Tuesday, March 26, 2013
An area related to time wasting is those situations where overzealous cost cutting eliminates too many support staff with the result that extra administrative work is forced back on highly paid knowledge workers. These cases are not always clear cut. I can describe the boundaries but I can’t give you foolproof answers because there are human factors involved that are unknowable. A few examples best illustrate what is involved.
My favorite is secretarial support. Before personal computers, knowledge workers either had personal secretaries or access to a pool of secretaries who had the typewriters. The knowledge worker either wrote drafts in longhand or dictated to a secretary versed in shorthand or to a dictating machine and the secretary did the typing. With the availability of personal computers and good word processing software many knowledge workers prefer to do their own typing because they now have access to typing equipment and because they are spared from having to organize their thinking as required for dictation. This has led to fewer and fewer secretaries. Is this cost effective? A knowledge worker typically types at 20 to 40 words per minute at best. A secretary types at 60 to 80 words per minute and is paid 1/4 to 1/3 that of a knowledge worker. If only the direct typing time and cost were involved it is clear that having secretaries do the typing is about ten times cheaper than allowing workers to do their own typing.
Other factors affecting the cost comparison include the cost of dictation time, editing time and time to get the product finished. Experience and experimental data has shown that it is about three times faster to dictate something than it is to write or type it so; at most, the time for dictation cuts the advantage of secretarial typing to about a factor of three. My experience indicates that editing is faster if done using standard journalism techniques on paper copies, which again favors the dictation/typist approach. However, not all knowledge workers take the time to learn these editing techniques and some secretaries aren’t familiar with them so I will call the editing cost equal. I will also ignore the advantage dictation has in that less editing is usually required. This is because most people outline a document before they dictate whereas those who do their own typing typically just start typing without an outline.
That leaves only the cost of time to get to a finished product. This cost is the cost of information latency and depends on the product involved, the dictation process in use and the worker involved. Information latency cost is very high for situations where knowledge workers are exchanging vital task information because the latency time translates directly to delays in other work products and thereby to increased costs. If the product is small then it is more cost effective for the worker to type and send an email. If the product is so large that it must be typed, reviewed, edited and then distributed it is more cost effective to dictate the work and have a skilled typist type and distribute the work. In these examples the most cost effective approach is the one that gets the data to users quickest.
Most emails are small and it isn’t convenient or cost effective to dictate and have a secretary type and send them. At the other extreme are reports and similar paperwork that have deadlines days or weeks away. In these cases the information latency cost is negligible and the dictation/typist approach is about a factor of three cheaper. Thus the most cost effective balance of what should be directly typed by the worker and what should be dictated and then typed by a typist depends on the mix of products and the dictation process. The product mix varies from organization to organization and likely from time to time.
However, if the product mix was the only factor remaining in determining the cost effective solution then it could be worked out by a diligent manager. The problem is there is also a human factors issue that is worker dependent. Some workers want to do all their own typing no matter how costly it is and they present all kinds of spurious arguments to defend their position. Others are more than happy to use the secretaries as much as possible and perhaps even for things they should do themselves. I believe this human factors issue makes it too hard to get the exact right answer because the most cost effective balance includes some disgruntled workers and it’s not possible to accurately estimate the resulting cost of the inefficiency due to their being disgruntled.
I believe that modern electronic tools, including personal computers, the intra/inter nets and recording devices so small they are embedded in cell phones and MP3 players, make dictation even more cost effective than in the past. E-mail, fixed and portable, and cell phones have greatly reduced information latency but expensive knowledge workers spend a lot of time inefficiently typing. Sound files recorded on personal computers, or portable devices can be sent almost instantly to typists anywhere and text documents, with corrected grammar and punctuation, can be typed and returned about as fast as a slow typing knowledge worker can type a document. This modern technology has the capability to reduce information latency for most work requiring typing but it doesn’t seem to have caught on for two reasons. First, workers wanting to do the typing themselves, even though they are inefficient typists and second, overzealous cost cutting leading to reducing the availability of skilled typists.
Given all these factors what should the effective leader do? My advice is, if you have access to secretarial support use it as much as possible. Experiment with the various new technologies for dictation and collect data on how much of your time is saved and how long it takes to get data to users for the various work products in your organization. Keep it up long enough that you are comfortable dictating and have adequate data to make decisions. The experience and the data will help you determine what is best for you and your work. When you have the results share them with your workers and encourage them to use the best practices you have determined. But be prepared for all kinds of arguments why they can’t effectively use dictation.
The personal computer has complicated the issue of administrative support even further. Take for example, travel arrangements and expense reporting. In the past workers submitted a travel request and a secretary or administrative assistant made the travel arrangements. At the end of the travel the worker gave the travel expense data to the secretary or administrative assistant who then filled out an expense report for the worker to sign before it was submitted to the financial system. Now it is likely that the worker goes on line and makes travel arrangements and fills out an on line expense report upon return. Here again the worker is doing work that a less costly secretary or administrator can do much faster. This example and many others like it aren’t so easy to analyze. There is no question that having an expensive knowledge worker do such work in place of a support person isn’t cost effective in the simplest analysis. However, here again human factors are involved.
If the knowledge worker completes all the work scheduled or expected of them in a given time period and also does the administrative work then clearly it is cheaper to layoff the support people. I am convinced that in many cases this happens. The knowledge workers absorb this extra work and put in the extra time to get it done without an increase in compensation. On paper it looks like the organization has gained in cost effectiveness in such cases. My opinion and it is only an opinion as I have no data to back it up, is that the organization does gain up to a point but loses after that. I think the knowledge worker can absorb some administrative tasks but at some point the administrative tasks begin to interfere with the workers ability to focus on the tasks they were hired to do. When knowledge workers are continually interrupted from their main work they become inefficient because they have to spend time revisiting thought processes, and they make more mistakes because they are distracted. I believe some organizations today are fooling themselves. They are employing extra knowledge workers to cover for the inefficiencies of existing knowledge workers brought on by pushing more and more administrative tasks onto these workers in the guise of being more cost effective by laying off administrative personnel.
Having made the case that determining the optimum number of administrative workers is complex and involves factors that are unknowable what should the effective leader do? My advice is to make your mistakes on the side of having too many administrative workers rather than too few. First because having too few leads to having to hire additional knowledge workers and the optimum number of knowledge workers is the minimum number required to get work done with no administrative overhead assigned to the knowledge workers. This is because of the costs of data latency and the hidden costs of extra communications between workers incurred when there is more than the minimum number of knowledge workers. It is also less costly to err by having one or two extra administrative workers than to have even one extra knowledge worker due to the large difference in salaries between knowledge workers and administrative workers.
Treat support people with respect
Before leaving this topic I must remind you of a couple of things that can undermine the effectiveness of your organization. First, never ask a secretary or an administrative person to do something for you while you wait for it that you could do yourself. Besides the fact that it is simply rude behavior it takes two people’s time instead of one. It is important to treat secretaries and administrative people as professionals and to give them as much responsibility as each one’s skills and experience allows. Think of them as knowledge workers just like the rest of your workers. Then you realize that the more work they do at their relatively low salary is less work you have to pay for at the higher salary of other workers. Second, when you are assembling a team to solve a crisis don’t forget to include secretaries or administrative workers that have responsibilities for portions of the process that is in crisis. Very often such workers have more intimate knowledge of process problems than others that have less day to day involvement in the processes. I have worked in organizations whose culture just won’t allow them to include secretaries or admin people in process improvement teams. If your organization’s culture includes such thinking you need to work to change the culture in order to gain the benefit of all the skills and all the experience in the organization.
The objective of this exercise is to determine the size of the largest document that you can type more cost effectively than you can dictate and have typed for you. For documents larger than this size dictation is more efficient than typing and for smaller documents typing the document yourself is more efficient. Although this takes some time it is well worth knowing in the long term. If you have software that translates dictation to text you can modify this exercise to compare the time to type and edit something to the time to dictate and edit the software transcription.
1. Pick two similar, but unrelated topics, e.g. a recent sports event you watched and a recent repair job you did around the house or yard. Start with either topic and write 250 to 300 words, i.e. about a page, about it. If it is your habit to outline work before you type it then do that. If you don’t normally outline then just begin typing. Time yourself and record the time it takes you to outline and type, or just to type a page, edit it, save the file and email it to yourself. The word count and the time will give you an effective typing speed. For example, if you actually type 30 words per minute it should take you ten minutes to type 300 words plus the time it takes to think about what to write, edit, save and email, say another four to five minutes so that the task overall takes about 15 minutes for an effective speed of 20 words per minute. If you outline first it should be about the same overall time since you are likely to spend three to four minutes outlining but you won’t have to spend as much time thinking during the typing and there is less editing of the draft.
2. If you have a pc with a microphone set it up so you can record a sound file. If not use the recording capability on your MP3 players, PDA or cell phone and transfer the sound file into your pc. Next determine the time it takes to outline and then dictate about 250 or 300 words on the second topic, save the sound file and email it to yourself. If you can’t stand outlining then you can skip that step and just dictate the sound file directly. If you are somewhat used to outlining and dictating you will have accomplished the outlining, dictating, saving and emailing in about seven or perhaps eight minutes. Record your own time but for now assume it is eight minutes.
3. Account for the time a typist would take in opening your file, transcribing it, checking it, saving it and emailing it back to you. Assume you dictated at about 80 words per minute and the typist transcribes at the same speed. Thus it takes about 3.75 minutes to transcribe your 300 words. Suppose it takes about the same time to check the work and an additional half minute for corrections, saving and emailing for a total of eight minutes.
4. Now you have the data needed to estimate the size of document above which it saves you time to dictate the document and the size above which it is more cost effective to dictate. For the example discussed so far it took 15 minutes of your time to type a 300 word document and only eight minutes to dictate 300 words. Assuming the typist makes about 1/3 your salary the cost of dictating is only 71% of the cost of typing it yourself for this example.
By now you have figured out that I have gamed you. There is no size of document beyond a small paragraph that is faster for you to type or cheaper for you to type unless you assumed some unreasonably large overhead times relating to dictation. The important factor is information latency. If you can get critical data faster by typing yourself, e.g. via email, then it is more effective and cost effective. Otherwise it is always more efficient and cost effective to dictate rather than type unless you are the rare manager that can type at 100 words per minute. The point of this exercise was to get you to try dictation so that you would see it is relatively easy. It gets easier as you get used to it.
If you find that the pace of blog posts isn’t compatible with the pace you would like to maintain in studying this material you can buy the book “The Manager’s Guide for Effective Leadership” at:
or hard copy or for nook at:
or hard copy or E-book at:
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Crises are everyday occurrences in most complex organizations. They must be dealt with rapidly and effectively as discussed previously in lecture 20. Meetings are necessary and they should be staged to minimize wasting time of workers involved. Stage the meetings as follows:
· First meeting- gather only those likely to have data needed to define the problem
· Second meeting- gather only those necessary to solve the problem
· Follow-up meetings- gather only those needed to status the problem and plan for solution. (Crises are abnormal events so standard information systems aren’t likely to be adequate to status progress and brief meetings such as daily stand-ups are needed.)
Think about how the crisis solving team can be structured so that few meetings are needed. For example, if a manager is available with the necessary problem solving skills that manger can be part of the team and be responsible for reporting status so that other team members need only concentrate on problem solving.
Many work tasks require collaboration of knowledge workers and collaboration requires communication. Work communication can be informal face to face or electronic involving just two or three workers or it can be formal meetings involving large numbers of workers. Managers are involved as organizers, facilitators, workers or all three roles. Useful guidelines for work meetings include:
· Separate status reviews from working sessions
· Keep working sessions small and informal
· Keep status reviews from becoming working sessions
· Exploit modern technology including all forms of electronic communications
· Develop agreed upon guidelines for electronic communications
· Hold working sessions and status reviews at fixed times and places so that people prepare and attend automatically
A fundamental principle is to minimize information latency* by means appropriate to each situation. If possible co-locate team members to reduce the need for frequent meetings to exchange information. [* Information latency is the time between when information is generated and the time it is available to others depending on the information for the next steps in their work.]
The availability of inexpensive large screen display projectors, n to one video switches and inter/intra nets makes it cost effective to set up special work rooms where teams of 10 to 25 knowledge workers can gather with their laptops and software tools to simultaneously work and share work results. Many organizations now use such facilities for teams to gather for intense work and information sharing periods of three to four hours two or three times weekly. These sessions must be well planned and workers must come prepared to work and share results in real time. Planning, documenting work and time consuming tasks are performed in between sessions in the work rooms. This approach is called by a number of names but Integrated Concurrent Engineering (ICE) is a common name. This approach is effective because it reduces information latency from minutes to seconds or hours to minutes. It is proven to reduce cost and schedule of complex projects by factors of three to ten.
If you are responsible or desire to be responsible for teams of knowledge workers I recommend you become familiar with ICE. Don’t let the term engineering dissuade you from investigating this approach for any knowledge worker activity. There is adequate information on the web so I will not include the details here. Start with:
Observation, Theory, and Simulation of Integrated Concurrent Engineering by Chachere, Kunz and Levitt, CIFE Working Paper #WP087, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, August 2004, or
The Integrated Concurrent Enterprise by David B. Stagney, MIT Thesis, 2003.
Knowledge workers spend much of their time in work meetings and much of the time not in meetings in their ubiquitous cubicles. If your organization is housed in cubicles consider arranging the work space of small teams; those with two to eight members, in a common cubicle. This can often be done by removing partitions or rearranging the cubicles. The objective is to enable the small team’s members to see and talk to each other from their normal workstations. This eliminates the need to get up and walk to another cubicle to ask a question, sending an email or calling a meeting to obtain data from teammates. Information latency is greatly reduced for the small team thereby increasing its efficiency. Yes, it likely increases unproductive social conversation but this loss is more than offset by the increase in efficiency for most teams. For teams larger than about eight it makes more sense to use the ICE technique mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
If you work in a large enterprise with multiple locations it is likely that you and your organization are involved in work spread across locations. In such cases it is impossible to physically co-locate workers but virtual co-location is possible with modern teleconferencing and collaboration software. In planning uses of this technology seek to drive information latency as low as practical as well as to coordinate and status work. In my experience these modern techniques are effective if workers that must interact electronically are first brought together in one location for a day or two to get to know each other. Face to face interaction enables workers to learn each other’s work style and quirks. This makes it easier to understand each other later when interacting via electronic communications in spite of the filtering imposed by these methods.
Be aware that small organizations may not know how to organize to work big projects and large organizations may treat small projects the same as large projects and overkill on status meetings when informal communication is adequate. This is because the methods needed to effectively manage projects do not scale with the size of the project. Methods don’t scale because much of the communication that takes place in the work place is informal communication. Let me explain how this impacts work with extreme examples.
Informal communication is completely adequate if everyone involved in a project is located in the same room. Information needed by one worker from another is available by direct asking. Information needed by all can be posted on the walls so there is little need for formally scheduled meetings. Contrast this tiny project with a giant complex project involving several enterprises located in several different parts of the country or world and each enterprise using its own data bases of project information as well as shared data bases. Workers do not even know who is responsible for generating the information they need, let alone being able to ask for it, without there being formal organization, organization charts, descriptions of responsibilities and similar documentation plus the many types of meetings associated with large projects. Note however that within each separate part of the project there is informal communications working locally as always.
If you are responsible for a new project that is either much larger or much smaller than those you and your organization are experienced with it is wise to call in someone with experience with projects of the size of your new project to help you avoid serious mistakes in organizing the project and structuring the meetings necessary to ensure effective communications. Mistakes in organizing the project or structuring meetings lead to major time wasters that are also money wasters and threaten the success of the project.
The discussion above is couched in terms of projects because projects have limited lifetimes and organizations that do project works face these problems repeatedly. All organizations are faced with project work from time to time. However, the principles apply to other work types and problems of scale arise in the initial stages of setting up an organization or when the size of the organization increases or decreases in size substantially.
I now digress from discussing work meetings with a personal story about the effects of scale on organizations. Feel free to skip this story as it is just an example of the principles described above applied to manufacturing. I was responsible for two manufacturing plants, plant A producing a product at a rate of about 100 per day and plant B a similar product at a rate of about 1000 per day. Applying the methods that are the subject of this course we had improved the effectiveness of plant A to the point that we had the space and skills available to absorb plant B’s work, which would make plant A even more cost effective. My boss, supporting the move but having a lot more experience in manufacturing than I, told me that my plant A team wouldn’t be able to handle the new work because of the difference in rate. Having the arrogance of ignorance I told him my plant A team was a crackerjack team that was familiar with the materials, processes and machines involved with the higher rate product and I was confident they could do the job. Well the boss was right. My team was indeed familiar with everything involved but the difference in rate. They tried to use the work flow management techniques that worked well at a rate of 100 per day on the 1000 per day production line and these techniques were inadequate. I won’t admit to the amount of money we lost before we got proper work flow management processes in place for the higher rate production but I will say that I was reminded of it several times by the top level financial people in the enterprise.
Problem Solving or Brainstorming Meetings
Problem solving meetings are part of crisis meetings and are in a class of meetings that involve brainstorming. Problem solving meetings are particularly prone to wandering off focus and wasting time. If the meeting room has a white or black board, or an easel, then there is a simple technique for making a problem solving meeting effective. You can use this technique as the meeting leader or as a volunteer secretary. The approach is to write down on the board or easel just the key things needed to keep the meeting on track and to follow a logical sequence of discussion. This sequence is as follows:
1. First get agreement from the group on the definition of the problem to be solved. If it is your meeting you should have defined the problem in your planning (see next section) and be ready to define the problem with your introduction.
2. Gather data. In a true problem meeting this means using a tool like a fishbone diagram* to guide brainstorming on the possible causes of the problem. [*Fishbone diagrams, also called Ishikawa diagrams or cause-and-effect diagrams, are diagrams that help collect and organize the causes of a certain event. Consult Wikipedia for a more complete definition.] In a brainstorming meeting you are gathering ideas. Be open to all ideas and write each down for all to see. Make sure everyone has the opportunity to offer ideas. Gather all ideas without evaluation, i.e. make sure ideas are not critiqued in real time.
3. After all the ideas are written down thin and organize the gathered data. This means consolidating data that is similar into one item, throwing out data that doesn’t seem relevant after brief discussion and identifying any obvious hierarchy or relationships between the remaining data items.
4. If a fishbone diagram has been generated then prioritize the candidate causes collected so that actions can be assigned to determine if each cause is a root cause of the problem. Some causes are likely the result of other more fundamental causes. It is important to track causes back to root causes. Otherwise solutions may only correct symptoms and not the root causes. It may be that additional data is needed to identify root causes. If so, assign actions to collect the needed data, schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss the new data and close the meeting.
5. Once root causes are identified brainstorm to collect possible solutions to the root causes if possible solutions were not collected as part of the brainstorming in step 2. Follow the same procedure as for collecting and evaluating causes.
6. Thin and organize the alternative solutions as described in step 3.
7. Discuss pros and cons of each alternative and make a decision on the best if sufficient information is available. If additional information is needed then assign actions to gather the information.
8. Define the steps necessary to implement and monitor the effectiveness of selected alternatives, assign actions, schedule any necessary follow-up meetings and close the meeting.
Using a board or easel to write down relevant information at each step keeps the group on track and having the information available visually to all attendees aids their thinking. Being the recorder of information helps you guide the meeting and keep it focused. Once the members of your organization become familiar with the process outlined here the meetings tend to stay focused because they recognize that the process works and doesn’t waste their time. Whereas it is possible to use a computer and projection screen in place of a white board or easel it isn’t as effective unless the computer operator is particularly skillful in capturing and organizing data. For most people it is easier and faster to use a board or easel.
Make Sure Meetings Are Disciplined- Guidelines for Effective Meetings
The reason for most meetings is to communicate, i.e. gather or disseminate information as efficiently as possible. If meetings go beyond gathering or disseminating information then they become time wasters. Plan your meetings, have an agenda and a time limit. Planning a meeting means thinking through each candidate item on your draft agenda and answering the following questions:
· Does this item belong in this meeting?
· What information must be communicated and/or gathered for each item?
· How do I introduce each item to focus the discussion so that I get the answers I or the organization need?
· How do I decide when this item is ready for closure?
· How much time is it likely to take to discuss and close each item?
If you think through the questions above you can limit the items on the agenda to those that can be covered adequately in the allotted time and you are prepared to conduct an effective meeting. If you are not prepared you risk wasting everyone’s time by getting off track or onto unnecessary topics. Don’t be discouraged if this looks like it takes a lot of planning time. With practice you become proficient at this planning and find that it takes only a few minutes to plan an effective meeting.
Start meetings on time and end them on time. Make it clear that you expect to start meetings on time and do not wait for late arrivals. They soon learn that they are expected to be on time and most people do what is expected of them. If you wait for late arrivals you not only waste the time of everyone present but you condition everyone that it is not necessary to be on time for your meetings. As a result your meetings are always late in starting due to waiting for late arrivals and waste the time of those that arrive on time.
Establish intended outcomes for the meeting at the beginning and get agreement on outcomes. Make sure you have a process to capture actions. It is sufficient to identify the action and responsible person in the meeting. Hold a follow-up one on one with the actionee to discuss details, set up guidelines, due dates and what is expected at midterm and final reviews. These details are critical to ensuring that an actionee understands what is expected but they are not important to other meeting attendees.
Keep on schedule, summarize key points frequently and use group problem solving tools as appropriate. Use your judgment on the necessity of keeping and distributing minutes since the necessity depends on the type and frequency of meetings. Formal organization meetings that are scheduled monthly typically require minutes and weekly staff meetings typically do not as long as actions and other decisions are documented.
Discussing details of problem resolution and issuing detailed instructions to an actionee during meetings are just two examples that result in ineffective meetings. It is the responsibility of the meeting leader to keep the meeting focused on the agenda items. Other items will come up and it is necessary to quickly judge whether the additional item is relevant to the success of the meeting or should be dealt with at another time. Items that are not relevant can be deferred to another meeting, to a one on one, or assigned to someone to resolve outside of the meeting. Although such items must be dealt with quickly make sure you take the time to listen effectively to people bringing up items not on the agenda. They have decided, rightly or wrongly, that the items are important for the group and if you cut them off before they complete their explanation you frustrate them, and thereby demotivate them.
1. Develop straw man agendas for the following meetings for your organization:
1. Weekly Staff Meeting
2. Monthly All Hands Meeting
3. Crisis Meeting to Address an Apparent Case of Fraud in your organization
4. Status Meeting on a current project in your organization.
2. Review your answers to the exercises in the middle of this lecture and assess the effectiveness of your organization’s meetings according to the guidelines covered in lecture 21.
3. Identify any changes you need to make to improve the effectiveness of meetings in your organization.
4. Incorporate plans for these changes in your action plan.
If you find that the pace of blog posts isn’t compatible with the pace you would like to maintain in studying this material you can buy the book “The Manager’s Guide for Effective Leadership” at:
or hard copy or for nook at:
or hard copy or E-book at:
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Communications are required in all organizations and the old truism that you can’t communicate too much is indeed true but sometimes communications are ineffective and become time wasters. Remember, managers communicate by what they:
· Don’t say
· And don’t do.
Make sure your actions are consistent with what you say because you can’t explain away behavior inconsistent with what you say. It’s also important to remember that you cannot satisfy all communication desires and it’s not effective to try. In this lecture I address how meetings can be effective communication tools and how to keep meetings from becoming time wasters. This is a long lecture and there are a lot of concepts presented. I recommend that you read through it a couple of times to make sure you capture all the concepts. I have divided the lecture into two halves, 21A and 21B, with exercises at the end at the end of each.
Too Many Meetings
In large complex enterprises many meetings are necessary to ensure effective communications. If managers aren’t cautious unnecessary meetings creep into everyday use and become time wasters. Typically what happens is there are too many meetings within a functional area and too few meetings across functions. If you observe yourself or your subordinate managers holding daily meetings with most of your/their direct reports you should suspect that many of these meetings are unnecessary. Typical causes of too many meetings include:
· poor meeting discipline,
· poor information systems,
· insecure or incompetent managers.
If a subordinate manager is holding too many meetings you must investigate and take action quickly. The manager holding too many meetings must change or be changed to avoid the organization becoming ineffective due to the workers not having enough time free of meetings to do productive work.
The first step is to determine the reason the manager is holding so many meetings. If the reason given for too many meetings is due to meetings being so long that additional meetings are called to complete agendas from previous meetings then the problem is meeting discipline. Solve the problem of poor meeting discipline by teaching the manager better methods and insist that the better methods be followed to reduce the number of meetings and the time per meeting. Methods for effective meetings are described in the last section of this lecture.
If the reason is poor information systems then work with the manager and others responsible to fix the problems. Sometimes poor information systems can be fixed within the organization using quality improvement techniques discussed in later lectures and sometimes professional help is needed to augment the group’s efforts, particularly if the system is software based. Changing software based information systems can become a costly quagmire. There are always those that argue that available information systems don’t fit the organization’s requirements and therefore a new system must be developed that is tailored directly to the organization’s special needs. Be wary of such arguments. In my experience such thinking leads to long and costly efforts to develop systems that still aren’t effective for the organization. Whenever possible it is advisable to use or adapt an existing commercial system.
Insecure managers should be mentored or coached carefully until they are secure in their job or you determine that they are not ever going to be secure with limited meeting time with their staff. Everyone isn’t suited for management and the sooner you replace someone found not to be suited to the job the better for your organization.
Managers that lack understanding of their organization’s work, lack effective interpersonal skills or insist on excessive meetings in order to micromanage their staff are incompetent managers and must be replaced as rapidly as possible. In some cases sending them to special training, assuming it is available, may work but in most cases it’s better to replace them. You do not have enough time to train, or retrain them yourself, (and some are not trainable) and perform well in the rest of your management responsibilities.
Electronic Communications in Lieu of Meetings
Today electronic communications are used effectively by top management to communicate training, policies and plans directly to all employees. This removes most of the need to pass down communications from top management and therefore reduces the time needed for staff meetings. However, it is important for you to acknowledge communications from top managers and give your staff an opportunity to ask any questions they have. Don’t assume that just because senior management has explained new ideas, policies or plans in emails that everyone understands what is expected of them and how to respond. Remember, it’s your job to ensure your staff understands and is correctly supporting the policies and plans of your superiors; otherwise you are creating an ineffective environment.
If your superiors are pursuing what you and/or your staff believes is a dumb policy or plan it’s your job to work with your staff to figure out how to make the policy or plan effective in your organization. This topic was discussed in an earlier lecture. If you are still unsure how to handle bad policies or plans of superiors please review the earlier lecture again.
Whereas electronic communications do reduce the time needed for meetings and even the need for some meetings don’t let email or an equivalent replace all face to face meetings. As an extreme example, a college dean that I know found that one of his department chairs was using email to conduct annual performance reviews of the professors in the department. Remember this case when you are communicating electronically to your staff and ask yourself; is this topic suitable for an electronic communication or is it so personal or so important that it should be handled face to face?
An important function of an effective leader is informally walking around the organization’s work area and having brief personal interactions with workers. Don’t let electronic communications replace walking around and talking with workers. The primary reasons are to gather information and to demonstrate that you care about the workers, their work and their work issues. Often it is easier for a worker to bring up a problem with the boss when the boss drops by just to say hello or to ask a question. You learn important things by walking around that you do not learn in formal meetings or via email. If you find yourself sitting for long periods at your desk doing email or some other tedious task break up the task by taking time out to walk around for 15 minutes. It not only clears your mind and gets your circulation going it helps keep your workers motivated.
Types of Effective Meetings
I can’t give you an exact list of what meetings are needed or not needed in your organization. You have to use your experience and judgment to determine the cost/benefit of each meeting that you control. Here are some meetings that are useful in most organizations:
• Staff Meetings
• Vertical Staff Meetings
• All Hands Meetings
• Crisis Meetings
• Work Meetings
• Problem Solving or Brainstorming Meetings
The one meeting that managers control is their staff meetings. The cost/benefit analysis of staff meetings is subtle because the meetings are rituals and deeply wound up in an organization’s culture. Some of your direct reports expect a staff meeting and feel cheated somehow if you don’t hold regular meetings. Others feel they are a waste of time and only attend begrudgingly. I believe staff meetings are necessary for the staff to feel involved and therefore committed. In my experience it is best to discuss candidly with your direct reports what you intend to include in staff meetings and why. Ask them what they want to include regularly on the agenda. Hold staff meeting regularly; weekly or biweekly. Have an agenda and commit to limiting staff meetings to an hour or even 15 minutes if you can complete your communications in no more than 5 minutes.
Limit your comments to items not suitable for e-mail or personal conversations. This can include explaining new policies, new directions, etc. It is also wise to fully explain new things you or your boss wants. Take time to celebrate successes and give credit to those contributing to successes (remembering what was said earlier about the dangers of rewarding individuals). The rest of the agenda can be what your staff wants. Always leave 5 to 10 minutes at the end to let each person comment on anything they think the group needs to hear. This helps some feel involved and contributing.
Vertical Staff Meetings
Vertical staff meetings are a manager’s way of finding information that is not in regular communications channels; particular information that subordinate managers neglect to report. These meetings also help ensure that the manager’s views are flowed down and understood. A vertical staff meeting includes the manager plus 5 to 12 workers and subordinate managers with no direct supervisor of any attendee present. The reason for excluding direct supervisors of other attendees is to enable workers to speak freely about things that they see as problems but their supervisor is ignoring.
The manager uses a third to half the time to explain the ground rules for the meeting and to communicate his vision, near terms goals or other relevant information that the group needs to hear directly from the manager without it being filtered by subordinate managers. The remainder of the time is for questions by the group and answers by the manager. All questions are fair and the manager must commit to answer all questions in the meeting or in a follow-up communication within a day if possible. No question or comment by members of the group is to leave the room without consent of the person asking or commenting. The group should be encouraged to share everything the manager says with the rest of the organization.
Hold vertical staff meetings regularly so that everyone in the organization attends once every year or at least every two years. Hold over lunch if lunch can be provided for the attendees. Keep the time limited to one hour and encourage workers to share their concerns. You find out problems exist that you haven’t heard about any other way. If these meetings aren’t successful at first keep holding them. If the ground rules are followed over time trust develops and workers begin to communicate freely. Problems due to a subordinate manager that are disclosed in a vertical staff meeting without the subordinate manger being present must be handled discreetly without embarrassing the subordinate manager. Otherwise you will lose the trust of the subordinate manager.
All Hands Meetings
Hold one hour all hands meetings monthly if possible. These meetings are to build the trust of employees in their management and the organization, which in turn builds commitment by the employees and effectiveness for the organization. All hands meetings can be held at lunch time if lunch is provided or before work if coffee, juice and donuts are provided. This is because many organizations do not like to see the overhead expenses associated with all hands meetings during working hours. I am convinced that these meetings are cost effective but proving it is difficult as the numbers are “unknowable”. These meetings are primarily downward communications. A sample agenda includes:
· Status of the organization’s annual plan
· Status of any special projects
· Introduction of new employees with time for the new employees to tell about their background
· Celebration of successes and acknowledgement of defeats
· Brief Q & A period
It is important to share real information, including financial data, in order to build trust. Employees are trusted to keep trade secrets and other proprietary information that is more valuable than financial data so there should be no hesitation to share financial data. Withholding such data implies that management does not trust workers and therefore the workers reason that if they aren’t trusted they shouldn’t trust management.
1. Jot down a list of all the meetings you led over the past week. Then think about each one and answer the following questions:
· What would the regrets be if the meeting was not held?
· Did the meeting accomplish your objectives for it?
· Was the meeting efficient and effective or was time wasted with off the track discussions?
· Do you think the other attendees left the meeting believing it was efficient and effective?
2. Are you communicating with your organization via effective staff meetings? Vertical staff meetings? All hands meetings?
3. Is your use of electronic communications sound or are you using emails where face to face meetings should be used?
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Thursday, March 7, 2013
Crises are a fact of life in any organization and test the skills of even the most effective leaders. Each one is unique and requires carefully thought out methods for resolution. There are several factors that must be balanced in resolving a crisis. First, of course is urgency. By definition a crisis is an undesirable situation that is disrupting normal operations and is likely costing money or the organization’s reputation. In a crisis the leader’s objectives are:
· to restore normal operation as fast as possible,
· at the least cost,
· with a high probability that the system is changed so that the crisis can not recur,
· with assurance that any changes to the system do not encumber the organization or work processes in ways that reduce overall effectiveness
· and that the rationale for changes is documented.
Problem solving tools are discussed in later lectures. Here I just want to emphasize two constraints in effective crisis resolution. First, it is very important to not just resolve the crisis but to understand why it happened, what deficiency in the system enabled the crisis to occur, to change the system so that the same crisis cannot reoccur again and to document the rationale for decisions relating to any changes in the system, or rules or policies. The crisis manager’s job isn’t done until all of this has been accomplished. There is always pressure to return to normal operations as fast and cheaply as possible and this pressure can inhibit getting to the root cause of crises, changing the system so that they don’t reoccur and properly documenting the rationale for the changes. If the crisis manager succumbs to this pressure the crisis will likely reoccur and blame will be assigned to those that didn’t fix it right the first time.
The second constraint is to ensure that system changes are effective; that is they are not cosmetic and they do not unnecessarily encumber work processes. Old organizations are often filled with rules and policies that were put in place to solve long ago crises. Too often such rules and polices do not reflect changes to the system that prevent the crisis from reoccurring but rather try to constrain workers so that they don’t allow or cause the crisis to reoccur. Often the crises continue and more rules and policies are instituted until the organization is so bogged down it becomes non competitive. If tempted to add rules or change policies to prevent a crisis from reoccurring take the time to question whether the system is being changed effectively by such rules and policy changes. Ask whether the proposed changes are changes to the system or the result of blaming people for the crisis. Recall the 85/15 rule discussed earlier. If people are being blamed for the crisis 85% of the time the managers are wrong and proposed changes are more likely to encumber the system than to prevent reoccurrence of the crisis.
The effective leader is always on the lookout for old rules and policies that inhibit productivity and may no longer be necessary due to changes in work processes or products. If the rationale for the old rules or policies was properly documented knowing when they can be changed is usually evident. Caution is required if there is no documentation to ensure that changes in work processes or products have really eliminated the need for the old rules or policies. New data may be needed. If so, the issue becomes a process improvement activity, which is covered in more detail later.
Your crisis resolution plan must be based on in depth analysis of the causes of the crisis and in depth discussions with the people closest to the problems. Jumping to popular solutions rather than carefully thought out plans usually results in a continuing crisis. Failure to have an effective plan and effective communications invites others to give you help, which typically just makes the problems worse, and always increases your workload. You must maintain the confidence of stakeholders, particularly your superiors; otherwise expect to be removed from leadership of the crisis. At the same time you must fend off uninformed advice, which is abundant in a crisis. More will be discussed on crisis management in the next lecture on meetings.
Poor Information Systems
Defining proper information systems is beyond the scope of this course but it is necessary for the effective leader to know how to identify the symptoms of poor information systems or improper use of good information systems. One tip off of poor information systems is people saying meetings are necessary to gather information. If you hear this reasoning for meetings not related to a crisis or a new project then you should examine the information systems. It takes much less time for workers to record key job data in some type of data base for a manager’s review than it does to have to meet with the manager and provide the data verbally or, even worse, on PowerPoint charts. If you find workers are not entering necessary data properly than training is required. If workers are entering data properly then either the processing of the data in the data base is ineffective or the manager using the data doesn’t have the training to properly use the data.
A second tip off of poor information systems is workers or administrators having to chase down needed information. Information should flow up and with today’s computer networks this can be make to happen nearly automatically if the right data is being entered at the right time by the right people.
Finally, be on the look out for information that isn’t actionable. This is information that is no longer needed or just doesn’t apply well to current work processes. This can result from commercial or homegrown information systems that are improperly tailored to your organization or enterprise. If you see information that isn’t useful to you or anyone else then question whether it is worth having workers collect and enter the data.
Poor information systems are costly if highly paid workers are required to process data that could be processed by lower cost administrators. This topic is explored further in Lecture 22.
When projects or special tasks fall behind schedule there is often pressure to add additional people in order to get back on schedule or at least not fall further behind schedule. Of course there are times when this is the right management action. However, there are times when process problems are causing the delays and adding more staff isn’t the right answer. If process problems are the cause then usually fixing the process is preferred to adding additional people. The difficulty is that it takes time and knowledge to identify when process problems are the root cause of delays and there is typically pressure for immediate management actions such as adding staff.
The theory of constraints, often used in manufacturing and service organizations, also applies to projects and special tasks but its effects are not as easy to identify. Failure to understand constraints can lead to the wrong management action and overstaffing is a typical wrong action. Project management techniques use critical path analysis to identify constraints to schedule but projects are dynamic and critical paths change or new critical paths emerge. The project manager and the supporting managers must not only identify and track the critical paths as they evolve, they must also understand the reasons the work is schedule constrained and the nature of the work that is on the critical path.
In some cases the critical path work is easily divided among additional workers and schedule can be reduced by adding staff to the tasks on the critical path. Other times the work is dependent on special skills or requires extensive review to understand before a new person can contribute effectively. In such times adding additional staff actually delays work on the critical path because the existing staff must bring new people up to speed and because of communication induced delays introduced by the additional people.
In an ideal situation doubling the number of people on a task cuts the time to complete the task in half, that is, ideally, the schedule is inversely proportional to the number of people assigned to the job. However tasks are typically complex and can only be divided into a limited number of pieces that can be worked independently. On complex tasks there is a need for work results to be communicated to other workers, as well as to managers. The more workers assigned to the task the bigger this communication need and the time spent communicating grows geometrically with the number of people. At some point workers are spending more time communicating results and status to each other and to layers of management than they are actually generating direct work products. The result of these relationships is that there is an optimum number of workers for a task in order to achieve minimum schedule and adding workers beyond the optimum actually delays the time to completion.
How does the effective manager avoid over staffing? The details of project management are beyond the scope of this course but we can touch on some highlights. First of all, when a project or special task falls behind it must be treated as a crisis and the effective manager takes charge or ensures that the right kind of manager is in place. A project or task in crisis is no time to have a manager that leans toward affiliative management. A czar is called for until things are under control. (Don’t forget to change your behavior if you are the czar, or remove the czar, when the project stabilizes because czars are best at “stop the bleeding” situations and are not the most effective managers in non crisis situations.) Second, remember that in a crisis it is doubly important to manage both up and down. Down requires that you get involved sufficiently to really understand what is going on in detail, otherwise mistakes will happen, e.g. as discussed above. Managing up means having a detailed plan to resolve the crisis and communicating the plan and progress on the plan to all stakeholders more frequently than normal. These communications must be honest and timely but you must understand problems before they are communicated upward. The trick is balancing your understanding and the timeliness of your communications.
Please remember that project management is one of the most complex management jobs. The steps listed here are necessary but by no means sufficient. You should study books on project management if that is on your career path. And a final reminder, under staffing, although not a time waster, is a serious detriment to effective organizational performance if left uncorrected for more than a couple of months.
I will digress here to share a story from my early management experience that may be helpful to those new to project management. If project management isn't on your career path feel free to skip ahead to the subheading “Useful Hint”.
As a young department manager in an engineering organization I was given management responsibility for an important product development project that had been in crisis for several years due to technical problems, resulting in large loses of company money, unhappy customers and the firing of the two previous project leaders. Many people in the company believed they had the solution for the technical problems and were more than free with their uninformed advice.
Fortunately, I was saved by the previous manager’s hiring of a new engineer just before the manager was fired. During the short grace period I had before results were expected I learned that this new engineer understood the technical problems in depth and had developed an effective plan to resolve them. Unfortunately, it was going to take at least four months and considerable investment to solve these problems. The new engineer had neither the respect of management (because he was new and untested) nor the communication skills needed to sell his plan. I recognized that continued failure would lead to my firing so I had little to lose. I went to the company president with a simple plan. Give us six months, the money we needed and keep all management off our backs during this time. I promised we would achieve the desired product performance within that time or he could fire us both (which would have happened anyway).
The plan, which was really no additional risk to me, gave us the freedom to work in peace for six months. The technical problems were solved as promised, the product performance exceeded requirements, the new engineer got the credit he deserved and the product went into a long and profitable production run. The lesson is simple. Successful crisis resolution requires in depth understanding of the causes, sound plans and no shoot from the hip management actions.
Useful Hint: Don’t Be Afraid to Use Time Logs
Increasing the effectiveness of your organization must include changes in processes as well as changes in people. Data is required to change processes effectively. The reasons are discussed more fully in a later lecture so for now accept this requirement. A simple and convenient way to gather data relevant to time management is via time logs used as appropriate by everyone in your organization. I don’t recommend time logs be used all the time but if you suspect some process is wasting time or if you are concerned that your people are spending too much time on some relatively unimportant task ask them to keep time logs for four to six weeks. The objective is to find information that is not on formal time reporting systems. This includes time lost in amounts too small to record on formal time reporting systems. Two examples are time lost due to unreliable equipment or time spent correcting poor work done by another person.
When you suspect such time wasters in your organization pick one to three of the suspect items and ask your staff to jot down on paper or electronically each day how many minutes are spent on each suspect time waster. In a few weeks you should have enough data to make effective decisions. The lost of ten minutes per day by each person in a 40 person organization over 250 work days amounts to 100,000 minutes or almost a full person year; well worth correcting. Such data is useful for making decisions for your organization and for convincing your peers and your superiors action is needed on topics important to your organization but not under your control.
A couple of examples better explain the use of time logs. Suppose you think your staff is spending an inordinate amount of time doing remedial work on defective paperwork submitted to them from another organization and the manager of the other organization doesn't respond to your concerns about the quality of his or her organization’s work. Presenting the other manager with hard data on time lost in your organization fixing mistakes made by his or her organization makes your argument more effective because such data can’t easily be dismissed and reflects poorly on the manager’s performance if not addressed.
Suppose your workers are complaining that a copy machine is unreliable and is wasting their time. You report it but the unreliable machine is neither repaired nor replaced. Ask your workers to keep a temporary log of the time they waste coping with the unreliable machine. You can use this data to calculate the excess cost of the unreliable machine and then use the cost data to make a stronger case for having the copy machine repaired or replaced.
1. Think through a crisis you have recently handled or observed and answer the following questions:
· Was the system blamed or were people blamed?
· Were the root causes of the crisis identified?
· Were changes made to the system or were new polices and/or rules introduced?
· Was the rationale for any changes documented?
· Do you think the same crisis can happen again or have the changes made that possibly remote?
· Should you handle the next crisis the same or differently?
2. Review how actionable information is gathered and processed in your organization and answer the following questions:
· Is it necessary to gather some information by holding meetings?
· If so, could this information be gathered automatically just as well?
· Do you receive management information that isn't actionable or useful in some other way?
· If so, is this information useful to others or could collecting it be stopped?
· Is there information that you need but don’t get because no system is in place to gather and process it?
· Would implementing a system to provide the needed information be cost effective?
· If so, what information do you need to convince others that the information is worth collecting and processing?
3. Think about things that might be wasting your staffs’ time unnecessarily. Would time logs confirm your intuition and give you the information needed to fix any of the time wasters you suspect exist?
4. Have you observed situations of over staffing in your enterprise? If so, what was the evidence that indicated over staffing existed? Do you think you would recognize over staffing if it occurred again?
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