Monday, December 20, 2010

What is your Ultimate Professional Subscription?

swiss-army-knifeIf they offered a 12 month subscription to any or all the tools to equip you to be the best in your profession, what would it include?


I recently won a contest where the prize was a one year Visual Studio 2010 Ultimate with MSDN subscription. For a person that develops solutions using Microsoft technologies, there is no better prize. It is the Swiss Army knife of Microsoft Development. 

Here’s how I described the prize to my sister in terms she would relate to:


My brother-in-law is a  general contractor who does a lot of custom construction. He is constantly buying some new piece of equipment that he doesn’t have, but “needs” for this special job. If he had a Construction Equipment Ultimate Subscription, it would mean every time he needed a special tool like a spindle lathe, a vinyl siding cutter, or even a Bobcat, he would just take his subscription card to the local construction equipment store and redeem it for whatever non-perishable supply, machine, or equipment he needed that year.

The concept is really pretty Lean; get what you need, when you need it, in the form you want it.

Leave a comment to let me know what your Ultimate subscription would be.


photo credit: Jesse Sneed / CC BY-ND 2.0

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Five Ways to Incorrectly Use Technology

Device with multiple dongles How you adopt technology in your personal life is a personal choice. How technology is used in an organization affects many others, requiring careful consideration to provide its benefits without negative repercussions.

The top five ways organizations incorrectly use technology:

  1. Implement a technology for technology’s sake.
  2. Pick a technology because it is cool, trendy, or new.
  3. Use it to fix a broken process.
  4. Introduce it without adequate trials or testing.
  5. Pick the version with the most bells and whistles.

I’m a big proponent for the use of technology when it is used in a way that truly supports the organization from every perspective. Nobody Likes Bad Change™ in technology, work, or life. Let’s do our part to introduce only good change:

  • use the right technology
  • for a specific process
  • considering the available resources
  • at the appropriate time
  • to achieve the desired outcome


Photo credit: Qole Tech / CC BY 2.0

Friday, October 1, 2010

Closed Data Systems Limit Learning and Improvement Opportunities

tunnel vision Try taking data from a process you are working to improve out of the system you normally use and look at it in other ways. If it is in a proprietary spreadsheet or reporting system that has fixed standard reports and charts, take the raw data out and put it in a clean spreadsheet or database and look at the data from other perspectives.

Slice and Dice the data:

  • Filter
  • Sort
  • Aggregate
  • Graph
  • SPC chart
  • Pivot

Using fixed systems, while good for standardized daily analysis routines, can close our minds to opportunities, exceptions, patterns and trends that can lead to quick improvements and unexpected systemic breakthroughs.

photo credit: brian.chu / CC BY-ND 2.0

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Three Tactics to Keep Project Activities Moving

electronic personal kanban

Regardless of the Project Management system, activities sometimes sit in the queue or in-process for extended periods of time. A few keys to keeping tasks moving to accelerate accomplishment are:

  • Break up larger activities into smaller subtasks. For example: break “resolve content management system issue” into “investigate CMS issue”, “identify possible fix”, “apply fix”, “verify the problem is resolved”.
  • Make the system more visible. The advantage of whiteboard systems is they are in line of sight more than electronic systems that are multiple clicks away. What gets watched often gets improved. The down side of physical systems, is they may not be portable and visible from other locations or by other people at a distance.
  • Collaborate with or solicit help from other people with more expertise or knowledge about the subject matter. Often technical people feel they are responsible for resolving issues themselves. Don’t be an Answer-Man Super Hero.

Lean Project Management is a comprehensive methodology based on Lean principles to minimize Work in Process (WIP) while maximizing valuable project completion.

There are a variety of tools that can help facilitate a Lean Project Management process. You can use spreadsheets, databases, Personal Kanban white boards, or any of the commercial or open source software based systems. Recently I have been experimenting with because of its simplicity. Cautionary note: Lean Project Management is about much more than a tool or software product.

No Lean system or process is perfect right out of the box. It is important to start simple and jump in and start learning your way to a system that meets your needs and the needs of your stakeholders.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Using Lighting Systems to Guide Standard Work

Several years ago I was working with a supplier to help them reduce the rate of defects to their customer. One of the specific defects was the parts packed on the pallet out of sequence. Their customer assembles products on a line where each product on the line is a different part number. The supplier’s objective was to pack the subassemblies on pallets in a sequence synchronized with the order their customer was building their product.

To make matters worse, each of the supplier’s customers worked in a different sequenced order when taking the components out of the pallets. Some customers took the subassemblies off the pallet in a counter-clockwise direction, others clockwise, or in a z-pattern. This made it too easy for the supplier line workers to accidentally pack the parts out of sequence. One misplaced part could cause a lot of expensive downtime to investigate and resolve.

I proposed a process at the supplier’s packing station that projected light into the correct position in the pallet to place the next subassembly (based each customer’s specifications) in the correct sequence order. It was a system similar to the one in the video - but they weren’t making mixed drinks.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Motivating Metrics

Pot of Gold If your employees are are not motivated to stay committed to contributing to the long term execution of a strategy that promises to have significant long term benefits, maybe they are looking at the wrong metrics.

Often the charts and dashboards that are displayed or presented publically are the ones the executive wants to see, however sometimes those are final output measures or lagging indicators. Lagging indicators often don’t work well as a motivating force. We are a society that favors instant gratification so motivation to continue on a given path is more likely to be positive when looking at leading indicators. Leading indicators are measures that are generally (and hopefully statistically) a short term predictor of the end result.


photo attribution / CC BY-ND 2.0

Friday, July 9, 2010

Guest Post: What to Do when there is More than One Boss to Please

Connecting People to Projects through Social Authority

Watch your head Dean’s note: This guest post is written by Craig Henderson, President of Systemental and a Thought Leader that blogs about Hoshin Kanri/Policy Deployment

You just took the handoff from the boss to start a new project.  You know you’ll need cooperation from a key stakeholder outside your function area who has already expressed a key concern.   How can you approach your conversation with the stakeholder to ensure you get the cooperation you need?

  1. Leverage the boss’s connection to the stakeholder in the right way:
    • If their relationship is good, start by saying so
    • If the relationship is neutral or rocky, start by saying you want to make this work for the stakeholder (note: you should sincerely want to do this)
  2. Get straight to the “heart of the matter,” don’t beat around the bush
  3. Discover the stakeholder’s point of view by asking questions and listening closely
  4. Tailor the description of how you can solve the problem to stakeholder’s preference
  5. Explain a high value, low risk, and low hassle first step to get off to a good start
  6. Assure the stake holder that it won’t be difficult, expensive, or time consuming to deliver the project so it meets the stakeholder’s needs

If you are naturally good at this kind of thing, then the above can serve as a guideline to keep your thoughts straight. On the other hand, if you feel uncomfortable, seek the advice of someone who will be friendly to you and also knows the stakeholder in question well. They should be able to help you think of objections the stakeholder may raise so you can think and plan ahead of time.

Lastly, make sure you keep your boss informed of what you are doing, whether it’s going well or not. Bosses like to know you are diligently working on their behalf and they don’t like surprises.

For a technique used to manage this same situation with an entire group, see Nemawashi

“Executizing” Academic Sounding Terms – Gaining Social Authority is a short story demonstrating how the language you use impacts your ability to gain social authority.

Photo attribution / CC BY 2.0

Open and Honest Feedback after a Scolding

tiger photo courtesy of A friend, Jaime*, recently sold his successful business to a similar, but larger corporation, ACME*. During the transition, he is helping them transfer and integrate the assets and processes into their existing business and support the retention of Jaime’s previous customers.

During a periodic review with ACME’s management, Jaime noted several practices that their employees were using that he offered to help them improve. A manager at ACME proceeded to scold the employees about their lack of process adherence and mistakes (mischaracterizing the suggestion). Jaime was disappointed about the way ACME handled the interaction. Jaime and I were reflecting on his frustration about the damage that behavior does to employee motivation, cooperation, and morale. After that incident, Jaime will get very little open and honest feedback from the front line workers about their challenges and opportunities when he visits.

Jaime isn’t continuing to help for his financial benefit; he wants the same thing the employees want. His interest is to see them take a previously successful business that was built over years of hard work and incorporate it smoothly and painlessly into their operation.


*Names have been changed to protect their identities.

photo attribution / CC BY-ND 2.0

Monday, June 21, 2010

Resistance to Change – Inevitable or Preventable?

bad change I hear and read about resistance to change frequently. Most of the time it is referred to in a negative light or as an inherent human weakness. Wouldn't it be more productive if we focused on the “Change” itself rather than the “Resistance”?

We have all been on the receiving end of change that didn’t work out well for us, so it is natural to be apprehensive. If we think back to one of those “bad” changes, can we think of ways the change could have been approached that would have made it a better experience for the both the leaders and the participants?

Resistance to change can often be prevented – and I don’t mean through the use of force, quite the opposite. Just a few ways to improve the adoption of change is through the application of:

The general expectation is that change should be “good”. A common experience is that it isn’t. If change wasn’t actually “good”, we wouldn’t constantly be trying to introduce it. We should probably put more effort into making sure everyone that is impacted by the change understands the benefits and agrees that it actually is “good”. If they did, we probably wouldn’t be experiencing so much resistance.

Other posts about keys to successful change implementation

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Right-sizing the Vacuum – a Lean Machine

roomba time-lapse trail

Floors and carpets don’t wait to get dirty until the day you vacuum. They accumulate dirt, lint, and other debris every day at a reasonably constant rate. If you ran the vacuum daily the vacuum wouldn’t need to be as powerful or have a reservoir that holds a gallon of gunk.

But who has the time to vacuum every day? If the sweeping was automated by using a device like the Roomba, daily cleaning can become a reality.

Examples of Lean can be found in the most unusual places, like cleaning machines and processes.

5S Concepts

  • keep the most frequently used tools closest to the work
  • keep the area clean and free of slip and trip hazards – frequent sweeping and keeping wires and trip hazards off the floor
  • everything has a place – the charging station is like a shadow board

Lean Concepts

  • Quick changeover – traditional vacuums tend to be heavy and take up space so they are often put away in a closet or laundry room and require dragging out and winding/unwinding of long cords; smaller size can get in tight spaces without using optional attachments or moving furniture
  • right-sizing: enclosure, motor, debris reservoir, power source (battery) sized for the more frequent, but lighter workload
  • poka yoke – sensors to protect from injuring pets and children, tumbling off the stairs; virtual walls to restrict the cleaning area; works in the dark; dirt sensing; auto-charging of the battery
  • standardized work – Roomba follows a navigational algorithm; standard method to determine the necessity of special spot cleaning mode; some models have automatic schedulers
  • no defects passed to upstream processes – special spot cleaning mode enabled immediately when excessive dirt is detected

If the floors are vacuumed/swept daily, there is no worry about dust bunnies when a friend or neighbor stops by unannounced.

As the path highlighted in the above image shows, the Roomba might not be as efficient in the travelling path as a human operator, but the important thing is that all the surfaces are effortlessly covered at an acceptable quality within the Takt time.

Automated vacuum robots are not for everyone or everywhere, but they present a compelling argument for consideration. If nothing else, it might give you an excuse to justify buying that nifty robot you’ve had your eyes on.

Automated robots are gaining in popularity for other tasks as well:

  • mopping
  • garage sweeping
  • gutter cleaning
  • lawn mowing

Additional Benefit

They can keep the family pet company while you’re away.

Where do you see other interesting or unconventional examples of Lean concepts being applied? Comments welcome.

Disclaimer: I don’t own any iRobot products or receive any financial or other benefits from them.

Photo attribution / CC BY-SA 2.0

Friday, April 16, 2010

Personal Kanban – More Done, Less Stress

Personal Kanban whiteboard

Life used to be simple:

  1. Get up
  2. Go to school/work
  3. Relax
  4. Go to bed

It didn’t require much planning for effective time management. As a result of the increasing hustle and bustle of our society or just the result of getting older (which I’m not ready to admit yet), increasing responsibilities and extra-curricular activities place demands on our time.

  • little league
  • professional associations
  • school functions
  • home maintenance
  • [insert your challenges here]

That is where a personal Kanban can help us work smarter and reduce our stress level by knowing we have a handle on our activities.

Anyone can do it

You can use a simple whiteboard (or even a sliding glass door) to help manage your time and activities visually and efficiently with a simple system of sticky notes in columns labeled similar to the following:

  • to do
  • in process
  • done
  • I find “awaiting decision” or some variation helpful also

How To

Jim Benson has a great Personal Kanban presentation that introduces, in detail, how you can improve your personal productivity using a personal kanban.

Home and Office

The process works equally well at the office for work activities/projects and at home. I use 24” X 36” whiteboards (Sam’s Club - $15) which has enough space for two types of projects being managed with separate spaces for each - and a little area left over for impromptu notes and sketches.


If you are like me, once you try it out and realize the power of them, you start using them for everything... and try to convince everyone around you to use them also.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Teaching through Demonstration on Kitchen Nightmares

A frequent tactic for improving restaurant quality on the TV show Kitchen Nightmares is to reduce the number of items on the menu. On the Anna Vincenzo’s episode the restaurant had an overwhelming 180 items. It might seem obvious that if you simply explained that to the owner the the point would be made, but often that isn’t the case. Gordon Ramsey went to the effort of having the kitchen staff prepare just one order of each item on the menu before the owner arrived for the day. When she showed up, every table and flat surface in the restaurant was completely covered with different entrees on it. There were dishes with food from wall to wall. It became immediately apparent to her that they had too many choices on the menu to be able to do an exceptional job for every customer order. No explanation necessary.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Keys to the Kingdom? No Thank You

photo courtesy Rich Anderson really wants the keys to the kingdom? Management often thinks the person that has them does so for the wrong reasons. That they want to hold the company hostage for selfish reasons. There are exceptions, but I generally believe they are victims of circumstance.

Why do they have the Keys in the first place?

It is not as common in processes that are widely understood. Typically it occurs in areas where one or more of the following are present:

  • complicated processes
  • process outputs have implications or dependencies in other areas or processes
  • process is not well defined
  • exception handling responses are non-existent or not well understood
  • long duration between repeat occurrences of an issue
  • many different issues - few obvious similarities
  • minimal direct control over inputs
  • lack appropriate preventative signals or controls
Sink or Swim Syndrome

One common reason a single person has all the information and control over a critical process is they were tasked with solving a complicated problem or cluster of problems in the area which required extensive research, experimentation, trials, and hard won learning.

Process Grandfathering

Some complicated processes are passed down from one person to the next via long term on-the-job training and mentoring that is time consuming and impractical to include multiple individuals.

If they are the experts, why don’t they fix the process?

The process roles people play can be generally characterized by the following:

  • problem solvers
  • designers
  • operators
  • protectors

All the roles are important to successful, repeatable processes, but might not be applied in the appropriate proportions. People often have the skills and play multiple roles, but depending on specifically which roles are in highest concentration, processes can lack the necessary detail and structure to prevent someone from having the Keys to the Kingdom.

High profile processes are frequently high profile because when a problem surfaces it has serious negative consequences that require quick resolution. The problem solvers are thrown at the problem to protect the organization. Problem solvers are valuable to the organization for their ability to root out causes and put interim corrective actions or workarounds in place. But, if the problem solvers are not also process designers, they may not have the skills or the time to put the necessary long term corrective actions, preventative process controls, and documentation in place.

How does your organization prevent Keys to the Kingdom? Thoughts?

Photo attribution: / CC BY-SA 2.0

Friday, February 26, 2010

Ten Reasons to Join a Professional Organization

fwPASS - AJ Definition from Wikipedia:

A professional association (also called a professional body, professional organization, or professional society) is a non-profit organization seeking to further a particular profession, the interests of individuals engaged in that profession, and the public interest.

Reasons to join one:

  1. Meet great like-minded people!
  2. Opportunity to showcase your experience through peer to peer discussions or public speaking.
  3. Bullet item on your resume
  4. See what opportunities and challenges are in the industry[ies]
  5. Access to experts in the field – speakers, other members, sponsors
  6. SWAG – discounts or free books, magazines, access to webinars, e-learning, certification exam vouchers
  7. References other than your sister’s husband
  8. Free or almost free training - most of the organizations have meetings focused on educational content
  9. Meet your competition
  10. Exclusive or early notification of job opportunities

As the President of a professional organization, fwPASS, I often hear about job opportunities directly from industry leaders and recruiters looking for their next technical Rock-star or leader. Note: this is not an invitation for head-hunters to spam me. They know that most of the people that regularly attend or participate in our meetings are passionate about their craft and are interested in staying at the front of the pack. In this economy, most organizations can afford to hold out for the best. Position yourself to be one of them!

Organizations that I am involved in or have had associations with:

A more complete list of Professional Associations

Find a local chapter and get involved. If you don’t have any chapters in your area, there is a growing trend toward virtual chapters that utilize technologies like Microsoft Live Meeting and GoToMeeting.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Successfully Working in a Role Outside of your Expertise

swiss army knife courtesy flickr user: _tnz photo:383953694 In the current economic conditions (actually for the last couple of decades), organizations are trying to get more done with less resources. A common strategy is to assign additional responsibilities to their current workforce, often in a role that is unfamiliar to them. Some examples:

  • Engineers acting as Project Managers
  • Accountants with IT responsibilities
  • Students on their first job
  • [insert your occupation and extra roles here]

I once worked with a company with the mission statement of

What’s Required, What’s Expected, “And then some

I think that is a practical sequential approach to developing an increasing understanding and proficiency in a new role. That approach has served me well in my transition through too many roles to list - while keeping stress at a manageable level. Most of the time you won’t be expected to be the Rockstar of the new role immediately, but you will likely be expected to show ongoing improvement on the road to mastery. You can effectively apply the following simple process to most objectives, roles, or projects*.

  1. Gain some basic understanding of the subject matter or responsibilities through research, asking questions, observing others, benchmarking, or other methods.
  2. Look for or create an opportunity you are comfortable with to incorporate some of what you learned into the daily work or activity.
  3. Review what worked and didn’t and plan action steps to increase the understanding or improve on the process.
  4. Wash, rinse, repeat indefinitely.

I liberally and deliberately used the word “some” in the steps above. You will maximize your learning and execution if you don’t bite off more than you can chew. Each application of a process-based approach to improvement will increase your effectiveness and confidence in making your next transition.


* Disclaimer: This approach may not be feasible for certain conditions where human safety could be at risk (directly or indirectly).

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Information Transparency: is there a Wrong Time?

x-ray photo courtesy user: adamci This is Part 1 of a multi-part series on transparency of information. There are probably two strong camps that would argue for or against it. I am squarely in the middle as I have found from experience there is both a right time and a wrong time for it. The first part explores the reasons why transparency can hinder productivity.

What might be some of the wrong times for transparency?

  1. when first developing a process and working out the kinks
  2. when the information is a poor measure of performance
  3. when one doesn’t fully comprehend the implications of having the information freely available
  4. when trying to “motivate” (i.e. bully) a team or person to do their job better by exposing information
  5. when information can be misinterpreted

Depending on the process, you may be trying to discover which measures are good metrics to use to understand a cause and effect relationship. Many practitioners like myself will have seen occasions where the management and front-line employees alike have criticized the repeated changes in metrics as poor leadership – the “they don’t know what they are doing” syndrome. In reality, it is often best not to stick with metrics just because they were included in the original project plan or specification. If you take on an outcome based approach instead of a metric based approach, you will likely experience a more successful project or initiative overall.

Exposing information to the broadest audience too early can lead to the cancellation of a good project for political reasons or simply because the wrong data was used in the justification analysis.

Depending on the organizational culture early transparency of an evolving process can also cause a dramatic increase in resistance to change and project participation because of negative press. Or worse, if the management realizes the problem is worse than they expected, they may intervene in an unproductive way squashing a working PDCA process driven approach with a more command and control method.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Workarounds – Dreaded or Welcomed?

labyrinth photo courtesy user: ctechs An associate was telling me about his friend being surprised when he referred to workarounds as waste. His friend had a positive perception of the term workaround. Why?

I can see why, for many, it could be considered positive. It is generally the last option before “impossible”, “failure”, or “no can do”. Anything better than failure is positive, at least in some light.

What image does workaround convey to me?

More than twenty four hours of consecutive problem solving under the intense pressure that tomorrow the customer will start charging $10,000/hour for downtime on their line because they are out of parts. The closer you get to the crisis the more likely you stray from looking for the solution to looking for a workaround. At 11:00am the next day that workaround looks pretty good – finally some sleep. But even with that comfort in hand you know it will be short-lived and others will have to deal with the extra effort it almost always requires to manage and operate a workaround.

Not all problems end in crisis as described above, but if you don’t think of them that way, it can limit your perception that things can be better. Workarounds are wasteful of time, money, and resources because they are either unreliable, inefficient, or unsafe. At best they should be considered temporary.

Below is the famous Rube Goldberg style Honda commercial. There’s got to be an easier way to close your trunk.