In 1958, Cyril Parkinson published Parkinson's Law arguing that "work expands to fill the time available for its completion." It's a slightly cynical observation that suggests that people will change their pace of work based on how much time they have or are given to complete it. We see this all the time across different industries and functions. If people are close to completing a task near the end of their day or shift and run the risk of having to either start or be assigned another task, they have a tendency to ease off the throttle. It's a relatively benign human reaction to a situation -- and it’s rarely a deliberate attempt to somehow short-change or undermine the organization. But it reduces or limits productivity none the less.
The fault is not the individual's responsibility, however. Stretching work to fill the time allotted has everything to do with assignment and expectations -- something a manager controls. Parkinson's Law rings true more frequently than it should because many managers do not assign work with time-based expectations. This is perhaps most common in office environments, where assignments and expectations are often mistakenly associated with the notion of "micromanagement." It is very common to observe employees choosing which project to work on, in what priority, and determining for themselves how long the task should take. Work standards that attempt to relate task to time are normal in plant production environments, but are very rare in office environments, despite the fact that many office work areas share much commonality with production environments. It's also rare to see a manager in an office environment schedule staff with anywhere near the specificity, in terms of output and timing, that a shop supervisor would.
Parkinson's Law exists and thrives in environments where expectations and deadlines are not clear.
Monday, May 13, 2013 will go down in sports folklore as one of the all-time incomprehensible chokes, if you're a Toronto Maple Leafs fan -- or as one of the all-time greatest team comebacks, if you're a Boston Bruins fan. (For non-hockey fans, the Maple Leafs blew a 4-1 lead in the final period of the seventh and deciding playoff game. After scoring halfway through the third period to make the score 4-2, the Bruins pulled their goalie with two minutes remaining and scored two more goals to tie the game. The Bruins went on to win the game in overtime.)
Pat Quinn, a former Toronto Maple Leafs coach, described it as the terrifying moment that most athletes experience at some point in their careers: when momentum shifts to the other team at such a fierce rate that the impending collapse actually becomes predictable -- the awful moment when a coach looks at his team’s bench and only sees players fearful that they’ll be selected to go onto the ice. Most people who watched this game shared this sense of impending doom (or elation, again depending on your perspective), well before the outcome of the game was actually determined.
Change-management projects can also be affected by shifts in positive and negative momentum. It’s the reason that most change efforts stress the need to demonstrate some "quick wins" early in the engagement. The deliberate and careful staging of prototypes serves a similar purpose. These quick wins or successful trials give people the strength to believe that things might actually get better. The magnitude of the early results is much less important than the decisiveness and clarity of the improvement. Success can become an expectation, which can be very powerful in building a broad base of support for change. Conversely, miscues and mistakes early in a change-management project (e.g., poor communication, errors, conflicts between people) can do lasting harm. Doubt and pessimism can be just as powerful forces at changing momentum as belief and optimism.
Momentum shifts can happen at all organizational levels (company, department, team, individual). The advantage of a change-management initiative over many other circumstances is that it is a fresh start. Most people are willing to enter into a project -- provided it is introduced well and seems reasonable -- with a slightly optimistic sense that it could work. From this point on, however, the process is something that needs to be carefully orchestrated and managed.
A number of years ago, we started an interesting study called the "whereabouts" study. The idea behind the study was to try to illustrate where a front-line manager spends most of his or her time during the course of the day; correlate it to what is actually happening in the business at the same time; and determine if it would be more useful for the organization to have the manager's day look differently.
What we found is that managers spend a great deal of their time behind closed doors, either in their office or in meetings of one kind or another. Generally they are the most technically skilled in their function, so their absence from the front-line raises a number of interesting questions. It also has some bearing on another observation, which is that 90% of the problems that impede someone's daily productivity have nothing to do with how hard that person works. The front-line manager has the most important role in the organization as far as managing the point of execution: the point at which things actually get accomplished.
This raises a number of questions. Should a sales manager spend more time in the field with sales reps? Should a managing engineer spend more time following up with designers or coders? Should a maintenance manager follow up more frequently with mechanics?
Hotel kitchen chefs, on the other hand, spend the bulk of their time directing, coaching and marching up and down the culinary aisles. Clearly they should be a role model, rather than the exception.
In the end, every organization and each individual function needs to tailor its own management profile, but it is often eye-opening to determine where front-line managers spend their time.
Properly integrated management systems are the most important tool that a CEO has for aligning an organization and creating a culture of accountability and continuous improvement. Management systems help all management levels plan, execute, report and improve their area of responsibility in accordance with the CEO's strategic direction. Unfortunately, almost all management systems suffer from one or more of the following fundamental problems:
1. Planning doesn't directly integrate with execution.
Key planning tools include budgets, forecasts, production plans and work schedules. For them to be effectively integrated, you need good work-to-time planning standards and reasonable mathematical relationships between revenue dollars, functional volumes and activities. Links between these elements are often weak or nonexistent.
2. Execution tools are missing.
Execution tools are "in the day, for the day" elements that help a manager know whether the individual or department is on schedule or not. Production areas are better than office environments for this, but both areas often lack accurate schedules, which makes follow-up activity less meaningful. Manager follow-up on the plan and real-time performance feedback during the day is noticeably absent in many work areas.
3. Reports are disconnected from front-line activity.
There is never a shortage of reports, but it's often hard to find reports that are truly useful for front-line managers. Most reporting is too "after the fact" to be much good for day-to-day management.
4. There is no systematic way to improve performance.
To improve performance, managers need to be able to identify variances (off-schedule conditions), problem solve in order to figure out how to improve the process, and then make sure that the new methods and work-to-time relationships are built into future planning. Variance identification requires accurate planning parameters, which unfortunately are often inaccurate. Without a formal method and feedback loop for improvement, problem solving tends to become temporary firefighting -- and problems may simply become an accepted part of the process.
"Required Results" -- or "R2", as it's more commonly called by our clients -- is the tag name we use for objectives or goals or targets. It came about as a result of an observation we made in the first few years of the company. When we studied organizations and how management reacted to off-schedule conditions or variances from their plan, we noticed that results that came relatively close to an objective were generally considered "good enough." Coming in “pretty close” to the original goal meant they did not dwell on why they didn't actually hit it.
Jim Collins, the celebrated business author, was addressing this phenomenon when he wrote, "Good is the enemy of great."
The problem with rationalizing or even accepting results that are "good enough" is that it stops problem solving dead in its tracks and, over time, gradually erodes the performance of an organization. Companies have a way of embedding last year’s results in this year's plan, so if you accept “good enough” when you are close to plan, you can end up quietly lowering the bar every year. That is why we came up with the term "Required Results": it has a different meaning. Targets and goals tend to become ideals to strive for, whereas a requirement is a requirement. Managers respond better to the term and quickly come to understand that any result below the requirement is not OK. This helps to reinforce the discipline of problem solving for any and all variances -- a critical skill needed if organizations want to manage and drive their performance levels.
Change management requires looking at processes, systems and behaviors together because they significantly influence each other. Analyzing processes and systems is largely academic. If you put some smart people in a room and ask them to look closely at your processes and systems, they will figure out better ways to do things. The hardest thing for organizations to change is behavior. The way that people do things and the way they interact are the result of years of patterning. Getting anyone to change doing things that they are comfortable and familiar with is very tough. It's where we spend the bulk of our time on projects.
One of the interesting things we do is to spend a “day in the life” of managers and categorize their time into activity buckets (actively managing, training, administration, firefighting, etc). At the end of the study, we carefully discuss each “bucket” and then we ask the managers to estimate how they thought they spent their time. Then we go a little further and ask them: If you could control your environment, how would you now spend your time? What would you do more or less of during an ideal workday?
Most managers overestimate the time they spend actively managing others. Many also say that, in an ideal world, they would reduce the time they spend actively managing and shift it to training, for example. From a change-management perspective, these are very important facts to know. If managers start out by overestimating their actual active management time, and then conclude they should be doing less of it, you have a big gap between the direction they’re headed and the direction most performance improvement projects need to go. Most improvement initiatives require managers to increase their active management, not decrease it. To help close this gap, managers first need to properly understand how and why they are spending their time the way they do. They then need to rethink how their time might be more effectively distributed and what their workday would look like. Then, they have to change what they actually do, which means consciously changing familiar patterns of behavior. So it's not surprising that organizational behavior change is difficult.
It's hard for most people to see opportunity for improvement. Opportunity is rarely glaringly obvious. When we bring new consultants on board, they usually don’t see opportunity when we ask them to observe a functional process. We have to teach them what to look for -- and then train them how to watch the process objectively. When we work with client managers they often also struggle, at least at first, to see how a process might be improved.
Opportunity is often a subtlety, and it's frequently hidden from view. Finding opportunity is a skill and, like any skill, it takes technique and practice to become good at it. So, gleaned from over 20 years of observing processes to try to find opportunity, here are a few trade secrets to help you:
1. Know what you're looking for. Understand what "opportunity" actually means. In the simplest sense, it means doing something faster, cheaper, better. "Faster" could mean reducing the time it takes to do something. "Cheaper" might mean doing something at a lower cost by doing it using less expensive resources. "Better" could mean reducing the number of errors or cycle time. This is what you are trying to "see".
2. Mentally accept that most processes have 30% to 50% opportunity. If you can't find opportunity, it doesn't mean it isn't there. It just means you can't find it. Maybe you are watching a productive period: think about if there are less productive times (e.g., start up, shut down, changeovers, etc.)
3. Figure out how to improve the process. If you are watching a process that requires four machines, try to figure out how you could reconfigure it with three machines. In the process you will see opportunity.
4. Don't rely on your experience. Being familiar with a process can actually make it harder to see opportunity, because familiarity often causes you to skip over the very things that you should be focusing on. It's critically important to break down tasks into time elements. A lot of opportunity is hidden. For example, if you watch the same task performed 20 times; the time to complete each task may vary substantially. Understanding why will lead you to see the opportunity.
A basic objective of many improvement programs is to figure out how to improve planning. The idea is that if you can plan better, you won't end up scrambling as much when it comes to actually executing the plan. Ironically, some people are really good at scrambling -- so good, in fact, that they are recognized and praised for it. It may even help them get promoted over the years. These are the people who can get things done when you need it.
The trouble is that great scramblers -- or "firefighters" -- often fix an immediate problem, but their “solution” causes problems further down the line. A typical example occurs when there is a part shortage on a production line. There are always a few people who can "find" a part when there are no parts in the system. They find parts by taking them from other orders or by hoarding parts that are frequently in short supply. The part-stealing creates an obvious problem when the original order is finally processed, while the hoarding causes a problem by creating artificial inventory requirements.
At one aircraft manufacturer, we did a one-day blitz to retrieve hoarded parts and found millions of dollar's worth of non-recorded inventory stashed throughout the plant. The actions weren’t malicious -- nobody personally wanted a stock of airplane parts. In fact, the intent was quite the opposite: people were hoarding in an effort to help the process by having parts available in times of shortage.
This kind of behaviour can, and does, happen in service environments as well. Decisions about work schedules and customer priorities can be made with good intentions, but have unintended negative consequences down the road.
The important point for people trying to change the way in which work is done in an organization is to understand the negative impacts of change on what are sometimes key people in the workforce. Great scramblers often have higher social influence, because they are outgoing and action-oriented by nature. They can be powerful allies in a change program, but they can also have a strong negative influence if they don't like where the changes are leading. Improving scheduling capability inevitably requires more discipline and accountability throughout the value stream. It is directly intended to reduce the dependency of off-plan scrambling. It will, in time, have an impact on the workes' environment and individual roles, so it's worth thinking about who might be negatively impacted by what, on the surface, looks like a positive change.
Every manager needs to assess their resource requirements, so they can have the right number of people they need to get work done while also being as productive as possible.
One of the more difficult things about assessing workloads is trying to match static analysis with real-world requirements. For example, if you performed a workload analysis in an accounting area, for example, over the course of a month you would likely find that there were too many people employed, given the amount of work that needed to be done. That's what the static analysis usually tells you. Unfortunately, a lot of work tends to spike in accounting areas during one or two weeks of the month. So if you staffed the area based on the static analysis, work would never be completed on time, causing problems elsewhere in the organization.
So the problem changes from being a simple mathematical equation of calculating and balancing work volume to resources to a more complex problem of matching dynamic volume and resources over periods of time. This also changes the way you think about how to improve productivity. Rather than simply re-engineering process steps to reduce the aggregate amount of work in the area, you need to zero in on the work that is done specifically during these peak periods -- this is another form of constraint analysis, which we discussed in Observation #11, "Productivity Improvement with No Benefit"). To improve productivity in an area like this, you could:
- Lower the peak work requirements by eliminating waste
- Move work to non-peak periods
- Eliminate activities that aren't essential (through technology or other means)
- Reduce staffing in non-peak periods
This dynamic complexity is very common in the workplace. Almost all service-based organizations (e.g., hospitals, restaurants, airlines, banks, hotels, etc.) have to manage this type of workload. So when trying to improve productivity in these environments, think analytically in terms of workloads during peak and non-peak periods.
Financial managers are often skeptical when they hear people claim that their projects have generated, or will generate, substantial financial benefit. There is often a long legacy of projects or investments that were based on some type of ROI. Unfortunately, the ROI tends to be largely designed for the decision, not for ongoing management or accountability.
It's often hard to find a proper financial reconciliation of past investments. This is unfortunate, because savings evaluations are important. They are also very difficult. Savings evaluations, by necessity, attempt to demonstrate that relative performance has improved from one period over another. However, "relative" performance is difficult to define. There are many variables that can come into play that can both positively and negatively affect financial results. Here are just a few:
- The seasonality of the business
- The product or service "mix"
- Wage increases
- Supplier prices
- Competitor actions
For savings evaluations to correlate with financial results, the baseline that’s being used must be correct. A baseline can be anything from year over year, month over month, or week over week. The more volumes fluctuate, the harder it is to create a useful baseline -- and the more important it is to find reasonably comparative periods. If you use an annual base in a highly variable environment, you look like a hero when the volumes are high, but if the volumes drop, which they inevitably do, you might see the financial manager quietly grinning.
Despite their inherent difficulties, savings evaluations are critically important for managing performance improvement. When done correctly, they create ongoing accountability -- and they force you to reconcile claimed improvement with actual financial improvement.