to be put on another team. This only annoyed these managers even more. Why couldn’t they get good people or why couldn’t people just “get over themselves and just work?” They just couldn’t deal with people and their weaknesses.
  • The product? It suffered. The customer? They suffered. We were always behind schedule and quality was poor. The managers blamed the team members. Some people on the team just stopped caring—i.e. ‘Just tell me what you want and give me my paycheck.’
  • There was so much turnover that new people had to constantly be trained. It put more pressure on these brilliant people to produce and as a result they became more combative and resentful. They were often in charge of training and were irritated when people couldn’t remember everything they had taught them (the method was insert funnel/pour in knowledge approach)
  • I tried to reason with them, trying to get them to understand that they were dealing with mere “mortals.” They didn’t care. To them, the people just had to get better. They didn’t seem to have a strategy on how to accomplish this, though.
  • The Darwinism of the project seemed to be fine with them. If people left—good, they didn’t need to be there anyway. At the same time they were irritated they couldn’t get good people.
BUD/S Hellweek Surf Drills

Should we have a much more rigid selection process in recruiting our employees? The special forces do it.

Before I left one of these teams, I spoke with one of these managers about the regular turnover (I was about to leave as well). She blamed it on the hiring processes. “This is a tough product and you have to get people who can deal with it.” I suggested the people they hired needed to have the tough-mindness of a special forces operator. She agreed with me. Perhaps we were on to something. A rigid selection process such as what they use in the special forces ensures only a certain type of person becomes one. Perhaps we should copy? At the same time, though, these projects in themselves weren’t really that difficult. It had become difficult based upon the decisions in leadership. Besides, it seems everyone thinks their company or project is special and requires special people. Not every company in the world can expect to get special-forces quality people.

Jobs or a Gates or a Musk or a Benzos probably represent .001% of our population. The majority of us are simply unable to do what they can. I know many would fault me for saying this, after all we live in a country where we are all taught and expected to be exceptional. Here’s the fact– most people are just average. I know we all think of ourselves and the people we hire as above average, but if everyone is above average, then no one is.

All this reminds me of how Deming pointed out how managers seem to be able to manage just about anything except people. I think this definitely applies here. We simply must learn to better manage and lead ordinary, fallible, and imperfect people and get the best out of them. What if these brilliant men were able to do that? How much more successful would they be? Many would argue they ARE getting the best out of these ordinary people. And they are doing it with their type of style of leadership. After all, the proof is in the pudding.

Are they right?

My Journey to Understanding Variation- Part II

processUnderstanding variation has not been easy for me. I think many have the same issues and its why one doesn’t see many people talking about it. During my last post, I talked about my first reactions to it, but committing myself to it because Dr. Deming said it was important.

I knew I needed to learn it, but boy, I was nervous about it. All those math equations were hurting my head just thinking about it. But I wanted to figure it out.

At this time, I was having a really rough go at work. We were all struggling: exhaustion, inability to innovate, frustration, low or poor quality, slow delivery times. No one seemed to know what to do about it. There was resistance to the Agile movement. Some thought it should be done away with.

My supervisor implored us to be change agents and recommended we find hard data to help management understand what was going on and to help them understand how we can change. Learning variation seemed like a good place to start.

I found an article about Deming and Six Sigma (I highly recommend the read). The book Understanding Variation by Donald Wheeler was suggested for someone trying to learn variation.

It was a pretty easy read and I thought I had a pretty good grasp on variation after I completed it. When I finished, the time had come to start plotting some points on a control chart. But what to measure?

This was one of the most puzzling parts for me in the beginning. Measure what exactly? A team member who had six sigma experience said it would be difficult to measure anything at the company. Others told me it was possible, but even they said they weren’t exactly sure what to do (they were pretty new to Six Sigma and still learning as well).

We were using Scrum as our methodology (well, a . . . um . . . version of it anyway). I never saw hard numbers coming out of it, though. The only thing I saw was velocity. Perhaps this was the best candidate. I often bemoaned how erratic our velocity was and that it wasn’t even close to consistent. I thought perhaps a control chart would help show how unstable it really was and help us understand what to do next.

I found a free template on line for Excel and got my numbers ready.

This was our velocity for six sprints:

Sprint 1: 52
Sprint 2: 35
Sprint 3: 72
Sprint 4: 65
Sprint 5: 60
Sprint 6: 39

This is what it looked like after plotting:

behavior-chart

This graph indicates a system in statistical control with a variation between about 5 and 100. In more simple terms, it meant our team could predictably produce a velocity between 5 and 100 points and be considered stable.

To say the least, I was not happy.

“You mean its ok for our velocity to be between 5 and 100???? That’s not acceptable!! How is this supposed to help us improve? This shows me nothing!”

I quickly closed the control chart, wondering if I was wasting my time and Deming didn’t know what he was talking about. After I calmed down a little, I started thinking that velocity didn’t work with control charts or perhaps we were just doing velocity wrong. In hindsight, perhaps I should have spoken to one of our employees who had a six sigma belt and she could have explained it.

Overall, I was a little disillusioned and disappointed.

But something told me I just wasn’t understanding this just yet and I needed to be patient.

It turns out, Deming fully expected the situation like mine. He said “the transformation” was discontinuous. The individual will learn a little here, learn a little there, and start making connections. In other words, it doesn’t happen all at once. I didn’t know he said this at the time, though, and if I didn’t have faith in Deming, I probably would have abandoned the idea right there.

I can certainly understand why some would decide not to continue with understanding variation. Our western minds are geared for results NOW and we don’t want to wait around for something to make sense. Time is too short and precious for us. We’d rather move on and looking for lower hanging fruit. Deming warned of this type of short-term thinking.

The next post in this series—the light bulbs start coming on.

Implementing Change Using Kanban- Part V

The previous post in this series is here.

Here’s some of the latest events with our experiment with the Kanban board. I think what amazes me the most is how it continues to evolve–in how it looks, how we use it, and how we are starting to view our work.

  • I added another board to the left of the original. I call this board “Provisioning.” This represents all the sites that are in progress with our partner. There are no process columns. Its because I don’t have a clear understanding of their process. However, I know what sites they have, and I started writing a post-it note for each. It became time consuming to write each and once its on the board, I have a hard time finding it again because there are so many. I decided I would just make the post-it when the partner sent the site. If something needed to be addressed before it was sent over, I would create the post-it and label it with the block or action item. I must say, though, having so many post-its on the board gives us a better visual of how many sites are coming over and the enormity of the work involved.

    img_10931

    This is a new board–it represents the work we are waiting for from our partner. In hindsight, I’m not so sure we really needed it. We just need to know how many the partner has and if there are any areas that need our attention (i.e. items that are blocked or needs some sort of action).

  • I also added another wall for our clean up. I didn’t create a white wall for this one. I just use pins and the post its and move them over column by column (there are only three). This represents disconnecting the old circuits portion of the project. Once these are completed, the site is considered done. What disturbs me, and I have been pointing this out to our team, is that there are only about 6 sites absolutely done. Why aren’t we finishing? I believe the problem is because of the emphasis on getting the sites to the TTU portion of the project. Once that is done, the interest in the site begins to wane. Management wants us to put our effort into completing more TTUs. As a result, the sites are stacking and not finishing the whole process. I believe the board is highlighting this problem and management is beginning to see the issue. They are giving us another resource to help us finish these up.
  • I believe the importance of working upstream vs. downstream has dawned on us. (is this pull vs. push?) When we work, we read the boards from right to left. I believe this is helping us understand the concept of finishing what we have started. I believe this is a big jump for us. I have spoken to my manager about this concept and he agrees that it is the smartest way to work. That is a relief.
  • Bottlenecks are much more apparent. I really hate seeing them. For one, I quickly run out of space in my columns. See below.

    img_10981

    See the two long columns of green and yellow? This is a result of working in large batches. The greens will sit there for several days before work begins on them. If I get any more that need to go into this column, the post its are going to get piled on top of each other (which has actually already started). These areas are called “queues.” These items are waiting for us to have time to work on them

  • Bottlenecks are exacerbated because we are working in large batches. Our partner is working in batches of 25. We get nothing then all of the sudden we get a whole lot. One of my team mates is following a similar pattern. He started setting one time a day in the week to work on all the sites that have been sent to him. I understand why he is doing it. He has conflicting priorities, and if he can schedule a couple of hours where he isn’t disturbed he can get it done. The problem is the sites are sitting there anywhere from a day up to a week and it increases lag time. We’ve been talking about batches lately and the trouble of working with large ones. I even showed my manager the concept of single-piece flow. At first he was skeptical, but I think he began to see its merits.

    img_10971

    Notice how items are piling up in columns–the result of working in large batches. These items come in all at once and then wait. There is also an emphasis on a certain point on the board to be completed. As a result the items to the right of that point are not getting completed. See how all the post-its are clogging on the right hand side of the board? We have a lot of starting and not enough finishing.

  • We are starting to talk about the concept of flow vs. large chunks come through and how it would be better if items were coming over more frequently but in smaller batches. We aren’t sure exactly how to make it happen. My feeling is we will have to change how our partner does their work.
  • Some of the best conversations I’ve had with my supervisor and the head of the IT department is when we are at the board. I can explain and show things to them. It also helps that I keep charts and statistical data nearby so they can se the data. I think they appreciate the transparency.
  • I did a training on Kanban boards. One manager experimented with it some, but so far no one has started using one. I’m told I’m still an inspiration to them though and they love coming into my area. I wish I could help more. I think I just need to work with them more often. Its tough because all our time is limited.
  • I’ve gotten more concrete with our additional post-its. Blue is for action items. Pink is for blocks. Blocks mean the item can not move forward. Blue means the item can move, but there is something we need to do with it. Also, I put the date in the bottom right, the company owner in the bottom center, and the site the problem is associated with in the bottom left. Admittedly, it can get tiring doing this, but it really helps us keep track of so many things we need to work on and the visual lets us see any patterns where these items are becoming a problem. For instance, we see a lot of blue after our TTU. This is because that many issues are encountered during TTU that we have to address. Its made us think more about putting the quality in the first time around and trying to be more proactive instead of fixing it afterward.
  • I use the post-its to hold data (usually in the form of dates) which I then transfer to excel and create graphs. The charts that seem to matter the most to management is the burndown and the run chart showing rate of circuit completions per week (which needs to be at 15 a week in order to meet our target deadline). I keep up-to-date charts near the board so everyone can see it. I believe the charts reinforces the idea that my project management philosophy doesn’t end at colorful post-it notes on a white board—I have a lot of hard data.
  • I’m still getting mixed reactions from different people on the boards themselves. Folks who have never seen them before will often snap their heads with a double take when they enter the room. Sometimes I find people just staring at them.  I did have someone say I had made a mess creating them. Others have told me they think they are really cool. An agile coach told me to talk them up. I’ve been doing that.
  • There is still talk of moving to another location. I’d be fine packing the boards up. It would be pretty easy actually. My concern is having wall space near my future work area. I hope I will be accommodated.

Things I wish we could change to make it better:

  • Have our partner work in smaller and more frequent batches. I think this would even out our overall workload and create flow.
  • Have my supervisor and our IT head see the boards more often. We usually have some good conversations when they come over. I can tell they “get it” and they are getting used to looking at the boards to help them understand what is going on (even if they still don’t understand the nuances).
  • I wish all those who work with the Kanban board were near it. I think it would make it easier for them to identify what needs to be worked on.

Links to the rest of this series:
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V