I started treating work email like mail, and the universe did not implode

Recently I attended a corporate training session about time management. The course was less a source of new ideas and more a reminder of good habits from early in my career that I’d dropped, like writing down weekly goals and daily prioritized tasks.

Much of the course focused on distractions from our most important work. Technology is a tricky thing: it does exactly what it’s told, sometimes with consequences contrary to the original intent. Email at work, for example, meant to make us more productive by reducing the delays in correspondence. It has done that, of course, to the extreme: most people spend each day in a state of partial distraction as new message notifications pop up on computer screens and mobile phones, dinging and flashing through meetings, and demolishing concentration. Instead of proactively tackling the most difficult and important projects, technology trained us to react to the most urgent requests.

So I decided to start an experiment. I treated work email like mail: reading and responding once per day, not letting it interrupt my work or meetings during “office hours.” Here are the specific steps I took:

  1. Blocked an hour of my calendar each day from 7:30am-8:30am to read and respond to email messages, and make a prioritized list of daily tasks. I support both the Inbox Zero and three.sentenc.es philosophies. Each Monday and Friday session is 30 minutes longer, so that I can reflect on what I achieved that week, reflect on lessons learned, and set objectives for the coming week.
  2. Shut down all the notification features of my desktop and email clients, so that I can choose when to check my email. I did make one exception: my mobile client has a VIP feature that allows notifications from certain contacts (e.g., the C-suite at my company) and domains (e.g., a key customer account). I use Nine Folders and other clients may have similar features.
  3. Added a note to my email signature reminding internal recipients that while I don’t monitor incoming email during office hours, I do maintain a “SLA” to read and respond within 24 hours. The signature also reminds them to contact me through another channel if their message is truly urgent. My company has at least three chat platforms, and the corporate directory lists my mobile phone number, so plenty of alternative digital channels exist.

The result? Simply put, success. I feel so much less frantic and distracted throughout the day. I’m present and participate throughout meetings. I start and end tasks at my desk without interruption. I often send emails during the day, e.g., when shipping off a deliverable to complete a task, but I suppress the urge to pour through my inbox until the morning. My attitude towards the daily task of inbox maintenance is somewhat childlike with anticipation–anything good today? A handful of my coworkers made supportive comments; no signs of snark or frustration. In weeks, no one has come after me, angrily demanding a response to an email they sent a few hours earlier.

This experiment reinforced that the heightened sense of urgency I attached to email messages, and the feelings of anxiety I felt towards being responsive to those messages, were entirely self-imposed. And therefore I had complete power to remove the anxiety by changing my attitude and my daily habits about my inbox. If you’ve felt the same, try the experiment and see if you can replicate my results. Please leave any comments or questions below.

Why you should run your business process like a refinery

Regardless of your position on fossil fuels, the sheer scale, complexity, and ferocity of a refinery will strike you with awe. At a refinery, as with any other process manufacturing facility, the best days are the boring days–ideally without any “unplanned pressure releases” similar to those experienced in the rocket industry. The cost of mistakes, in terms of operating income without considering the employee or environmental risk, can easily reach millions of dollars per day.

So, as we examine our own careers in search of fresh ideas and inspiration, an important performance metric from the process manufacturing industry called OEE can help.

OEE stands for Overall Equipment Effectiveness and is measured on a scale from 0% to 100%. While I will avoid an extended discussion of how to establish the 100% level, understand that OEE is the product of three terms: availability, utilization, and yield. Let’s explore how any business process owner can benefit from getting these three terms as close to 100% as possible, typically in that order.

Availability: when I push the green button, does it go?

Availability measures what percentage of total time a process or asset is ready to run when called upon. Avoiding the nuances of this calculation, let’s look at why availability matters in a business setting. Perhaps you are responsible for an email marketing system, or a database, or even human assets like a sales team. How much downtime does this asset experience? How often do the emails fail to send? How often is the database offline? How often does a sales rep call out sick or no-show for meetings? Clearly to make any significant improvement in overall performance, the availability of an asset or process needs to reach a moderately high and sustained level. Furthermore, the people responsible for the asset or process won’t gain the trust of the rest of the organization or have the credibility to advise on more complex issues until they get their availability in order. So, for most leaders, improving availability is a critical first step.

Utilization: when it’s available, is it running?

Utilization measures the percent of available time that a process or asset is operating. Any time spent idle, either waiting for inputs from an upstream process or waiting for a downstream process to take away its outputs will penalize both utilization and OEE. If availability is about solving maintenance and reliability issues, then utilization is about planning, scheduling, and load balancing across assets and between departments. Your database job schedule might need a closer look, or your lead flow process might need tweaks to keep a steady pace of calls and meetings in front of your sales team. Step back from an individual asset or process to look for gains in utilization at your “bottleneck” in order to reap the largest overall results.

Yield: when it’s running, is there zero waste?

Disciples of the Lean movement will readily rattle off the seven flavors of muda, or waste. Generally, yield losses occur when running at less than 100% speed and/or producing less than 100% first level quality output. Whether comparing the results of your asset/process to an external benchmark, an internal best, or a design capability, you will likely find yield opportunities easily. Typically yield optimization is the most interesting type of problem to solve because it requires delving into the unknown. For high availability systems, it is also the most frequent problem to solve–if it ain’t running, you can’t work on yield! So whether you are looking for a higher email conversion rate, lower error rates on database jobs, or higher win rates on sales opportunities, yield optimization is likely a well-trodden path for your team, and the harder you look, the more you will find.

Where to start? Follow the money

An optimist will see a low OEE system as a playground full of valuable and interesting opportunities. When looking across the areas of availability, utilization, and yield, it’s likely that different people will have different opinions on where to start. A straightforward and non-confrontational approach is to value each opportunity with a common metric, like $. With a straightforward spreadsheet you will be able to value what a 1% improvement in availability, utilization, and yield–above the current baseline values and holding the other two constant–will be worth on a per day or per year basis. This should not prevent your team from making improvements in all areas, instead it should inform prioritization in a resource-restricted world.

So whether you are a database administrator, marketer, or sales manager, take a page from the refining world and think about how to maximize your OEE. And you won’t even have to put on fireproof coveralls to do it.

To Improve the Leadership Training Experience, Think Like a Marketer

Marketers’ timeless obsession is “getting the right message to the right person, at the right time, through the right channel.” As a consumer who is bombarded by marketing messages on nearly every visible surface during every waking hour, you know intuitively that some messages resonate strongly and most are just background noise. Research backs this up: referrals consistently generate the highest conversion rates, while direct mail, email, phone, and display ads can be hundreds or thousands of times less effective (see Marketo, Marketingcharts, MarketingSherpa for details). When Carla (the happy customer) recommends a widget to Sam (the shopper), Sam is much more likely to make a purchase than if the same brand shows up in Sam’s mailbox or browser.

Why do referrals perform so strongly? Two main reasons:

  • The message is timely and relevant. Sam and Carla know enough about each other for Carla to understand what Sam’s needs are, why her experience with the widget would be meaningful to Sam, and when to bring it up so that Sam will listen and take action. This is the classic “why me, why now” message that sales and marketing experts like Jeb Blount and Mark Roberge reinforce. Perhaps even more importantly, Carla knows what Sam doesn’t need right now and doesn’t waste both of their time pushing irrelevant widgets.
  • The source is trusted and credible. Again this relies on a minimum strength of relationship between Sam and Carla such that Sam is more likely to act on Carla’s advice than another person’s. Right now, we won’t explore the psychological dynamic and value exchange going on between these two, but it’s fascinating stuff that Daniel Pink, Robert Cialdini, and the Heath brothers (among others) have written about in detail.

What does this have to do with leadership training? Let’s assume that the organization’s objective is to accelerate the leadership capabilities of their mid- and senior-level staff. This starts with the necessary and insufficient step of achieving high participation in training activities. So here’s how to map the two marketing principles above to your leadership training challenge.

Segment your leaders based on prior experience

Some training content is about compliance; this is mandatory for everyone. For the rest, each of your staff will have either high or low experience along these dimensions:

  • leadership skills: providing direction, inspiration, coaching/mentoring, etc. to a build a great team
  • management skills: prioritization and “load balancing” to enable a group of resources to complete their work on time, at high quality, and efficiently
  • navigating your company’s HR systems: understanding the processes and tools for talent planning, recruiting, performance management, compensation, etc.

By segmenting your leaders based on these attributes, you will find a better match between audience and content, which makes the message more relevant. Then, by scheduling the training events based on the events in the leaders’ lives (e.g., around hiring, performance review or promotion cycles, etc.) the message will be more timely.

Send the message from a respected, successful leader

Personal trainers who are less fit than their clients won’t stay in business for long. Yet many organizations tolerate leadership training to be run by employees who are not successful leaders, not effective training facilitators, or both. Ensure that the people in your organization who send the call to action for leadership training, and the people who deliver the training events, can “walk the talk.” These might be the senior leaders within your organization’s business lines, or from external non-competitive organizations. This ensures the message comes from a credible, trusted source.

The best marketers and the best leadership trainers have a common motivation: they are passionate about their widgets and believe their customers will be better off with the widget than without. So try thinking like a marketer to improve the outcomes of your company’s leadership training experience.

Everything I Know About Team Dynamics, I Learned From Cooking with My Wife

While this post’s title is patently false, curiously any sample of historical evidence from my life would backtest very well. I’m fortunate that my wife and I share that sliver of a Venn diagram representing couples who enjoy cooking together (if you believe me) and who cook delicious meals together (if you believe our guests).

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Well, we do serve cheese often, but… [credit: tylervigen.com]
This is not a cooking blog, so let’s focus on the principles that make us an effective team:

Be Accountable for Outcomes, Not Tasks

It’s possible to assemble perfectly prepared ingredients into a terrible meal. Rather than assigning responsibility for strictly defined steps in a process, delegate outcomes and give flexibility in the steps to achieve them. In our kitchen, this means we each take ownership of a course in the meal or a finished product on the plate, instead of the specific steps across the meal (chop, saute, sauce, etc.). In the office, the same approach ensures focus on the deliverables with space for innovation and learning in the method.

Separate Where You Work, and How You Work Matters Less

In our kitchen, one of us leaves a trail of dirty dishes, a cluttered and dirty counter, and a splattered stove top behind us, and the other keeps it relatively clean. When we are working in our own corners of the kitchen (or in the first kitchen we shared, our own ends of the tiny counter), there’s no problem. At the office, some people like to sit, others stand or walk; some spread papers over every inch of desk and leave ink on every inch of whiteboard, others…don’t. People have similar diversity in approaching a project: some prefer an intricate Gantt chart, others work best under the pressure of a looming deadline. It’s more likely that colleagues will have a differing style than identical ones, so find space in the office to prevent friction among team members.

Escalate Early, Prioritize Often

Surprises are inevitable in our kitchen; that’s part of the fun. What helps us navigate these surprises as a cooking team is keeping each other informed as the facts change, and based on the implications, constantly evaluating the plan. Half of the peaches in the farmer’s market bag are rotten? If we don’t get more fruit, we won’t have a dessert. Ok, add cherries and change it from a torte to a cobbler. In the office, many people fear that sharing “bad news” means admitting weakness or incompetence. They worry this will distract or irritate the boss. Instead, treat unexpected events as an opportunity to practice risk assessment and prioritization skills. Even if the new information doesn’t change the plan immediately, the entire team knows the current situation, which could change the outcome of the next decision.

Never Let a Customer Be The First To Test Your Final Product

I give extra respect to pastry chefs because they have to get the dish right the first time. Once the cake comes out of the oven, there’s no going back to tweak the batter. Whenever possible, our dishes come out best when we are constantly tasting each other’s food and adjusting flavors. In the office, test your ideas with colleagues, especially those with a different point of view. Let them help you find bias in your perspectives, or weak links in your reasoning. Leave an idea on your whiteboard and practice your elevator pitch with people who stop by. Find areas of concern or resistance to change in the organization in a non-threatening way. Not only will your work product improve, but when it comes to that “big kickoff meeting,” many people in the room will be familiar with the ideas and share a sense of ownership–because they helped develop the concepts along the way.

In the end, there is only one chef

Amidst the emphasis on collaboration, let’s not underestimate the need for leadership on a team. Especially in stressful or unfamiliar situations, teams perform better under decisive leadership. So don’t forget why you get paid the medium-sized bucks, and step up to lead when required. My wife knows how to do this in our kitchen, much to the benefit of our dinner guests.

Transferred? Four Steps To Get In Sync

The traditional “up or out” career path, where an employee’s only option is a promotion to her direct manager’s position, is a relic of the past. Companies adopting a talent strategy to develop future leaders from within can achieve higher productivity and lower talent acquisition costs. Among other juicy tidbits in Oracle’s Talent Retention white paper is the statistic that nearly 40% of all full-time positions are filled with internal transfers and promotions. If the SuccessFactors Australian benchmark study is representative of global trends, the ratio of transfers to promotions is more than 8:1 for top quartile organizations.

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So if it’s likely that your next career move is lateral, how can you be prepared to get in sync quickly with your new team? Try these four steps:

  1. Understand each other’s personalities. It can take months to learn the communication style and motivations of a new co-worker. Take a shortcut by reviewing and discussing each other’s personality profiles as described by an external test. The best option is to see if your HR department can provide Predictive Index (PI) results, however, freemium options like CrystalKnows can provide a solid basis for a meaningful conversation.
  2. Build a current project list and backlog. Dropping into a new team means that you will have to get familiar quickly with the in-flight projects, recurring deliverables, and upcoming work. If your new team doesn’t already use a project and resource management tool, spend an hour together to create a Trello board to list out the active, ready to start, and backlog projects. Note that you can get to the same level of understanding with sticky notes or a whiteboard, so don’t let technology impede the information exchange.
  3. Load up the calendars. A boring but important step is to ensure all of the recurring team meetings, 1:1 discussions, and upcoming vacations are visible in each other’s calendars. And don’t forget to cancel that meeting series with your old boss!
  4. Build relationships through informal channels. As you climb the steep learning curve with your new team, don’t forget to get to know the person behind the co-worker: take the team out for coffee, lunch, or drinks. Find out their favorite foods and surprise them with a snack or treat. Ask about their favorite vacations. Anything that builds rapport (in a non-creepy way) will strengthen your working relationships, too.

Internal transfers are nearly unavoidable in the modern career path. It’s my intent to make your next transfer a smoother one by offering the steps above. Feel free to leave a comment with any other advice on the topic.

image: global-goose.com

What’s the difference: policy, process, procedure, standard?

As any organization grows, there’s a point where the you can no longer manage finances on a spreadsheet, no longer manage priorities on a whiteboard, and no longer manage the team by looking around the room. Usually this starts by compiling a list of principles that the team agrees to uphold while they do stuff (like at Amazon or Google). Then, the team gets big enough that there are enough smart people who can find enough grey area within the principles, that rules need to be written down. Also, “go ask Steve how to do that” doesn’t scale. Steve can’t do his own work when he gets interrupted 50 times a day to explain something, and the other 49 people aren’t getting anything done while waiting for Steve.

At this point the organization needs to formalize its Business Process Management (BPM) and governance structure. Joy!

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Transitions from informal to formal systems are hard (image: xkcd.com)

Most people resist structure of any kind when the administrative burden (the squeeze) is greater than the perceived benefit (the juice):

  • sales guy: “Ugh! Expense report? Why can’t you just give me a company credit card?”
  • product marketer: “Ugh! Creative services request? Why can’t you just give me edit permission on the company website?”
  • my kids: “Ugh! Chore chart? Why can’t you just give me cookies?”

As you get started deploying (or overhauling) the BPM system in your organization, remember to keep the system as lightweight as possible while still achieving the intended benefits. All the principles of Leading Change, such as “there is no such thing as over-communication,” still apply. Now let’s get to the definitions.

There are four essential components to a BPM system:

  1. Policy: a collection of related principles and guidelines that explain “why” an organization does stuff a certain way. Policies sit in the background and define the rules that should not be broken when following the processes and procedures built on top.
  2. Process: a sequence of actions and decisions that describe “what” happens to achieve an outcome. Processes can fit within or across organizational boundaries (functions, geographies, business units, etc.) and define the work that humans or IT systems perform.
  3. Procedure: instructions describing “how” to complete a certain step in a process. Highly detailed procedures are often called work instructions.
  4. Standard: a “definition of done” that sets the level of quality for work defined in a procedure or process. Standards can also set boundaries around the time our resources consumed when completing work.

Notice how this structure mirrors the why, what, how structure seen elsewhere, like in sales, and explained in Sinek’s classic book (check out the TED talk video, too). These components are modular, meaning that your team can make revisions to one part in response to new business goals or requirements, without necessarily changing another part. Remember, however, to check the implications of a change before implementing it, for example if a change to a standard would push the required level of quality outside the capabilities of the existing process.

Here’s an example most people have experienced:

In a restaurant kitchen, the goals are clearly defined: make consistently delicious food that customers will enjoy every time they visit. There are a number of policies in place that establish guidelines and rules to govern work in the kitchen. For example: everyone will wash their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, raw food will be stored in certain containers at a certain temperature, cutting boards for fish won’t be used for fruit, etc. Next, there are processes in place to achieve specific outcomes. For example the process to receive an order from the dining room and deliver the ordered dishes to the pass. For each step in that process, there are procedures that the kitchen staff to execute the work, for example the method to cook spaghetti carbonara. Lastly, the steps in the process to deliver the food that was ordered must conform to standards. These standards include the taste of the sauce, the temperature of the dish when it hits the pass, even the type of plate it’s served on.

If the restaurant is a local, family run place, maybe none of this information is every written down. Cambridge, MA legend Clover Food Lab has posted its employee training documentation publicly since opening, which includes policies, processes, procedures, and standards. Ferran Adria posted a sythesis of elBulli cuisine: great example of a policy document in the context of avant garde cuisine. Watch his team’s system of creativity and service excellence unfold in the movie el Bulli: Cooking in Progress.

With a better understanding of the difference between policy, process, procedure, and standard, you can help your organization achieve it’s goals with just enough structure, not more.

Why do so few employers check references?

This isn’t going to be a post in which I pose a deceptively simple question in the title, and then blow your mind with a concise, insightful, yet counter-intuitive answer (ha!), like I’ve attempted with interview questions, career choices, or long hours. I am genuinely stupefied, mortified, and mystified, as is Jackie Chiles.

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Personally, I have not given a job offer without calling references. I have, however, been offered a job without having my references called. And, much more often, I have been asked to stand as a reference and not received a call from the candidate’s employer–even when “my” candidate received an offer. That pattern leads me to believe that very few employers are like me and follow through with reference checks.

But a sample size of one is weak, so I did some quick research. I found a good piece from SHRM describing how to perform background and reference checks, that references a CareerBuilder survey from 2014 revealing that in many industries more than half of applicants falsify their employment history or qualifications, among other statistics about the problems unearthed during checks.

That CareerBuilder survey got a lot of mileage on other sites describing HOW and WHY to check, but even top-of-the-funnel marketing guff from recruitment automation vendors like SkillSurvey (in Fortune) and Checkster (on their blog) didn’t provide any more primary or secondary research about HOW OFTEN employers actually follow through with checking references.

So I am sticking with my original conclusion that employers are not checking references often enough, and exposing themselves to huge financial and productivity risks. While you’re at it, why pick up a pack of cigarettes and leave your seat belt unbuckled during the commute home?

The authors below have done a fantastic job explaining how to perform effective reference checks, while reinforcing why you must be either indecisive or bad at hiring if you don’t:

If you can answer or refute my original question, “why do so few employers check references?” with some convincing data, please do! Otherwise, I hope the resources above enable you to join the proud and effective minority of employers who do.