Why a project is like a cup of coffee…

Unfortunately, the default-state outcome of a project is failure.

There are so many things that can – and so often do – go wrong.

It’s a bit like the near-miraculous nature of getting a good cup of coffee. The coffee beans can be poor quality, or old, or a poor blend. The grind can be too coarse, too fine. The espresso machine can malfunction, the extraction isn’t perfect, the milk scalded or not heated enough. The “rolled through yield” of likely success seems near-zero!

Projects and coffee-making are both fundamentally exercises in risk management. What we need in both fields of endeavour, therefore, is the right approach, the right set of tools, and the right people, to manage, mitigate (or even eliminate) these obstacles to realise success.

Clean desk bullies ruin productivity: that will be Lean Six Sigma’s fault then…

I was drawn to an article on the excellent BBC Capital website today, “What’s so wrong with dressing up your desk?” by Bryan Borzykowski. “There’s a reason companies are banning personal items on desks. But it may be hurting productivity” goes the byline. Great – this hints at several areas of interest – business culture, leadership, productivity, employee engagement, human motivation and performance.

I’d sum up the core logical argument of the article as:

– Many companies are introducing strict rules limiting or eliminating personal items on desks;
– They are doing so in the belief that this will improve productivity;
– This belief is incorrect. Restricting workspace personalisation disengages staff, and thus actually reduces productivity;
– Therefore, this management practice does not work. On the contrary, companies can improve employee engagement and hence productivity by allowing workspace personalisation

All well and good. However, there are some other premises stated and conclusions drawn along the way, which bear further examination. The first one is that Borzykowski’s sources attribute much of the blame to “two leading management theories: Six Sigma and Lean”. The second is the implication that workspace personalisation is not only directly and strongly correlated with employee engagement and productivity, but a major and isolated causal factor.

On the culpability of “Six Sigma and Lean”, I dispute the sentiments articulated in the article in three ways.

For starters, it claims that these methodologies call for such workspace de-personalisation. “Both take a rigid and cost-efficient approach to work above everything else”, begins the assertion, going on to say that “The idea is to eliminate anything extraneous, because if it’s not central to the task at hand, it’s considered wasteful.” Now without launching into a full treatise on Lean, Six Sigma, and Lean Six Sigma, I cannot agree with these statements. Six Sigma is fundamentally concerned with raising quality from a customer’s perspective, by reducing defects through a rigorous structured and analytical method. Lean, to be sure, pays a great deal of focus on reducing waste in various guises, but it does so in terms of reducing non-value added process activities from the customer’s perspective. Furthermore, waste is by no means the only facet of Lean – it equally looks at concepts such as production levelling and “automation with the human touch”. Both methodologies, together with the fusion version known as Lean Six Sigma, are firmly set out as customer-centric and quality driven. Cost reduction is important, but as a wise man once said, “Focus on cutting costs and you drive down quality, but improve quality and you automatically raise productivity”. No doubt a lot of poor things have been done in the name of improving processes and productivity, but you can’t blame draconian management practices and “slash & burn” cost-cutting on these quality methodologies, quite the opposite. (Read W.Edwards Deming if in any doubt – start with his “14 points for management” and “Seven deadly diseases”).

Personalised workspace restrictions are more likely to have come about from facilities management-based cost reduction practices around hot-desking, activity-based working and the like. Less workstations than staff, lockers, no fixed desks etc. Now there are some pros and cons to these kind of initiatives, but that’s for another posting.

Anyway, on to the second point re “Six Sigma and Lean” as the bad guys. Borzykowski’s article over-states, in my opinion, the degree to which “Six Sigma and Lean” are adopted by companies, and the extent to which they incorporate such methodologies into their policies and decision making. Unfortunately perhaps! Many larger companies have extensively deployed either or both methodologies – for example pioneers such as Toyota, Motorola and GE – but very few have made the quality & process perspective a core part of their business practices. Most companies that I’ve encountered deploy these practices through separate, periodic initiatives, or have an internal team as a “centre of excellence” working with the broader business lines. I really do not think there are many – if any – companies or managers that would “have been taught that Six Sigma is the right way to manage” and apply that teaching by ordering removal of Jones’s photo of the wife and kids on holiday in Bali.

Finally on this, it is both incorrect and extraneous to the central theme of the article, to claim that these theories don’t work and have no benefits! They can, and do, as has been evidenced in such companies as Toyota, Motorola, and GE, along with many others. Other companies’ implementations have often been badly executed, and failed to meet expectations, which is why firms also need the right leadership, vision, strategy, implementation capability, and sustaining capability, if they wish to go down that path.

More than enough on Lean, Six Sigma, and variants thereof. Back to my assertion that Borzykowski’s article implies workplace personalisation is a major and isolated causal factor in business productivity. It is reasonable, from my experience, research and observation, to conclude that there is a direct and positive correlation between personalisation policies and employee engagement, and similarly between employee engagement and productivity. It would, however, be more appropriate to consider that these policies are just a small part of the complex web of corporate expectations and resultant employee behaviours which constitute business culture.

Workspace personalisation is likely to occupy a very tiny portion of corporate leadership’s time and mental energy – but it is likely to be highly symptomatic of the broader leadership style, management beliefs and practices, and hence of that broader business culture. In other words, it may not be of itself the cause of poor employee engagement, but rather one contributing factor along with many other causes. It could even be an effect, part of a vicious circle response to declining productivity and corporate performance driven by other internal and external factors.

I’m all for “re-humanising the workspace”, for companies treating their human resources as humans, not just resources. For companies that create and sustain a business culture that attracts and keeps the right people, that values their contributions, and allows them to be engaged and have a sense of pride and passion about their work. The modern stampede towards professed customer centricity cannot be achieved by short-term cost cutting alone, but by understanding and anticipating customer needs, and by building ever-better processes and systems delivered and operated by ever-better people. Lean Six Sigma, when understood in the spirit of W.Edwards Deming and others like him, can offer some powerful insights and techniques with which to achieve genuine customer centricity and business success. To agree with Borzykowski, however, I don’t think it’s necessary to ban the pot-plant to get there.

Disruptive Technologies

Around 2000 or 2001, the CIO I worked for at the time recommended a book by one Clayton M. Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, called The Innovator’s Dilemma. Looking at examples such as the disk drive industry of the 1970’s and 1980’s, Christensen observed that in a “traditional” market the customer may call for an improved version of the existing product or service – in this case faster, higher-capacity disk drives, cheaper. The most dominant players in the market, even though they listen carefully to their customers’ stated needs and respond with such evolutionary improvement, commonly miss the revolutionary change that inevitably hits that market (perhaps because of listening so carefully!). The re-writable CD, or USB stick, or cloud-based storage offering comes along to solve the underlying customer need in a different way – a way which may be orders of magnitude better than the existing solution. Quite likely no-one asked for this new solution, in fact they could probably not conceive of such a thing, but all the more the incumbent players miss the opportunity and suffer the consequences in lost market share, or even go out of business entirely.
This is, of course, the kind of business phenomenon we now frequently hear as Disruptive Technology, and/or Innovation. Tempting as it is to think of as a very recent phenomenon, relating solely to Information Technology, it has played out at least since the early phases of the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps earlier – maybe the Bronze Age guys came along with their metallic solutions and wiped the floor with the Stone brigade – only to be taken down a peg or two by the more agile entrepreneurs of the Iron Age.
Now don’t take this as an argument against listening to customers – far from it – but to quote the adage oft attributed to Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Innovation can be about faster, better, cheaper, more colours, but the more disruptive and ultimately successful innovation is likely to be something different. Something derived from stepping back from the haste and noise of the day-to-day marketing efforts, sales activities, and operational rhythms, and asking the question “What is the customer’s underlying problem – what are they trying to achieve – and how could we meet that need?” A “new how” to the underlying “what”, not just a minor enhancement to the “current how”. Or similarly, is there a “new what” that is not currently being addressed at all?
After all, is it not terribly arrogant, or terribly lazy, or both, to think that your current product or service is the best possible solution ever to the deepest physiological and psychological needs of your customers, apart from a trivial tweak or periodic facelift?

On moral hazard for leaders

Back to the dualism of the workplace. Good is the manager who does the “right” thing by the company, “bad” is the manager who serves their own self-interests. I’ve long held it as axiomatic that organisations should consciously align the motivation of management, employees, customers and shareholders. But do some managers consciously and deliberately serve their own ends – building their little empires, favouring some staff, lying and paying lip service to their seniors and to company strategy? Or do these “bad” managers actually think they’re doing the right thing? What is the right thing anyway?
I can be quite the idealist, at least sometimes. I like to think, in such moments, that a business can operate with a collective morality…building on the etymology of the word “corporate” and attributing to it the consciousness, the free will, the ethical capacity of it’s individual counterpart. But can a business consisting of fallible humans who are less than “good” all of the time be, in sum total, good? Can good leadership, strategy, policies, processes, systems, products beget a consistently good outcome? Or is the corporation a chain no better than its weakest link?
If there is such a thing as corporate goodness, what are its constituent components? What are the levers to improve it? How can we conduct a current-state analysis, design a future state, and solve for the difference? Are customers willing to “pay” for dealing with a good company? Do employees want to work for such a company? Do shareholders want to invest in good?
If anyone has the answers to these questions, please drop me a line!

Dualism in business

I’ve often observed – or interpreted – the manifestation of what I’ll call “business dualisms” – in the “binary opposition” sense. Two schools of thought, with adherents firmly in one camp or the other, and never the twain shall meet. Perhaps it’s a matter of there being a dominant way of thinking, or of doing things; and then along comes a new idea. Some people are used to working with the old way – they’re in their comfort zone so to speak – and don’t see the need to change. Perhaps they feel changing is a risk, not worth the potential reward. Perhaps they simply subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” adage.
Then there are others who see the new way as a better way, not just a new or different one. Such a person may be more curious, or a greater risk-taker, and be willing to try something to see if it is in fact better. They may perceive that the new way addresses issues with the old way, issues that frustrated them in the past. In any case, some people embrace the new, others refute it or ignore it.
This is starting to sound a lot like a blog about change management. Culture eating strategy for breakfast, etc etc etc. Well, there is something to that, but probably more than just change management, so let’s look at a simple example: Agile.
Agile project methodology seems to mean somewhat different things to different people; but I have worked with people who feel it is the very devil, and those who see it as the answer to pretty much everything. In fact, I’ve seen zealousness and emotional responses bordering on the religious, for something as mundane as a method of delivering software.
Is there a “right” and “wrong” when it comes to, say, methodology for delivering business process management software? At the risk of sounding like a consultant, I’d say that it’s not a matter of right or wrong, but that it “depends”. It depends on the organisation in question, the part of that organisation in question, the matter being addressed, the stakeholders – both technology and business – and various other factors. “One size fits all” doesn’t really fit anyone too well. So when it comes back to “Agile” – I’d say that it’s a “newer way” that has some really useful concepts  that address a lot of the issues inherent in the “old way”. Just don’t expect it to be all things to all people. Rather, consider the specific circumstances of the particular situation, and bear in mind that “Agile” doesn’t mean one single set of “right” practices.

On the written word…

I’ve done a lot of business writing in my career. Plans and proposals. Requirements and specifications. Reports and reviews. If I had a dollar for every PowerPoint presentation or Word document I’d cobbled together, I’d probably have enough to fund a startup to auto-generate all of that stuff. (I’d call it something like “onemillionmonkeys.com”). I’ve even penned (albeit in the figurative sense) a few corporate blogs and white papers. However I have never, until now, raised quill to parchment to share my own thoughts and opinions with the world, under my own name, and for my own amusement.
That may be surprising to some – it certainly is to me – because I think of myself as a very strongly opinionated person on a diverse range of business matters. For what it’s worth I even state that publicly on my LinkedIn profile, a small pre-emptive strike if you will, to steady and prepare the beholder for the first barrage.
In future entries on this blog, I’ll no doubt cover a range of topics which I hold as important and interesting (and/or concerning!) to me, and all of which hold some common thread of theme. Indeed it may be that the only common theme between some of these topics is that they are items on my list! I will, though, do my best to tease out and articulate these themes, because if there’s one thing I am apart from opinionated, it’s a connector of dots…