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Sick Sigma

2818_aXX1X I love learning new things from the Wall Street Journal.  Every day, there are great articles about virtually every facet of business, just waiting to be absorbed by my eager little brain.  But some days, there's a bonus article which just validates things I had already intuitively figured out... but then somebody smarter than I goes ahead and does the research on it and writes about it.

Such is the case with today's Satya S. Chakravorty's article about "Where Process-Improvement Projects Go Wrong."  As any reader of this blog already knows, I'm a pronounced Six Sigma Cynic, not because I don't believe in quality initiatives as a whole, but rather because Six Sigma is simply rehashed and repackaged TQM that is generally poorly implemented AND institutionalized (see Deming's 14 points) in most organizations.  And according to Chakravorty's research, 60% of all Six Sigma corporate initiatives fail to yield the desired results.  (Insert shocked face here.)

I liked how the article summed up the four major findings behind the tepid success:

First, the extended involvement of a Six Sigma or other improvement expert is required if teams are to remain motivated, continue learning and maintain gains. If the cost of assigning an improvement expert to each team on a full-time basis is prohibitive, one improvement expert could be assigned on a part-time basis to several teams for an extended period of one to two years. Later, managers could be trained to take over that role.

Second, performance appraisals need to be tied to successful implementation of improvement projects. Studies point out that raises, even in small amounts, can motivate team members to embrace new, better work practices. Without such incentives, employees often regress to their old ways of working once the initial enthusiasm for Six Sigma dies down.

Third, improvement teams should have no more than six to nine members, and the timeline for launching a project should be no longer than six to eight weeks. The bigger the team, the greater the chance members will have competing interests and the harder it will be for them to agree on goals, especially after the improvement expert has moved on to a new project. And the longer it takes to implement improvements, the greater the chance people and resources will be diverted to other efforts.

Fourth, executives need to directly participate in improvement projects, not just "support" them. Because it was in his best interests, the director in charge of the improvement projects at the aerospace company created the illusion that everything was great by communicating only about projects that were yielding excellent results. By observing the successes and failures of improvement programs firsthand, rather than relying on someone else's interpretation, executives can make more accurate assessments as to which ones are worth continuing.

While all good and valid points, I would add a fifth item to these:  Most six sigma and lean initiatives focus too much on the process and not nearly enough on the inputs and outputs which bookend the process.  It's like ooh-ing and ah-ing over power tools but never building anything or having a state of the art kitchen but always going out to eat.  People care more about the accomplishments, the outputs.  Every system allows for some degree of inefficiency; some even mandate it.  This is why I completely downplayed the role of the transformation process in SWAT - Seize the Accomplishment.  Those tools all exist, and they make sense.  But if your organization can't master Chakravorty's four points (with my one addendum), no number of master black belts will help your organization get from point A to point B (but you will wander very efficiently).

Mr. Brown Can Woo, Can You?

Scottbrowncongress Congratulations, Scott Brown, Senator-Elect for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Normally, special elections are barely a footnote in off-years, but once again, this provides an excellent lesson in systems thinking; namely, when some element of the system gets out of balance, the environment or the system itself will pull it back into alignment.  Sometimes, the realignment is a gentle nudge.  In the past decade of national politics, the pendulum swings the other way with the force of a released rubber band tanked up on Red Bull.

Consider this:  We as a nation put George W. Bush into office because we were sick of "Slick Willy."  Within eight short years, the White House and both houses of Congress were controlled by Democrats.  Simply a year ago, the world was gripped with Obama-fever as he took his Oath of Office.  Now, Massachusetts, the bluest of the blue states, has elected a (GASP!) Republican senator in the midst of voter anguish.  Kennedy family members of three generations are rolling in their graves (at least the ones were weren't "voting" yesterday).

While the politicians in Washington (and Massachusetts) are making excuses about why and how this happened, I can replace their excuses with explanations:  the system corrected itself.  Democrats and Republicans alike are losing sight of one fundamental truth:  we live in a centrist society.  Solutions are not at the extremes of political ideologies; they generally reside in the middle.  Obama promised a "govern from the middle" approach and quickly violated that promise.  And the system corrected itself by removing a filibuster-proof majority from the Senate.

Now the question remains - will the Democrats recognize this event for what it is (a system correction) and make the necessary adjustments, or will they keep pushing their agenda through the system?  Only time will tell.  But November isn't too far away on the political timeline.  And systems will take one of two paths:  they will continue to fix themselves, or they will break beyond repair.  No matter how you cut it, Scott Brown recognized the system was broken, and he ran a campaign which resonated that sentiment. ("This is not Ted Kennedy's seat.  This is the PEOPLE'S seat.")

How about you and your organization?  Are your systems out of whack?  Are they screaming at you for a course correction?  Are you going to do something about it?

Good Ink

It has been refreshing to read the feedback coming in on SWAT - Seize the Accomplishment, and I'm very appreciative of those who have taken the time to read it and share their thoughts.

Scot Herrick gave a great overview of the book, and he summed up nicely WHY systems thinking is so critical in this day and age:

In the Great Recession, the need for good Systems Thinking has never been more needed. As companies have lopped off divisions, pared back operations, changed credit policies and laid off millions of workers, what were inputs and outputs to systems have significantly changed. I doubt management has had enough time to really analyze what the company’s processes are now, much less if they have Systems Working All Together. As an employee, you are paying the price.

Timothy’s book is a timely reminder that we can’t really improve our businesses (or job satisfaction) until we embrace Systems Thinking into our work. Without it, all we do is solve one problem — and cause two more.

Thanks, Scot!  It was this message that compelled me to get SWAT published.  Kevin Eikenberry enjoyed the book so much, he's willing to offer an extra incentive for those who order it:

I like this book enough to give you an extra incentive to order a copy.

Last Fall Timothy was our invited expert during one of our Remarkable Leadership Learning System Guest Conversations. When you buy a copy of the book from Amazon, email us a copy of your order confirmation number. When you do, we’ll send you links for both the recording and transcript of this excellent one-hour conversation.

Closer to home, Claire Celsi gave a glowing review with her slant on why systems thinking is so important for today's professional:

I encourage anyone who interacts with medium or large corporation, or complex government agencies, to read this book. Communicators need to learn how to be at the table when big decisions are being made. One way to gain the respect and trust of the executives in your organization is to speak their language and realize that complex decisions sometime muddle the message coming out to employees and stakeholders. Encourage leaders in your organization to put the complexity aside after a decision has been made. The final decisions need to be communicated clearly and without management speak.

Big HUGE Carpe Factum THANKS to Scot, Kevin, and Claire.  It is awesome to be able to know such amazing people.

To top it all off, I received some nice press from Lynn Hicks in the Des Moines Register today.

I also want to thank Michael Libbie for a super radio interview last week (even if I was befuddled by the chair), and I'm looking forward to another interview today with J. Mac McKoy.  Check out the podcast below from my discussion with Michael:

Watch live streaming video from desmoineslocallive at livestream.com

The Pen IS Mightier...

Take_that I have a confession to make on the eve of my first official book signing for my third book:  I like to use a specific pen for my book signings.

There's really nothing special about the pen itself.  It possesses decent enough quality (in a ball-point blue-ink kind of way), and I have about a dozen of them floating around the house.  What makes the pen stand out for me is its association with a company with whom I no longer work.

You see, they have a few people on their management team who clearly thought I'd never make it.  One executive even referred to me as "That blogger boy" (insert a tone of complete contempt and disdain).

So it only seems fitting that I use their pens, their ink to sign my name on my accomplishments.  Is SWAT - Seize the Accomplishment on a best seller list yet?  Nope.  But it's still my accomplishment.  And it's a book I'm proud to put my name on and sign my name in.  And by getting all the way to a book signing, I feel like I'm winning a victory for every author who's at least tried, for every blogger who's posted or commented, for everyone who's ever tried a creative act in the face of people who said it couldn't be done.

So I'll be signing my name tomorrow... with a pen... from a company... who said it couldn't be done.  Kind of like slaying the evil knight with his own sword, an author's poetic justice, if you will.

Who are your accomplishment naysayers?  And how will you prove them wrong?  (And crank up Elton John's "I'm Still Standing" while you're doing it.)

Another Fine Lott You've Gotten Us Into

Harry-reid It's been fascinating watching the reaction to Harry Reid this week.  He made some "inartful" comments about our President when Obama was still a senator/candidate.  People are calling for his head.  Al Sharpton and others are saying "No big deal."  Now let's think back a few years... to Trent Lott... who made racially insensitive comments about Strom Thurmond... and lost his leadership role in the Senate over it.

Why the difference in reaction?  Are they truly different?  Is it another case of liberal bias?  Perhaps.  But I'm not going to go there.  I commented about this event on Twitter and suggested that this was actually just a system breakdown.  My good friend, Ernest Phillips, shot back with the response I was hoping for:  "The system has a variable 'intent.' Offensive remarks are often about perceived intent which affects output."  (Go, Ernest!  That's why you're great at your job.)

Trent_lott In the system of communication, there are two inputs which are always present but often imperceptible to those in the system:  intent and perception.  Often we are faced with insensitive or rude or seemingly mean comments and the output of our communication is REACT.  But should we ALWAYS react?  I've been floored some times on Facebook when I'm just having fun being cheeky and somebody completely wigs out over a comment I've made.  Those who know me best, know that I generally don't set out to hurt people randomly (intent).  They also look holistically at the conversation instead of ONLY filtering it through their values and experiences (perception).  Generally, I can disagree agreeably with most people because I can look at the communication and relationship systems I have with them... and I separate out the intent and the perception.  The output of communication is generally much better when we can recognize intent and perception for what they are.

As for Harry Reid, the talking heads on CNN and MSNBC and Fox News will all scurry off to a different story, a new scandal, and a scathing attention/ratings grabber.  And they will try their best to play with perceptions and intents to make us believe whatever they want.  Is your system ready?  Will you recognize it when it happens?

Gratitude Without Handcuffs or Flashbangs

Life_is_good I made a decision many months ago that when my book launched, I wanted to say thanks to the Suburban Emergency Reponse Team (SERT) for allowing me to tag along to all of their training sessions over the past three years, for allowing me to pester them with seemingly trivial questions about SWAT work, for taking me on patrol ride-alongs, for letting me be an occasional role player so I can hone all of my bad-guy tendancies in a safe environment, and for asking me to be their training photographer.

Hence, my official book signing launch event is coming up this Saturday afternoon at Jake's Journey in the West Glen Shopping Center.  I'll be there from about 1:30-4:30 signing copies of SWAT - Seize the Accomplishment (and will probably have some copies of GUST and Race Through The Forest as well).  For every copy of SWAT purchased, ten dollars will be donated back to the SERT for them to purchase equipment or safety supplies or training needs.  I hope to sell a whole lot of books because (and I can't speak for you) I want my SWAT team as well equipped as possible to handle whatever our uncertain world throws their way.

And why Jake's Journey and not a traditional book store?  Well, after working on this project for five years, after putting in countless hours wrestling with characters and plot lines, after agonizing over the best chart/graph/picture for conveying the principles, after editing (and re-editing ad infinitum), after being cuffed, flash-banged, and tackled by camo-clad testosterone, after sorting through 15,000 photos to find the right one for the cover, after seeing systems and inputs and outputs in my sleep, after sending out numerous copies to bloggers and other media outlets, I can honestly say, LIFE IS GOOD!

See you Saturday!

How Binary Of Me

SWAT Background 01.10.10 (Hey, that's today)


It seems like a lifetime ago when I wrote my first post about my experience with the SWAT team.  Who knew so much of that would find its way into these pages?  (OK, well, I did.)

Got some great reviews starting to come in on SWAT, so you can see what others are saying.  Brett Trout, Franke James, and Tim Milburn have already posted reviews, as well as what Robert Stanke wrote last month.  Thanks to each of them for getting the word out.  One of Tim's comments especially hit on what I love to see from my readers: "I read it in one sitting. But I've been thinking about it all day."  I've heard that comment from a couple of other people, and I'm hoping that this book really flash-bangs your thinking into some new paradigms.  This is a book that I hope will "haunt and taunt" you long after you've read it.

This week, I'll be writing posts about what you'll find inside the cover of SWAT, some of the characters and how they evolved, and what you as a professional will take away from reading this book.

So get your game on... it's flash-bang time!

Book Release Eve

I've learned a lot in the past four years of being an author.  One thing I learned about blogging is to "pay it forward" to other authors.  When I released GUST almost three years ago, I reviewed a book right before the release.  On the eve of SWAT's release, it's time to talk about a few other people's work and show some nods to other people who have seized the accomplishment through writing.

Studentlinc The first big nod goes to a guy I've met through Twitter and through mutual social media friends.  I hope someday to meet him in person, because he sounds exactly like the type of person I enjoy hanging around:  an adventurous, accomplished, principled leader whose goal is to pull others up.  His name is Tim Milburn out of Boise, Idaho and his work with Studentlinc is amazing.  He's written a great book called Core Leadership Training, and it's designed to help student leaders succeed in their roles.  Those of us who have been in offices and cubicles for years already know how hard leadership is.  Tim provides those who haven't even yet earned their stripes through the obstacle course of leadership through their roles in student organizations.  If you are a sponsor of a student group, be it a sports league, fraternity/sorority, student government, whatever... this is a must read... and Tim is somebody you need to get to know.

We_feel_fine_book The second book nod I'm giving came about in the most unusual way.  I had just finished creating a blog post about my relationship with my daughter, when I received an email.  It seems these two guys, Sep Kamvar and Jonathan Harris, were creating a compilation of people's feelings.  They had harvested about every derivation of the verb "to feel" from the blogosphere and had amassed a HUGE compilation of people's feelings, aptly titled, We Feel Fine, An Almanac of Human Emotion.  This album of photos and snippets was constructed, designed, and executed so brilliantly, it should be on every desk and coffee table book in the nation (and I'm not just saying that because Lauren's baby picture is in there).

Those are just a couple of the things that have hit my radar screen in recent months which deserve some special highlighting of their own.  I wish all three amazing success with their book projects.

For me, tomorrow is coming... and I'm at peace...

Where To Get A Good SWAT

Final_Cover It's coming... just a few more days and SWAT - Seize the Accomplishment moves into the category of reality.  I have a lot of people to thank for this journey (too many to list in a blog post, but they know who they are and most of their names are in the acknowledgments section of the book).  My biggest thank you, though, at this point goes to my publisher, Lexicon, and to the SWAT operators from the SERT (Suburban Emergency Reponse Team).

A lot of people from near and far have been asking how/where they can get a copy.  Here are the vendors who are carrying it:

Local Bookstores:

Online Bookstores

Everybody should be well stocked with copies of all three of my books.  I continue to look at expanding my reach in bookstores, and I prefer dealing with independent stores, so if any of you know of a "great little shop" who would be interested in carrying any or all of my books, let me know.  And if any of you want to start hounding the giant behemoth known as Barnes & Noble about carrying my books, I wouldn't argue (although they'd have to work hard to wow me as much as Borders and my independent partners have).

I've also expanded my Products page for additional information about SWAT.

So if you're ready to have your thought processes flashbanged by systems thinking, if you're ready to seize the accomplishment, then I'd say you're ready for a SWAT!

His Name Is Ken

Ken_doll Maybe it was a byproduct of too much togetherness over Christmas break.  Perhaps it was caused by a decade of being outnumbered by the fairer gender around home.  Could have been too much eggnog.  Who knows?

My younger daughter got a new Barbie dollhouse from Santa.  So of course, every Barbie had to come and inhabit this new abode.  It was like big plastic sorority (complete with all of the requisite drama whenever that many Barbies get together).  And - oh yeah - there was one Ken doll amid all of them.  All was well.  The girls were playing together.  They were having fun.  They were using their imaginations.  And then the fateful event occurred:  my older daughter asked my younger daughter for the Ken doll:  "Abby, would you please pass me the boy Barbie?"

I snapped.

"Excuse me?" I started.  "Did you just call him a 'boy Barbie'?  His... name... is... KEN!  Yes, he may be the ONLY boy in a sea of plastic estrogen... BUT HE HAS A NAME!!!  HE HAS AN IDENTITY!!  He is NOT a boy Barbie.  He has NOT been sucked into the vortex of pink."

I found three pairs of eyes staring at me in shock at my tirade.  I shrugged and went back to my little cubbie of testosterone, my small corner of maleness.

In a sea of consistency and sameness, we all have a little bit of Ken in us, don't we?  We all have a personal brand just waiting to get out, but everybody else wants us to wear their personal brand.  We want to convert our gray cubicles into a tropical rainforest.  We want to wear brightly colored polka-dots in a sea of navy blue pinstripes.  We long to be different, to be significant, to be noticed.  In short, we cringe at the thought of being called a "boy Barbie."

So what are YOU going to do in 2010 to brand yourself?  Or are you just another boy Barbie?

Screw Recession... Is Your Company Ready For Recovery?

Economic_recovery The past 2-3 years have been spent fretting.  People have been worried about their jobs, about their companies, about their stability.  Business owners have sweat bullets every night, wondering if tomorrow would be the day they had to shut the doors for good.  Many have continued to do business in good faith, even with the evil thumb of fate hanging immediately over them... waiting to squish them like an insignificant bug.

Other companies have managed to ride out the storm, but they've not played nicely in the corporate karma sandbox.  They've taken advantage of suppliers and contractors.  They've oppressed employees.  They've screwed over customers.  Here in Central Iowa, there are a couple of companies who have low-balled project management consulting rates to insulting levels.  Why?  Because they know supply outstrips demand.  There are companies who have all but expressed they don't care if they lose a customer... there will be another to take their place.


Recovery is coming.  The economy is showing some signs of rebound.  While it may not happen tomorrow, companies are looking like they'll be hiring, doing more projects, and expanding their businesses... it's a cautious recovery, but it's a recovery all the same.  And what's going to happen when all of these "you done me wrong" vibes come to light?

Jeannine Aversa wrote a great piece today that job satisfaction is at an all-time low.  It's harboring ill-will, impacting teamwork, and undermining culture.  I've been fortunate to work for clients who have risen above the pettiness and have been great.  I have also had the luxury of recognizing the other end of the spectrum and be able to politely decline my services.  Some of my local colleagues have not been so fortunate.

Is your company ready to compete in a stronger workplace?  How do your employees really feel about you?  Are your suppliers and customers loyal to you through thick and thin?  If the responses to these questions are not all that positive, recession survival may be the least of your worries.  Your system's feedback loop is about to catch up with you during the recovery.

An Offer You Can't Refuse

Brando_godfather One thing my clients sometimes ask me to do is help them improve their processes.  I've done it for banks and for factories (and all with no Six Sigma blackbelt).  You can't improve a process, however, if you can't document the process.  I liken it to attempting to take a trip to an unknown location with no map.  (And don't ask my sister-in-law... all of her directions are subjectively obscure landmarks... "drive to the mall, then turn left until you hit the pumpkin-colored house... no, not the tangerine-colored house... anyway, then drive until you find the barn with the three pretty dogs..." Well, you get the idea.)  No, my friends, a roadmap (or GPS) will get you from Point A to Point B.

At a minimum, I like to create a deployment (or swimlane) flowchart.  Unlike a "generic" flowchart, the swimlanes show who is responsible for completing each task in the process.  If you understand the process of making a flowchart, this is very telling for either existing (as is) processes or desired future (to be) processes.  And yes, I am a big fan of documenting both your existing and future processes.  Most people don't want to "waste" time documenting the existing processes, but doing so helps you flesh out many of the potential areas for improvement.

The process for creating a flowchart is really an offer you can't refuse... and yes, the Godfather reference is intended... it will help you remember HOW to build one of these bad boys:  BRANDO

B is for Boundaries - where does your process start and end?  If your process is really big and complicated, consider breaking it down to smaller processes.  The oval is the tool to show the start and finish of each process.

R is for Roles - who are the people working on your process (not specific names, but more job titles or role definitions.  I tend to list them in the order they are introduced into the process

A is for Actions - identify the individual steps in the process.  Tasks go into rectangles and decisions to into diamond shapes

N is for Negotiate - discuss and clarify and validate the steps.  Be prepared to argue and debate and edit and change so that everyone is in agreement (and no, not everybody currently does the same process the same way)

D is for Draw - connect the lines among the rectangles and diamonds, add any supporting documentation to show paperwork or computer interactions

O is for Opportunities - look at the existing process to identify areas for improvement and then brainstorm for solutions to improve the process (or maybe decide the process isn't even needed at all)

Of course, I spell all of this out in SWAT - Seize the Accomplishment, and you get to follow along as the characters struggle with all of the "yeah, but what if" twists and turns in their quest to do it right.  In the end, though, you will see that a well-drawn flowchart really is "an offer you can't refuse."


Mission Impassable

Detour_sign As many of you know, I'm a big fan of Peggy Noonan.  I look forward to every Saturday's Wall Street Journal just so I can read her laser-focused and dead-on-accurate commentary on society and politics.  Today was no different.  As with many journalists, she weighed in on the new decade ahead.  While the emphasis of her essay was balancing stoicism with optimism, her supporting arguments caught my attention.  She provided example after example of organizations who had forgotten their mission, and the cost of doing so.  As she put it:

Maybe the most worrying trend the past 10 years can be found in this phrase: "They forgot the mission." So many great American institutions—institutions that every day help hold us together—acted as if they had forgotten their mission, forgotten what they were about, what their role and purpose was, what they existed to do. You, as you read, can probably think of an institution that has forgotten its reason for being. Maybe it's the one you're part of.

How true.  In systems thinking, I tend to emphasize the output (since my brand is about accomplishment, this seems only logical).  We create a lot of outputs throughout the day... the week... the year.  Most are done on purpose, but some outputs are created accidentally.  The accidental ones generally occur when we fall prey to forgetting our mission.  We create shoddy products because our companies forget their mission of quality.  We behave badly because we forget our core values.  Our projects spin out of control because they forget why the deliverable is important to the organization.

There must always be alignment between the output and the mission.  To lose that link renders the systems useless.

So what are you accomplishing?  Is it consistent with your mission?  Is your mission understood by those who are being asked to execute it?

You Can't Say You Don't Need Jack

Nicholson I love watching Jack Nicholson movies.  In many movies, he plays the villain.  When he does, he plays it with evil flair that chills you to your bone marrow.  However, in just as many movies, he doesn't play a villain; he plays a scoundrel.  And that, in my honest opinion, is where Jack truly shines.

What's the difference, you ask?

Well, a villain does not support the cause of the hero or protagonist.  A villain's goals run counter to the society or organization in which he (or she) exists.  A villain's motives are purely self-driven.  A villain purposely wants to damage others.  Villains don't care who gets hurt, as long as they come out ahead and unscathed.  (And yes, I know this firsthand; I've worked with and for villains before.)

But a scoundrel... well, those are pure brilliance.  They are often mistaken for a villain because they APPEAR to be running counter to the society or organization, but the motives are different.  The scoundrel's drive to be different is to bring their environment with them to a new reality.  Watch As Good As It Gets or Something's Gotta Give.  Nicholson challenges the antagonists.  He pushes them away from their comfort zones.  And they come out better people because Nicholson played the scoundrel.  The other good thing about scoundrels is how they allow themselves to be changed as well.

Some clients, students, and colleagues view me as a scoundrel.  GREAT!  But I, too, need scoundrels in my life.  I resist them at first, but when I recognize them for what they are, I can't help but embrace them.  I know they will make me a better person for the journey.

Find your scoundrels in 2010.  Here's a little guide to help you recognize them:

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