Being Agile


This is quickly becoming the management buzzword of 2015. Just another magic pill for industry to improve what they do with what they believe is little work.

Agile, as a process (yes folks, it is normally a process), usually starts in an organization with IT in software development. Soon after companies get the “agile bug” and they want everything to be agile. Lean quickly becomes the Agile way to be.

Agile, by itself, is just a word describing a state of being. I’m sure there are many definitions, but in its basic sense, Agile is being able to adjust, change, or respond quickly. It’s being resilient and flexible. Agile approaches are based on quick incrimental iterations. Agile, at its core, is organic and a state of being, not a program.

How do you become Agile?

Look at how you are organized and how you make decisions in your company. Is your company fairly flat and accepting of risk or do decisions need to be collaborated up through many levels and do they take a long time to obtain approvals?

Does your system, to get things done, have to go through annual processes with multiple approvals and significant roadblocks, or are employees empowered at the lowest levels to embark on projects when needed to make things happen?

Do you focus on managing change (I e., reactive) or are your employees ready and actively looking for change opportunities and making them happen?

Agile cannot become the way you are without significantly addressing your culture and operating models. If you are slow to make decisions and change as a company and if you are reactive to changes after they occur, then you are not Agile.

Employing Agile methodologies like Agile Software Development or Lean are only programs…they do not make you Agile as a company.

Being Agile means fundamentally changing everything about your company…

Will that work for your company’s culture?

Professional Interview Tip: Weakness

Job-Interview-Tips-and-adviceForbes recently published a great article that outlines the five primary questions you will hear in an interview and how to answer them.

It’s a good article and I find the five to be spot on having been on both sides of the interviewing table.

I wanted to share an idea regarding discussing weaknesses (see the article).

Weaknesses for people are often hard to identify because they become blind spots to us. If you haven’t ever taken a personality assessment like Myers-Briggs, DISC, etc., I suggest you take one. Take a look at the areas of weakness that you’re personality type inherently deals with and use that as your example.

For instance, I will use me as an example. I might answer this question this way:

In the Four Colors Assessment, I am Gold / Orange and have very little Blue. This identifies me as the strong outgoing planning type, who gets things done. However, with little Blue, I often do not think about special events in people’s lives like others do. You know the type…they always know whose birthday is coming up and have a stash of cards for the just-in-case moment. I’m not that person.

Now, it’s not because I don’t care, but more that it’s not in my DNA. So, to overcome this, as a person, I make sure I put important dates on my calendar with early reminders. I sit down and take time to really consider special gifts and not just the random cards, and I try to make recognition a planned event or recurring activity so I don’t forget.

If I am in charge, I find on my team the Bluest person. Blue people love to support others and your bluest employee will probably enjoy being the office special events coordinator. He or she doesn’t have to run everything, but they help build the plan and keep you on track.

By identifying a weakness from a data source, like an assessment, and then sharing how you overcome it, you become a more powerful candidate.

The fact of life is that we all have blind spots. Assessment tools help you realize what they are. Now it’s your job to figure out ways to overcome them or deal with them and you are prepared to answer this difficult question.

Internal Service Providers vs External Service Providers

Here is a situation that keeps repeating itself everywhere I turn: internal vs external services.

When I am talking about service providers, I mean the activities that help the company run, but add no value to the product the customer buys. Things like HR, IT, Facilities Management, Finance, etc. There is a specific situation that plays itself out over-and-over again with these internal organizations.

A service–let’s use the example of payroll–is needed to pay employees of the company. When the company is starting out, employees are simply paid by the president or another random person working in the company. As the company grows, the workload increases and an office manager is hired to take care of these things. Over time an HR department is stood up with several related functions, payroll just being one of them.

Then, the company really starts to focus on their margin. Competition has stood up and offering the same cool ideas and the company needs to figure out how to cut costs to keep their prices down. The days of being the fat, dumb, and happy big kid on the block are gone. Normally cuts come from the services that support the company–places like HR. After all, they are non-value added in a lean environment, right and these people have been with the company for several years and now make pretty good salaries. Basically, they are a drain, and we need to keep them to a minimum.

Oh, the plight of the service organization…can’t live without em, but don’t want to pay them.

Because they are lean and mean (and maybe mad), the services that they always provided to the company start to get harder to accomplish. The company is growing, but their office is not. The results of their work suffer and it takes longer for them to do stuff. The company (internal customers) starts to get frustrated with the poor service. In some cases the company has become so big that no one even knows how this service is even done or who does it.

In order to keep up, the payroll service starts creating self-service capabilities to ease their workload. Essentially they start outsourcing what they do to the customer. They sell this as a positive thing, but it adds time and complexity to the employee and removes the level of expertise that the service was hired for. Imagine the frustration that is setting in.

Next, the internal customer, frustrated with long waits, lack of and poor service, and having to do many things themselves, decides to take matters in its own hands. The thing is, now the company is so big, that everyone has their own budget and can do what they want. So, factions of the company hire their own payroll person or even department. Of course this person doesn’t do everything but they start taking on the roles that the official department should be doing, but isn’t being very effective at. At first, the original payroll department doesn’t have a problem with this…good for them. But then people start questioning what they do, versus what this new person is doing and why are they even needed?

Next step, the payroll department figures out that payroll is their job and demand that the people doing the work in the company all work under the same department. There is a big effort to consolidate all these new positions paid for by the internal customers and the payroll department becomes big enough to handle the workload again. The problem is, these employees are now part of the payroll department and service everyone under the same flawed systems that was causing the problem in the first place. Internal customers quickly get upset because they lost their personalized service and the company decides, in its annual planning activity, that the payroll department is a good place to cut staff because it has become “too big.”

Again, the frustration sets in, and the next thing you know ABC Payroll Services, an outsourced payroll service, finds its way into the company. It might be a small engagement at first. In some cases, the payroll department itself might outsource non-core, busy-work functions to them. The thing is, they specialize in payroll, do it for many companies, and have cheaper labor that less benefits. Suddenly everyone is questioning the value (i.e., cost and ROI) the payroll department brings when this new and very efficient and effective service provider is doing such a good job for very little money.

To save money, the payroll executive decides to quietly outsource their whole department, saving a job for themselves to “oversee” the activity.

Are you an internal service provider to a company? What value do you bring to your company? Have you outsourced yourselves through customer self service? Are you already challenged by someone else doing part of your work?

This story is played out over-and-over again with every type of service in companies. There are ways to combat this, but many do not see them. Consider the situation above and what the service provider could do to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Why Blog?

Some people use blogging as a poor substitute for advertising. They provide just enough detail to catch your interest and then they hit you with their book or business. Sometimes they want you to sign up for something “free” so they can spam the heck out of you till eternity.

This blog is not for you.

Why should someone blog? It’s not about who reads what you write…in fact if no one reads this, so what? I do it for free so if you read it great…if not, I’m not out anything. But the value for me is that I put my thoughts together, jumbled as they might be, and record them for all to see. It’s about sharing too much of your soul, because anything less just isn’t enough. It’s thinking through and idea and formulating the heck out of it. Misspellings and poor grammar are just the cost of the journey.

So, why blog? Do it for yourself first and maybe someone out there can take something from it. Possibly you come up with good future book or business idea. Or, maybe some corporate mogul out there will offer you millions of dollars to work for them. But do it for yourself and leave the adds to Google.

The Employee Engagement Discussion

For the last ten years, businesses have focused on employee engagement and its cost to businesses. Pretty much any report or study on engagement points out that about 70% of employees in the U.S. are not engaged at work and it is costing businesses approximately $500 billion a year.

Unfortunately, this employee-focused issue has not changed since before the 1950s when the emphasis was on employee satisfaction.  In the 1980s, the emphasis turned to organizational commitment.  The business issue; however, has not changed since researchers started studying and quantifying the situation more than 70 years ago.

There are a few major companies out there that have found some success in this arena and have become the poster childs for how they treat their employees.  Like in everything else, many companies think if they simply do the same visible things that they will be successful and their survey results will go up.

Speaking of survey results; when it comes to this topic, this is another important aspect. The purpose of surveying employees on their engagement (or whatever employee-focused thing) is to quantify how employees feel about the organization. Many companies do not even measure this, which tells someone a lot about how much they care about the issue. A good deal others use the survey results to target specific things in the organization to raise the score. This is a failed approach to employee improvement.  Surveys are for the purpose of providing a gauge of how engaged your employees are, not specifically a roadmap to improvement.

When you look at this issue from the business’ point of view, they do not really care if the employee is satisfied or engaged at work. They just know that if the employee is not, they are not operating as well as they should. What organizations want is employees committed to the organization–organizational commitment.

Employees, on the other hand, do not care about being committed. What they want is to be satisfied with their job–employee satisfaction.

The concept of “being engaged” is a deeper subject that most companies and employees simply do not understand. Employee satisfaction represents how employees feel about the things they can measure in their job. Organizational commitment is a result of satisfied and engaged employees and is measured from the business’ point of view.  But engagement is something entirely different.

Each of these three terms: satisfaction, commitment, and engagement, work together in business. Each one is important and should be the focus of employee and organizational wellbeing.

From a satisfaction point of view, employees are focused on the tangible things that they can measure at work.  Things such as the security of their position, comusurate pay and benefits with their role in comparison to others, recognition and rewards, opportunity for advancement, the company dress code, etc.

From an organizational commitment perspective, there are three factors that exist: employee, leadership, and organization. Employees must be present and they must be dedicated to work. If the company does not have any employees, then who will be committed to the organization? If the employees are lazy and not interested in working hard–just want to get paid–then they will not be committed. If there is no effective leadership to provide a vision and goals, or reward and recognize employees, then commitment cannot occur. The organization might have people in leadership positions, but they might not be leaders. Lastly, the organization must not just exist, but it needs to be an organization worth being committed to. If your organization does not have a strong purpose, vision, and culture, employees find difficulty being committed to it.

Engagement is the term that confuses managers the most. The reason is, because it is really based on how employees feel about their job.  This is difficult for companies to manage to, so most resort to single items scored low on a survey. Employee satisfaction was easy to manage to because, like the employee, the company could see, touch, and measure it. What confuses engagement even further is that many of the surveys out there include questions related to commitment and satisfaction as part of the engagement equation.

Employees are engaged by three things at work. These three things are communication, development, and quality. These things are not obvious to organizations and usually are some of the major problem areas many companies have. Open and honest communication builds relationships and trust with leadership and between employees. Most organizations stuggle with communication (internal and external).  Development is more than having classes available or a training budget that no one uses. Development is about actively challenging employees to grow and helping them with the challenge. It is about assisting them to become something better and stronger then they were when they started with the company. Quality is a recognition of doing good work, that employees around you are doing good work, and that the management focuses on quality work.  If the company does not care, cuts corners, and puts out a shoddy product just to make more money, the employees will be the first to know it.

So, the discussion needs to turn from one of engagement to one of organizational and employee wellbeing. All things, satisfaction, commitment, and engagement should be evaluated to establish a baseline and then to measure effective improvement. For each category, the right things need to occur versus focusing only on statements and scores on a survey. Only then will wellbeing occur.

Process Improvement and Agile

Agile is quickly becoming the accepted method for project management these days. Once organizations start moving toward agile projects, quickly they want everything delivered in an agile manner. This has led many to ask how process improvement and agile work together.

One of the first misconceptions is that agile is not a process. Of course it is…there is a process flow in agile, just like any other project management approach. Agile has a set of repetitive steps to gather epics and stories and perform iterations. Without a process (series of steps), how would you effectively train agile to others and ensure everyone is doing it right and the same? Yes, agile is a process.

So process improvement can take a long time and often does not feel very agile. If your organization is moving to an agile environment, how does process improvement move there too?  Well, in process improvement, there are three ways to become more agile: proper project scoping and transfer, rapid improvement events (known by many names), and true lean/continuous improvement. The following briefly discusses all three.

Process Improvement Projects.  Running an improvement project using a formal methodology normally follows a waterfall approach, whether it be DMAIC, DMADV, PDCA, or whatever alphabet soup approach you use. Waterfall, as anyone agile will tell you, is not agile! The problem with these projects is they can take a long time to get to root cause and implemented solutions that the lead is confident will solve the business problem. Want it bad, get it bad…right? However, if you take that huge ‘boil the ocean’ problem from your sponsor/client and scope it down into a single area, you can get to an initial solution fairly quickly. Rik Taylor and Associates teaches a very specific project scoping tree that is very effective at getting to a manageable chunk of work. Then, Rik teaches students how to transfer that solution to quicker iterations in other areas, focused on the same problem. This turns the waterfall approach into a very agile-like iteration process. It is still not agile, but it is much quicker at getting to improvements and builds over time.

Rapid Improvement. This is know by many names, like Kaizen Blitz, Work Out, Action Work Out, Rapid, Rapid Improvement, etc. Although still a waterfall approach to process improvement, the actual improvement activity is compressed into a week or less of hands-on dedicated activity. The lead still needs to define and measure in preparation for the workshop event, but what most participants see is a week or less of activity. Also, the solutions, though generally lean-based, are identified and implemented very quickly. This can be a much more agile process.

Lean Shop. Lastly, working in a continuous improvement organization focused on business process management creates an environment and culture of agile improvement. See a problem, fix it, at the lowest level.  That is the nature of true continuous improvement. When you get to a true world of lean daily management backed by solid business process management, agile improvement iterations become the norm. True process improvement projects (waterfall) are only used for large end-to-end improvements.

Even though improvement is happening faster or constantly, it still does not mean it happens without a process. All problem solving must follow a process of understanding the problem, getting to a root cause, and improving. Failing to follow a repeatable approach will result in things like tampering, improper solutions, and improvements reverting back to the old way of doing business.

These are the ways that process improvement and agile are related. Remember, that a process, at its core, is nothing but a series of steps that allow for training, measurement, and consistency. Thus, agile follows a process just like everything else. Although all effective process improvement also follows a process, it can be performed in a very agile manner, getting to iterations of improvement quicker.

Kickstarter Project: Overcoming Organizational Myopia

Overcoming Organizational Myopia, stovepipes, sandboxes, short sightedness

At 2:30 pm, Central Time, on June 27, 2015, KS Project, Overcoming Organizational Myopia lifted off.  Overcoming Organizational Myopia will be a new nonfiction book about successfully breaking through stovepiped organizations to obtain organizational effectiveness.

The Short Story: I discovered that it really does not matter what company or organization I work with, they all have stovepipes.  What I learned is that they are a product of human nature.  The problem is that everyone wants to “break down the silos” as the typical management response. Unfortunately, this NEVER works! All you do is cause confusion and drive unproductivity as the people in your business seek to rebuild the stovepipes that make them feel secure.  This book is about breaking through the stovepipes to become an effective and efficient organization.  It respects the stovepipes and teaches you how to navigate through them using a consistent and systematic application of full-spectrum strategic and organizational methods.  The book is designed to provide you with situational examples so you can self-diagnose your organization.  Across nine areas, the book helps you identify problem areas and, like a business doctor, treat the root causes with solid business solutions.

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