Why does your company appear to repeat simple mistakes so often? If you are a manager, it’s exhausting to chase one error after another, doing little more than fighting fires. There may be a better approach – use the principles of “defect ...
Why does your company appear to
repeat simple mistakes so often? If you are a manager, it’s exhausting to chase
one error after another, doing little more than fighting fires. There may be a
better approach – use the principles of “defect management” borrowed from Total
In the late 1980’s the world came to
recognize Japanese dominance in automotive manufacturing. The country had come
a long way: back in the 1960’s the quality of its cars were
sub-standard with numerous customer complaints. While the techniques they
adopted to transform their situation weren’t new, they were the first to apply
quality improvement and process management in a rigorous, systematic way. The
resulting turnaround appeared miraculous to the rest of the world, resulting in
manufacturers adopting their techniques on a large scale.
One of the innovations they
introduced was a peculiar way to uncover operational problems that only occurr
in small numbers.
If your company has over 100
employees, it has the same challenge: it’s made up of intricate,
cross-organizational processes which are hard to diagnose. In other
words, tricky issues persist because the link between cause and effect
isn’t easy to determine. Take, for example, two of my favorite problems: email
and meetings. Your CEO might decide to order people to spend less time on these
activities, but his command wouldn‘t work. The defects in both of
these areas have multiple causes, which means that these forms of
corporate waste are difficult to eradicate.
Here’s a way for your organization
to use this technique to stop making the same mistakes over and over again.
1. “Defects” – A Re-Definition
In their solution, the Japanese
pioneered a new way of looking at defects. They argued that companies are poor
at distinguishing them due to bureaucracy, company
culture and internal politics. For
example, managers who are trying to look good at all times are likely to disown
It’s not entirely their fault.
Most people who think of defects
imagine visible and tangible errors, such as a car rolling off an assembly line
with its steering wheel missing. However, you are probably a knowledge worker
and the defects in your role are much harder to identify. The chances are high
that they are not being noticed or measured.
For example, a meeting may be
effective overall, but still full of defects. Let’s glance at the last
gathering you called. Compare it against this checklist of possible defects.
– a late start or end
– a tardy attendee
– an agenda which was never
assembled or followed
– each time someone used their
smartphone to check email
– action items which weren‘t
– a lack of written feedback
By this definition, some managers
have never attended a defect-free meeting. In fact, these problems may be the
norm in your company, which is blind to these mistakes. Unfortunately, they add
up and damage employee productivity.
2. Defects in Your Work
Now, let‘s switch to the everyday
work you perform. If you are a manager, what are the defects you could be
unwittingly producing with your direct reports? The way to identify them is to
find the shortfalls; the places where standards aren’t being met.
For example, if a performance review
conversation with your employee doesn‘t go well, consider that to be a defect.
You probably aren‘t measuring the number of times this occurs, but if you were
to do so, you could actually launch increasingly deep improvement efforts.
That would mean resisting the
temptation to bury the defect inside a string of successes. This happens when
you argue: “Yeah, but how about the other times when I don’t make mistakes.
Shouldn’t I get credit for my 99% success-rate?”
In this context, the correct answer
is “No”. There‘s no need to be defensive. Defects are not important because
they make people feel bad. Instead, they are a critical part of your efforts to
uncover the details which aren‘t working. They help you craft precise
interventions which produce superior performance.
If you think that this isn‘t
achievable in small increments, think again. The Japanese industrial miracle
was built on steady tiny gains, accompanied by knowledge accumulated over
time. It gave their companies a solid competitive advantage over others who
were boasting to themselves about their “99% performance.”
It’s ironic: the way to continue
improving is to start by calling out defects. This puts the focus where it belongs
and prevents people from hiding behind the numbers. Fail to do so and it won’t
be long before a comfortable mediocrity sets in which affects productivity at
every level. Committing to removing defects takes great courage, but it’s one
of the keys to competitive advantage.
How can a manager be promoted, only for others to discover
that he lacks certain basic, foundation skills? Someone, somewhere dropped an
easy ball that could have been corrected if the company had the right
perspective on how to develop new employees.
There‘s an interesting meme floating around pointing out 10
skills that every employee needs to possess. It adds a zinger: they don‘t
require a drop of talent, implying that no excuses are possible. While the list
wasn‘t developed for Jamaican companies, here is a local version of this
popular meme based on my experience.
#1 – Being On Time
In our environment, this is a huge challenge. Like many
other firms in tropical climates, we allow lateness to run rampant, even in
executive suites. Also, people who are punctual don‘t confront those who
aren’t. Finally, our companies don’t develop a way to teach employees what “on
time” means in their context.
For example, I had a friend who regularly told others she
was “just around the corner” even when she hadn’t yet started the car. In her
mind, she was “on time.” By contrast, I worked with a company in which
“on-time” meant that you arrived early and prepared yourself to start on
the exact, scheduled minute. Yet another organization translated the phrase to
mean “any time before the most important person arrives.”
The point is that your firm must teach its own definition of
“on time” plus all the detailed enabling behaviors, starting with the CEO and
her direct reports.
#2 – Work Ethic/Effort
New employees are often slow to appreciate that for every
corporate skill, there is a ladder of accomplishment. Unfortunately, those who
are unaware, usually occupy the lowest rung. This is no matter of disrespect.
The fact is, if they are taught the existence of higher skills and how to
achieve them, they can become inspired.
Their objective, before they are confirmed as full-time
staff, should be to show they have climbed the rungs of some key skills. For
example, a summer student should be able the demonstrate an unbroken string
of on-time arrivals at work. These may seem to be too easy, but don’t
under-estimate the effort required to learn new behaviors and apply them
#3 – Body Language
Have you ever seen a young person slouch in his office
chair, apparently ready to doze off? Newly hired workers just
aren’t taught that their body language influences others. The impact on
customers, colleagues and managers is part of what they will be held
#4 – Energy
Whereas it may not have been cool to be an eager-beaver in
their prior lives, young employees need to learn that the tables are now
turned. How they get work done is vitally important, and they aren‘t “allowed”
to have a bad day that drags down others. Every hour is intended to be an
opportunity for enthusiasm and engagement, and they must learn to manage their
sleep and nutrition to accomplish this goal. Habitually overcoming the
“I-don‘t-feel-like-it” blues is a vital new capacity to develop.
#5 – Attitude/Resilience
This is perhaps a nebulous skill but companies need to go
beyond the level of clichés and define it clearly. Science has shown that
there are concrete steps in techniques like Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy which
can be followed to transform a poor attitude. This will benefit them on the job
and in every part of their lives.
#6 – Passion
With few exceptions, most employees are passionate about at
least one thing in their lives. Companies do a poor job of nurturing these
strong feelings, allowing new hires to slip into the ranks of the disaffected
and disengaged within months. However, developing a love of one’s work is a
skill that can be taught, even though it’s usually left to chance.
#7 – Being Coachable
Jamaican workplaces are rife with stories of new employees
who are convinced that they “already know” everything. When this lack of
self-esteem interferes with the development of a “Beginner’s Mind” it’s time
for an intervention. A good one would interrupt their habits and show them how
to accept coaching, a capacity which does not come naturally to high achievers.
#8 – Being Prepared (To Do Extra)
New hires must learn to over-prepare if they hope to
succeed; they simply have fewer in-company experiences to draw from. Then,
once projects start, they need to be ready to go the additional mile
repeatedly. This behavior is a signal that they are taking their careers
Many of these eight practices can be tied to company
standards enforced by your firm’s environment. Your organization must make them
explicit: a strong start to a successful career. This ensures that when
promotions occur, the recipients are fully trained.
Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based
Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column?
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If you manage an extremely high number of tasks, it’s a mistake to accept productivity advice from just about anyone. Instead, you should use special solutions tailored for people like you.
CEO‘s I have worked with share a few distinct characteristics. They tend to be:
– High energy – Sometimes, they get a lot done by simply working harder than others.
– Driven – They don‘t need to be inspired by outsiders: They motivate themselves even under trying circumstances.- Creative – They routinely come up with novel solutions from disparate sources.
While this list may appear to be little more than a bunch of “good things”, these characteristics create a unique personality: an “Ultra-Busy“. She is someone who regularly places more tasks on her plate than she has the capacity to complete. In other words, she sets lofty aspirations which she sometimes can‘t meet.
She is also prone to live an unbalanced life. High blood pressure, overweight and lack of time with loved ones are common problems for her and others in this cohort.
Finally, she fails to account for her uniqueness. Believing that others are just like her, she mistakenly trusts them to deliver at the same level.
Perhaps you recognize these traits in yourself. While they may sound like profound weaknesses, they actually come from a positive place. You see, Ultra-Busys aren’t simply workaholics.
Instead, they love tackling big problems, both for the inherent challenge and for the underlying mission. They aren’t happy unless they use their brains, hearts, minds and souls for a worthy purpose. As such, they give everything they can, often losing track of time as they tackle and resolve one issue after another. These totally immersive moments are high points.
As such, their time is precious, making them fastidious in their choice of productivity habits and aids. Always on the lookout for the latest improvements they need to heed a word of caution: much of the advice floating around isn‘t actually meant for them. Here’s why.
During adolescence, each one of us starts to teach ourselves how to use our memory to manage our personal task-load. Then, as we grow older, we search for better methods to handle more tasks.
A few people – The Ultra-Busys – take this to an extreme. Their love of big results requires them to manage a monumental task-load. Unlike others who see added tasks as a burden, they willingly create lots of them in order to make quicker progress towards their life-goals.
However, most productivity advice doesn‘t account for this difference. Instead, it‘s geared for the average person who simply wants to survive each day using a few handy coping mechanisms.
But if you happen to be an Ultra-Busy, what methods should you use? My research reveals the following.
1. Use a Time-Scarcity Schedule
Most people adopt a calendar exclusively to track appointments, but this technique doesn‘t work for Ultra-Busys. Instead, you must use your calendar to plan all your hours, including sleep, weekends and holidays. In this way, it helps you confront the reality of a 24-hour day, especially when you reach the end of an activity and need to choose which one to do next.
Other folks don‘t experience your level of scarcity and have lots of spare time. You don’t, and a time-budget is your key to keeping yourself on track in every dimension of your life.
2. Use Flexible Tools to Combat Disruptions
As an Ultra-Busy, you deal with unexpected, daily disruptions. This means that you must use advanced task management software in place of either memory or paper tools.
It’s your answer to the problem of not having an administrative assistant who can re-juggle your schedule when the unplanned occurs. Instead, you are required to do everything on your own and the best choice of task manager is one that‘s cloud-based, using the latest Artificial Intelligence.
3. Embrace Your Agency
If you‘re a real Ultra-Busy, you probably exhaust others around you with your pace and intensity. Some will pity you, thinking that you are a sorry case…a victim of your own success.
However, deep down you know that nothing could be further from the truth. You accept and appreciate your own agency – each task you undertake is one you created freely, from far inside your commitments.
So don‘t be alarmed when others fail to understand. Instead, find the few who are like you and learn from them. You can take the free training I offer to Ultra-Busys at ScheduleU.org – The School for Scheduling Everything.
Your job is to stay true to your calling and its consequence: the incredible time demands you put on yourself. Avoid average advice and uncover the thinking that fits your extraordinary commitments.
Why do some executives resist making
long-term plans for their business? The hidden secret is a deep fear of failure
but there’s a way to be confident about the top team’s quality of visionary
Vague aspirations to “Become
World-Class” will always drive some portion of your employees crazy. Even if it
happens on a grand scale, the answer isn’t to abandon inspirational goals
Fortunately, the Jamaican
Government’s Vision 2030 avoids these perils by having both clear measurable
targets and a specific end-date. Without these two components, it would be just
be a bunch of wishful thoughts…fairy tales with no basis in reality.
However, most managers
under-estimate the effort to produce such detailed targets. They struggle, but
don’t understand why. One reason relates to a lack of harmony between two
opposing camps: Dreamers and Realists. Your team is best served when a drive
for inspiration (i.e. Dreaming) is balanced by a need to be practical (i.e.
being Realistic). Here are three steps to include in your next planning
Being Inspirational through the
If you have noticed that most of
your employees have lost the zest for Dreamer-led Rah-Rah / “Being Number One”
chest-beating, you may ask: “Why did it become passe?” In short, it doesn’t do
well in today‘s world where authenticity is the main currency.
They see such lofty goals as
inauthentic because they lack specific, measurable characteristics. As a
result, these targets lack credibility, reducing them to having no more
significance than an idle knock in table tennis, or a meaningless game of
solitaire played just to kill time.
Today, your employees expect real
engagement which must be linked to clear performance feedback which is
objectively measured. Such black and white targets tell them whether they have
won or lost, not only individually, but on a corporate scale.
In the case of Vision 2030 there
was, I imagine, a long hard distance to go from becoming “the place of choice
to live, work, raise families and do business” to defining multiple, explicit
targets for specific sectors. It’s exactly the tough task many executive teams
are unwilling to do. Instead, they try to take lazy shortcuts. For example, it’s
popular to get each department to come up with its own goals, then ask a clerk
to pull them together in a final document.
At first blush, this approach may
seem logical, or efficient. However, the end-product ends up being little more
than a grab-bag of bits and pieces. This Frankenstein plan is exactly what
Realists fear the most because the lack of practical coherence dooms it to
Allowing Brutal Reality to Trim
Some Realists have such strong
feelings that they block or boycott planning retreats altogether. Instead, they
argue that today is the best guide to tomorrow and advocate no more than
annual budgeting. Implicit in this approach is the assumption that competitive
advantage was decided in the past, and won’t change.
This dangerous idea is usually not
spoken out aloud…until it’s too late. Like Cable and Wireless of old, they deny
the arrival of an impending Digicel, thereby facilitating their
Unfortunately, most executive teams
never resolve the difficult tension between Dreamers and Realists, preferring
to allow one side to “win”.
The way out of this zero-sum game is
to balance the time devoted to each camp during your next strategic planning
retreat. When you create your agenda, build this in: ask everyone to Dream,
then stop. Pause, and then provoke participants to trim the vision by making it
Real. In other words, allow each approach to run its full course before switching
from one to the other. The fact is, both are important, but they are impossible
to reconcile simultaneously in a workshop setting.
Time and Discipline to Balance Both
Most executives don’t appreciate
this delicate balance. Instead, if you belong to one group, you are
likely to point fingers at the other, complaining that
time spent in their preferred zone is wasted. As a result,
I often find myself in the middle, arguing for a balance. This means pointing
out the pitfalls of “short” retreats. I explain why we no longer offer them:
they inevitably favor one camp over the other, producing a weak strategy which
is neither rigorous nor durable.
In other words, trying to focus
exclusively on Dreamers or Realists defeats the purpose. The point of such sessions
is to make the most difficult decisions regarding the future of the company.
Bringing both camps together is just one of the critical end-products.
Teams who realize this
fact produce miracles: building inspiring long-term plans based on
realistic short-term commitments. While it’s a hard result to generate in a
mixed group, this balanced approach is the best way to craft sustainable
Is there such a thing as email prowess? And is it important enough to be one of the core criteria for promotion? Many would disagree, but there’s evidence which suggests that electronic messaging is no longer a diversion from your work, but an essential component.
It’s fair to say that most managers see email as a nuisance, an activity they would gladly do without. Professionals from an older generation can remember a simpler age when it didn’t exist. They recall the false promise made that it would save time, a goal it certainly has never achieved.
Now, it’s become an obligation – a burden which distracts and takes attention away from the real jobs managers are supposed to be doing. If it were to disappear or be banished, many would cheer with relief.
Of course, that’s wishful thinking. Asynchronous electronic messaging isn’t going anywhere, even if it gets a slight makeover via tools like WhatsApp. The benefits it brings are far too great and there’s not a single company which has avoided the culture change it’s wrought.
Amidst this transformation, managers don’t understand their role as a skillful user of email. Here are three research-based conclusions which illuminate the need to develop this skill long before a promotion is contemplated.
Email Skill Does Matter
Researchers at Microsoft have been mining email usage data for several large companies for many years. Their expert analyses can predict how well a team performs. A key factor in measuring employee satisfaction is how quickly managers respond to messages sent by their direct reports.
This makes perfect sense. Managers who become the bottleneck to their team’s proper functioning can create havoc, bringing all work to a standstill.
Further research shows that the size of a manager’s email network also has an impact. Those with small networks tend to wield little influence, thereby putting the unit’s mission at risk.
Finally, managers who send email outside of working hours while insisting on immediate responses have an adverse effect on work-life balance. They merely have to forward a single short message to upset a subordinate’s weekend, vacation, holiday, sick-day…or labor pains. Ask around in your company and you may hear some real horror stories.
Collectively, these findings put to bed the notion that a manager’s email skills don’t matter. Unfortunately, many who are promoted fail to understand the centrality of these skills to their new role and never become proficient. As managers they lament: “Sorry…I’m really bad at email.”
Your Email Volume is Your Work Product
The quantity of managers who complain about their email volume is startling. To hear them tell it, they have nothing to do with the number of messages they are obliged to process each day. They are victims.
While this particular nonsense has no place in the managerial ranks, the company that fails to teach the right lessons to its staff fosters its continuance. In the cases where the executive are the worst complainers (and offenders) the entire firm suffers. All firms must therefore give staff the skills to manage ever-increasing volumes of email.
In a June 2012 Gleaner column entitled “How executives unwittingly turn employees into morons”, I shared a true story. A Vice President consistently and blindly ruined the productivity of those around him by insisting on replies to his messages within an hour. His ignorance and the ripple effect it produced could have been avoided with the right intervention customized for his level.
That training would have reshaped the common understanding. Email messaging is a multi-faceted activity that requires a number of simultaneous skills: operational effectiveness, writing, call-to-action crafting, reading between lines, tone management, plus others. They don’t come without effort and practice, yet most companies are blind to studies showing that the average manager spends 20% of his day on this task. The cumulative time spent producing and processing poor quality messages is immense.
The Human Resource Department’s Role
Traditionally, HR has been one of the least productive units in this area. When email was first rolled out, the department was often the last to adopt the new technology. Playing catchup ever since, many Human Resource professionals live in a perpetual email backlog, use poor techniques and never move beyond the basics. As a result, they aren’t role models.
Instead, most staff members are left to fend for themselves. This means that promotions occur without these skills being taken into account. If the 20% statistic is true, and email has the multiplier effect we just described, then the problem in your company is probably expanding as volumes increase.
In most firms, this logjam can only be broken by top leadership, which must start by taking responsibility for its own lack of skill. After a good intervention, the frequent complaints about email should be replaced by positive, collective action and include everyone who sends electronic messages.