Liberal Timelines and Our Failure to Meet Them

In retrospect, the question was probably rhetorical. A colleague asked me, “Why do we under-promise and then under-deliver?”  Despite my less-than-coherent answer, the question is worthy of some thought.

The question restated is, “Why do we set liberal timelines and then fail to deliver results?” The poignancy of the question should not be lost in its sarcasm.  First, why are we overly risk-averse when it comes to making commitments?   And secondly, given the fact that we under-committed, why do we STILL fail to deliver the results on time?  Logically, hedging on a timeline would give ample opportunity to deliver on time.  So, when both happen (over-estimating and failing to deliver), there exists a perfect storm of futility.  Why?

Now that I have had time to reflect, I may have better answers.

  1. Inexperience – If we do not know the amount of work involved in completing the individual tasks of a project, there is a 50-50 chance we will overshoot the project timing.  Solution:  Always identify tasks and estimate the workload as a team.  Team buy-in to the project’s deliverables creates a solid foundation from which to build the project plan.
  2. Pulling a fast one – Be honest-why would we put ourselves under the gun to commit to a timeline if we don’t have to?  In the absence of a hard deadline, we tend to give ourselves an excessive amount of time to accomplish the goal.  This lackadaisical attitude in committing to the project carries over into our ability to execute the project.  Lazy is as lazy does.   Solution:  If the project is important enough to take on, put together a solid timeline and execute the project.  If not, don’t bother.
  3. Poor performance – Sad but true.  Even the best timelines require a project manager who can keep the team on task, mitigate risks, and manage resources.  If the project owner will not own the project, the project will fail.  Successful projects have an accountability structure that expects projects be on time and on budget.  Who’s to blame if poor performance continues to exist?  {Insert definition of insanity here.} Solution: As the leader, hold yourself accountable to keep the project manager accountable.

As leaders and stakeholders, our businesses depend on getting results.  In order to escape the hamster wheel of ineffectiveness, we must determine the root cause and take action to correct.  Give your team the opportunity to succeed by committing to critical projects and delivering the results.


What Lean and Six Sigma CAN’T Do

By now, you have probably realized that I am a process innovation nut.  I must have a mutated gene, for I see everything in life as a process – a series of steps marching to a rhythm and flow toward some objective.  Tools such as Lean and Six Sigma serve as lenses through which I view my surroundings.  When I go to a restaurant, I calculate the number of steps taken by the waiter.  Then determine which of those are value-adding and value-robbing.  I spend dinner time trying to figure out a more efficient pattern and route the waiter could take to maximize his or her table turns.

In recent months, I’ve noticed, my experiences do not always fall so neatly into my highly pragmatic internal classification and problem-solving framework.  I battle with questions like – Why are the chicks at Chik-fil-A so freaking friendly?  Why does Apple call their tech support the “Genius Bar” and Best Buy calls theirs “Geek Squad”?  Why is Disney World the “happiest place on earth” and the Denbigh Wal-Mart the eighth level of Hell?

Several months ago, I was introduced to Jake Poore and Integrated Loyalty Systems. Jake preaches a new process gospel – the excellent customer experience.  (I am trying to reconcile his concepts with the Lean and Six Sigma concepts into a nice, neat little philosophical package.)  Jake espouses two tools useful in evaluating the customer experience.  1) The Customer Compass – understanding the Needs, Emotions, Stereotypes, and Wishes of the customer (Get it!?  N-E-S-W, like on a compass).  2) The Touchpoint Map – dissecting the customer experience in light of the customer’s compass.  These add a dimension to process improvement that Lean and Six Sigma totally neglect.  Jake’s system addresses feelings, a topic I am not generally comfortable discussing.  I am, however, learning to place more and more significance, not just on how processes benefit the consumer intellectually, but how those processes make the consumer feel.  And research shows that we make purchases based on how and what we feel.

Lean and Six Sigma guide us in assembling the nuts and bolts of our business.  They identify the operational details, parsing waste from value.  But, they don’t force us to emotionally connect to with our customers.  While we invest a ton of resources in gaining efficiency, how much do we invest in creating relationship-based loyalty?  I would propose that if process innovation, improvement, and control form the foundation of the “house of quality,” then the customer’s experience is the lawn, front door, exterior, furniture, widows, and kitchen sink.

Lean and Six Sigma in 5 Minutes or Less

Lean and Six Sigma (sometimes combined to into the term Lean Six Sigma) are two methodologies for identifying and resolving process related inefficiencies.  In this blog post, I would like share with my readers an overview of each and how my book, The Elegant Process ties in.

First, What is Lean? Lean is a series of process flow principles based on the Toyota Production System.  Lean, depending on the application is sometimes referred to generically as Lean Thinking  (in the non-manufacturing environment) or Lean Manufacturing.  Its claim to fame is that by following the [Lean] process principles, the producer can greatly reduce the time it takes to deliver value to the customer.  A by-product of this just-in-time delivery is the elimination of waste — waste which adds significant cost to produce the product or service.   By reducing delivery time and waste, and thus maximizing value, both the consumer and the producer benefit through lower costs (producer wins) and higher quality (consumer wins).

Second, What’s up with the book? I often describe The Elegant Process as a prequel to Lean.  Before we can become fully enlightened in the ways of Lean, we must begin to think in terms of process.  I call it box-and-arrows thinking (ability to see what’s happening and draw a flow chart in your head to describe it).  In order to take full advantage of the Lean concepts, we must be able to describe or map our business as a series of processes, known as the Value Stream.  Lean principles can then be used to make judgments on the value of the individual actions that comprise those processes.  The book explains all of this using real-life examples and practical applications.

Third, Six Sigma – Never heard of it. Six Sigma is a statistics-based, problem-solving methodology.  This disciplined approach traditionally has five phases: define, measure, analyze, improve, and control.  Those certified in Six Sigma generally fall into three categories of increasing skill level:  Green Belt, Black Belt, and Master Black Belt.  There are other “belts” that many training companies sell, but, I, personally think much of the belt terminology should be reserved for the Six Sigma elites to debate in online forums.  (Full disclosure: I am a Black Belt, maybe a Master by some definitions.  However, Dave Bell calls me a Six Sigma Ninja and that sounds much cooler!)  Six Sigma’s usefulness is in its ability to reduce the variation in a process.  Example:  The Wendy’s in Hidenwood should use Six Sigma to figure out how to get my drive through order right, even just once.

Lean and Six Sigma contain a ton of useful and nifty tricks for evaluating and troubleshooting business, operational, or manufacturing processes.  Both sets of tools can be leveraged to lower costs and increase the quality of goods and services.  The down side of both Lean and Six Sigma is that they are full of nuanced terminology, flow charting, and, worst of all, mathematical analysis.  Many savvy and intelligent business people get turned off by all the geekdom and either dump the idea of Lean Six Sigma or hire a Ninja.  As I work with groups to solve their process problems, I take great care not to go Star Trek on them. Ultimately, my goal, both in the book and in life, is to help businesses succeed, not impress them with Minitab.