The Fundamental Problem with Business Process

All the Demings...

If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing. ~ W. Edwards Deming

A bad system will beat a good person every time. ~ W. Edwards Deming

Drive fear from the workplace. ~ W. Edwards Deming

Let’s take a second to emphasize who is important in these quotes.

Well, by golly, it’s people.

A company could put a top man at every position and be swallowed by a competitor with people only half as good, but who are working together. ~ Ed again.

As long as we see process as something other than how we agree to work, “process” will always be a tool of the uninformed to try to force the people actually doing the work to meet targets those in control assume to be important. We will continue to buy our “process” from books or consultants. We will have our “process” foisted upon us.

But there is a difference between process and operational imperatives.

Operational Imperatives are uninformed ways of working that we learn in classrooms or are poorly described in corporate manuals that come from outside the team. They are only improvable by management, because management owns them. Continuous improvement or an improvement mindset can only be held by those who have a burning desire to improve. All others will quietly toil under the regime. Stagnation and isolation will ensue.

Process, as Deming was describing it, is the social contract your teams and your organization agree upon to provide value. They define it, the engage it, and they improve it.  Process is intentional. If a process does not include a way to improve itself, it will not improve. If a process does not directly address quality, you will have shoddy product. If a process does not have a mechanism to connect with the customer, you will lose focus on customer needs. If process is not owned by the people engaged in the process, it is not process – it’s orders.

Let me be very clear: If you implement ways of working that the effected people do not have a hand in defining, you are setting up an operational imperative. That can and does work. It’s your choice. But know that you cannot set up that system can call it Lean.  You cannot set up an operational imperative and have someone else meaningfully improve it.

You also cannot start with an operational imperative (even if it’s super cool or accepted as an industry standard) and expect any of Deming’s warnings not to come true.

The act of “describing your work as a process” does not mean you can say “I take this goop and form it into that shape and dry it in that hot box and put it in that container for shipping.” Your phone can say that. But why is it different?

Deming didn’t just say ‘describe your work as a process’, he also talked a lot about collaboration and constancy of purpose.  In other words, describing your work as a system means you understand not just the value stream of your work – any robot can do that. You need to understand that your process isn’t just mechanics, it’s psychology, it’s interaction, it’s invention, it’s improvement. Why we are doing this. For whom we are doing this. With whom we are doing this.

A process is how we express being human.

To make our process into a simple value stream is to cheapen all human endeavor and ultimate create bad systems in which to trap good people. It leads us into Jack Welch firing the alleged “bottom 20%”. It leads to process fads and certifications based on someone’s assumption of how work happens but never really fit any specific company. It leads to reliance on outside voices, rather than taking responsibility for our own future. It leads to industry “best-practices”, rather than optimization for our own context. It leads to wasting time, energy, and money on forced solutions that are expensive to change, rather than democratic solutions that change naturally.

Business process, therefore, is the combination of your system of work, your culture, and your relationships with customers and suppliers. Given that your working methods, how you interact internally, and how you supply value are what your company does … if you can’t describe these as a “process” then…you don’t know what you are doing.


On Vulnerability, Visualization, and Problem Solving - An Interview with Deb McGee at Lean Enterprise Institute

Deb is a Modus client with a high-demand job. She handles all of the requests for information, content, or support for the Lean Enterprise Institute in Cambridge, Mass. Every day, she receives calls from people who almost know what the want, she guides them to what they need. Each call is an opportunity to further LEI's mission, to help someone in need, and to improve her processes. Deb is thoughtful about her work and working with her has been a learning experience for us as well. In this video, she talks about using Personal Kanban for client management, the vulnerability of transparency, and using visual systems in the office to raise awareness and communication. This is truly a 15 minute masterclass on how to do it right.

Prioritization is a Symptom

"How do we prioritize all this work?" "What are mechanisms you use to prioritize?" "What if I have a lot of options that are all equal?" These are all valid questions and prioritization is an important function of both home and professional work. However, we find most often that prioritization issues, like trust issues, are a symptom of deeper problems. This video discusses what some of those root causes are and how we at Modus Cooperandi approach them.

The Lean Brain, Post 5: Improvement is Not an Option

Lean says: Seek Perfection What your brain says: This is the way we’ve always done things around here. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s not “my job” to improve.

What’s at play here: Status quo bias. Zero-risk bias. Resistance to Change. Learned helplessness.

While Lean’s focus on respect for people endows the worker with the ability to implement change for improvement’s sake as they see fit, that sense of agency must be coupled with the psychological safety that allows them the freedom to fail.

Only in a safe-to-fail environment - one where employees are comfortable being vulnerable seeking out and attempting to solve sticky problems - can we tap into workers’ deepest potential and produce a culture of learners, experimenters, and creative problem-solvers, hallmarks of a successful Lean culture, one that recognizes overlooking human potential is among the greatest wastes.

One way to accomplish this is to ensure that the risk of failure is kept to a minimum.


Our brains are wired to do two things exceptionally well: to minimize risk, and maximize reward. Motivated to affect these ends in the service of our survival, our brains place a premium on certainty. Not only is exploring something novel energy-intensive (creating new neural pathways requires work), any deviation from the status quo - even if it is in own own best interest - is perceived as a risk to be avoided. Cutting-edge approaches, untested actions that run counter to the familiar present themselves as a threat to our brains much in the way the rustle of a potential predator lurking in the tall grass did for prehistoric man.

Despite its neuroplasticity, our brains are predisposed to resist the ambiguity inherent to change and the resultant stress science shows, triggers actual physiological discomfort.

So despite recognition that current conditions could benefit from improvement, it is understandable that we instinctively frame conversations about change in terms of its (perceived) risk rather than its potential (perceived) reward.

To be sure, there’s an obvious irony at play here: man’s survival as a species was and remains indebted to its ability to adapt to its ever-changing environment. While our brains might intensely dislike and do everything it can to resist change, neuroplasticity nevertheless allows it to create new neural pathways and by extension, new habits.

Which is fortunate. Because for both the individual and the organization in which s/he works, maintaining the status quo is a risk.

How to mitigate:

Evolutionary trumps revolutionary. Research reveals that large changes engage the amygdala - the part of our limbic system that processes emotions and responds to threats.

When it comes to taking steps towards improvement, the brain likes its change in comfortable doses.

Small scale, incremental improvements are powerful because the proposed change bypasses the amygdala – the brain’s fight or flight mechanism – so there is less resistance, less fear of the unknown and by extension, less fear of failure.

Not only are gradual changes physiologically more comfortable to engage in, they likewise have a lower cost of failure, and are easier to sustain and build upon.

Earlier posts in this series:

Introduction: 5 Ways Our Brain Can Thwart Lean

Post 1: Value is a Conversation

Post 2: Visualization Begets Alignment

Post 3: Flow: You Can’t Step in the Same River Twice

Post 4: Push is Blind. Pull is Informed. See Beyond the Silo.

Tonianne is partner & principal consultant at Modus Cooperandi, co-author of the Shingo Research and Publication Award winning Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, co-founder of Kaizen Camp™ and Modus Institute. Toni explores the relationship between performance, motivation, and neuroscience, is passionate about the roles intention, collaboration, value-creation, and happiness play in “the future of work,” and appreciative of the ways in which psychology, Lean, systems thinking, and the work of W. Edwards Deming can facilitate these ends. She enjoys Coltrane, shoots Nikon, butchers the Italian language (much to the embarrassment of her family), is a single malt enthusiast, and is head over heels in love with her adopted home, Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @Sprezzatura.

The Lean Brain, Post 3: Flow - You Can't Step in the Same River Twice

Lean says: Manage Flow Your brain says: My work isn’t linear. My day is filled with interruptions and so I don’t have the “luxury” of flow.

What’s at play here: Functional Fixedness.

If there is one area where there’s not an obvious transfer of Lean principles from manufacturing to knowledge work, it’s understanding how flow can in fact be achieved when work is creative and contextual rather than isolated and prefigured.

On the factory floor, workers create a fairly static set of tangible products in a predictable way, while constantly aiming to reduce variation to produce uniform output.

In the office, whether their work products are largely inventive (e.g. software development) or relatively standardized (responding to a customer service call, for instance), knowledge work is fraught with variation.

Myriad people, products, projects, processes, experience levels, and information sources (both tacit and explicit), coupled with the requests for clarity and / or adjustment these constituencies make can combine and compete to create a sometimes bewildering if not cacophonous work environment.

Confusing and noisy - yes. Wasteful? Probably not. Quite the contrary, in fact.

In knowledge work, value is created through often unplanned human interaction. Water cooler conversations, instant message exchanges, seemingly interminable and ostensibly “useless” meetings, and serendipity combine to create customer value. Indeed, oftentimes customers themselves end up contributing to this continuous conversation.

Office workers usually have multiple projects with their own constituencies, deliverables, and anomalies. This creates a “noisy” interdependent environment with a very different relationship to variation than the one that exists on the shop floor. When it comes to knowledge work, variation - change - is a constant. No two financial audits will occur the same way. No two court cases will require the same strategy.No two treatment plans will offer the same course of action.

Oftentimes this change is how an organization learns. In the office, learning is the driver of successful projects, myriad improvements, and satisfied stakeholders.

Because of this, knowledge workers’ value streams have a very short shelf life. This does not mean they have no value stream, nor does it mean that their value streams are an effort in futility. Rather, their value streams ebb and flow with the work itself. They will stabilize and allow for the creation of a project-specific value-stream, but one which will always require continuous adjustment and improvement.

Therefore in knowledge work, flow comes not through relentless standardization and waste reduction, but through the continuous optimization of processes with a very short shelf-life. When it comes to optimizing flow in the office, the value stream is in a perpetual state of kaizen (which will be discussed in the next section).

How to mitigate: 

In the office, flow is interrupted not by communication per se, but by unnecessary communication or the interruption of focus. For a person or a team, their focus is maintained when they have a single task that they are allowed to complete unimpeded.

The issue in the office is that countless tasks are being processed simultaneously and whether they are self-imposed or external, interruptions are both frequent and inevitable. This is necessary for the organization’s learning, but it does not have to arrive chaotically. They can be batched to process similar tasks together. They can be analyzed to see where they emanate from and why. They can be scheduled. They can be be processed more thoughtfully.

Visualizing work as a team, as well as interruptions, allows team members to see when an interruption is least disruptive. Limiting WIP lowers the amount of potential interruptions (less people asking for status or seeking additional information). And techniques like working meetings and Pomodoros allow staff to sequester themselves for short periods of focus.

The overall goal to achieve flow in the office rests in creating pockets of focus to allow work to achieve completion. We do not, however, want to over-regulate work or stifle conversation because, while it is often unplanned, this type of variation is where true learning occurs.

Up next in The Lean Brain series: Push is Blind. Pull is Informed. See Beyond the Silo.

Earlier posts in this series:

Introduction: 5 Ways Our Brain Can Thwart Lean

Post 1: Value is a Conversation

Post 2: Visualization Begets Alignment

Tonianne is partner & principal consultant at Modus Cooperandi, co-author of the Shingo Research and Publication Award winning Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, co-founder of Kaizen Camp™ and Modus Institute. Toni explores the relationship between performance, motivation, and neuroscience, is passionate about the roles intention, collaboration, value-creation, and happiness play in “the future of work,” and appreciative of the ways in which psychology, Lean, systems thinking, and the work of W. Edwards Deming can facilitate these ends. She enjoys Coltrane, shoots Nikon, butchers the Italian language (much to the embarrassment of her family), is a single malt enthusiast, and is head over heels in love with her adopted home, Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @Sprezzatura.

The Lean Brain, Post 2: Visualization Begets Alignment

Lean says: Map the Value Stream Your brain says: I’ve been doing this so long, it’s become second nature to me. The steps are right here - in my head.

What’s at play here: Illusion of Transparency. Curse of Knowledge/Information Imbalance. Status Quo Thinking. Groupthink/False Consensus Effect. Availability Bias.

It was day four of the value stream mapping exercise and tempers were beginning to fray. Despite having worked together for years, the members of this outwardly cohesive development team struggled to identify the basic activities needed to create value for their customer. While at 17 steps they agreed they were close to completing a first pass of their map, they couldn’t seem to reach consensus when it came to certain conditions and boundaries and for some, even the target was nebulous.

If they couldn’t agree on how they currently operate - without that clear baseline - how could they improve their future state?

Oftentimes the curse of expertise is the assumption that other people’s interpretation of events matches our own. So long as the value stream is left implicit, the steps - the order, the handoffs, the standards - are highly subjective. As a result, effort is duplicated. Unnecessary churn occurs. Bottlenecks and work starvation become business as usual.

And no one seems notice.

How to mitigate:

Especially when it comes to non-routine creative work, eliminate assumptions and normalize expectations by making the current state explicit. Visualizing steps essential to the process exposes mismatches, surfaces non-value-added steps (waste), and promotes constancy of purpose.

Up next in The Lean Brain: Flow: You Can’t Step in the Same River Twice

Earlier posts in this series:

Introduction: 5 Ways Our Brain Can Thwart Lean

Post 1: Value is a Conversation


Tonianne is partner & principal consultant at Modus Cooperandi, co-author of the Shingo Research and Publication Award winning Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, co-founder of Kaizen Camp™ and Modus Institute. Toni explores the relationship between performance, motivation, and neuroscience, is passionate about the roles intention, collaboration, value-creation, and happiness play in “the future of work,” and appreciative of the ways in which psychology, Lean, systems thinking, and the work of W. Edwards Deming can facilitate these ends. She enjoys Coltrane, shoots Nikon, butchers the Italian language (much to the embarrassment of her family), is a single malt enthusiast, and is head over heels in love with her adopted home, Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @Sprezzatura.

The Lean Brain, Post 4: Push is Blind. Pull is Informed. See Beyond the Silo

Lean says: Establish Pull Your brain says: I work best under stress! Chaos motivates me!

What’s at play here: Brain on Stress. Learned Helplessness.

Most of us have seen the iconic “Job Switching” episode of I Love Lucy, where the titular character and her BFF Ethel find themselves doing a stint as line workers at Kramer’s Candy Kitchen. Subjected to organizational silos and a despotic supervisor who rules with a capricious conveyor belt and leads with the threat of expulsion, the women’s only KPI is to ensure not a single piece of candy makes it into the packing room unwrapped. Aligning their performance to this solitary target, they resort to hiding unwrapped chocolates in their mouths, their blouses and most memorably, in Lucy’s oversized chef’s hat.

Their excessive WIP and struggle to keep apace at 100% utilization, coupled with a toxic KPI which makes zero mention of producing a quality product, creates a system that forces an overwhelmed Lucy and Ethel to produce defects and hide wasted inventory necessitating rework, causing stress and chaos, and ultimately resulting in burnout (not to mention their respective stomach aches and ultimate dismissals from the company).

At this candy factory, supply rather than demand drives process. Work is being pushed onto Lucy and Ethel when they have neither the capacity to process it nor a signaling mechanism to slow it down or make it stop when a moment to breathe is needed. Upstream workers in the kitchen have no insight into the capacity of downstream workers in the wrapping room and in turn, workers downstream in the packing room are no doubt starved for work as they are left waiting for product.

Devoid of any context beyond their own work station, the hapless line workers - through no fault of their own - are oblivious to the fact that the wrapping room is part of a larger system. As a result, they are incapable of seeing the impact of their work-as-a-bottleneck on other parts of the value stream.

When we become overloaded, we focus myopically on our tasks rather than on their flow. Constantly forced to react we fail to be thoughtful about what it is we are doing, conceding control over our situation. Confronted with our own lack of agency we default to relying on others to push work on us, rather than pull it ourselves. Once this learned helplessness takes over, flow breaks down, and any hope for kaizen becomes futile.

How to mitigate:

This classic TV clip masterfully breaks almost every tenet of Lean thinking. Lucy and Ethel lack clarity over their roles, their goals, and the value stream; they have no visualization mechanism to understand their own capacity or a communication mechanism to convey it to others; they are assigned to a supervisor who rates rather than develops their performance; they’re driven by fear in the form of a useless KPI; they are afforded zero respect (agency) to stop the process when problems arise nor do they have the slack or support to so much as suggest improving their process.

Pull requires us to build thoughtful systems that allow for upstream and downstream transparency, continuous feedback, respect-as-agency, and easy adjustment to ensure changes and improvements are made in context.

Pull provides pockets of predictability and pause, allowing downstream workers to plan for, focus on, and complete work with quality while having enough slack to pursue kaizen opportunities.

Whereas pull in manufacturing seeks to prevent overproduction, so too does pull in a knowledge work setting.

What is overproduction in knowledge work? Burnout.

While extreme stress might serve as a positive motivator for physical performance and as such, prove beneficial to athletes, studies show it has the opposite effect on knowledge workers, impacting cognitive capacity - actually contributing to WIP - compromising overall performance and quality.

Whether actual or perceived, physical or cognitive, extreme stress activates the brain’s threat circuitry, shutting down all non-essential functions so as to direct the body’s attention towards eradicating the potential danger. Among those functions considered “non-essential” are digestion, the immune system, and most important to knowledge workers, higher level thinking. When we are stressed, the neurotransmitter dopamine floods the prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain responsible for executive functions - which includes our ability to concentrate, plan, organize, memorize, learn, problem-solve - the very skills essential to knowledge workers.

Utilizing a light-weight, flexible visual control like a Personal Kanban provides knowledge workers with a framework for understanding personal and team workloads and workflow. It gives them transparency into both the upstream supplier and the downstream customer’s context, as well as the opportunity to recognize and communicate to others their capacity to take on or defer more work. The associated WIP limit prevents them from taking on more work than they can handle, limiting cognitive stress thus allowing them to focus on and finish with quality only those tasks they have the mental capacity to process.

Up next in The Lean Brain: Post 5: Improvement is Not an Option

Earlier posts:

Introduction: 5 Ways Our Brain Can Thwart Lean

Post 1: Value is a Conversation

Post 2: Visualization Begets Alignment

Post 3: Flow: You Can’t Step in the Same River Twice

Tonianne is partner & principal consultant at Modus Cooperandi, co-author of the Shingo Research and Publication Award winning Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, co-founder of Kaizen Camp™ and Modus Institute. Toni explores the relationship between performance, motivation, and neuroscience, is passionate about the roles intention, collaboration, value-creation, and happiness play in “the future of work,” and appreciative of the ways in which psychology, Lean, systems thinking, and the work of W. Edwards Deming can facilitate these ends. She enjoys Coltrane, shoots Nikon, butchers the Italian language (much to the embarrassment of her family), is a single malt enthusiast, and is head over heels in love with her adopted home, Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @Sprezzatura.

The Lean Brain, Post 1: Value is a Conversation

  Lean says: Define Customer Value

Your brain says: I’ve seen this countless times before - I know what my customer needs better than they do.

What’s at play here: Expertise bias. Overconfidence effect. Ivory tower syndrome. Ego.

There’s an old story about a man standing along a riverbank. He doesn’t see a bridge, but he does see someone on the opposite bank fishing.

“Hey!” he shouts across the water. “How do I get to the other side of the river?”

The other man yells back, “You’re already on the other side of the river!”

Perspective. More than our own exists. Unfortunately we’re not wired to immediately see things beyond our own context and so from an anthropological standpoint, having a self-centered worldview makes perfect sense. Man’s survival did not depend on knowing what his fellow hunter-gatherers thought, felt, or needed. Biologically speaking, seeing things from our own side of the proverbial river is cognitively expedient - it’s quick, convenient, and let’s face it practical.

Acknowledging there might be an alternative or even multiple perspectives, acknowledging “their there” might deviate from our own requires mental effort. When we fall into the trap of assuming only one truth, of applying a singular mental model, we miss inherent complexities and nuances obliterating not only the possibility of finding better alternatives, but we guarantee that we will at some point fall short of our customer’s expectations.

How to mitigate: Your gut instinct, you experience, your myriad belts and certifications and mastery aside, you do not know what your customer wants. And THEY are the arbiter of value, not you. Replace assumptions with humility. Ask open-ended questions. Endeavor to gain an unbiased understanding of - and deeper insight into - what your client explicitly wants and why.

Next up in The Lean Brain series: Visualization Begets Alignment


Tonianne is partner & principal consultant at Modus Cooperandi, co-author of the Shingo Research and Publication Award winning Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, co-founder of Kaizen Camp™ and Modus Institute. Toni explores the relationship between performance, motivation, and neuroscience, is passionate about the roles intention, collaboration, value-creation, and happiness play in “the future of work,” and appreciative of the ways in which psychology, Lean, systems thinking, and the work of W. Edwards Deming can facilitate these ends. She enjoys Coltrane, shoots Nikon, butchers the Italian language (much to the embarrassment of her family), is a single malt enthusiast, and is head over heels in love with her adopted home, Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @Sprezzatura.

Introducing The Lean Brain Series by Tonianne DeMaria

While heading to a session at the most recent Lean Transformation Summit, I found myself confronted with signage that posed the following open-ended question:

“All problem solvers must…”

Given how the work we do at Modus Cooperandi focuses largely on the nexus between Lean for knowledge work, behavioral economics, neuroscience, and the teachings of W. Edwards Deming, one response in particular resonated:

“Understand how their behaviors are contributing to the problem.”

While Lean offers us a set of principles and practices to help us create value for our customers, for our organizations, and for ourselves, it’s our brains that seem to pose the greatest challenge to its successful implementation.

But it’s not our fault, you see. Our brains hate us.

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit harsh. They do nevertheless tend to act in their own self-interest to conserve cognitive energy - opting for rapidity over reason - often sabotaging our best intentions with their behavior-impacting shortcuts. Which is precisely what Jim Benson and I have encountered in the hundreds of workshops we’ve offered where we ask participants, What is your biggest impediment to implementing Lean?

The universal response? Myself.

To understand why this is, we need to look no further than the System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK). With SoPK, Dr. Deming explains how people and processes are all part of a complex web of interrelated systems. Among those is our cognitive system.

In contrast to that which is found on the factory floor, knowledge worker’s “machinery” - their brains - can be capricious, rendering thought processes less than reliable, and actions less than rational.

For Lean thinkers who engage in knowledge work, even a cursory understanding of how the brain can contribute to behaviors impeding Lean’s five key principles (as Dr. Deming instructs, having an understanding of psychology) is crucial to identifying where Lean efforts might become sabotaged.

So stayed tuned for my latest series of posts: The Lean Brain.

Post 1: Value is a Conversation

Post 2: Visualization Begets Alignment

Post 3: Flow: You Can’t Step In the Same River Twice

Post 4: Push is Blind. Pull is Informed. See Beyond the Silo

Post 5: Improvement is Not an Option

Business Starts with Social and Succeeds with Respect

If you are reading this, you are likely human. Collaboration drives success

Congratulations, I'm human too.

Everyday we all wake up and wonder what the day will bring.  We wonder who we will meet, what conversations we have, and what we will do.

We all want to do things.

In business we have processes, we have bureaucracies, we have rules.

We also have hopes, dreams, and expectations.


Each individual in your organization is there to take fuel (hopes, dreams, and expectations) and use the system (processes, bureaucracies,and rules) to create value (stuff people need).

Businesses are made up of people, working together, to achieve profit and success. To realize those expectations, learn lessons, and remain in business.

No company is made up of autonomous, self-organizing units. Successful businesses are, however, often made up of mutually-supportive, self-organizing units.

This extends from the individual to the team to the group to the division to the corporation.

It is a nested social network of value creation.  As anyone who has watched the rise of the Internet can tell you, social networks are powerful drivers of value, change, and action.

At the heart of the social network is the individual. A person who collaborates with another person, persons, or groups. A person who wakes up every day wondering what the day will bring.


Your working systems drive your culture which drive the products you build, your time to market, and your relationship with your customer.

Tonianne and I have build our careers on this relationship. Yes, your team is fractured / your organization is low-trust / your work flow has clear but unsolved bottlenecks ... why?

Usually because you focus entirely on the work and not the people.

When we work with groups we apply systems thinking which traditionally teaches to look to the system and not the individual for the root cause of problems with behavior or social breakdown. This is almost always exactly the right thing to do. Those edge cases are simply that, edge cases.

But systems thinking cannot ignore that the people who are in the current system have needs and expectations which have or will become dreams deferred. They will or perhaps have become cancerous. These side-effects of historic lack of respect therefore show up as resistance to change, even when that change is clearly positive.

It is clear that the social system of the org and the procedural system are not separate. We need to balance our examination on the processes and the people. Not to blame, but to ensure that the new systems we create understand who is working in them.

Using a variety of proven tools, not the least of which is simply listening, it is possible, perhaps even not-difficult, to get organizations not only working efficiently (easy) but working effectively (much less easy).  An effective organization learns, quickly reacts to changes in the market, and values coming to work.

Over the next two weeks, I will present tools or techniques we use or simply tell some stories depicting how we pragmatically and systemically include the individual in creating an effective organization.

Distributed Teams not Distributed Silos

The notion of a successful distributed team seems like a wonderful, yet unobtainable dream. But stop and think, how often are your non-distributed teams successful? When have they been successful and why? Virtual Teams

It’s never because of your plan or because you hired the best people. It’s not because you got expensive new project management software. It’s not even because you had executive buy-in and freedom to make your own decisions.

Successful teams have only resulted from one key ingredient: clarity.

People need to know what work is being done by whom, what their own roles are, when to ask for help or provide information, what decisions they can safely make on their own, what is being completed (imagine, seeing progress makes you successful!), and knowing the people they are working with.

For a distributed team, this is hard to achieve and maintain because team members exposure to each other is often limited (if non-existent). They not only begin to feel isolated, but they spend a lot of their energy either acting in good faith in a way that doesn’t help the team or wondering how they should be acting. Trust begins to erode when meetings focus on what is going wrong rather than what is happening in the project as a whole. These lead to a loss of alignment, as people try to figure what is really going on and speculate as to why breakdowns are occurring.

It’s not long before your distributed team becomes distributed silos.

Distributed systems have weaker links between their components (the team members). Russell Ackoff defined a system as “the interactions between the components.” If we have weak links, we have a weak system.

To avoid this, teams must constantly be aware of:

  • Roles: What things that need to be done are being done and by whom (not job descriptions, but actual roles). These can be shared or individual.
  • Boundaries: When does an action by me require talking to you?
  • The Product: Goals, status, and customer.
  • What is in Flight: We can’t collaborate if we are working in distributed silos. Team members must know in real-time who is working on what, when they are stuck, and when they have successfully completed their tasks.
  • Collaboration Opportunities: As often as possible, team members need to work together to complete tasks. This builds rapport (very important) and strengthens communications between distributed team members.

When you add these elements together, both team members and the project benefit from greatly increased clarity. People know what is being done for whom, and why. They know what’s being completed so they can interpret breakdowns in the context of overall success. Best of all, accountability, which people spend way too much time worrying about, will be evident in completed work by the team as a whole (no longer any need to come up with productivity metrics or other morale-destroying systems).

All teams, distributed or co-located, will benefit from this clarity and collaboration. We’ve all seen it. Any team you’ve been on that’s been successful has likely known what their mission was, what their role was, and had the information and authority to act.

These elements are explored in depth in Modus Institute’s Successful Distributed Teams class.

Consulting and Learning are Mutual

When you are a consultant or, worse yet, seen as a thought leader, people hire you expecting to know "the answers".  At best what you actually know is paths to make sense of problems, communicate them, and then solve them. No consultant should ever arrive knowing the answers. If they do, you could have just asked them over the phone or read their book. Canned knowledge is a commodity. Problem solving is not.

Let's face it, work is a challenge. We have to not only get along with other people, more importantly we need to understand other people. Our colleagues aren't fungible, they aren't machines. They are stuck in the same problems we are. They are just as much a part of the problem as we are and they are just as much a victim of the problem.

Since writing Personal Kanban, (now 5 years ago) we've worked with companies, governments, and individuals around the world helping them get control of their work - but you never do that without solving some problem. They all want Personal Kanban to come in, plug in, and start running.

Digging into issues is paramount.

I can state unequivocally after nearly 25 years of project management, business ownership, and process consulting - that no tool has ever single-handedly fixed a workflow issue.

In an upcoming interview on Dave Prior's Projects@Work, Dave mostly asked me about how I learn from my clients. That's Dave's tweet up above after the interview (I'm @ourfounder on Twitter). He was laser-focused on that topic.

The fact is that as a consultant my only job is to learn from my clients first. Then I take the tools at my disposal and use them with the client - so they learn those tools or ideas and can use them on their own next time.

We've walked into situations where:

  • the entire company hated each other
  • people were so overworked that they had no idea how to prioritize, estimate, or complete their work
  • poor quality had created blame cascades so rich that no one could trace the source of the problem
  • bad service delivery has caused a customer riot
  • one toxic person with great power was destroying an otherwise very successful company
  • growth had taken a successful and focused startup into a sprawling confused mid-sized company with too many clients
  • great ideas spawned so many projects that nothing got done
  • bureaucracy had ground innovation and autonomy to such a halt that no one could act

and more. Every client has had unique elements and predictable elements. No one has ever been mundane.

In no case was this ever a problem because people were incompetent or evil. Each time there was a system we could build with our clients that helped them see and confront their issues. That would be impossible if we didn't listen first.


Collaboration Interview with Nancy White

Without collaboration, we cannot have business. It's the fundamental fabric for what we build, how we build it, and how we work with our customers. Collaboration is also the core of how to have a successful distributed team, which we teach about at Modus Institute. We took time to interview Nancy White an international practitioner (maven) in collaboration and getting distributed teams to plan their work, stay in alignment, and achieve success.


Yes, Distributed Teams Can Be Successful: Announcing the Launch of Modus Institute

Distributed teams are notorious for causing managers and workers strife. We love the idea that we can work from anywhere, but isolation and communication breakdowns can play havoc with trust and alignment. Regardless of their challenges, distributed teams are not only here to stay, they are increasingly becoming the norm. In our work with clients the past few years, one common theme has emerged: how can we make our distributed teams successful?

In response to this need, we’ve created the first on-line course in establishing and maintaining a cohesive distributed team. We provide a set of tools and ways of working that will enable distributed teams to work together much more effectively.

It isn’t technology or contracts or job descriptions or better direction that contributes to a  distributed team’s’s clarity. This clarity falls into four key components:

Clarity of purpose and expectations: Everyone on the team needs to know what the team expects from themselves, each other, and the project itself. This sets a social contract between team members that says, “We are building this thing, I will do this work, you will do that work, we will collaborate on this other work, success looks like ________.”

Clarity of communications: Everyone on the team needs to know what communications will come from where and when they are likely to arrive. Take the guesswork out of finding meeting invites or documents. Declare what technology is going to help us and how. Declare regular meetings, check-ins, and ways of collaboratively working.

Clarity of immediate work:  How do we work? What is our process? How do I know if something is stalled? How do I know who is doing what? When can I help? When can I ask for help? These questions require real-time tactical information about what the team is building, who is doing what work, and how close you are to meeting your goals.

Clarity of action and improvement: What does the project “going right” look like? What do I do when I see that it’s “going wrong?” When can I improve something on my own? When does it require a conversation? How can we act quickly and decisively?

In the Distributed Teams class we cover these elements in four simple management tools and three cultural norms. The class is built to be a quick no-nonsense examination of the principles you will need in order to have a successful distributed team.

This course is $599. To introduce the course, we are giving an introductory rate of $249 until August 1st, 2015.

Sign up now and join our growing community of practice in successful distributed teams.

Modus List #6 - Five Risks in How We Think About Risk

This is list number six. If you haven’t yet, go back and read the post Top Ten Reasons Why I Hate Lists. As with all lists, this is short, blunt, and intended to start a discussion.

Risk mitigation, risk assessment, risk management … we insure ourselves from risk, put buffers in our estimates to compensate for risk, and we make decisions based on risk.

Or do we?

We think risk is a thing. It’s rarely a thing. Risk is part of the system we are creating. It’s the variation, its the unknowns, its the bit that makes “value add” something someone hasn’t done before, and risk is always a result of experiments we are running.

#1 - Risk is Quantifiable

Quantifying risk is like quantifying love. We don’t say … There is a 0.9 correlation between your attractiveness attributes and my desire criteria therefore love, marriage, and children are a reasonably low-risk venture and I am willing to invest my life in it.  With eharmony we could do exactly that. But we know that people don’t work that way. Even with firm evaluation criteria, people themselves are fraught with variation.

Risk, too, is fraught with variation and regardless how much actuarial science we bring to the table - it’s always going to be a gamble.

Risk, therefore, is actually an emotional determination. Are we (personally) willing to accept the risk we see before us? Is the gamble of the venture appealing enough to take the risk?

#2 - Risk is Knowable

Risk always involves some degree of unknown. 100% certain things are not risky - they may be foolish, but not risky. If there is a man around the with a machine gun shooting everyone with perfect accuracy, I can be certain that if I come around the corner he will shoot me. Turning the corner is not risky, it’s just a really bad idea.

#3 - One Person Knows Risk

Time and again I see one project manager, one CEO, one person making decisions on risk. It’s their job to assess risk, they tell me. But they are one person addressing a sea of unknowns. They are one perspective on a large, multifaceted, and evolving target.

Risk, therefore, requires some care in consideration.  Different people bring different viewpoints. Engineers, designers, managers, finance, sales, marketing, regulatory compliance, HR … all bring different professional views of risk.

One perspective is a limited perspective. One perspective guarantees your view of risk will be stilted.

#4 - Risk Assessments Are Completed

Your product, your project, and your context are always evolving. Risk is evolving with them. Very few people leave the house assessing all the risks for their drive. We start the drive and watch the road vigilantly for bicycles, potholes, impaired drivers, or other hazards. While backseat drivers may annoy us, from time to time they do call our attention to risks from their perspective as well (see #3).

With many products (medicine, software, insurance policies, electronics) even after the release of a product we are still watching to make sure the product works right, doesn’t hurt anyone, and isn’t becoming illegal in some way. Doing a risk assessment up front, creating a plan, and then not reassessing during the project is shortsighted.

#5 - Risk Assessments are Just Business

The framing effect, experimenters bias, the availability heuristic, and a host of other cognitive biases compliment and are the product of the previous four risks. Business, after all, is a human endeavor by humans and certainly involving them. We are the creatures that make the choices, we interpret the data, we take the risks. When we convince ourselves that risk is solely based on statistical models and that our interpretation of those statistics is rational simply “because the numbers say so” we are placing ourselves in a very precarious position indeed.

We have all seen the leaders of our world gather “facts” and then dismiss them because they have a vision. When they are lucky and succeed (Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill) they are lauded forever. When they are unlucky and get nailed … they are not. Either way, they made decisions like we all do … partially on information and partially on intuition.

When we understand that part of the variation in our risk assessment system is our own interpretation of the data … that’s when we can start to honestly (not perfectly) assess risk.

Modus List 5: Nine Questions You Can't Answer When Not Visualizing Your Work

There are many techniques to visualize your work. Obviously, our most popular is Personal Kanban. The way the human brain is constructed, we are very sensitive to the content of and quickly assimilate visual information. Just walking down the street you are exposed to different buildings with different uses with different qualities. We take this information in-stride. But if we want to see something less visual, like a list we have to stop and read it carefully and then interpret it.

When we do not visualize our work (turn it into something like a map or the real-world), we cannot see what we are doing. We immediate cannot directly answer some very key questions.

#1 What is being built?

In knowledge work, the very thing we are building spends most of its time in conception. We are using our minds to do the work. Right now, this entire article is in my head. The residents of this Norweigian Starbucks have no idea what I am doing. Neither to my colleagues back in the states. When this article is done, everyone will know what was built.

Visual controls show us what is being done. If I see a ticket that Tonianne has pulled that says “Research neuroscience WRT stress and work” I can immediately show her articles I’ve read. If I wait until she gives me a finished product, it is too late.

#2 Who is currently working?

Who is actually working right now? This isn’t really necessary for oversight, odds are everyone is working and working pretty hard. Here we want to know who is currently busy and who isn’t for two key reasons trust and collaboration.

Unfortunately trust fades when people become overworked. We mistake the few minutes where someone gets up to take a break as what they are doing all the time. Trust erodes because we can’t look at something that reassures us, “Yes, it’s okay, they’re still working away.”

If we want to collaborate with someone, understanding what their current work load is gives us a good indication when we can impose ourselves upon them. If I’m in the middle of a deep thought and you come and interrupt me with an entirely different context - I then context switch, losing valuable time and energy. (Right now, someone is sending me messages in IM and I am noticing them - that’s been enough to derail this paragraph several times). On the other hand … if I am busy on a task and you say to me, “Jim, when you are done with that task or take a break, I need some time with you.” that is a minimal interruption. I can say “yes” and catch you when I’m done.

#3 Who is currently idle?

Noticing idle workers seems to be the opposite of #2, but it’s actually quite different. Idle workers (with no tasks at all) can be a sign of a workflow issue. Work is likely stuck somewhere upstream, leaving these workers waiting for new work.

#4 What is stuck?

Stuck tickets are absurdly easy to see in on a kanban board. Something that dwells in a column longer than is comfortable (much sooner than before it becomes a problem) are dealt with through discussion, teamwork, or simply killing the task. Being able to quickly and easily see that a ticket is not moving is a very effect way to increase effectiveness. With no visualization, tasks can and do become stuck for months.

#5 Who needs help?

From time to time, we’ll all get that stuck task. The problem that seems like it has an easy solution, but we spin and spin on it. In Cynefin these tasks are either categorized as highly complicated (outside your expertise) or complex (solution is possible but yet unknown). These happen. When this occurs, we tend to withdraw - thinking we need to solve the problem ourselves. What really is needed, however, is teamwork. These problems require multiple minds or outside sources to solve. When this happens, people need help.

#6 Who is overloaded?

Overload is extremely common, but we don’t know it because we can’t see what we’re doing. We don’t know what our real workload is. Visualizing work quickly shows who has too much work right now. When this is noticed, we can help these people by either slowing the rate at which they receive work or help them move the work out of their backlog.

#7 When can I expect to see something?

Estimating without visualizing is like steering a car with your eyes closed. When we view our work through a kanban board we can measure completion rates of actual work. Work estimation is problematic at an individual task level. We don’t know if we will be interrupted, if other work will take precedence, or if we’ll run into one of those tasks from #5. When work items are viewed in the aggregate, they become much more predictable. Statistical forecasting beats estimation every time. With a flow-based visualization we can measure cycle time, throughput, and lead time to provide much more reliable responses.

#8 What have we finished?

Seeing what you have finished and remembering it is vital. Our brains color our memorymake us forget what we’ve completed, and reward focusing on the what happened most recently. We need to have a visual record of what we have done or we will actively forget both the work and its context. This makes it impossible to learn and improve.

#9 What’s coming next?

Knowing work that is approaching helps us do our work right now. We know what context the current work will fit into, how it might be augmented, and what “done” might look like. If we have an infinite amount of time to complete a task, done will look very different than if we have, say, an hour. Seeing work as it coming up allows us to better plan our time and appreciate the workload that is impending.

Modus List 4: Eleven Reasons Your Employees Are NOT Working For You

Over the years, Tonianne and I have visited companies and government organizations of all shapes and sizes. Everywhere we go, we find people who are at work and are working, but aren’t working to improve the organization, how it works, the products it provides, or its relationship with its customers.

Managers lament that this is because they feel their people aren’t rising to the occasion, team players, or whatever. The truth is, we create systems with attributes specifically designed to stop participation before it starts.

  1. Learned Helplessness

When someone tries to help, to solve a problem, or to promote potentially positive change and are met with strong resistance (skepticism, indifference, or outright hostility) they learn that their help is not desired. Not only that, but they begin to find their help to be threatening to their careers. They don’t want to “rock the boat” by suggesting change or improvement.  Then they cope by either complaining that change never happens or, worse, stop looking for ways to improve or problems to solve.

This develops a culture of continuous indifference which we can all witness in systemic breakdowns like the Chevy Cobalt incidents where people in GM knew full well there was a dangerous issue and did not appropriately address it for fear of internal retribution.

  1. Lack of Agency

Agency is the ability to act when a person sees action as necessary. It doesn’t mean that people can do whatever they want, whenever they want, but it does mean they are able to exercise good professional judgment. When we impede our employee or coworker’s ability to act when they feel it is professionally responsible, we are leaving them no choice but to not act in those cases.

When we overy define job descriptions, place unnecessary permission paths in the way of action, or specifically tell people “Just do the work you are given”, we are immediately stopping them from exceeding our expectations, helping the company improve, or alerting us when potentially devastating problems arise.

  1. Bureaucracy

Every rule we create costs our companies money. Every rule we create limits action. Every rule we create adds to the impedance of completing good work. We do need some rules for without them we have no system at all. But the more rules we create, the thicker the bureaucracy.

Think of bureaucracy as traffic. If it is mid-afternoon or late at night, you would have no qualms driving through downtown to get somewhere. Traffic will be acceptable and your drive will be relatively pleasant. If it is rush hour, you would say, “let’s not make that drive, traffic is too heavy.”

When people consider whether to take an action (in this case going that extra step for the company) they first consider the opportunity cost. Bureaucracy drastically increases opportunity costs and often leaves good improvements undone because they are simply too much trouble.

  1. Unclear direction

When we don’t know what is going on with our projects or our product development, we don’t actually know what to look for to improve. We don’t know what “right” or “success” actually look like. Therefore, we can’t spot “wrong” or “failure.” We then wait for someone else to tell us that things have gone wrong.

When people understand the direction and vision of their work, they become excellent leading indicator generators of success or failure. They will know when things are going well or poorly and let you know. If they don’t have that understanding, there is no way they can know.

  1. Role confusion

Knowing our place on a project or a team means when know when we should act alone, when we should involve others, and when we should ask someone else to act. While strict job descriptions are not necessary, understanding expectations and boundaries allow people to use their professional judgment. One of the worst things we can do is tell a group of confused people “you all now have agency and you can do whatever you want … go improve!”

People do need a defined system to in which to operate, even (or especially) if they can change that system.

  1. Demonstrated systemic indifference

Simply put, people don’t care about things that don’t care about them. I recently ended at long-term relationship with my airline carrier-of-choice because they demonstrated that they did not care if I stayed or went … so I left for a carrier that was more interested in a mutually supportive relationship. At the office, if people feel that they are just a cog in a machine, they will behave like a cog. Cogs turn, but they don’t improve, they don’t innovate, they don’t extend their own use.  Your system must support and appreciate the people that comprise it.

  1. Demonstrated systemic incompetence

There are many ways to be incompetent. In the end it comes down to this … what is the delta between an obvious good outcome and what actually happens?

Be honest about this. What patently stupid things has your organization done that destroys employee morale or confidence? How often do customers call your organization and say, “I was expecting to give you money, but you’ve made it so difficult I’d rather go without your product entirely?” Or internally, how many times do your employees endure another new process, another new silver bullet, another new cultural change that results in the same old work done the same old way … plus the new one? How many times do employees say, “that won’t work” and it happens anyway … and it doesn’t work.

  1. Arbitrary career advancement

Old boy networks, popularity contests, unnecessary middle management, stack ranking, and other alienating career advancement schemes make it unlikely that people will take risks, offer information, or collaborate on new ideas. They create internal games that work well for certain personality types to advance in the company, but not to promote the involvement and creativity of the organization as a whole. As a result, career advancement often directly works against a company’s best interests.

  1. Overload Overwork and Overstimulation

Any overloaded system will produce increasingly defective work until it finally collapses. We do not implement systems that measure the capacity of our workers and control work to remain at optimal levels. People in today’s economy are routinely overloaded, overworked, and overstimulated. Nerves are frayed, tensions are high, and quality is low. We don’t see this because it is status quo, we accept anger in the office, work as stressful, and low-quality work that requires significant editing and shoring up before release as normal.

Simply creating a working environment optimized to how much quality work people can actually do will, in the end, produce more and higher quality output. Very few companies today (Zappos, Riot Games, etc.) actually do manage to create working environments designed to not overload those inside them..

  1. Ennui ... nothing gets done here anyway

This is the embodiment of the Culture of Continuous Indifference. We have seen several companies where people (even upper management) will say, “Change doesn’t happen here, it’s just not part of our DNA.” DNA that does not evolve, dies. Any of the previous 9 can lead to this, but the moment this become lore, it actually becomes the culture. When we accept that we can not create any change or that we cannot innovate … we simply do not do it.

  1. You told them not to

I’ve heard this in many ways, “I don’t pay you to think.” “I control the work backlog..” “I’m the one that talks to the customers.” “That’s not your decision.” “Don’t worry about that right now.” “We tried that before 10 years ago and it didn’t work” There are a million ways to shut down someone with initiative. But in the end, you are paying these people money and they are trying to help. It’s not like they get a cut of profits or a direct reward. These people are trying to help make the company more profitable, a better place to work, or a better supporter of their customer’s needs. When you tell them to stop, they will.

Modus List 3: Our Five Estimate Pathologies

Business runs on estimates.  How long do you think that might take? we naively ask. Then when someone tells us how long they think something might take, we write that down and hold them to it.

Webster says the very word “estimate” means to roughly calculate or judge the value, number, quantity, or extent of something. “Roughly” … “judge.” We know that estimates are always wrong enough to be lottery-worthy when they are right.

Here are five estimate pathologies that cause us nothing but pain.

  1. Guarantism - The belief an estimate is actually correct.

When someone gives you a number, you believe it. Numbers are definite. They have credibility. When I plumber says, “This’ll probably cost ya about $600” your head immediately sets a price at $600. This is where we explore ideas of accountability. We believe that estimate is correct and we will now hold that plumber accountable even though he clearly said “probably” and “about.” Dollars, dates, and milestones become truths the moment they are uttered.

  1. Promisoriality - The belief that estimates are possible

When I make an estimate I fall prey to something called The Planning Fallacy. This tells us that we will almost always err in our estimates.  But when we give an estimate,  we feel we've given someone or word.  We feel it's a promise.  That means we take ownership of it and become entrenched.  We believe our own estimate and begin to ignore warning signs that the estimate may,  in fact,  have been only an educated guess.

  1. Swami-itis - The belief that an estimates is a basis for sound decision making

Each project we undertake is an hypothesis.  We believe the actions included in our plan will result in the product we envision.  Further,  each product is envisioned to have an impact on the market.

The larger the project, the more guesses upon which you base your work.  We believe we can predict the future because the plans we are making sound plausible. In fact,  they are guess upon guess, assumption upon assumption.

  1. Craftosis - The assumption that estimates can be done better

We believe we will get better at our estimates.  That estimation is a skill.  This may be true,  our estimating skills can be honed.  However,  the planning fallacy and the realities of how we work put a cap on the accuracy we are able to attain.

Our accuracies are impacted by variation in the work and high margin work usually includes high variation.  When we plan or estimate at the task level,  the role of variation is so severe that simple changes in the weather or absence of a colleague due to the flu can derail an estimate and a project.

  1. Reality Blindness - The insistance that estimates are implementable

In business,  we create estimates and plans and begin work immediately,  rarely with the expectation that those plans will change.

In civil engineering there are different levels of estimates.  A planning level estimate is an estimate believed to have a high degree of unknowns which is therefore subject to high levels of variation and uncertainty.

An engineering level estimate actually comes with gradations of certainty. Construction plans will be provided and reviewed for 20% 30% ... up to what is called a 100% submittal.

The 100% submittal is when work can begin. During actual construction the designs are further refined.  When the project is completed a while new set of drawings and documents are created to document what was actually built.  These are called "as-builts". This is because even in a theorizing theoretically lower-variation environment like civil engineering we still don't build to our estimates.

So tell me, what’s number 6?

Modus List 2: The Seven Deadly WIPS - What Destroys Your Ability To Finish?

Seven DeadlyModern business drowns in overhead it can’t even see. I’ve seen companies spend hours denying an expense request on a $20 book. I’ve seen teams spin for weeks planning projects that change dramatically in the first week due to a simple implementation lesson. I’ve seen people overworked and therefore missing deadlines pulled into long meetings to talk to them about how late they are in their work.

Uncontrolled work-in-process creates the overhead that destroys companies or at least their profit margins.

In Personal Kanban there are only two rules: Visualize your work and Limit your Work-in-Process (WIP). I have come to the conclusion that limiting WIP is like trying to exactly drive the speed limit. In knowledge work, it is very difficult to do and sometimes actually dangerous.

Controlling WIP on the other hand is something we absolutely need to do.

What work-in-process replaces the work we desire?

Here’s a list of seven deadly WIPs.

#1 Interruptions

It’s easy to witch-hunt interruptions but the simple truth is that we often don’t know which interruption is going to be valuable. We cannot, nor do we want to, stop interruptions. We do, however, want to promote focus. Interruptions, therefore, must be controlled. We all need time during the day to focus on completion. We need hours with email, Facebook, and other communications methods (even the phone) shut off. Not a lot, maybe one, maybe two. Just focusing on completion.  And no, these hours cannot come before everyone comes to work or after everyone goes home.

#2 New Ideas

We live in an age of limitless options. The costs and time required to make something are lower than ever before. This means we have many possibilities to be creative, to make money, or to see an idea through to fruition. People are finding it harder and harder to focus on one project at a time. The more ideas we pursue at once, however, the slower we will be to complete them, the higher the costs will be to realize them, and the lower the quality of the product will be.

#3 Big Batchism

The bigger the project, the more complex it will be. The bigger the project, the higher the stakes.

The more complexity, the greater the overhead.

The higher the stakes, the more likely people are working towards the deadline. (utilization)

The more focus on utilization, higher the overload and the less focus on product quality.

The higher the overload and the less focus on product quality, the more emergencies.

The more emergencies, the more interruptions, the more planning, the more rework, the more time spent “finding the person responsible.”

#4 Failure Demand

Failure demand is the work we are compelled to do in response to ill conceived or low quality initial work. We install a defective security system in someone’s house, we have to fix it. We release buggy software, we have to release an update. Regardless of the industry, releasing bad product doesn’t just cause rework, it causes new work. Call centers, schedulers, high-level meetings, reputation management, etc. Failure demand also pulls us away from our planned work - you know, the new projects that will make us more money - in favor of rework - literally work we’ve done and have been paid for already that we are now required to do again. It’s hard to stick to a deadline when your old work come back to haunt you.

#5 Overload Overhead

Utilization is the percentage of time someone is “working”. Traditional management has treated people like machines. We try to run them as close to what we perceive as 100% capacity as possible. We reason that this is when we make the most money from them.

But people are not machines and they do not act independently. High utilization of a machine means that you use the machine until it explodes. Then you buy a new machine. Well, people don’t explode and you can’t just buy new ones. It’s hard to tell when they are slowing down, it’s hard to tell when they are broken. When we do notice slowdowns, we criticize their behavior and tell them to work harder.

A person who is buried in work not only has to manage her own work, she has to interface with many other people in your organization. That means she has to schedule meetings, work handoffs, deadlines, and so forth. This is time consuming. Every new project or task you give her increases her coordination costs and logistical overhead.

This is NOT a linear increase in WIP. One more project does not equal twice the work. It is an exponential growth because now not only is she scheduling things, those new appointments are in conflict with her other project.  These add up to create her overload overhead.

She also has to context switch between her project A, her project B, and her project C every time she gets an email, a phone call, or someone stops by to chat. Soon she slows down and she has to schedule new meetings to talk about why she’s “late” for deadlines were never meetable. These meetings are even more overload overhead.

#6 The Un-kaizened

We worked with a group that literally had crates of uncompleted paperwork (yes, actualpaper work) lining their halls. Crate after crate after crate of incomplete paperwork.

They were understaffed and could not ever see a day where they would not get out of this work. So, they hired temp workers to come in and finish the work. The temp workers removed a lot of crates, but new ones appeared. ... and soon complaints were coming in that the completed paperwork was often unusable. Staff soon began to oversee the work of the temp workers, rather than do their regular work. This caused even more paperwork to get backed up.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on temp workers that resulted in nothing but failure demand and overload overhead.

When asked the question, “Why don’t you just finish the paperwork when you receive it?” The workers told us that was flat-out impossible.

When asked, “What have you tried to clear out the paperwork?” the reply was ... hire temp workers.

Kaizen essentially means “small change for the good”.

When the paperwork (blank) was held up in the air and the question was asked, “Is this form perfect?” The answer was “No.”

When we looked at the forms, the intial clerks filled out only certain parts. why? Because there was a regulation saying they had to fill out those parts.

The rest of the form was massive.

“Is all of this form necessary?”


We set to work identifying what was necessary and streamlining the form.  It turned out all the unnecessary information was already in another database in another part of the company.

A small change to the form saved massive time and money.

The un-kaizened - the small change no one saw because they were overworked and underappreciated created costly WIP for everyone.

#7 Premature Plans

I am a planner. I was certified as an AICP by the American Institute of Certified Planners. This means I can plan big things. Not just a project, but cities, freeway systems, utility networks. Planning is actually fun for me.

Planning is a verb. You don’t make a plan. You engage in planning.

You don’t steer your car at the beginning of the journey, you are constantly steering.

When we create rigid up-front plans for our projects (you know the ones that are supposed to mitigate risk?)  we greatly increase the amount of risk we subject ourselves to.

Why? Because we build beautiful plausible stories about how the future will look and we fall in love with that vision. We marry that vision and we very steadfastly stand by that vision, no matter how wrong it obviously becomes.

I have watched and been a part of massive planning exercises for companies from startups to Fortune 10s to government agencies where they build a plan, create a Gantt chart, and then legally / contractually demand that that plan happens exactly that way.

I’ve never, in my nearly 30 years of doing this, seen any project go exactly right.

But, when it does predictably go in a perfectly natural, though unexpected, direction, people flip out.  The plan failed!

So next time they spend even more time creating the plan.

But it didn’t fail, we just learned something.

Premature plans destroy learning. Premature plans are overhead. Premature plans are WIP.  Premature plans invite us to snatch failure from the jaws of victory every time.

So tell me, what’s number Eight?

Modus List 1: Top Ten Reasons I Hate Top Ten Lists

Lists are contrived conveyances of information.

And they work. They are quite effective at providing a quick framework to get a complex point across. This post is the beginning of a series of posts that are, specifically, lists. Every one of them will detail a number of points about something of extreme importance to how we work as people, as managers, and as organizations.

I guarantee you this post warning people about the dangers of lists will be the least popular list in the series. People will retweet and like the heck out of the other lists and sort of snicker at this one.

So, let’s quickly examine the limitations of lists as a global caveat to everything I’m about say.

#1 Premature Limitations

The selection and broadcast of a given number of anything prematurely limits the thinking about that thing. This can create the boundaries of thought, stifling future creativity and growth.

#2 The Framing Effect

The presentation or grouping of items in a list gives them weight and authority which directly impacts how you feel about them (positive or negative).

#3 False Linearity

We build an assumption that the lists are ordered and hierarchical. Number One was the most important, number two is less so, and so on. This creates an assumption that there are only nthings and #1 is time more important than n. This is very dangerous and untrue.

#4 The Urge to Trademark

A list is a thing and we can trademark a thing. We can’t trademark an idea. Once someone comes up with a list like Top Ten Things I Hate About Lists, they can trademark it. Which further solidifies the thinking and removes it from public discourse.

#5 End of the List / End of the Thinking

When you finish reading this list, you will think about the items in this list. Very very few readers will say, “What is missing from this list?” If they do, they will think the list is “wrong. It’s not wrong, it’s a list. There’s other stuff not in the list.

#6 Dogma

Lists are finite, ownable, and knowable. They quickly become dogma. “You can’t do that, it’s not in the list!” Certifications or ordinations of ministers of the dogma soon follow.

#7 Arbitrary Small Numbers Sell

I’m writing this and you are reading it because 10 is a small, easily digested number. You will buy it, you will pass it along. Why? Because limiting thought is actually useful and practical. They question is ... will you give in to the idea that 10 is really all there is? Or will you try to discover #11 or #12 or #13?

#8 Simple Stories

The packaging of ideas into a simple and apparently linear story builds cognitive ease. To read this article, you didn’t have to study about cybernetics, cognitive bias, or how we process information. You were able to take the results of that learning by others and see some results.  Lists should always invite further inquiry, not attempt final definitions - but they read to the mind like final definitions because simple stories appear to be complete.

#9 Confirmation Bias

We ingest information according to our own world view. Numeric lists appear to be scientific and complete, but they are always vague. While this vagueness can spawn creativity, it most often is plugged into the worldview of the reader or listener. They take that information and interpret it in a way that confirms something or some things they already believed.

#10 Essentialism Without Expansion

Lists begin with the assumption that complex ideas can be boiled down to their essence - a short list of characteristics that will adequately explain away nuance and variation. As is apparent, nuance and variation are important elements in all of nature. Everything evolves, everything decays. Lists promote an essential view of things that deny us the luxury of future expansion.

Having said all of that, I am about to embark on an extended exercise of listing things. I invite everyone who reads any of the posts to add or revise any part of that list that they wish.

No list is sacred, every list is a platform.

So tell me, what’s #11?