Category Archives: Efficiency

Brevity

I’ll let everyone know up front that this article is going to be somewhat brief, or at least shorter than the average article that I usually post.

It is probably no secret that while I think I may understand and appreciate the concepts and the thought that goes into creating a project and process oriented business (I have a PMP certification to this point), I also recognize that there is the potential for significant overhead and non-productive work to be attracted to this type of business structure. It is easy to say that you have got to take the good with the bad (as the beginning of the famous anonymous quote goes), but I am not so sure that is the case. Project and process structures were created in order to generate efficiencies in business. But who, if not ourselves, is responsible for making sure our projects and processes remain as efficient as possible?

This brings me to my topic: Is it just me, or more accurately, is it just my imagination or have all of business’s documents and presentations been getting longer, more detailed, more complex, and less functionally useful or justifiable?

A process at is simplest is defined as: “a series of actions or steps that are taken to achieve a particular goal”. I couldn’t make that up. It came straight out of the dictionary that way. The idea here being that it is possible to break down a complex work requirement (goal) into a series of simpler tasks and functions. This breaking down process is called “work decomposition”. I didn’t make this one up either. Although somewhat paraphrased, it comes directly from the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK) handbook.

So the idea of taking the complex and breaking it down into a series of simpler, repeatable steps is the goal of a process. This is a good thing.

So what has this got to do with the burgeoning size of documents and presentations you might ask. I think it has a lot to do with it.

As we continue to try and bring finer and finer granularity to the work requirement, we find ourselves documenting and presenting on ever more specific and smaller topics associated with the overall process and goal. Instead of presenting on sales, we now are discussing the various sales and support team engagement processes and when they come into play in the overall sales process. We don’t necessarily look at orders, but all those functions associated with the order process. Now each team will create documentation and presentations on their specific roles, when they engage and who they hand off to when they are done.

I can remember being asked to review a thirty-one-page document (not presentation, an actual Word document) regarding one of these team’s engagement process. That is correct. Thirty-One pages.

I do not begrudge anyone their function or role, but I am concerned that if it is felt that thirty-one pages are required to try and define one’s role in the greater scheme of a sales process, then it may be just possible that we have reached the point of decreasing returns on the value of the incremental process documentation investment.

The add-on effect of this process granularity can now also be seen in volume of slides and presentations that are now also being generated.

There was a time (long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away) when overhead slides and overhead projectors were somewhat expensive and cumbersome items. This had the knock-on effect of limiting the size of presentations. Now with the proliferation of personal computers, bandwidth to connect them and the sharing of desk-tops each new image now represents only a slightly greater utilization of an ever more abundant resource. If you think you need more slides, go for it. As the great Yogi Berra once said: “The limitations are limitless”.

It now seems that fifty slide presentations are no longer the exception, but instead have become the norm.

The net here is that we seem to be producing ever greater amounts of documentation, be it written word or image / presentation based, about ever smaller and more specific topics.

It is said that work will expand to fill available time (C. Northcote Parkinson, in one of my favorite books: “Parkinson’s Law”) and that demand will expand to meet available supply. It now seems that the expansion of our ability to share information has also come with the desire and ability to share ever more of that specific information. Now it appears that the volume of what we share has increased in accordance with our ability to share it. Technology has enabled us to share more, in finer and finer detail, to the point where it seems that we may have lost our bearings as to what level of detail represents a useful or appropriate content materiality.

In the African plain faster cheetahs are able to chase down the slower gazelles. That left only the faster gazelles to reproduce the next, faster generation of gazelles. This in turn meant that the slower cheetahs were then not be able to chase them down and did not survive. That left only the still faster cheetahs to reproduce the following even faster generation of cheetahs. On and on it has been going, with both species currently topping out at speeds of approximately seventy miles an hour during the chase. There is a question as to where this evolutionary cycle will lead.

Previous generations of business structures and communication technologies seemed to have had an effect on limiting the number, topic and volume of documents and presentations created and communicated. As the speed and capacity of each succeeding generation of business structure and its communications capability has increased, so it seems has the number, topics and volume of documents and presentations that it has created.

Who can be sure what the future holds for business organizational structures. It is however expected that our ability to connect, share and communicate will continue to expand. This would lead me to the somewhat gloomy supposition and expectation that with this expanded communication capability we should expect to continue to see an expansion in the number and volume of documents and presentations created and shared to fill it.

I think that sooner or later the limitations imposed by each individual’s available time will have to kick in and start to curtail their ability to read or process this information deluge. I would hope that we would then see the pendulum start to swing back toward brevity and the informational value associated with the document or presentation, not its volume.

I have always valued the clear and concise. Fifty-page presentations and thirty-page process guides are usually neither. We seem to be in an age where we create them because we can, not because we need them. We need to get back to sharing the information we need, not all the information we have.

I told you I would be brief, or at least shorter than usual.

Little Things

Usually I start off one of these articles with a specific idea in mind. I try to examine a topic or a specific facet of business that I find interesting and provide my take on it. I end up trying to make a point or infer a position, and I also try to make it a little entertaining, at least to myself. I have been told on multiple occasions that it is not uncommon for me to miss that entertaining objective for others. Today I am thinking I might change things up and try a little different approach to things.

None of the topics running through my mind really seem worthy of their own entire article. However there doesn’t seem to be a way to banish them from my thought process in favor of a perceptibly higher priority topic. They continue to pop up and present themselves in various forms, apparently clamoring for my attention. It appears that the only solution is to run through them all and let them be sorted out on their own.

Fridays

Is it just me or does anyone else notice a perceptible drop in attendance at the office on Fridays? I understand all that has been written about the benefits of flexible hours and virtual offices and the like. If that was truly the cause of this phenomenon I would expect a little more even distribution of lower office attendance days across the rest of the work week.

I have seen the new television commercial where the “boss” proclaims much to everyone’s amusement that “Wednesday is the new Thursday”. That’s fine, but I definitely must have missed the memo where Friday has become the new Saturday.

On a related topic, I don’t seem to have much sympathy either for those who are ever more frequently complaining about having to attend calls or meetings on Friday afternoons. The last time I checked Friday was still part of what has been so quaintly and colloquially referred to as the “work week”. You know, that eight to five, Monday through Friday thing?

This is especially interesting to me since the latest information from Gallup.com is that the average work week is no longer forty hours, but closer to forty seven hours. That would mean that instead of just working eight to five Monday through Friday people are on average also working eight to four on Saturdays.

So I guess the conundrum to solve here is that people are working more hours and the business offices have lower attendance on Fridays. With all the additional hours being worked I am not so sure that more is actually being accomplished. Interesting. Maybe this one does deserve more thought and research. I’ll have to think about it.

Spam

I passed a milestone a little while ago. I am now averaging more than two hundred spam emails a day on my corporate email account. That is correct. Across a typical eight hour day I am now receiving a spam email every two and a half minutes. I must really be popular with the spammers. I don’t know why. I never respond regardless of how tempting they tell me their offer is.

What is a little more than disconcerting to me is that both my email system and my computer recognize that the junk emails are spam, and regardless of what setting I use to try and stem the ever increasing flow, nothing seems to work.

Now my system lets me know that they are spam, as it continues to present them to me:

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If the system knows that they are spam emails, why doesn’t it just get rid of them, or better yet, block them from even being presented. This number does not include the approximately fifteen other emails that did go directly to my junk email folder because I had already individually blocked the sender of previous spam emails.

As an aside I went out to www.todayifoundout.com and looked up the origin of the term “spam” as it relates to emails. This is what they had to say:

“The real origin of the term comes from a 1970 Monty Python’s Flying Circus skit. In this skit, all the restaurant’s menu items devolve into SPAM. When the waitress repeats the word SPAM, a group of Vikings in the corner sing “SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, lovely SPAM! Wonderful SPAM!” drowning out other conversation, until they are finally told to shut it.
Exactly where this first translated to internet messages of varying type, such as chat messages, newsgroups, etc, isn’t entirely known as it sort of happened all over the place in a very short span of years, in terms of the name being applied to these messages. It is, however, well documented that the users in each of these first instances chose the word “spam” referring to the 1970 Monty Python sketch where SPAM singing was drowning out conversation and SPAM itself was unwanted and popping up all over the menu.”

“Drowning out all other conversation…” That sounds about right.

Spam Calls

As if spam emails are not enough, it seems I am now getting more and more spam phone calls as well. They are coming in on both my personal as well as business phones. These calls seem to have also spiked in frequency most recently.

I initially tried to be polite when I told them that I wasn’t interested in whatever it was that they were sure that I wanted to talk about. They just kept going on with their spiel. I would then be forced to hang up anyway. I then tried being a little more “forceful” in communicating my desire that they should never contemplate calling me again. Despite my directly questioning their intellects and species orientation, this didn’t seem to work either.

I have settled on what I think is a good solution to this particular business problem. When I receive a spam call, I simply answer the call, lay the receiver down and go on doing whatever it was that I was doing when the call interrupted me. The auto dialing system then connects the call to a person on the other end and I can eventually hear someone start speaking, and then realize that no one is listening. Eventually they hang up and go away.

Since these auto dialing spam phone call shops are predicated on the efficiency of the system, this method disrupts their entire process. I think that they then put me on some sort of a “do not call” list as the number of repeat offender calls from these places seems to be reducing. The only problem is that there seem to be so many new ones popping up to take their places.

I don’t want this to seem like some sort of scree or disconnected rant today. Business is obviously changing. How people work, where they work and what they do has changed. I have noted in the past that I am not so sure in many instances if these changes have been for the better. Working more hours from a virtual office, does not in itself indicate any sort of an improvement to me. It does however seem to be instrumental in generating what is now a forty seven hour work week.

I am not sure what the business benefit of generating spam is. I guess it can be considered the electronic replacement for Direct Mail Direct Response (DMDR) marketing and since there is now no cost for postage it seems to be running amok. I don’t think I have ever seen or heard of anyone responding to that stuff although a DMDR response of one to two percent was the expected target. I guess the logic is that if the volume of junk mail is increase by an order of magnitude then the response will increase proportionately as well.

Still, sending me ten requests for the thing I didn’t want once isn’t going to improve things.

Generating spam of any kind should be a punishable offense, at least in my opinion. Living in Texas the idea of dragging spammers through cactus or horse whipping immediately comes to mind as a suitable punishment. No need to get too medieval on them, at least for the initial offense.

I think that’s enough disparate business topics for this session. I’m sure I’ll have more to discuss in the future.

Getting Better

One of the things that I have learned as I have gotten older is that age doesn’t make you any smarter. It just provides you the experience to recognize the things you didn’t know the first time you saw them. It was Randy Pausch, the author of “The Last Lecture” who said:

“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted”

I have wanted many things that I have not gotten, so needless to say, I think I have probably gained a lot of experience. Some of this experience I think I probably could have done without, but I gained it anyway. What I think I now recognize is that sometimes solving some issues or fixing some problems may be beyond our individual or collective reach. The key to situations like this is to recognize them, and instead of trying to make the quantum leap from thoroughly screwed up to pristinely perfect, just try to make them better.

One of the other things that I have experienced is that just about every situation that I have been in falls into this category.

It’s now election season and the number of talking heads earnestly speaking directly to us through our collective big screen televisions is growing. The various media outlets are lining up behind their favorites, and the various positions on the issues are being identified. In short it is the same thing all over again.

People are searching for the best thirteen second sound bite regarding their personal favorite unsolvable problem. Whether it’s the national debt, immigration, unemployment, or any other issue, it seems everyone is jockeying to position their glib and simple solutions to the Gordian knot style problems that are besetting us.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the Gordian knot, in ancient times there was a knot that was thought to be unsolvable or intractable. When the knot was presented to Alexander the Great, who at the time was the acknowledged leader of the known world as a challenge, instead of trying to untie or solve the knot, he simply took out his sword and cut it. Believe it or knot (pun intended) this is thought to be the genesis of phrase and concept of “outside the box” thinking (True!).

When I look at today’s slate of candidates I am concerned that any of them that may in the remotest of possibilities be mentioned with or the even more remote possibility be positively compared with Alexander the Great. However there they are, swinging away with their metaphorical swords on television.

I think we have all see the business equivalents of these would be world beaters and problem solvers. They are the ones that have the “simple” answers to declining sales (‘just sell more”) or low margins (“just spend less”), or any other intractable long term problem that the business may be facing.

Unfortunately with all that is plaguing leaders in business today it is easy to see how they may fall victim to the siren song of the “simple solution” providers.

Please do not misunderstand me. I truly believe the basic premises of business are pretty simple. I have said this many times in the past. It is usually the business itself that adds complexity to its organization and operations in search of ever better and more eloquent was of completing the simple tasks required for it to run.

If a simple process adequately handles eighty percent of the situations then with only a little tweaking it might handle close to eighty five percent of the situations. A little more tweaking might get it to ninety percent. Still more might enable it to be implemented globally instead of specifically for the region in which is currently working. Still more might enable the creation and publishing of fancy metrics charts detailing various aspects of the process and the state of its implementation.

Eventually a process is created that works everywhere in all situations, but takes more effort and resource from the business to work for the entire business than the original eighty-twenty rule process that was the starting point.

It can be argued that the “getting better” approach to business could in fact be responsible for the evolution of both business and process into the complex systems that they are today. This would be akin to the example of taking several small logical steps one after the other to eventually arrive at an illogical conclusion or solution.

I think part of the issue we see in situations like this is the lack of rigor that is applied to defining the problem, setting a baseline and then measuring against the improvement on the baseline. If we all know that we need to improve then we just accept the premise. If we state that the plan is to take the solution global then why would we need to measure if there is in fact a global improvement? The goal is no longer improvement of the business but instead is now the global dispersion of the solution.

Getting better does not mean making breakthrough advancements, although these are always exciting and welcome. Rather it means actually trying to use the primary building blocks of the Continuous Improvement Process that J. Edwards Deming envisioned where Feedback drove Efficiency drove Evolution which in turn drove further feedback, and so on.

The key step in this cycle that seems to be missing in both politics and business today is the Efficiency review. Efficiency by its very nature requires the identification, reduction or elimination of sub-optimal structures and behaviors. The definition of efficiency is:

1. The ability to accomplish something with the least waste of time and effort; competency in performance.
2. The ratio of the work done or energy developed …. to the energy supplied…

Many thanks again to Webster’s Dictionary. One of my favorite books.

The idea of efficiency, and getting better means that we need to continuously look at what we are getting out of systems, processes and businesses as compared to the work that we are putting into them. Efficiency is not just the output, but the output as compared to the input required to get it. Too many times it seems that it is taken for granted that just because there is some new way of doing things, or a new process is being implemented that it is better (read more efficient) than what currently exists.

Almost everything that I read these days in books and periodicals regarding business performance seems to bemoan the loss of speed in business, or the lack or loss of decision making abilities in business, or the complexity that is now being faced in business. These seem to be issues that are now inherent in the business system. The simple command to “sell more” or “spend less” won’t solve them.

I guess the same goes for politics in that the system seems to have evolved to reward those that “sound” the best but in reality only kick the problem down the road for the next generation to deal with. Their simple solutions fit nicely into the thirteen second sound bites provided by the media for public consumption. Perhaps that is why it seems that in this iteration of the political campaigning those that are viewed as being outside the normal political process seem to be preferred more than the established politicians by the general populace.

At its most basic getting better, as well as efficiency means doing more business with less resource. That means that being efficient requires the removal of some functions, effort and work from the business as compared to the set baseline while still accomplishing the set goals. It doesn’t need to be a lot. It just has to be measurable in some fundamental way.

Getting better means making sure that attaining your goals actually, measurably improves the business. The simplest definition of getting better that I can think of is showing some measureable improvement in efficiency. If you can’t directly relate and measure the business activity to somehow improving the business efficiency (mathematically identifying work being done to work being saved or improved), then there is probably a pretty good chance that it is not associated with the business getting better.

The Perfect Metrics

I think we as a species inherently love to measure things. I take that back. We love to measure everything. I am not a baseball fan, but I find it humorously entertaining the number of statistics that are available for seemingly any situation in baseball. I think it is possible to find the batting average for any player in late innings, with runners in scoring position, for away games with left hander pitchers on the mound. Really? I guess there must be someone interested in all that, but I can’t think of who it might be.

I am a hockey fan and there are a whole new generation of metrics created which I am not sure I entirely understand yet, but are supposed to give a much better measurement of the quality of the hockey players on the ice today. It seems that you can now get statistics for third line shots generated or allowed, for defensive players on offensive zone draws in the third period. Okay. I understand what all that means, but I am not sure if I care. Just drop the puck and skate.

I am not quite sure but it seems that some people are trying to make hockey appear to be more like baseball through the use of more and more arcane and detailed metrics. Unless they allow baseball players to carry their bats with them out into the field when they play, (stealing bases would get a whole lot more interesting) instead of just when that are at bat, or figure out a way to make hockey a whole lot slower and more boring, this would not seem to be a plausible goal.

The roundabout introduction here is that to generate all of these baseball statistics, someone had to measure and record all of these actions and variables. They had to create the metrics. And once they created these metrics it became a challenge to create the perfect metrics to more perfectly measure and reflect the game. After over one hundred years they are still trying. This should convince everyone from the onset that there are no perfect metrics. There are only good metrics, and other measurements.

I have had the opportunity in the past to be involved with many metrics projects, programs and functions during my time in business. It has been both an enlightening and useful process to me. It has helped me on several levels when it comes to the successful leadership of a business. In business as in sports, metrics are in part how we keep score.

Metrics are interesting in that they are indicators of performance. Hockey players with good performance metrics tend to be on good teams. Good teams tend to win more games. Winning is usually thought of as being a good thing. The new, complex metrics associated with Hockey seem to go a long way toward providing supporting evidence for how good and accurate the older simpler metrics associated with Hockey actually are. Interesting how that works.

It also seems to go that if a few metrics provide a reasonable indication of individual or business performance, then as we have noted in baseball, a very large number of metrics should provide a significantly more specific and detailed indication of individual or business performance. This thought process is along the lines of the old adage “If a little is good, a lot must be better.”

To extend the baseball analogy that is like saying if a beer or two is good while watching a game then two cases of beer should be excellent. You can find yourself at the game in a state of unconsciousness, immobility or alcoholism.

Similarly you can find yourself in business with so many metrics and indicators that they will begin to provide too much, or even conflicting indicators to the point that you end up in an immobile situation. Hence the phrase “Paralysis by Analysis”. I think I may prefer to refer to this situation as “metricoholism”, or the over dependence on and addiction to metrics to the point of being dysfunctional.

Metricoholism is the inability to have just one, or even a few meaningful metrics. It’s more along the lines of once you get started measuring things, you can’t stop. Eventually you will have measured everything, but will then have no idea what to do about all that you have measured.

I have found that the value of metrics lies in the talent of the people that are interpreting them. Metrics in and of themselves need to be the indicators of where additional human interaction with the business processes may be required in order to understand the possible underlying issues associated with the numeric measurement anomaly (metric). Good metrics identify the leverage points where analysis and performance modification can have the greatest effect on the business. Good metrics simply point to where the leader must look to understand what is affecting their business’ performance indicator.

There was a recent movie about the use of metrics in sports. It was called “Moneyball”. It was nominally a baseball movie, which meant for me that I would wait for it to be on television before I would watch it. I usually don’t pay money to watch a live baseball game because it is as I said a rather boring game to me. Why would I pay money to watch a movie about a rather boring game?

Just as an aside not all baseball based movies fall into this category. I thought “Field of Dreams” and “Bull Durham” were very entertaining movies, in spite of their baseball based premises. However “The Natural”, not so much.

In any event, Moneyball was the story of how a specific baseball team changed the way the business of the sport was conducted. By changing the way that the humongous amount of data associated with baseball and the baseball players was interpreted, they changed the way players and teams were viewed, built and paid for.

That bears repeating. By changing the way that the standard data (that was available to everyone) about the game and each of players was interpreted, one team changed the way an entire century old sports institution looked at how teams were built and how they should best perform.

The value was not in the data. Everyone had the same data. The value was in how the data was interpreted.

While interpretation of the data is going to be the key to success when it comes to metrics, it is also best to remember what Robert McNamara (one of the original automotive industry “whiz kids” of the 1960’s) said. He said:

“First thing: Get the data.”

The point is that there is a lot of data available. Which data do you go get. If you were a Metricoholic you would end up trying to get all of the data, since partial data would not be satisfactory. Also as previously noted, this would be a mistake. It takes far too much time, money and effort to do this and what are you going to do different with one hundred percent of the data that you wouldn’t do with eighty percent of the data.

That was an oblique reference to the old eighty – twenty rule where you can get eighty percent of the data in twenty percent of the time. If you can get eighty percent of the data reasonably quickly, you can make excellent business decisions from that data, and move on.

Good metrics for a business need to be relatively simple and straight forward. They need to deal with the basic functions and core values of the business, not the ancillary capabilities. Revenue, costs and profitability are good examples of simple metrics that all businesses use. I think there is probably a good reason for that. Performance levels and adherence to service levels are good metrics for service related industries. There are certainly others and they can be customized by business type and industry.

The key and the value to good metrics lie in their simplicity and their interpretation. Complex metrics just provide you complex data that is difficult to interpret. Exhaustive numbers of metrics generate exhaustive amounts of data that requires exhaustive interpretation. No amount of metrics, or process for that matter, can replace the need for talented people who can interpret the data, then decide where and what to act on.

The idea of good metrics should be to create a few indicators that measure the specific core leverage points of a business or organization. They should provide both a historical trend (are they getting better or worse) and a specific snap shot of performance. They should indicate where the interpreter of the information should go look for issues, if they are indicating issues. They should not be expected to indicate what the cause of the problem is, and certainly not what the solution to any particular issue will be.

Almost every business in existence already has some sort of metrics. Some are probably good metrics and some are probably just measuring something. There will also probably be those in the organization that are clamoring for more metrics as a way to improve performance.

However, I have found that good metrics are usually like bitter medicine. They are best and most effective when delivered in small doses, and usually best prescribed by someone outside the organization that does not have a stake hold to protect.

Just like healing oneself, measuring oneself is sometimes a difficult thing to accurately and honestly do as well.

The Optimal Meeting Length

I think that the new business reality is that it is the rare event when something actually gets done without first having a meeting. We need to know who will be Responsible for the action to be taken, and who will be Accountable for taking it, and who will need to be Consulted before it is taken and who will be Informed of its being taken. We will spend hours in meetings in this type of analysis before we actually do anything. We seem to have evolved the business approach that having a meeting about something is the same thing as taking action.

With all this time being spent in meetings trying to decide how to split the accountability and responsibility for doing anything, it got me to thinking: What would be the optimal length for a meeting, not just one of these deciding how to take action meetings, but any meeting?

I looked. There is any number of books available on line purporting to help people run efficient and effective meetings. I was in a meeting when I Googled that so I really didn’t have the time to read any of them. Who knows some of them might actually hold the key. But since we are in the here and now I will take my kick at the can (and utilize some of my own web sleuthing) to come up with what I think is the optimal length for any meeting.

There will be a few meeting ground rules.

• For it to officially be considered a meeting it must be visual in nature. That means that you either have to be there in person, or attend via video. Audio attendance at a meeting only is a phone call / conversation regardless of how you want to describe it, and it enables everyone associated with the call to multi-task doing email, play solitaire, or any other distraction they may so choose.

• If it is a real meeting it will have an agenda. If you don’t have set topics, speakers and time frames it is not a meeting. It is an unstructured discussion, or lunch. Without an agenda you should not expect to get anything done.

• The only computer that is to be open during the meeting is that of the person presenting. Open computers enable everyone to multi-task (see the first bullet above) instead of paying attention to the topic of the meeting. It’s also discourteous to the presenter.

• There should be no refreshments of any kind at the meeting. No bagels or muffins for a morning meeting. No coffee or soft drinks. The object of the meeting participants should be to get something done, not get fed and watered. If you really have to bribe people with food to get them to come to your meeting, maybe you don’t really need to have a meeting.

• Finally, there will be no leaving the meeting and coming back for any reason. No taking phone calls. No smoking breaks. And lastly, no bathroom breaks. Get that done before or after the meeting. Don’t disrupt it by having to go.

I understand that these rules will take a lot of the fun out of meetings. People will actually have to show up and pay attention. I know this is a lot to ask, but I do think it is critical that we get back to the old outdated ways of actually getting things done. Show up. Do your work. Then go do something else.

Now when we are talking about meetings, we are talking about the internal gathering of company employees. They can be called reviews, or updates, or deep dives or just about any other euphemism that you can come up with for having people get together for a business purpose. I will refer generically to all these events as “meetings”.

I am also going to specifically exclude meetings with customers from this discussion for the time being, since those types of meetings are held only with the consent of the customer and at their discretion. Many of the ground rules I have laid out would and should apply, but some (such as food and refreshments) may not.

With the ground rules in place and the meeting defined as not including customers we can get started on how long a meeting should take, or should last, depending on how you want to look at it.

Research (Google) shows that the average person goes to the bathroom about six times a day. That same research also shows that the average person stays awake about seventeen hours a day. Using simple math that means that the average person goes to the bathroom on average once every three hours or so (actually a little less than that). I think this is a good upper bound for a meeting’s length.

Now if we use a little probability theory, because not everyone goes to the bathroom at the same time, we will find that on average for any meeting of two or more people someone will have to go within half the average time frame. That means that our maximum meeting length is now slightly less than an hour and a half.

Even better.

Now on to other research (Google) topics. Estimates for the length of human attention span are highly variable and depend on the precise definition of attention being used.

• Transient attention is a short-term response to a stimulus that temporarily attracts/distracts attention. Researchers disagree on the exact amount of human transient attention span; some say it may be as short as 8 seconds.

I think it is safe to assume that senior management is more Transient Attention oriented.

• Selective sustained attention, also known as focused attention, is the level of attention that produces the consistent results on a task over time. Some state that the average human attention span is approximately 5 minutes; others state that most healthy teenagers and adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 20 minutes at a time, although they can choose repeatedly to re-focus on the same thing. This ability to renew attention permits people to “pay attention” to things that last for more than a few minutes, such as long movies.

Attention span, as measured by sustained attention, or the time spent continuously on task, varies with age. Older children are capable of longer periods of attention than younger children.

It doesn’t say anything about executives or managers. Insert your own experience based limit here, however my experience has taught me that they tend to align with younger children.

I have been writing this for an hour or two and I think I need to take a break. I’ll be right back….

Okay, if we accept that people can pay attention to a single topic for up to twenty minutes, but that they can continue to “refocus” on interesting topics in order to stay engaged for longer periods of time, the question now becomes; how many times can they refocus? This is where true science comes into play.

In baseball its three strikes and you’re out.

Asking people to maintain their attention, and refocus multiple times while limiting the number of bathroom breaks is a lot to ask. Asking people to refocus their attention three times for a total of sixty minutes seems to be about the limit of reasonable expectation.

There you have it. A scientific explanation. No meeting should be more than one hour long. If you can’t get it done in an hour then you probably need to re-look at what it is that you are trying to accomplish in the meeting.

I think we all knew this is where I was going with this topic. We seem to have broken our lives down into hour intervals starting with our classes in school. If you can teach Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to twenty five disinterested teenagers within a one hour class, you should be able to have far less than twenty five adult business people come to conclusion on just about any topic within the same interval.

By the way, time does indeed slow down, the closer you get to the speed of light.

This interval sits comfortably within the average need for a bathroom break, and it is short enough that it doesn’t require too many refocusing events. It is the optimal length for a meeting where the objective is to actually get something done. It enables the meeting attendees to get in, get out and move on to the next topic. By limiting the time one would expect (hope) to drive the attendees to come to a conclusion within that time.

If there are more topics to be covered they need to be broken down into other multiple one hour meetings.

Of course, none of this one hour meeting logic applies to how long a luncheon meeting should last.

Is Travel Efficient?

I often travel for business. Maybe that is the reason that I seem to find myself writing about business travel so frequently. I used to think that travel was exciting and exotic. That was right up until the point where I actually started traveling, a lot. For those of you that don’t travel much, trust me, it isn’t that great. I noticed a new commercial on television (since there really aren’t any new shows out right now, I notice the new commercials during the reruns) extolling the virtues of a certain hotel for those that “get” to travel as opposed to those that “have” to travel. Cute approach, but definitely aimed at those that don’t know anything about traveling.

I think very few of us who have done any traveling actually feel like we “get” to travel. I understand that a certain amount of travel is to be expected, and might even be considered mandatory for the proper conduct of business. Even in the virtual world that we now work in, sometimes there is no substitution for being there in person. We can video conference, Instant Message, email or even call on the phone all we want, but it is just not the same as being there.

If we accept that there is a defined amount of travel that should occur, we now need establish some boundaries around it so that we can make sure that we are efficient with the use of our travel. Is too little bad for business? Can you travel too much? Do you get a good return for your travel dollar cost investment?

Remember that travel constitutes the entire amount of time portal to portal, and back that the trip encompasses. The two hour meeting that you attended may have been very productive, but was it worth the entire two business days of work time (including travel) that were invested in it for you to attend? Before we can answer that question I think we need to apply a “weighting” factor. Customer meetings are important. They are always more important than internal business meetings. Time with the customer is precious. The customer has only a limited amount of time available in their day and if they choose to spend any of it with you, it should be treated as precious.

On the other hand, internal business meetings occur all the time. I have discussed in the past that there seems to have been a blurring of the lines between what is a meeting and what is a conference call. This blurring if anything has devalued the time spent in meetings. Now multiple people choose to attend by video or conference circuit. It may be a meeting requiring time, travel and expense, but for several it is just another phone call.

For me travel is not a very efficient use of time. I look on with great admiration and envy at those on the plane that are able to open their PCs and work on their spreadsheets or presentations. I have tried to do it. Occasionally I try again to do it, just to see if something has magically changed and I am now able to work in a cramped, strange setting with 250 strangers sitting close by, with several of whom seemingly in succession needing to go to the bathroom. It is to no avail. For whatever reason I cannot get meaningful work done on an airplane. I have even tried to write articles for publication in this forum while spending twelve hours en route to Brazil, and was unsuccessful at it.

Perhaps it is the same internal programming that makes it difficult for me to work at home instead of coming into the office. For whatever reason I find that I am most productive at the office, in a professional environment. I seem to have the tools, space and environment that I find conducive to high productivity work when I am in a business office. I find that I am reasonably productive when I travel to a remote company location and can work from an office while there, as well. It seems to be the transit time where it is difficult for me to work.

It is possible that my productivity on a plane has decreased with the available room to work on a plane. There was a time in the dim, glorious past where a standard coach seat on a plane was a whopping thirty inches wide and there was a staggering thirty two inches of leg room for each seat, in coach no less. Now it seems that there is only twenty seven inches of seat room and twenty eight inches of leg room (if you are lucky). That means we the travelers on average have lost two hundred and four square inches of room on the plane. That is almost one and a half square feet. That is a loss of approximately twenty one percent of the space that we used to get to travel in.

For comparison’s sake, my laptop computer measures eight inches by twelve inches, or is approximately ninety six square inches. On average we have lost more than two laptop computers worth of room on the average airplane seat.

Isn’t it interesting how the cost of travel continues to increase but the space that our airline ticket now purchases has decreased so significantly?

I don’t know how I was going to relate the loss of one and a half square feet of space with my difficulty in being able to work on a plane. I don’t remember being particularly able to work that much better on the old roomier seats. Perhaps it is the now much closer proximity of other people who are also not working on the plane, but who do seem to have over active bladders that is affecting me.

I do however remember being able to sleep more comfortably in the old coach seats.

Regardless, what I find is that I am not as productive when I travel as when I am in the office. I suspect to some extent this is the case for everyone, with the possible exception of my daughter. She seems to be able to conduct her work, which appears to consist of the use of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and any other number of social media programs, equally well from anywhere. Maybe that is the future of business as well, although I haven’t heard if she can study for her classes as well while on a road trip with her girl friends as she can in her dorm room, but she definitely can “tweet” up a storm.

This brings me in a roundabout way to the topic of if travel actually is efficient. I have had to think about this one for a while. We spend a lot of time and money on travel. Do we actually get our monies worth out of it?

I guess it really depends on a few contributing criteria as to whether business travel can be considered efficient and whether or not we think we are getting our monies worth for the resource investment. Criteria such as who is traveling, who are they meeting, what is the purpose of the meeting, how long is the meeting and how long will it take to get there (and back) should all come into play when looking at travel.

With a decreased productivity associate with travel, spending double digit hours in transit to attend an internal meeting that is scheduled for a couple of hours doesn’t seem efficient. On the other hand as I said earlier, meetings with customers would significantly change the balance of this equation.

I have mentioned travel and meetings with customers several times. That doesn’t mean that all travel associated with customers should be construed as necessary, or efficient. There are only so many dinners, sporting events and outings that you can take a customer to before you should expect some progress. Too many times it seems that we have the tendency to associate meetings with customers as progress. Meetings with customers are activities. As I said earlier, time with a customer should be precious, but progress is actually closing deals with customers and getting contracts.

What this means that in many instances it is difficult to know if the meeting with the customer is going to progress the desired result of a business contract or a product order, or if it will be just another activity.

I guess the bottom line is that travel, even travel to see customers is more expensive from an efficiency and work opportunity lost point of view than just the cost of the airfare and hotel. When you travel you have to put several other functions and opportunities on hold or at least in a lower priority state in order to focus on the travel task at hand. I think it might have been viewed in the past that travel was some sort of break from the grind of work and hence travel might have been something to look forward to.

It’s not.

And as business and the world in general speed up and virtualizes, I am not even sure that it is really an efficient way of conducting much of our business anymore. There is definitely a place for travel, particularly where customer contact is concerned, but I am not so sure about anywhere else.

Maybe I have just traveled enough and don’t want to “get” to travel anymore.

Meetings and Phone Calls

I don’t think that it is any sort of a big secret that I am not a great fan of meetings. I can remember way back into the dark ages when meetings were convened in order to reach a decision. Sometimes you counted the votes in an effort to achieve some sort of a democratic consensus in the hope that the combined input of all would result in the best decision and solution. Sometimes the votes were “weighed” where the boss’s vote weighed more than the sum total of everyone else’s vote combined. The point was that a decision got made.

Originally meetings were just that, a “meeting”. Webster’s Dictionary (one of my favorite books) defines the verb “meet” (as in to meet) as “to come into the presence of”. Meetings were defined as a physical presence event. They were held face to face. People came from all over to attend. Meetings were not taken lightly. You needed to be prepared. They were special times where the day to day grind was set aside, where reports were presented and decision were made. You looked people in the eye. Feedback was immediate and visible. Things got done.

This was back when everyone worked in a place called the office.

As time has passed we have virtualized our office. Technology now enables us to work in teams across time zones and around the world. This new approach has broadened our ability to work together, but it has also reduced our ability to have the physical presence that defined a meeting.

Instead we now have phone calls. When we have more than two people on a phone call it is termed a conference call. We seemed to have evolved to a place where we now consider conference calls to be “meetings”. As more time has passed it seems that these conference call – meetings have become more and more of an open discussion forum where the actual making of a decision and moving forward has taken a back seat to the ongoing discussion of the topic at hand.

I am convinced that at least part of the reason for the increasing ineffectiveness of meetings these days stems from the fact that telephone etiquette is different from meeting etiquette, and the ability and proclivity of people who are invited to the conference call – meeting to forward their invitation to the meeting to other people.

In short, technology advancements, virtual offices and the ability to invite ever increasing numbers of attendees to a meeting without the meeting initiator’s consent have conspired to cause the loss of control, purpose and value of a meeting.

In the past a meeting had a defined time. It started, had an agenda and it finished. Because of the effort involved for people to meet face to face it was a taken that there had better be progress, or resolution or a solution to the topic. The investment in time and people and travel made it imperative.

This is no longer the case with a conference call. On a conference call the only one really paying attention at any point in time is the person speaking. Because everyone else is usually busy and sitting at their desk, they are multi-tasking and doing something else while only partially attending the conference call – meeting. If nothing is accomplished at the meeting it is no great loss. It is easy to schedule another conference call and pick up where the last one left off.

The sense of purpose and requirement for conclusion is lost because it is no longer a meeting. It is a phone call.

A second contributory factor to the decline and fall of meeting effectiveness is the growing sense that it is alright for people who were invited to the meeting (now conference call) to invite other people to the conference call. What was once a manageable number of attendees, each with a specific role to play and deliverable to provide now seems to have blossomed into a search for consensus across anyone and everyone who could conceivably be associated with the meeting topic.

In the past when people actually met face to face this just didn’t happen. No one just “crashed” a meeting uninvited like some college fraternity party. In the time when you actually had to be at the meeting in order to attend it, it meant something to be there. You had to stop whatever else you were doing and go to the meeting. It was a very rare occasion where an incremental invitation was extended to someone who was not on the initial meeting invitation list.

It was even rarer when an incremental invitation was extended by anyone other than the person who called for, set up and owned the meeting.

Unfortunately this does not appear to be the case anymore.

Now I find with ever increasing numbers we have meeting attendees who are attending (actually dialing in to the conference bridge) who were not invited to the meeting. I see more and more electronic notifications that someone who was invited to the meeting has forwarded the meeting invitation to someone else.

When did it become okay to do this?

The only time that I could see this type of situation arise would be when an original meeting invitee can no longer attend and must delegate their responsibility with respect to the meeting to someone else. But here we have a one for one replacement, not an incremental attendee.

I liken the incremental invitation scenario to be similar to being invited to a friend’s house for a dinner party and arriving with several of your friends (who were not invited and the host may or may not know or have planned for) because you thought they would enjoy a dinner party and should be involved.

I have stated many times that I am probably old school in my approach to business. That does not mean that I will not embrace new technologies and business techniques. I will whole heartedly do so if I can see the value and improvement the new idea brings to the business. I understand the new virtual office and team structure. I see many of the benefits that it brings. I also see many of the detriments that it also brings.

There are many increases in productivity that can be directly traced to the new virtual structures. I think that there are also many decreases in productivity that have not been fully recognized yet in the new business processes that are resulting from these new structures. I think some of the loss of meeting productivity is one of them.

When we turn a business meeting into just one of several other telephone calls we start to devalue its purpose. We multi-task and no longer give it our full attention. When we start inviting, or allow others to invite more and more people to a meeting we are complicating the process and diffusing the focus, and again devaluing the meeting.

And all of this seems to be okay because if we don’t get anything done in this meeting, or on this call, we’ll just have another one. It is now so much easier to have a meeting, and so much easier to forward meeting invitations that allow us to bring more people than necessary together, that we no longer feel that the purpose, function and conclusion solution that were once the primary objectives of having a meeting to continue to be of primary importance.

In short, it appears that it is now so easy to attend a meeting, and we have so many people attending meetings, that we have devalued the purpose and objectives of having meetings. It seems as a result we are having more and more meetings attended by more and more people, and getting less and less done at each meeting.

What that means is the next time you get invited to a meeting, pay attention to the proceedings, insist that there be a definable outcome of the meeting, and don’t forward the invitation to anyone else for the meeting.

If we all did this we would all probably have fewer meetings to attend because we would get more done at the ones we actually went to.

Travel, Productivity, Cost Savings and Golf


As we continue to look for ways to keep our business’ costs down, one of the first things that get looked at is travel. Travel limitations, restrictions and freezes are all well known approaches to trying to reduce costs. I guess the success of these approaches depends on the goals that you are setting. If the idea is to bring down the hard dollar costs associated with your budget, then a true travel freeze can work, up to a point. However, there are not many businesses that can function properly or continue to grow without some amount of travel.


That leads us to travel limitations, restrictions and of course lowest cost airfare routing. This is where business and job productivity come into the travel and cost savings equation. I am going to use a hypothetical, if somewhat tongue in cheek example to help illustrate my point.


If I live in Dallas and I am asked to attend a meeting in Boston, I have several decisions to make. The first question is; do I need to go? If my boss has asked me to go, then the answer is easy; yes. If somebody else has asked, then I probably need to do a little more work to truly identify the need for my travel. Let’s assume my boss has asked me to go. For those of you that know me, the second question I always ask is; can I play golf there? Boston, March, probably not high on the golfing opportunity list.


Boston is approximately a four hour direct flight from Dallas. However, direct flights are usually more expensive. Most companies now require you to take a less expensive set of flight arrangements if available. I am now faced with the decision of either explaining why I have chosen the more expensive direct flight, or taking the less expensive connecting flight arrangements. Let’s assume that the president of the company is not currently available to authorize my more expensive direct flight travel arrangements, so I take the connecting flights.


This now brings up a couple more important points. The first is that in my 25-plus years of travel, I have never heard of an airline actually successfully keeping a traveler and their golf clubs together on connecting flights. They always get lost. Golf is definitely out in Boston.


Unless I decide to rent clubs.


The second point is that due to airline connecting schedules, what was initially a four hour flight is now a seven-plus hour set of flights. By selecting the connecting flights I have added 3-plus hours of travel time to each direction of my trip. That is the equivalent to adding almost the time of an entire round of golf each way. I have essentially added an entire day (two rounds of golf) to my trip. I will now also have one incremental day worth of meals associated with this trip, as well as potentially depending on connections, another night worth of lodging expenses.


This entire extra day of travel associated with going to this meeting is not spent being productive at my job, or playing golf. It is spent in airplanes and in airports. I am not going to get into the actual loaded hourly rate that is being paid or absorbed by the company while an extra day is spent traveling. What I am going to say is that it is my belief that the productivity value lost to the company by my (or anyone else) not being able to do productive work, as well as the incremental attracted costs (meals and lodging) for an incremental day due to travel are probably greater than the perceived savings difference between the cheaper connecting flights and the more expensive direct flights.


I am sure there will be instances where this lost productivity / airfare analysis will swing the other way and it will not make sense to fly direct. I do believe that in most instances it will be in the company’s best interest to get me or any other employee to our business destination and back home again, as quickly as possible in order to maximize the time where we can be productively working, and not sitting on airplanes and in airports. Besides, it’s hard to work on your putting in the airport. My putter has a tendency to set off the metal detectors, and people in the terminal don’t seem to pay attention and keep kicking my golf ball.

More on Communications…Not More Communications

We have all been in the position where we have a great deal of information to disseminate to a significant number of people. What do we do? We write the “Mother of all Memos” – MoaM, (please pardon the allusion to a wayward military comment in the coining of a new communications phrase) and then put it to a distribution that rivals Santa’s Naughty / Nice list. We now have all the information communicated to all the people. Our job is done here, right? I don’t think so.




On the surface this may seem to be the best way for us to communicate, but it reality it isn’t. It may be efficient for the sender (one memo typed and sent) but is it efficient communications? 




Efficient communications is providing the appropriate information to the appropriate audience, at the right time. That means only the information that is needed then, not all the information you have. Does everyone on that massive distribution list need to know everything that is contained in the body of the MoaM? Better yet, will everyone on that distribution list even read the entire memo in an effort to glean the specific pieces of information that they need from it? We would all like to think that everything that we write (including this Blog article) is of such importance that everyone will read it in its entirety, print it out, high-light it, then annotate it and keep it close by where they can often refer to it.




Right.




Efficient communications would call for us to create several shorter memos, with significantly shorter distribution lists where the information in each memo is appropriate for the specific audience and does not contain information that is not needed by that audience. It may be a little more work on the sender’s part but it will more efficiently communicate the information…and it will probably also cut down on the enormous number of the dreaded one-line “reply all” message chains that invariably follow the use of the MoaM.




Effective communications is providing the right information in the right format for the appropriate audience. This means sending emails, right? In the past this has certainly been the case, but is really the most effective method?




As matrix organizations, teaming and collaboration have proliferated, specific communities of interest have been created. Communications capabilities have also been developed in this area. Where email is a One-to-Many, or a Many-to-Many form of communications, new capabilities such as SharePoint (my apologies to both my Mac and PC friends for using a Microsoft example) allows an accessible network location to be created where there is now a Many-to-One communications structure (many people accessing a single information location). This new(er) type of communications format might provide a more effective way to provide the right information to the right audience.




For me the only issue that arises with the creation of SharePoints for communication and information exchange is that it is not a “Push” form of communications. Email allows us the “Push” the information out to the desired recipients and participants. Once it is sent we are reasonbly sure that the desired recipients have it. SharePoint usually requires the desired participants to access the site and “Pull” the information down from it.




It’s a small difference, but in the hectic world in which we are all now working, it is just another activity that we must take the initiative on to accomplish. Emails come to us. They require an action. Even if you choose to do nothing, it was an active decision to do nothing based on the email. If we must go to a location to find out what we must / need to do, it might just be easier to not go, and as a result not have to make a decision regarding what does or doesn’t need to get done.




Now the decision to do / not do anything can be based upon whether or not we have decided to go get the information to act on, not what the information is itself may be.




It used to be just writing a big, long memo and sending it to everyone. Now we need to look at what is efficient (what information for which audience), and what is effective (what format “Push/Pull”, for which audience) will be the best to achieve the objectives.



On the other hand, it might not be such a bad idea to just pick up the phone and call……

No More “Work Arounds” – Enforce Change

We have all been in the position where an unexpected issue arises. It can be a product capability shortfall, or a process application mismatch, or just about anything in between.  Our first impulse is to find a “work around”. Something quick and dirty that will get the job done and allow us to move on. We have all done it.


 


The problem with this approach is that it requires two “fixes”: the initial “work around” and then the revisit of the issue to put in the correct long term change. The “work around” allows us to stay with the existing process or capability, when by the very nature of the need, we are seeing that we need to change. In today’s short resource, profitability and resource challenged environment, the “work around” has become too expensive.


 


The normal issue with a “work around” is that since it is working, we never seem to get around to implementing the correct long term solution. Change doesn’t (need) to occur and the “quick and dirty (re: inefficient) becomes the accepted process. It becomes the standard by default and gets (re)coded into the process going forward. The quick and dirty has solved a short term need, but has not generated the needed change to achieve long term efficiency and profitability.


 


In today’s economy when you encounter an issue, more often then not the correct course of action is to implement the long term fix – make the change. It may take a little longer than the quick and dirty fix to the existing system, but the end result is a cleaner, longer term solution. The business also ends up stronger, more efficient and more profitable.