Monday, May 20, 2013

Back to the future!

Why does it seem that we always have so many big problems to deal with? You would think there would come a point when all of those major issues would be dealt with and we could relax – just a little. But they keep on coming, and on any given day our list of problems is as large as before.

If you consider this situation over a relatively short term (that will vary based on your type of job and industry), that certainly may be reality. But, let’s consider what happens over a much longer period of time. Again, this may be a year or longer depending on your particular situation. Especially if you’ve been brought in to “clean up” an area or a product, you are probably looking at time periods of a year or longer.

Let's do a little time travel, shall we?

Take a look at the actual “big” issues that you are dealing with now, and compare them to the big ones you were battling a year ago (or some reasonable time interval). Try to actually recover your issues list from back then through email trails, notebooks you keep, status reports you wrote, or any other means. Look at each set (past and present) and score them as “big”, “medium”, or “small” in terms of their level of severity. Of course, we are assuming that your basic job and responsibilities are about the same.

Now, compare the two sets of issues. In some situations, the comparative severities might not have changed much. But, if you’ve been working to improve your people, improve communications, update inefficient processes, and generally help the team be more productive, you may find that the average level of severity is a little less dire right now.

Sure, you still have problems to deal with – you always will. And, from your perspective, you still have “big” problems that need to be fixed. But items that you currently consider “big” might only have made the “medium” category a year ago. It’s just that when you solve all your bigger problems, your smaller ones become your bigger ones. You have to step back, look at the issues you and your team are contending with, and realize that things might actually be getting better overall.

At times that I’ve done this with my teams, we’ve actually said things like, “Wow, these are the things we actually consider to be our biggest problems now!?!” Getting that fresh perspective is important for your own well-being – as well as the team’s. Again, there will always be problems, but it’s both gratifying and vital to recognize improvement having occurred. Otherwise, if all the work isn’t resulting in overall improvement, why bother? And if it is, then making folks feel good for their accomplishments is an important step in providing yet more motivation to continue the effort.

More importantly – you have to recognize your successes. It’s great if you have a boss that showers you with praise for your wins more frequently than your annual performance review. But, let’s face it, that can be rare. You probably beat yourself up enough over the things that go wrong. So, you have to look at what you’ve done right, and pat yourself on the back. Even if you do that on a short-term basis, it’s important to consider the long-term effects of your efforts as well. And when you can look at your own set of “big” problems and chuckle to yourself, “Wow, these are the worst problems I have!?!” you’ll sleep much better that night.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

We're from the government and we're here to help!

Many of us have worked for very large corporations. Undoubtedly, that corporation has/had a few policies and procedures in place that drive you, and most everyone around you, absolutely nuts. “How in the heck did anyone ever come up with that?”

One of my personal favorites was from a company I worked for a few years ago. Our expense reimbursement system was very manual, and in addition to completing hardcopy forms, all of your receipts needed to be taped to a sheet of paper and mailed (not e-mailed) to a processing center along with the expense form. When the finance group announced that this process was going to be automated, there was cheering throughout the land. We were all using company credit cards, so it seemed logical that the information could be captured to radically modernize the system.

Well, no, not really. We now had an online form to complete. Okay, much better than writing and
manual addition. The receipts could now be scanned and electronically attached to the submission. That’s cool. But, after submitting my first claim, I eventually got queried regarding my receipts. They still hadn’t received them. Of course I responded that the new process had them electronically included when I sent the form in. “Yes, but we still require the hardcopies of the original receipts to be mailed in.” I responded, “Oh, so we don’t have to scan them?” “Yes, we need both.”

This wonderful new process was developed by someone in finance, and was approved by the CFO without much thought or crosschecking with other teams. It didn’t matter all the extra work that everyone in the company was now committed to – the process seemed correct to them, and that’s all that mattered.

At one company, even though I had my own budget for the year, my direct boss was required to approve every new hire I was going to make. He also had to provide his approval, even if the hire was simply a replacement for someone we’d lost, and even if everything was going to stay within the budget boundaries. Alright, alright, I hear you saying, “What’s so bad about that?” Well, it wasn’t only my direct boss who needed to approve, it was also my boss’s boss (I call this person my 2-boss). We’re not talking about hiring extra people out of budget. We’re talking about people already approved for the budget, or folks only replacing others. And, in case that doesn’t sound quite heavyweight enough, in addition to approving the actual hiring in these situations, the same boss and 2-boss all had to also sign off on the job posting to open the position. Not only is that wasteful of everyone’s time, it is a sideways acknowledgement that “we don’t really trust you to make decisions, even those within your budgetary scope.”

If you consider the case of most of these large companies, they probably started as small companies long ago – maybe even as startups. If you’ve been part of some startups or small companies yourself, you know that things are optimized for action. There’s real work to do, and there isn’t enough time in the day to waste on bulky or redundant processes. So, here’s the question. Over the years of growth from startup size, how and why did so many large companies allow themselves to degenerate so many of their processes and procedures into heavy-weight, burdensome, and confusing piles of garbage?

Each time a process change is proposed, someone needs to examine the costs and benefits, and ensure that the change will truly result in an improvement. Upon hiring a new manager for your computer service center, you might see the following announcement:
“We used to send someone over to help you work out computer problems, but now we have a phone number you can call to file a service request. This helps us save some money and track our workflow and provide you a good SLA (service level agreement).”
“We think we can save a few dollars by outsourcing our support desk. You will spend ten times as long trying to make them understand your problem as if you called us directly. And, sadly, you’ll probably have to call back a couple of times because they won’t get it right the first time. We ourselves have to deal with a complicated new tracking system. And, the fact that we now lose 20% of our time dealing with the new system means we’re going to need to hire a few more staff – ultimately at your expense.”
This is not to say that being able to manage the work backlog, provide service quality metrics, and not lose items in the bit bucket aren’t good things, but you will find, almost universally, that these moves turn the focus from “helping folks out” to “procedure for procedure’s sake.” In numerous companies with these types of procedures, I’ve had folks on the phone tell me, “I have the answer to that, but I can’t give it to you unless you call the service desk.” And the company is hiring new people to handle administrative paperwork responsibilities, rather than actually assist folks with their problems. Wonderful.

For every crappy process problem you have to deal with, somebody once put that into place… on purpose. Who was there at that time, why did they do it, and why didn’t anyone call them out on it? Sure, it might have been the CEO, but even he can be bargained with. And, as was said, it probably wasn’t the top dog – it was likely a new hire in some service-oriented department.

Learn from this!
As your company grows, watch for the warning signs and try to avoid the pitfalls. If the company is already large, why limit yourself to “large company” processes? Look at each item and consider, “Is this the way an efficient startup would handle this?” Simpler is better. Do you really need to sign off on in-budget hires for replacements four levels below you? Also, periodically ask your folks what processes exist (inside or outside your scope of control) that they hate and feel could be easily optimized. They’ll tell you. And if it’s within your ability to change it, do it. If not, muster up as much support as you can get from your peers and negotiate change with the controlling department.

If your company is still small but growing, and you are bringing new people in to help shore up your various departments to support the growth, try to hire folks who will institute the “right” processes and procedures, properly molded to fit your company’s particular situation, rather than merely implement a “big company” one, just because it’s what they happen to have experience with.

And as for you, when you make process changes, make sure that you are doing the right thing for the right reasons, as well.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Beam me up Scotty!

So, when trying to estimate a project, we've discussed starting with estimates from your front-line guys, and then holding them to those estimates.

Next, once you have all your estimates, roll them upward until you have a total, and then apply a safety factor. Just because we’re discussing adding safety factors is not to say that you should be “sandbagging” your estimates. You know, intentionally padding everything way beyond anything reasonable. Remember Scotty from the old Star Trek? When he finally appeared on the Star Trek: The Next Generation series he admitted that he always grossly inflated his estimates so that he could always be the hero for Captain Kirk.

Don’t get your hopes up too high, though. You are unlikely to have as much success with this technique as Scotty did. Sandbaggers become very visible and disliked, and they will usually have a fairly short lifespan in the real business world. But there’s nothing wrong with adding padding that represents what you have truly found to be needed in the past. Whether accounting for estimating errors, compensating for changing requirements along the way, or dealing with the occasional disaster, it’s easier to build it in early on than it is to try to readjust everything later.

How do you know how much extra to add? Experience! This is something you can grow more comfortable with as your career builds, but it will also have a component that is specific to each particular team that you lead. Each group, each company, each product, each set of processes, all create an environment that requires a varied amount of “fluff” in your estimates. You’ll learn how well each of your team members is capable of accurately estimating their own work. That, in itself, is another highly valuable characteristic to watch for. You’ll learn who needs bigger safety factors versus those who are pretty good at nailing it time after time. (You’ll also be able to start grooming the more accurate guys for additional responsibilities in the leadership realm.) Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re cheating by building in a safety factor. You’re being smart. It’s your experience leading you to a successful conclusion.

Ultimately, your goal should be to “overdeliver” on what people think you’ve actually signed up for. What’s wrong with coming in a little early on that deadline, or having a few more nuggets of gold in the product than they thought they’d have? We’re not talking about over-delivering by some massive amount – just by a little. Yes, sometimes the stars will align and everything will go close to perfectly, leaving much of your padding time untouched. But if you consistently deliver in half the time you predict, folks will think that you are trying to be “Scotty” and look like the hero. Even if that wasn’t your intention, you should use this as a sign that maybe you’re padding things up a bit too much. Something is probably different in this environment than in whatever one you were using as a model. Tweak your algorithm a bit.

“Isn’t it great, though, if I can constantly deliver much sooner than I’ve predicted?” No! There are many others who are using your estimates to build their own plans. They’re weaving together tasks they’ll have to do from a number of different projects, and if you keep coming in that early, you’re going to be making them miserable. They’ll be encountering high work peaks when they thought they had things smoothed out well. They will not be your friends.

“Yeah, but the sales folks will love me!” Nope. They might not mind a delivery that’s a little bit early. But if you are that early, they won’t have prepped potential customers for the arrival of your bouncing baby product. You’ll throw it over the wall to them and they’ll say, “Well that’s great… I have nobody ready to buy this right now.” They won’t be ready with the marketing brochures, advertising, and other sales support they’ll need to have available, and your support department won’t be staffed up yet to deal with the customers.

In short, you are not helping anyone by crazily inflating your estimates. Use a reasonable safety factor, then target to try to overdeliver by a bit. Consistency like that is what makes for a real hero.