Category Archives: Productivity

The Little Rules of Action

“The shortest answer is doing.” – Lord Herbert

Too often we get stuck in inaction — the quagmire of doubt and perfectionism and distractions and planning that stops us from moving forward.

And while I’m no proponent of a whirling buzz of activity, I also believe people get lost in the distractions of the world and lose sight of what’s important, and how to actually accomplish their Something Amazing.

And so today I’d like to humbly present a few little rules of action — just some small reminders, things I’ve found useful but by no means invented, common-sense stuff that is often not common enough.

1. Don’t overthink. Too much thinking often results in getting stuck, in going in circles. Some thinking is good — it’s good to have a clear picture of where you’re going or why you’re doing this — but don’t get stuck thinking. Just do.
2. Just start. All the planning in the world will get you nowhere. You need to take that first step, no matter how small or how shaky. My rule for motivating myself to run is: Just lace up your shoes and get out the door. The rest takes care of itself.
3. Forget perfection. Perfectionism is the enemy of action. Kill it, immediately. You can’t let perfect stop you from doing. You can turn a bad draft into a good one, but you can’t turn no draft into a good draft. So get going.
4. Don’t mistake motion for action. A common mistake. A fury of activity doesn’t mean you’re doing anything. When you find yourself moving too quickly, doing too many things at once, this is a good reminder to stop. Slow down. Focus.
5. Focus on the important actions. Clear the distractions. Pick the one most important thing you must do today, and focus on that. Exclusively. When you’re done with that, repeat the process.
6. Move slowly, consciously. Be deliberate. Action doesn’t need to be done fast. In fact, that often leads to mistakes, and while perfection isn’t at all necessary, neither is making a ridiculous amount of mistakes that could be avoided with a bit of consciousness.
7. Take small steps. Biting off more than you can chew will kill the action. Maybe because of choking, I dunno. But small steps always works. Little tiny blows that will eventually break down that mountain. And each step is a victory, that will compel you to further victories.
8. Negative thinking gets you nowhere. Seriously, stop doing that. Self doubt? The urge to quit? Telling yourself that it’s OK to be distracted and that you can always get to it later? Squash those thoughts. Well, OK, you can be distracted for a little bit, but you get the idea. Positive thinking, as corny as it sounds, really works. It’s self-talk, and what we tell ourselves has a funny habit of turning into reality.
9. Meetings aren’t action. This is a common mistake in management. They hold meetings to get things done. Meetings, unfortunately, almost always get in the way of actual doing. Stop holding those meetings!
10. Talking (usually) isn’t action. Well, unless the action you need to take is a presentation or speech or something. Or you’re a television broadcaster. But usually, talking is just talking. Communication is necessary, but don’t mistake it for actual action.
11. Planning isn’t action. Sure, you need to plan. Do it, so you’re clear about what you’re doing. Just do it quickly, and get to the actual action as quickly as you can.
12. Reading about it isn’t action. You’re reading an article about action. Ironic, I know. But let this be the last one. Now get to work!
13. Sometimes, inaction is better. This might be the most ironic thing on the list, but really, if you find yourself spinning your wheels, or you find you’re doing more harm than good, rethink whether the action is even necessary. Or better yet, do this from the beginning — is it necessary? Only do the action if it is.

“Talk doesn’t cook rice.” – Chinese Proverb

Helping Teams Advance One Gemba at a Time

Most frontline teams in my organization are not used to being asked to improve their own process.  Like most organization in transition most improvement that has taken place in the organization in the past was management driven and usually owned and executed by outside experts like consultants and project managers.  As we transition into a system where teams are asked to be responsible for improving their processes every single day one of the most powerful tools management has is the gemba walk.   There are many reasons why the gemba walk is not only an important tool, but an essential tool in a Lean transformation.  Here are just a few:

  • Gemba walks are one of the most important methods for teaching management Lean.  It takes Lean out of the conceptual world and forces management to learn by doing. 
  • Gemba walks demonstrate a behavior change from management.  It shows that management is curious about the work and interested in seeing the real problems.   Early on they also demonstrate to the teams that everyone is in the change together.  Management is learning alongside the teams they are coaching.
  •  Gemba walks allow management to begin to understand the problems that they create and forces them to begin to take responsibility for solving the gaps in their management system.  They see firsthand the challenges created by unclear or too many priorities, silo thinking, narrow job classifications, etc.    
  • Gemba walks teach leaders how to set clear expectations and have the discipline to follow-up to see progress.  In order to do this effectively the manager must understand the content of the work; know how to see problems, and to know how far a team can improve over a set increment of time. 

In several post in the past I have talked about some of the advice I give leaders as the learn how to effectively lead gemba walks.  As my own experience has grown some of my thinking has advanced.  Here are a couple of tips that I hope help:

  • Gemba walks can only be effective if leaders are disciplined, consistent and organized.  This is why having management standard work is so important.  In our organization we create visual systems (Kamishibai boards) that track adherence to management system work to help reinforce this discipline.   These boards track the frequency, sequence and content of what should be checked during each gemba walk and clearly make visible that the walks are happening as scheduled.  As managers build these boards they need to determine how often they will visit each team (less frequently the higher you are in the organization), and then the board makes it transparent to the teams how often they can expect a visit thus reinforcing the management responsibility.
  • Early on it is important to have some coaching help during gemba walks.  It is nice to have a Sensei to go with you, but it is also effective to walk with a leader that has more experience then you do if a Sensei in not available.
  • During each walk a leader should ask the team a series of open ended questions to assess the current situation, challenge the current thinking and prepare the team for taking the next step.  If you are just getting starting it is very helpful to have a set of standard questions you always ask the team as well as a system to track notes from past gemba walks.  The leader should take the time to review their notes and prepare their questions so that they respect the time of the team.
  • Gemba walks and visual management go hand and hand.  Without visual systems gemba walks often end up being disorganized, not focused on data and worst of all they turn into PR visits or complaining sessions.  Gemba walks are probably the most important tool in helping set and maintain the expectation that teams make their processes visible.
  • Finally, at the end of each gemba walk the leader should summarize what they and the team has learned and then clearly define the follow-up items that the team and the leader need to resolve.  Often the due date will be during the next gemba.  This is the most powerful part of the gemba, because when done effectively it helps move the team to the next level of improvement and at the same time gives leadership credibility as the leaders solve some of the systems problems that get in the teams way.   In order to do this well a leader needs to have a system to track on follow up items.  If they ask a team to try x by y date the leader better show up to check or they will lose credibility quickly.  When they do show up to check on the follow up just like they said they would teams start to see that management is serious and they will invest the appropriate time in the improvement activities moving forward.  Something very important as teams begin to learn how to improve their own processes.

Eblin’s 5 questions for struggling leaders

Question 1: 
What am I trying to do that extends beyond the actual time available to me to personally do it?

Question 2: 
What am I trying to accomplish by doing that?

Question 3
Given the role that I’m in, what should I be trying to accomplish instead?

Question 4: 
What resources (people, systems, processes) do I need to acquire or develop to cover whatever still seems worthwhile in my answer to Question 2?

Question 5: 
What opportunities do I have to shift from retail leadership (being personally present or involved in everything) to wholesale leadership (leveraging and involving others to act on the overall plan)?

What are you noticing about limits lately? What are you doing to adjust?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories about changes you’re making to deal with the limits leaders face.

What Baseball Can Teach Us About Innovation

In a chat last week, Boston Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein explained why he wasn’t bothered by J.D. Drew’s relatively low number of runs batted in (quotes from Joe Posnanski’s blog):

“When you’re putting together a winning team, that honestly doesn’t matter. When you have a player who takes a ton of walks, who doesn’t put the ball in play at an above average rate, and is a certain type of hitter, he’s not going to drive in a lot of runs. Runs scored, you couldn’t be more wrong. If you look at a rate basis, J.D. scores a ton of runs.

And the reason he scores a ton of runs is because he does the single most important thing you can do in baseball as an offensive player. And that’s NOT MAKE OUTS … Look at his runs scored on a rate basis with the Red Sox or throughout his career. It’s outstanding.

You guys can talk about RBIs if you want … we ignore them in the front office … and I think we’ve built some pretty good offensive clubs.”

Business managers can learn a lot from how baseball general managers build and manage their talent portfolio by drawing on the findings of baseball’s Sabermetrics revolution. And the same is true for business managers trying to balance their innovation portfolios: how can they focus on the metrics that really matter?

According to the old-fashioned metrics, the run-batted in is a vital statistic. But smart general managers like Epstein recognize that the RBI is not a valuable measure of performance (it actually correlates with the on-base percentage of the hitters earlier in the lineup).

Innovation managers, too, need to look beyond “obvious” but potentially misleading statistics like first-year revenue, first-mover advantage, and leveraging core competency to hidden drivers of success, such as targeting non-consumption and minimizing first year losses.

A key enabler of the statistical revolution in baseball was not just better statistics, but the widespread availability of those statistics. Even before the internet made possible utterly fantastic websites such as Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Prospectus (which is also an annual book), the bible for statistics was Macmillan’s Baseball Encyclopedia, introduced to widespread acclaim in 1969. (Alan Schwarz, in The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics, quotes from Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s review in the New York Times: “I got lost in it for nearly two days…. It’s still the book I’d take with me to prison.”)

Companies should create an internal encyclopedia in which they highlight the year they started work on each innovation, what type it was, how projections about its market potential changed through time, its key characteristics, and its ultimate performance. The encyclopedia would facilitate statistical analysis to help the company increase its success rate.

Even better would be a cross-industry research effort to develop a deeper and broader reference work. A researcher who painstakingly created a like-for-like database of efforts across multiple companies (made anonymous, of course) would do the innovation movement a great service.

Key to the effort would need to be a robust categorization scheme for classifying the type of innovation (incremental line extension, disruptive, and so forth), the target customer (high-end, mainstream, low-end, nonconsumer) and the market circumstances (nascent, rapidly growing, mature, declining).

Better metrics give Theo Epstein a competitive advantage over his rivals. And better metrics can give you an advantage over yours — and create better innovations that benefit all of us. What else do you think would be in an ideal innovation encyclopedia? Is there an open source way to create a “good enough” starting point?

For a more in-depth argument about what you can learn from baseball about building and managing your
talent portfolio, see my article in this month’s Harvard Business Review.

The Cult of Done Manifesto

  1. There are three states of being. Not knowing, action and completion.
  2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.
  3. There is no editing stage.
  4. Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.
  5. Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.
  6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.
  7. Once you’re done you can throw it away.
  8. Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.
  9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
  10. Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.
  11. Destruction is a variant of done.
  12. If you have an idea and publish it on the internet, that counts as a ghost of done.
  13. Done is the engine of more.

Need more time

First rule of decision making: More time does not create better decisions.

In fact, it usually decreases the quality of the decision.

More information may help. More time without more information just creates anxiety, not insight.

Deciding now frees up your most valuable asset, time, so you can go work on something else. What happens if, starting today, you make every decision as soon as you have a reasonable amount of data?

20 Great Coaching Questions that can Catalyze Breakthroughs

20 Great Coaching Questions that can Catalyze Breakthroughs: “

Try them out on YOUR goal this week. And then share them with your team when the opportunity presents itself. Create your own list of 20 killer questions.

  • What will things look like in a year if everything goes as planned?
  • What are the consequences of not changing?
  • Why is this change important?
  • What do you already know about this approach?
  • How does this change affect the other aspects of the organization?
  • What other assumptions could also be valid?
  • What generalizations have you made?
  • Why is this situation occurring?
  • What are the pros and cons of your approach?
  • How is this similar to or different from the way you have approached this in the past?
  • Are you seeing the goal as would your peers, employees, customers and managers?
  • What would you do if time was not an issue?
  • What if you cleared your calendar today?
  • What if you are talking to the wrong people?
  • What if you partnered with someone? Who would he or she be?
  • What if you need to create a support structure, how might you do this?
  • What if you asked for exactly what you want?
  • What if you are barking up the wrong tree?
  • What if the answer is right in front of you?
  • What can you do to expand your thinking?
  • Bonus: What would your alter-ego do if she had no fears or apprehensions?

Great coaching is more about questions than answers (that would be advice)