Category Archives: Focus

Work Not Done

Everybody is talking about efficiency these days. And customer value. But mostly about efficiency. How do we become more efficient? How do we gain efficiency? All that kind of stuff. The drive is to reduce costs.

We have all heard the trite, stale, overused homilies. Do more with less. Work smarter not harder. Yadda yadda yadda. Right. In todays (over) process driven business environment, I am pretty much convinced that none of this is going to work. We have to get our collective heads around the idea that true efficiency is in fact going to come from doing less with less while still delivering the desired performance result. Efficiency is going to come from looking at what gets done while at the same time quantifying what was actually not needed to be done in getting the deliverable result.

In the past I have been party to and sometimes involved in multiple local, regional, global, galactic and intergalactic programs aimed at standardizing processes and methodologies in the name of gaining efficiency. For the most part none of them have been what I would call an unquestioned success. In many instances they actually seemed to have added incremental effort and complexity to the existing model for doing business.

I think what they all lacked was a business case that took the time to quantify what the work effort required to provide the desired deliverable was prior to the change or standardization and what the work effort to provide the same desired deliverable was at the end of the change or standardization process. Hopefully the new work effort is less than the initial work effort required for the same deliverable. The difference between these two amounts is the “Work Not Done”. This would be the quantifiable improved efficiency.

This value is the work that was being done, but now is no longer being done. You want this value to be as big as possible. A positive Work Not Done value means you have removed effort from a process. You have streamlined. You have become more efficient. A negative Work Not Done value means you have added effort to the process. You are less efficient.

For so long we have had it hammered into our collective business psyches that standardization equals efficiency. We strive to standardize our products, our services and our processes in the hope of eking out additional efficiencies and savings. We seem to have pursued this single minded approach to standardization against the competing back drop of infinite specialization with respect to both the roles required for delivering the standardization and the infinite variety of products being created from the standardization for the customers.

Figure that one out. But I digress.

I think the idea of Work Not Done should consist of looking at the work effort, process, functions, roles and people associated with the delivery of something towards an agreed goal, and then deciding what parts of it can be removed (or not done) and still successfully deliver the goal.

I think it can be and should be as simple as that.

Now this may sound suspiciously like some sort of “Lean” principle, where everything that does not contribute value to a customer should be removed.

I guess it actually does sound a little like that, even to me.

However, my point is that if we are going to try and be more efficient, let’s be more quantitative and less qualitative about it.

Stop me if you have heard this one before….

Most of these standardization drives, and by extension the drives for efficiency seem to be based on the concept or principle that if we standardize we will be more efficient. Standardization usually involved the creation of a centralized function group that would be responsible for the standard and its implementation. This group is normally referred to as incremental effort or over-head. They have been added to the existing process where they didn’t exist before. They would be considered “negative” Work Not Done (or “incremental work being done if you prefer”).

There is then the maintenance of the ongoing standardized process where there is significant effort over time from both the centralized standardization group and the other (regional?) groups that have been standardized. At the end of this standardization process there is usually a centralized group that remains in place since the standards must now be managed and the regional groups that are now utilizing the expected standards must report their adherence to these standards back to them.

There is usually no place in the drive for standardization where a baseline of the current effort spent is captured, an expected effort associated with implementing the standardization change is estimated and a resulting and hopefully lower new work effort line is estimated. This would result in a quantified Work Not Done going forward goal is set for the success of the standardization to be measured against.

If you are going to standardize, you ought to expect to get some efficiency out of it, otherwise, why would you do it?

When looking at the mechanics of a Work Not Done business case there would be an initial Work Not Done “Deficit” or debt incurred as there will be a period of time where there will be incremental work input into the process or system in an effort to change the way the current work method is conducted. Once the change has been implemented there needs to be an ongoing return on the Work Not Done investment in the form of the work that is no longer being done during the deliverable process. This is the actual efficiency or work savings paying back on the change effort work investment. It is expected that this Work Not Done payback will eventually cover the incremental cost associated with the change effort, and then start paying dividends in form of savings for the business.

The shorter this payback time, the more efficient the new process or capability is. This is a quantitative approach to the desire for efficiency.

As Robert McNamara (President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense) once said:

“First get the data.”

I am also going to paraphrase one of my favorite authors here, Robert Heinlein. He said:

“If it can’t be expressed in figures, it’s not science. It is opinion”

Business keeps score, and reports it progress quarterly with figures. In fact many laws have been passed that limit a business’s ability to provide “opinion” on its relative or perspective performance lest they unfairly or inaccurately lead the market. There may be some qualitative (opinion) aspects to how a business reports its performance, but by and large it is quantitative and the figures speak for themselves. It would seem that this would also be a very good way to start looking at all efficiency and standardization programs – via the figure they generate.

I think many managers are of the opinion that simplification, cost reduction, streamlining, efficiency, etc can come from standardization. This is a qualitative approach. There is usually very little analysis (and quantification) of the incremental work required to implement a standardization change into a business. Everybody just seems to know that it is a good thing to do.

Heinlein addressed this type of topic in the past as well. He said:

“If “everybody knows” such-and-such, then it ain’t so, by at least ten thousand to one.”

I am not going to say that the odds are stacked that strongly against standardization in and of itself generating quantifiable efficiencies and cost savings. I just happen to think that most of that low hanging fruit associated with this argument has already been picked and that quantification of performance is needed.

If there is little analysis of the effort required to implement a standardization change, there is usually no time spent examining the Work Not Done payback that should be expected from such an effort. If a business is going to invest capital in an attempt to generate greater efficiency there is normally a return that is expected. Whether it is Return on Investment (ROI) or Return on (Invested) Capital (ROIC) there is a metric to see if you are efficiently using the capital resource.

When we are looking at trying to generate efficiencies, synergies or any other kinds of cost reduction we need to start implementing the same financial rigor into the process that we do when we are investing capital, and try and quantify the efficiency return we are looking for from a labor or a process modification investment. It should be in the form of Work Not Done.

The Process – Simplicity Paradox

The known world is full of paradoxes. Paradoxi? Whatever. Having studied Physics in school I am somewhat familiar with a couple of scientific paradoxes that changed the way we look at everything. Prior to these changes the world was viewed through the lens of what was called Newtonian Physics. That is the mechanics of the motion of objects of non-zero size. Beach balls bouncing, planets orbiting, that sort of thing. It worked well until technology progressed to the point where people could examine smaller and smaller objects, like “particles”, electrons, and protons and such. Then it didn’t work anymore.

It was at this point in time that a new branch of Physics had to be created. It had to work for the macro-world of bouncing balls and the micro-world of sub-atomic nuclear particles. It was called “Quantum Mechanics”. It had to address the paradoxes that were now visible.

It had to address the paradox that sometimes light behaved as a wave and sometimes it behaved as a particle, when in reality it had to be both a particle and a wave all the time. If that was truly the case then everything had to exhibit the same characteristics of waves and particles. This is called the wave-particle duality.

There were other paradoxes that Quantum Mechanics had to address. The idea that physical quantities such as speed and energy (and others) changed in only discreet amounts, sort of like going up and down steps as opposed to the idea of smooth slopes like slides. It also had to explain why the very act of observing these things changed their behavior and made observing other aspects of the same objects that much more difficult.

So, as usually the question now is: What does this introduction have to do with anything associated with business. I think it is pretty simple. I think we have been working in a business management model that for analogy’s sake is the seventeenth century equivalent of Newtonian Physics. It has worked, or not worked as the case may be, on a somewhat macro-scale, but as we have tried to drive it further down on a micro-scale into the organization, it seems to no longer provide the solutions and value businesses need.

As we have introduced more process into the business system in order to try and drive more and more order into the system, I think we are starting to see a breakdown in the results we are expecting to see. Instead of getting better we have gotten slower. We don’t get the results that we expect. So what have we done? We have attempted to introduce still more and more process on a smaller and smaller level in order to achieve the predictability and order that we desire in our business universe.

I think we may have reached the same metaphorical boundary in business that Newtonian Mechanics Physicists had to cross in order to get to the new Quantum Mechanics model of the world.

As we layer in more and more process in order to try and simplify, streamline and make our business universe more predictable, we are also adding in more complexity to the business system through the application of the process itself. Herein lies the paradox: The very act of adding incremental process in order to simplify the business adds complexity to the business. We may actually end up simplifying the business a little, but it takes more effort in the process than we save in the business.

This incremental process complexity manifests itself in the time it takes to accomplish simple tasks. It can be seen in the number of conference calls that are now required before any actions can be taken. It can be seen in the increased desire for consensus instead of action. All of these complexity symptoms can be seen as the result of trying to drive the increased application of complex process into the business structures.

Extending the Quantum, Mechanical and Measurement metaphors a little farther into business could also give us some of the solutions to the paradoxes that business is now facing. If the very act of trying to simplify adds complexity, and if the very act of measuring modifies the behavior of how the business behaves, what do we need to change?

I think one of the first things we need to do is change what we measure. As we have seen in the quantum mechanical world, the more specifically we try to measure something the more we modify some of the targets other characteristics or attributes. This is actually called the “Uncertainty Principle” (It was actually introduced in the early part of the last century by the German Physicist Werner Heisenberg, and is also known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle).

The same behavior is noted in organizations and is defined by the phrase “Expect what you inspect”. This generally means that by merely measuring something in an organization, whether it has value to the organization or not, you can change the behavior of the organization with respect to what you are measuring. If you measure the wrong things you should expect the wrong behaviors.

So perhaps we should reassess the value of ever more specific metrics and measurements. This thought seems to run almost entirely counter-intuitive to the directions that many organizations are going today. Instead of looking for ever finer and more specific things to measure we may want to take a step back and focus on the organization as a whole.

There are many metrics that the market looks at when it puts a value on the whole of a company, but the primary ones are financial: Orders, Sales, Profit, Earnings and Cash Flow. There may be others, but these should work for this argument’s sake. It is through the application of these metrics that the market usually establishes a value for the business. We might want to add Customer Satisfaction into the business metric mix, but I actually think that metric will sort itself out through the other financial metrics. If you don’t have Customer Satisfaction, or Quality or any of those derivative topics, you eventually won’t have the financials either as your customers will leave and take their business elsewhere.

So the simple baseline metric for every process, project, strategy, product or program should be: Is there a Financial Business Case that improves one of the five financial metrics that justifies the activity? By forcing the creation of that business case you have created the business representation in numbers and also the accompanying metrics for measuring the activity’s success. You can then see if the activity actually generated the beneficial behavior for the business that was targeted. If the value of the proposed activity cannot be defined, then there is a pretty good chance that the activity probably doesn’t need to be given a high priority.

Measurements against any other type of criteria will yield nothing more than some sort of a track against a non-critical objective, and will most probably drive a behavior that is not in alignment with the objectives of the business.

The Process versus simplicity paradox may be a little more difficult to counter, but again I think we can get it down to a business case. I think the idea for all those that would like to create, add to or extend a process is again to ask them to quantify what they are trying to correct or improve, and what resource they expect to expend on the improvement. In other words we need to create a Process – Simplification equation:

Man Hours required to implement the process
Man Hours saved / removed from the business because of the process
Net Business Simplification.

The nice thing about physics is that it can be clearly expressed in terms of numbers. Postulates and theories can be readily proved or disproved via experimentation or observation. I think we need to look at returning business to this sort of practice as well. There is the proposed theory to reduce and align the metrics with the financial value metrics in the business so that all members of the organization are clearly working towards the same goals. This will make sure that the behaviors on the macro-organizational level are fully aligned to the individual or quantum level within the organization.

I believe and agree that some process is required for the proper running of an organization. The question is when do we start experiencing the law of decreasing returns when it comes to adding more process? By requiring at least a business case proposal and defense of the quantified value of each incremental process I think business can begin to regain the focus on the value that each process is supposed to deliver and start to move away from the current approach that appears to be more process as the solution to every issue.

Business like Physics is a numbers oriented discipline. Good processes in business are like good theorems in physics. People may like to believe in them, but they need to be proven out in the numbers and measurements before they become accepted as natural laws.

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.

From Anything to Something Specific

I really tried to take a break from putting out anything this week. The problem was that the closer I got to the end of the week the guiltier I began to feel at not writing anything. I tried to convince myself that my public would be disappointed at missing their weekly fix of my views on business and sales, and indeed I actually did get a question from a reader as to where was my post. However, the truth be told, it seems I am a creature of habit, and I am in the habit of providing my views on things, regardless of whether they are appreciated, or even requested, or not.

Oh well.

It was interesting that I wrote about golf last week, and then Tiger Woods announced his return from injury to play in this week’s tournament. This is a little bit interesting on several levels. First it is always interesting to have Tiger Woods in the field at a golf tournament. Love him or hate him he does draw interest. For me it’s a little bit more than that. Tiger Woods has always had a game plan whenever and wherever he plays. His preparation is the stuff of legend. In essence he plans his work and then works his plan. And he seems to do it better than just about anyone else. He has set the standard, whether it is on his recoveries or in standard execution.

Except this time. He acknowledged that he was not in optimal playing condition and has not prepared and practiced as he has before on previous recoveries, and that he was going to “play himself into shape”.

Many attribute this decision to the proximity of the next major golf tournament and Tiger’s pursuit of the record for the most major wins in a career. If this is truly the case then his latest move in returning to golf in a relatively unprepared state has a certain air of desperation around it and desperation in any endeavor, be it golf or business, is a cause for some amount of speculation and concern.

The same type of speculation and concern applies for businesses that are attempting a comeback from issues of their own. Businesses very seldom find themselves in any sort of difficulty as the result of a single event. Tiger hurt his back and had surgery. I am hard pressed to mention a similar type of singular event where as the result of it a business finds its ability to perform to be fully in question. Businesses don’t hurt their backs and have surgery which then require them to execute an immediate comeback plan.

The more usual reason that businesses find themselves in trouble is due to an inattention to the fundamentals of the business or the trends in the market. These types of issues tend to compound themselves over time and culminate with a “sudden” realization that there is a problem. With the realization that there is an issue comes the first reaction to desperately seek a quick solution.

I think it is fair to say that since most business issues did not result from an abrupt sort of event, quick solutions to the problem are not going to be easily implemented or particularly successful in resolving the issue. But that doesn’t seem to stop many businesses from at least trying them.

The two quickest solutions to business issues normally boil down to two simple approaches: Sell more, and Cut costs. Sometimes both solutions are attempted at the same time. Surprisingly enough, I think that these are probably the correct approaches, but that trying to apply them too quickly may only make the problems worse.

Just as many people are concerned that Tiger Woods’ trying to make a comeback from surgery so quickly might cause further injury to his back, making things worse.

There is an old saying in business: “You cannot cut your way to prosperity”. I think this is true. You may have to cut your way to survival, but you can’t cut your way to growth. With that in mind I am going to focus more on the “Sell more” aspect of businesses’ desperate responses to issues.

Too many times a business that finds itself in a recovery mode institutes a “Sell more” sales drive in order to drive incremental revenue, and hopefully incremental margin from it. Unfortunately under these types of circumstances “sell more” many times gets translated into “sell anything”. This usually results in the acquisition of many sales opportunities that do not adequately fit the proper deal profile for the business.

A proper deal profile for a business includes consistent, attainable deliverables; repeatable business products and functions that do not drain or strain business resources, pricing that enables contributory margins and profitability, and contract conditions that do not present onerous hurdles to the success of the engagement. These are the specifics associated with a healthy approach to sales.

Too often a business can get too anxious to rapidly try and recover from an issue that occurred over time. This can result in the “sell anything” approach to business in an attempt to generate revenue to help turn things around. All too often this approach results in lower margin deals and one-off opportunities that in the end not only do not add to efficiencies, but actually detract from them in the longer run. The sell anything approach is a scatter-shot pursuit of a specific solution, and as with most scatter-shot applications it results in far more “misses” than hits.

When a business is in any sort of difficulty, or is experiencing issues, incrementing in a number (large or small) of sales misses to the solution mix does not help. It only detracts from the situation, both in the resources spent ineffectively and the resulting number of sales deals that do not generate the desired or expected returns.

If it is deemed that the issue is sales or market related, and that a new sales direction or approach is required as part of the overall business recover solution, then a specific strategy and approach to new sales is called for. This will help minimize the number of extraneous or non-contributory deals that will be added to the business mix. When there are business issues, everything must be aligned and additive to the business solution. This includes the types and values of the sales opportunities that are pursued.

A business cannot allow the “Sell More” solution to become the “Sell Anything” solution. It will only  prolong the business’s recovery, or potentially even make things worse.

Will Rogers is quoted as saying “When in a hole, stop digging.” We also have the much older and unattributed quote “Don’t just stand there. Do something.” In business it would seem that the equivalent of the first quote might be “When in a hole, start selling”, with the equivalent rejoinder to the second being “Don’t just sell. Sell something specific.”

The idea of focus and discipline never goes out of style in business, even when times are tough, or recoveries are being attempted. Maintaining a focus on selling something specific and resisting the temptation of selling anything available will result in a better solution and stronger business over the longer run, and that is the focus that business needs to maintain.

Tiger Woods is a unique talent. We shall see if the departure from his proven successful preparation process pays off in his recovery attempt. It might pay off for him, but he did miss the cut in his first tournament back, and that is news in and of itself, since he so rarely fails to make the cut. Most of the time it does not pay off for a business to try for a quick recovery that departs from their specific processes either.

Every Day

I read an article about Jerry Seinfeld the other day. In it he was discussing some of the secrets to his success. Now obviously they can’t be secrets if he is openly discussing them, so maybe we should refer to them as some of the tenets he adhered to in the pursuit of his goals. Perhaps tenets would be considered too strong a word for describing his approach to applying himself to his comedy craft. However you would like to describe what he did along his road to success, he boiled it down to a simple phrase. He did something every day.

The example he used related to his writing. Whether he was writing for his stand up routines or the ubiquitous “Seinfeld” show, he wrote every day. That was his goal. He didn’t set the goal to write a joke, or even a good joke. He didn’t need to pound out a chapter in his book, or a scene for the show. He didn’t even need to make sure that what he wrote was good or used in any of his multiplicity of ventures. He just needed to write.

He knew that by getting started his ability and talent would take over. Some days would be better than others and the output of a higher quality. He knew that by the continued application of his effort he would continue to improve across the board. Eventually the output from his bad days would be better than the output of his earlier good days. The objective was the activity, not some specific amount of output. He knew the output would come if he achieved his goal of doing something.

I thought this was an interesting approach to doing ones work.

I, like many others am something of a goal oriented worker. I like to set the bar at a specific and acknowledged height and then either leap over it, or find an equally impressive way to limbo under it. One day it might be a graceful hurdle that takes me to the other side of the bar and the next might be a skidding face-plant that takes me sliding under it. Others are more process oriented where they can look to a prescribed set of steps that they can embark on that should result in them getting to the other side of the bar. The Seinfeld approach did not seem to fit into either of these categories. To extend this example it would almost be described as “start moving in the direction of the bar” and eventually you will be on the other side of it.

I think I like this approach because of the daily activity goal. It seems that we spend more and more of our time on conference calls and in meetings and in other activities that might be considered to have questionable value-add in the conduct of our business responsibilities. We seem to have reached a point where we have to consider the output of these conference calls and meetings as part of our business responsibilities, even though we seem to achieve very little in the way of definable progress in them.

It would be at times like these where I would start to apply the “Every Day” business scenario. The idea here would be that leaders in the various disciplines that they are responsible for, would need to set a goal of doing some work in their discipline that is additive in moving that discipline forward.

For example, research and development leaders would need to make sure that every day they do something that furthers the research and development of the business. That does not mean reporting on their team’s progress, nor does it mean explaining to management what the latest development release is looking like. It means doing something directly associated with furthering an aspect of a products research or development. Sales leaders would need to spend time each day actually selling, not reporting or tracking, etc. Operations leaders would need to set time every day to work on how to improve their business’ efficiency.

This is obviously pretty simple stuff, but business in its proper form in not necessarily complex. After all, how many times have we heard people say that they are so busy that they don’t seem to be able to get their real work done? What Seinfeld seemed to have found was that the focus should not be on getting the real work done, but rather getting started on the real work. He realized that the getting done part of it would actually take care of itself.

On the surface this seems a little counter-intuitive to me, but the more I think about it, the more comfortable I get with it.

It seems that leadership roles have a tendency to attract a significant number of non-productive and “office-trappings” types of responsibilities. These functions usually take the form of making and presenting status reports, attending peer team meetings and calls to assure coordination, reviewing, approving or denying requests, and other similar such activities. I am hard pressed to find a way to associate these responsibilities with leadership, other than in how fast one can discharge and complete them and get back to the real functionality and responsibility of the business at hand.

Unfortunately it seems that as leaders matriculate up the corporate chain they may be judged more on how well they perform these attracted functions, and less on how well they actually perform their Research and Development, Sales or Operational responsibilities, to extend the previous example.

This is where “Every Day” would come in to play.

We should all look to find a way to make sure we perform some of the specific activities that are required to further the goals of the business, every day. This does not mean that we should be happy with making progress on the charts for the next business review. It does mean that we should work on something that would eventually need to be reported on in your business review.

Put simply “Every Day” means to me that we don’t need to report on something every day. Every day we need to do something that may need to be reported.

It may end up that it does not need to be reported. It may not provide the expected or desired impact. On the other hand, it might eventually turn out to be a game changing improvement to the business. The point is that none of those things will happen unless you are applying yourself to the objective.

Seinfeld knew that not everything that he wrote was going to be used, or maybe even good. He did however recognize that he would never have anything much less know what was good or not unless he wrote. He saw that the goal should not have been to only write good content, because he could not clearly discern the good from the not so good unless he had them both available to compare. Hence his objective was simply to write.

The analog to this approach that I would choose for leaders in business would be to focus some time every day on the non-administrative work that you and your team are responsible for accomplishing. I know this sounds silly to the point of almost being inane, but
having been through the days where it seemed that the administrivia and process ruled over work and performance, I think it bears repeating: It is easy to get lost in the busy of busy-work and forget to try and accomplish some real work. And it is the real work that needs to get accomplished, every day.

Why Ask Why

Have you ever asked yourself why you are doing what you are doing, right now, in the office? Most of the time we spend in the office seems to be composed of a pleasingly familiar set of activities that we have been doing for quite a while. We continue to do what we have been doing usually because at one time or another it worked on a problem. We received the positive feedback we were looking for and incorporated it into our routine. Not to sound too trite but I think we can all agree that today, and looking forward, the business world does not look anything like routine.

Believe it or not I was too young to really remember the 1960’s, but I have read about them and have watched innumerable movies that were set in the period. This of course makes me an expert on the 1960’s. After all this intensive research, and all the popcorn and sodas associated with watching the research, I think you can distill down an entire decade in American history into a two word sentence:

Question everything.

The reason that I have taken this half century retrospective (gosh, is it really fifty years ago?) is that it may be time to dust off the “Oldie but Goldie” catchphrase and start ruthlessly applying it to business.

It is easy to start down a simple road in business. The problem is that almost no road remains simple, or straight. There are always twists and turns, and probably even a few loop-the-loops in every business road.

I’m sorry; I got carried away with my metaphors there. I’ll try to keep that sort of behavior to a minimum.

My point is that every business needs to continually ask itself why is it doing what it is doing. Just because it started down what it thought was the right road a while ago doesn’t mean that it is still the right road today. Again, this is pretty basic stuff, but when it all gets boiled down to the basics, business is really pretty simple.

Business is about customers.

Now despite what the courts or politicians may rule or claim, businesses are not people. I think it is much the contrary, in fact I think it is the opposite: People are business. The business can’t ask itself why it is doing what it is doing, but the people can.

This brings us back to the comfortable routine that the majority of people in business have day in and day out, going down the road that they started out on some time in the past. The easy path, the path of least resistance is to continue down the path that we are on. A plan, program or model may have been put in place and work begun. Chances are that time has passed. At the risk of propellering off into rampant triteness again, if time has passed, chances are that times have changed.

The only real constant in business is customers.

When we begin to ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing, any question we ask that does not have the word “customer” in it, and does not focus on how to bring value to the customer is probably a wrong question to ask. It will be this single minded approach to how we address changing what we do and why we do it that will enable businesses to navigate the necessary changes in directions, and different roads that must be traversed.

Small businesses are usually held up as models of outward facing, customer oriented businesses. I think this is probably correct. I also think that this is probably not due to any deliberate focus or business magic. I think the reason that small businesses focus on the customer is because they don’t have anything else to focus on. They are small businesses. By definition they do not have much in the way of internal infrastructures, or any of the other trappings of large businesses. They only have an idea or product and customers, so by default that is all they focus on.

It is usually not until a business becomes large and somewhat successful that it begins to focus on things other than customers. This is also the appropriate time to start asking the difficult questions. If you ask yourself the “why are you doing this / is it for the customers’ benefit” question, and you either can’t answer it or associate it with a customer value, then you need to start looking deeper at what you are doing.

Companies seem to begin to lose their way, and their customer focus when they start to concentrate on better ways to do things instead of doing things better. It’s a subtle but important difference. Focusing on a better way to do things means you are shifting your attention to how you are doing something. Focusing on doing things better means you are still focused on what you are doing.

In most instances (but admittedly probably not all instances) your customers will not be particularly interested in how you do something. They will definitely be interested in the result of what you have done. To put it another way, do you really care how a company builds a car? If the company uses all manual processes or a fully automated production line, does that materially affect your buying decision on the car?

Speaking only personally at this point, I don’t remember asking the car salesman those questions the last time I bought a car. I was more interested in the resulting product, its safety, reliability, efficiency, and most importantly if I thought I would look cool driving it.

This again is a good time to bring us back to asking ourselves why we are doing what we are doing. We need to always focus on and keep in mind if what we are doing is providing value to the customer, or if we are doing it for some other reason. Are we internally focused on our own systems, programs and processes and trying to hopefully provide ourselves value or are we focused on improving what we provide to the customer and providing them more value. It may sound a little strange but we need be relentless and ruthless when it comes to customer focus and what we are doing. If we don’t, when we take our eyes and minds off that customer for whatever period of time while we focus on some internal aspect of how we do things, someone else who is focusing on that customer will take that customer away.

The next time you walk into your office and begin your normal start of the day routine, you probably ought to ask yourself “why”.

Drop the Rope

Business, like life is about growing. Pretty deep, huh? Actually it is probably more aptly described as pretty trite and stale. In so many instances we seem to associate business and professional success with acquiring an ever growing reporting structure. The more people you have reporting to you, the greater the size of the pyramidal organizational chart that you sit atop of, the more successful you must be right?

This acquisitive approach to organizational dynamics is probably the leading cause of more lost business productivity that just about any other topic that I can think of. The time that is lost to the business based on the various organizational structuring, restructuring, acquiring and defending from being acquired, plans and discussions has to be boggling in its magnitude. I think it may be the largest driving factor in the zero sum gain practice of business and office politics.

As an example, if you and I are peers, there are essentially two ways that I can advance in the organization with respect to you, and others in the organization, given the ever reduced nature of opportunities as you advance up the organizational structure. I can do something that truly merits my promotion into a next level up vacancy, or I can arrange it so that your team, or even better, you and your team report to me, then either I have been de facto promoted or you have been de facto demoted. Either way I am now relatively more important than you (and presumably others in the organization) based on the new reporting structure and my increased span of control.

Most of the time these sorts of restructurings and reorganizations are couched in terms of “increased efficiency” or “improved corporate alignment” or some other type of corporate speak.

Having been a veteran of these resource wasting political machinations I can honestly say that I have come up with a new approach to dealing with them. It may not actually be a new approach. It is the approach that I choose to use when I find myself in these political and organizational responsibility free for alls and tug of wars. There may be others that have chosen to use this approach, only I haven’t run into one of them yet. I have termed it “Dropping the Rope”.

In many of the business environments that I have previously been in, if you were not openly or aggressively looking to expand you span of control within that organization, you were viewed as an internal organizational target for acquisition to enable the expansion of someone else’s control.

What a “dog eat dog” view of internal organizational politics. Either fortunately or unfortunately, depending on which side of the acquisition process you have been on, with a few exceptions it has tended to be an accurate perception, at least for me.

Dropping the rope, as the name implies simply means that there is usually nothing to be gained in openly opposing these sorts of restructurings. Pulling against a force that you may, but more probably cannot counteract, is a waste of your effort. I have written in the past that ego is good in that it drives us to work harder in order to avoid failure and to achieve our goals. I have also written that there are times where one must check their ego at the door because it causes us to pursue unproductive goals. I believe that these sorts of political turf wars are some of those unproductive times.

That does not mean that you should just roll over every time someone makes a political foray into you area of responsibility. Far from it. It is always good to directly check with your reporting structure to vet out what is in effect business management sanctioned and what is just curiosity. Once you have verified that a political reorganization is going on, the time has already passed for counter arguments. If you have not been involved in the restructuring decisions any resistance to them will be viewed as an unproductive professional tantrum and obstructionism. It is time to drop the rope and get on board.

I have been careful to classify these events as a political reorganization. Reorganizations for the purpose of cost reduction, or to get closer alignment to the customer’s business structures are usually clearly defined as such. They also usually entail some sort of a reduction in staff. If there is a restructuring going on that does not involve a reduction in staff you can usually guess that it is political in nature. And as such it will probably not add value to either the business or its customers.

Therein lays the key. In a time when the business is internally focused on a political reorganization focus even harder on the value that you and your organization brings to the customer. If part of your value proposition is affected in the impending changes, simply identify it and clearly document that it is being transferred to a new responsible party.

Instead of taking time away from the customer based charter, instead of putting together all sorts of irrefutably logical reasons why the decided change should not in fact happen, instead of taking it personally that a responsibility that was once yours is now going elsewhere, focus on the customer and let it go. It is hard to believe but these things do have a way of working out.

I hope this sounds like the now logical but formerly painful, ranting, frustrated voice of experience. I have learned to trust in my abilities. I would suspect that you have as well. My experience in these situations has usually been that when I officially transition the function or responsibility in question, in due time I am contacted and requested to resume responsibility for it. Political expediency has a way of giving way to functional performance. The most recognized and valued performance in business involves customers and their money. A temporary political internal focus in a business will always give way to a need for customer performance.

Dropping the rope in an internal, political organizational tug of war quickly removes you from the distraction. It gets you out of the arena in question. It cleanly severs your ties with the responsibility in question. It enables you to remain professional and keeps you from being viewed as an obstruction to the desired organizational change. It allows you to stay focused on the customer.

Staying focused on the customer is everyone’s job. Periodically organizations do have a tendency to become internally and politically focused. These periods by necessity always pass. When they do it is usually those that have stayed focused on the customer based substance of the business, and not those that have been focused on the internal politics of the organization that tend to profit in the long run.


We have all heard it said that necessity is the mother of invention. It is also said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That is probably enough on the trite homilies for now. I want to look here at the latest events in the news on the macro-level and relate them to our businesses on a more individual level. It seems that one company created (invented) some industry leading applications for their product, and another company apparently copied these applications for their competing products. In the ensuing legal battle the inventors of the capabilities won a judgment against the imitators. All of the articles and documentation that I have read regarding this legal decision seems to be capable of being summed up in a single line:

The decision was good for the inventor, bad for the imitator, worse for the consumer.

The idea here is that the inventor won so they are happy (and richer due to the awards associated with the judgment), the imitator is unhappy due to the penalties they must pay (and the fact that their products may not be able to utilize the desirable applications going forward), and the consumer’s will be worse off in the market because they will have fewer choices for products with these desirable applications, and they may be faced with higher product prices.

I don’t think this is bad. I think this is commerce. I also think that the company that was imitating its competitor is now faced with the necessity of changing and creating its own new innovations and products if they wish to continue forward in their chosen markets. This isn’t bad, this is good. The process will obviously be painful and could probably have been avoided with timely business decisions when they were necessary.

In the macro-level consumers will also benefit from the reduction in imitation and the increase in new products and innovation in that by necessity if the imitating company wants to stay in the market, they will have to invent and create new applications and new ways to bring them to market. Will they be better? Hopefully, but they will certainly be different because they have to be. They can no longer comfortably continue to do things the way they have been doing them.

We are seeing here on the very high level is how an entire company is being forced out of its comfort zone, where it imitates what another company has been doing. We can telescope this type of event down to just about any level of almost any organization. What I am getting at here is that creative companies focus on and want to protect their creativity up and down their management levels, not just at the corporate level. Profitable companies focus on and protect their profitability. These ideas seem to permeate the corporate fabrics of these types of companies. You can’t copy that. You have to decide to do it yourself.

Now there are several directions that we can go here. Is there a uniformity of goals in these focused and successful organizations? I think the answer is obviously yes. Is there an alignment of incentives associated with attaining these goals? I would say that as well. Is there a necessity of performance? Yes there is. I Think this is where we, like the previously mentioned imitating company can all learn. There is a focus on and culture for doing what is necessary, when it is necessary to maintain the corporate focus and achieve the corporate goals. These decisions and actions may not be pleasant or welcome at the time, but they are recognized as a necessity of the business.

On our own business levels, we are constantly faced with competition that as a response to our capabilities must change the way they conduct their business. This is the reality of the business environment. There usually is not a legal decree involved that makes them do this. This is being done out of necessity. No one wants to be second best. (This may not be entirely true. Those that are actually third best or lower strive to be second best, but this is normally only as a step toward being the best.) If nothing changes, there will be no way to improve.

We rarely get presented with the stark necessity of change the way that the imitating company did. We always find that it is easier to imitate what we have been doing in the past than it is to change and do something else. Our creativity or profitability rarely comes to an abrupt halt. It usually declines in such a way that can be easily explained or rationalized for some period of time. Even then it can be bandaged or milked for a while longer. Eventually however, necessity will arrive and with it the requirement to act.

What we have seen here in a generalized form is that those companies that have recognized what is necessary to their ongoing success (be it innovation, profitability, service, etc.), and pursue it with an ongoing focus are usually the most successful. Their approach is not to imitate others, or to imitate their own past success, but to recognize what is necessary today and to make the appropriate business decisions and to take the appropriate actions. Those companies that do not recognize what is necessary on an ongoing basis and continue to try and live off their own past (or other company’s) successes are eventually confronted with the very abrupt, somewhat expensive and usually painful realization of the new necessities that they are facing.

It seems to me that this is an excellent case for continuing to make the daily difficult decisions on what is best for your business while the decisions are still yours to make. Don’t allow a “wrong decision” or worse, a “no decision / no action” to be made because it is easier or perceived to be more palatable at the time.  Avoiding the current necessity or delaying it will not make it any easier or less unpleasant either now or in the future. As we saw in the news, waiting to go your own way can result in facing a much more public, painful and expensive set of new business criteria than you might have ever considered.


We are a numbers driven world. Look at the way we all watch the weather reports for tomorrow’s temperature. We watch the stock market to see where the market is today and what the change is from yesterday. We are constantly being told of unemployment rates, interest rates, price changes and approval ratings. Look also at the way we watch our own key performance indicators to help us keep track of the health of our businesses. Metrics are an important aspect of what we do. They shape our opinion of our world and of how things are going.


We need to remember that good metrics do not cause good performance. Good metrics measure performance, good or bad. Metrics provide you guidance on how to look at the various aspects of the business.


Metrics also take time and effort. They require business leaders to continually make judgments as to whether the effort required to generate different or more detailed tools and systems will result in better visibility and detail of the performance of the various aspects of the business, and if this better visibility can provide better guidance as to what potential changes need to be made to the organization. The other side of this business discussion is could the effort required to generate better the better tools and systems be invested in the elsewhere in the business and provide a better return (more sales, cost reductions, etc.).


More detailed or complex metrics will not improve your business’ performance. Good planning, implementation, competitive capabilities and commitment to cost control will help improve your business’ performance. It is not the metric that improves your business. It is what you do with the metric that can improve your business.


Metrics are a ways to a means. In many instances they seem to have become the means unto themselves. The objective is not to have good metrics. The objective is to have a good business, where the metrics will reflect this performance. Businesses in some instances have a tendency to believe that it is the metrics fault that poor business performance is being reflected. This phenomenon can be seen in the periodic revamping of report and review materials to provide more and greater detail. Real information has a tendency to be subjected to ever more complex statistical analysis in order to provide more detailed views of performance.


I have found that metrics, like objectives are best when they are very simple, and focused. They need to focus only on those attributes that directly affect your ability to achieve your goals. If they require incremental or additional explanation, then they are not appropriate to the business. They should almost be intuitive in the nature of the information that they are conveying. Good metrics should guide you both on performance and what type of changes, if any need to be made to the business.


Metrics should provide facts and real event based information, not statistical means or averages. Remember what Mark Twain said about statistics.


“There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics.”


Keep the metrics simple, focused and fact / event based. It’s not the metric; it’s what is done with the information the metric provides that is important.

A Not So Novel Approach – Use The Phone

Is it just me, or is the office getting a lot quieter? Part of that trend toward silence may be the fact that so many people are now opting for “Virtual Office” and are now working for home, or some other location. I have tried that. On occasion it works when I have very early morning, or late evening calls with other time zones, but for the most part I find that there are two reasons that I don’t like to work from home. The first is that there are too many other distractions for me at home. Games, TV, family, etc., all are within easy reach and can be a distraction. The second is that I like to think of my home as a refuge from work. I think that a home office would be an invasion of this refuge that I would not welcome.

Let’s get back to the quiet office. Its quiet because there are so few people talking. My computer beeps when I get an email. It does it quite often. It has a different tone when I get an instant message. There seem to be a lot of those as well. My mobile phone “pings” me when I get a text message. I think I need to find some way to coordinate these tones so that they make some musical sense because they go off so frequently.

I down loaded an application on to my smart phone that allowed me to create some specific ringtones for my phone using some of my favorite songs (late 80’s alternative rock, in case you are interested). I can’t remember the last time I actually heard the song / ringtone played.

We don’t talk to each other anymore.

Instead we have email chains that are 10-15 emails long where we conduct a slow-motion discussion back and forth over the course of several hours to several days. We “copy” multiple individuals whose electronic mailboxes are clogged with the ping-pong discussion, and the interjections of others on the copy list. When we ask about the topic we are invariable met with “It was in the email I sent you.”

We are blasting instant messages back and forth to multiple recipients, across the day. Some of the information contained in these messages can be quite useful. Most of it truth be told is not. It seems to be the electronic equivalent of meeting someone in the hall and saying hello and asking about the weekend activities, personal health, or plans for the next weekend’s activities.

I have a business phone on my desk. It is an amazing piece of modern technology. There are no less than 62 buttons on it, including the 12 used for dialing phone numbers. This is true. I actually counted them. Less than 20% of the buttons on my desk phone are directly associated with placing a call. I don’t know why I waited till now to make that observation. I have had this phone for a couple few years.

We buy the most advanced mobile hand held devices in history and we type out our messages and happy / sad faces –    using our thumbs or index fingers to our friends. We have a new generation of automobiles that will automatically link to our mobile phones using Bluetooth technology, so that we can speak hands free while driving to anyone on the planet, but texting has replaced drinking as the cause of most driving accidents.

Instead of taking all day to have an electronic conversation with someone in the internet arena, I have tried to take a small step back in time to a happier age, the age where when I needed something, or wanted to communicate something, I just called someone. I picked up the phone and I spoke to them real time. This may seem incredibly old school, but you know what? I seem to be getting more things done faster.

I now have a discussion on the phone, capture the key points and then send a single email, to those interested or effected parties, with only the salient information. There is no need to scroll through 4 – 5 screens to find the pertinent information that is being communicated. No more email discussions. If I think it will take more than one email, I call. It’s faster and more efficient.

If I am driving my car and have a need or a question, I call. I still get text notifications on my phone while driving. I ignore them. If it was important, and the vast majority of them (probably all of them) are not, or they can at least wait the 15 – 20 minutes that it will usually take me to get where I am going and have a chance to respond. If it was really important, they would call me, and I would use that snappy hands free technology I talked about earlier.

We should remember that phones, both mobile and business were primarily created to enable the real-time verbal / oral communication between people. That type of communication contains the most information for communication and provides it in the shortest time. If you want to try and gain back part of your day and be more efficient, try using the phone to talk to people, instead of typing at them.