Tag Archives: tips

Add Constraints to Processes Carefully

Take great care in adding constraints to processes to avoid doing so needlessly.

Online you will frequently find forms that have required fields that needn’t be. Certainly if you were designing with focus on what is best for customers those requirements rarely make sense. Occasionally a required field is a sensible constraint on an online form but so often they add unnecessary constraints.

I frequently find those forms even requiring a false answer since a response is required and none of the options are true. Often this is because the organization is thinking of the boxes they expect users to fit themselves into rather than thinking how to create the best user experience.

I wrote previously about a company representative that suggested a customer change their name because the computer system didn’t accept names with 2 characters. Constraints on creating a secure password are a frequent failure of web sites for the last 10 years.

Man without arms denied housing loan due to inability to provide fingerprints

because Wu Jianping has no arms, creditors claimed they could not give him a loan since he was unable to be fingerprinted.

After the case was publicized and there was a great deal of negative publicity on social media the banks modified their process and approved the loan. But your organization shouldn’t have as the mistake-proofing (obviously not mistake-proofing at all) that when the process doesn’t quite work well then rely on a massive social media outcry which is a signal to us to straighten out the issue.

Frequently I see unnecessary constraints creating the edge case excuse. By burdening your process with unnecessary constraints your create edge cases that fail and then use the excuse that each of the edge cases is rare and therefore you can’t justify the expense of fixing them.

But if you designed the process sensibly in the first place the edge case never would have failed and you wouldn’t need special work arounds for such “edge cases.” A simple example of this is unnecessarily complex web page code that fails if to submit a button without javascript. Yes, a small number of users won’t have enabled all javascript to run (today anyway) so it is an “edge case” to deal with if you don’t have the form work without javascript. But there is no decent reason to have it fail in most cases.

Continue reading

Seek to Improve How You Learn, Don’t Just Accept That You Can’t Do Better

photo of several people around a table smiling with red plastic pieces on the table.

Red Squares exercize at the 2 1/2 Deming Seminar in Hong Kong (2014).

As a speaker or coach or teacher it is wise to learn what impacts how people absorb information and learn. Factoring those ideas into how you communicate (one on one, coaching, training, presenting…) is wise.

Learning about how people learn and remember is important to allow you to communite well. And most people seem to understand this. But they also seem to have no shame in not improving their performance in relation to these common weaknesses.

I have never understood why so many people talk about weaknesses in how people learn (people only remember “10% of what they hear, 20% of what they read, and 80% of what they see and do”; you must repeat something 7,9,12… times before most people will remember it; people will retain more if they are given concrete examples relevant to them; people will remember more if they speak or write than if they just passively listen; a good visual will make an idea presented much more likely to be remembered…) but never seem to seek to improve their weaknesses in these areas.

Yes, it is harder for us to retain new information when we just hear about it or if good information is presented poorly. But if you do a much better job of learning and succeed in retaining what you hear or see (even if often people fail to do this well) you will be better off.

Yet what I see is people spouting these statistics, not as a way of learning what they need to improve themselves but as a way of explaining that it is inevitable and they won’t do any better (or even bother to attempt to do so). It just isn’t true that you can’t do better. You can train yourself to learn more than most people when the material is presented in a less than perfect manner by learning how we commonly fail to learn and making efforts to do better yourself.

Sure, learn these common traits to know how you need to take them into account when communicating with others. But also examine yourself and see if you have the same weaknesses and improve in those areas you are weak. Also you can learn from them how to be more successful in retaining good ideas (write them down, think about applying them in your context, make a note to actually apply them at work tomorrow or next week…). You can blame whoever was communicating the ideas to you for failing to present it as well as they should but that won’t help you learn more.

Also companies would be wise to put more effort into helping people learn better. I see lots of focus on how presenters should do better, but very little on how people can improve their capacity to listen and learn. Yes, those presenting should continually seek to improve and be aware of their customers (those they are communicating with). Those that are learning should also seek to improve their ability to learn, even if the way material is presented isn’t optimal.

By the way, you might also want to question much of the claims of what people remember: Mythical Retention Data & The Corrupted Cone.

Related: Effective Communication is ExplicitCommunicating ChangeHow Could They Know? They could learn about the job they were paid to do.
A Powerful Tool for Learning: The Capacity Matrix

The Aim Should be the Best Life – Not Work v. Life Balance

My father had the most job satisfaction of anyone I have known. He had no separation between work and life. We toured factories on vacation. I visited Davidson College in North Carolina because he was consulting with a client in Charlotte before we went up to Duke and North Carolina for visits and asked the CEO what school I should visit. His grad students would call the house frequently.

Many of his best friends were colleagues. That is how I grew to know people like George Box, Brian Joiner, Soren Bisgaard and Peter Scholtes as I grew up. Various permutations of our family lived overseas based on his jobs in London (before kids), Singapore, Nigeria and China. Those experiences dramatically impacted all our lives and they were not about separating work from life.

The desire for a life embedded in other cultures and for travel drove decisions about work. He lived in Japan (because of his Dad’s job) for 2 years as a kid and that sparked his desire to do more of that as an adult.

My little brother, Justin, pushing me on a scooter at our house in Singapore.

My little brother, Justin, pushing me on a scooter at our house in Singapore.

The sensible aim is to optimize your life. Work is a big part of life. As with any system the results depend on the overall system not the performance of individual parts taken separately. Dad also died young. He was happy to have lived such a good life, even if he wished he could have lived longer he wasn’t bitter about missing anything.

When he learned he would die (of cancer) he mainly continued what he had always been doing living life and working on what he thought was worthwhile. One project he did take on, along with George Box, was creating the Center of Quality and Productivity Improvement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. George’s speech about Dad’s work provides a nice look at how work and life – William G. Hunter: An Innovator and Catalyst for Quality Improvement.

He honestly looked back on his life and felt he had a life that few could have topped, even though it was cut short. He was certainly optimistic and positive. But my sense was this was his honest assessment, it wasn’t just some fake front he put on for others. He had been living his life as well as he could his whole life. And continuing to live it as long as he could was all he wanted to do.

Continue reading

Magnetic White-Board Kanban Card Options

Just some quick ideas for Kanban whiteboard magnetic card options from a question I answered on Reddit.

Here is the best lean solution: Trying Out My Agile Kanban Board from Jon Miller.

kanban board with magnetic whiteboad  cards

Magnetic kanban board from Jon Miller.

Why, well mainly I am kidding about it being the best, but if you don’t read his Gemba Panta Rei blog you should! Go add it to your RSS feed reader, before you continue with this post.

Ok, welcome back. In addition to thinking his blog is great the solution from his blog is very flexible and easy – though it isn’t quite a packaged solution (as asked for on Reddit). Also that post provides some good insight into the thinking behind the board (as well as how to create your own).

More links with kanban board options: Magnetic whiteboard cards (50-pack)Physical TaskboardsI think just magnetic symbols (not magnetic white board card) but could use magnet with icon to stick paper to the board

Another silly site, that sells some sort of solution, blocked my access because they don’t sell in the country my computer reported being located in. So I didn’t give them a free plug (assuming their product was decent which it might be?). Very dumb design if you ask me; well even though you didn’t ask, I told you anyway.

Localization that impedes users rather than helping them seems far far too common in my experience. Mapping (and related – find closest…) uses are about the only localization stuff I find useful – country based localization I nearly always find annoying or crippling. And showing my location on a map is totally awesome (especially as I travel around as a tourist – or really in whatever capacity). Such bad design and poor usability decisions cost companies money.

Related: Visual Management with Brown M&MsMaking Data VisibleDeming and Software Development

Use Urls – Don’t Use Click x, Then Click y, Then Click z Instructions

In the 1980s software applications had to use click x, then click y, then click z type instructions to get you to a specific location in a software application (or at least they had a decent excuse to do that). Too many web application development organizations forget that they now have urls to direct people exactly where to go: and that they shouldn’t rely on ancient “click here, then there, then in that other place” type instructions.

Here is an example I wrote up on my recent experience with iTunes and their failure to do this properly: Bad iTunes Ux and How to Submit a Podcast to iTunes. I see it all the time, that is just one example.

It is so sad that Google can’t even offer mildly decent help for their own software nearly a couple decades after they started out with the goal to organize the world’s information. And lots of other software companies also point you to clicking around various gui (graphical user interface) click paths instead of just

  1. showing the url (say in a help email) – instead of the gui click path text
  2. a clickable link to the url in web documents

On top of the waste inherent in click path instructions they often fail because the interface has changed and no one bothered to change the click path or the click path depends on other things being a certain way and they are not so the click path breaks.

I really can’t comprehend how this usability failure is something I run across all the time. Urls are not some secret idea only PhD computer scientists have heard of. This is super basic stuff – click path instructions should never have been acceptable for any web application. It is pitiful they are still common among companies that see themselves as advanced software development organizations.

Using the proper urls also will help make sure you are using human readable urls. Another super basic usability concept that is ignored far too often by some web application developers.

Related: Usability, Customer Focus and Internet Travel SearchMaking Life Difficult for CustomersPracticing Mistake-Promoting Instead of Mistake-Proofing at ApplePassword Gobbledygook Instruction (more bad usability)What I Would Include in a Redesigned Twitter Profile (2014)

Resources for Using the PDSA Cycle to Improve Results

graphic image showing the PDSA cycle

PDSA Improvement cycle graphic from my book – Management Matters

Using the PDSA cycle (plan-do-study-act) well is critical to building a effective management system. This post provides some resources to help use the improvement cycle well.

I have several posts on this blog about using the PDSA cycle to improve results including:

The authors and consultants with Associates for Process Improvement have the greatest collection of useful writing on the topic. They wrote two indispensable books on the process improvement through experimentation: The Improvement Guide and Quality Improvement Through Planned Experimentation. And they have written numerous excellent articles, including:

Related: Good Process Improvement PracticesThe Art of Discovery (George Box)Planning requires prediction. Prediction requires a theory. (Ron Moen)

What is the Explanation Going to be if This Attempt Fails?

Occasionally during my career I have been surprised by new insights. One of the things I found remarkable was how quickly I thought up a new explanation for what could have caused a problem when the previously expressed explanation was proven wrong. After awhile I stopped finding it remarkable and found it remarkable how long it took me to figure out that this happened.

I discovered this as I programmed software applications. You constantly have code fail to run as you expect and so get plenty of instances to learn the behavior I described above. While I probably added to my opportunities to learn by being a less than stellar coder I also learned that even stellar coders constantly have to iterate through the process of creating code and seeing if it works, figuring out why it didn’t and trying again.

The remarkable thing is how easily I could come up with an new explanation. Often nearly immediately upon what I expected to work failing to do so. And one of the wonderful things about software code is often you can then make the change in 10 minutes and a few minutes later see if it worked (I am guessing my brain kept puzzling over the ideas involved and was ready with a new idea when I was surprised by failure).

When I struggled a bit to find an initial explanation I found myself thinking, “this has to be it” often because of two self reinforcing factors.

First, I couldn’t think of anything else that would explain it. Sometimes you will think right away of 4 possible issues that could cause this problem. But, when I struggled to find any and then finally came up with an idea it feels like if there was another possibility I should have thought of it while struggling to figure out what I finally settled on.

Second, the idea often seems to explain exactly what happened, and it often feels like “of course it didn’t work, what was I thinking I need to do x.” This often turns out to be true, doing x solves the problem and you move on. But a remarkable percentage of the time, say even just 10%, it doesn’t. And then I would find myself almost immediately thinking, of course I need to do y. Even when 10 seconds ago I was convinced there was no other possibility.

Continue reading

Process Thinking: Process Email Addresses

This is just a simple tip. When providing email address think about what the purpose is. If it is to contact a specific person then an individual’s email address makes sense. But if you are really emailing the software testing manager then it may well make sense to provide people the email address software_testing_manager@

Essentially, I think it is often sensible to break out email addresses for specific functions or processes. Then the email address can just be routed to whoever is suppose to handle those emails. And as your responsibilities shift a bit, those you no longer do can be shifted to someone else and you start getting your new emails. Another nice (I think so anyway) side affect is your various roles are made more concrete. Often it seems who really is responsible is unclear, if you have 5 email address that Jane handled before she left it will be obvious if only 4 of them have been reassigned that 1 has not. Granted such a thing should be obvious without this email tip-off but given how many organizations really operate failing to assign all of someone’s responsibilities to someone when they leave is more common than you would hope.

It is also nice because, if their is a reason it is helpful, those emails can automatically go to as many people as desired. Also if the manager goes on vacation for 2 weeks, the emails can be sent also to the person filling in for them until they return.

Another benefit is a manager, or whoever, can take a quick dip into the email traffic to get a sense of what is being requested. Another benefit (depending on the way it is implemented) can be to have all the software_testing_manager@ emails and responses associated with that email so if you are given that responsibility you can view historical response.

If our knowledge management (wikis, or whatever) solutions were great this would be less important (though still probably valuable) but often the email history may have the best record of our organization knowledge on a topic. When it is spread about in a bunch of individuals mail boxes it is often essentially lost.

It is a small think but this bit of process thinking I have found helpful.

Related: Management By IT Crowd BossesSoftware Supporting Processes Not the Other Way AroundEncourage Improvement Action by EveryoneDelighting Customers

Customer Focus

Customer Focus is at the core of a well managed company. Sadly many companies fail to serve their customers well. To serve customers, a thorough understanding of what problem you solve for customers is needed. The decisions at many companies, unfortunately, are far removed from this understanding.

It is hard to imagine, as you are forced to wind your way through the processes many companies squeeze you through that they have paid any attention to what it is like to be a customer of their processes. When you see companies that have put some effort into customer focus it is startling how refreshing it is (which is a sad statement for how poorly many companies are doing).

If the decision makers in a company are not experiencing the company’s products and services as a customer would that is a big weakness. You need to correct that or put a great amount of energy into overcoming that problems.

Another critical area of customer focus is to know how your customers use your products. It isn’t enough to know how you want your products to be used. Or to know the problems you intended people to use your products for. You need to know how people are actually using them. You need to know what they love, what they expect, what they hate, and what they wish for. This knowledge can help offset experiencing the products and services yourselves (in some cases getting that experience can be quite difficult – in which case you need to put extra effort into learning the actual experience of your customers).

You cannot rely on what people tell you in surveys. You need to have a deep understanding of customers use of the products. Innovation springs from this deep understanding and your expertise in the practice of delivering services and building products.

One of my favorite improvement tips is to: ask customers what 1 thing could we do better. It is very simple and gives you an easy way to capture what customers really care about. You shouldn’t rely only on this, but it is an extremely powerful tactic to use to aid continual improvement (with customer focus).

Related: Delighting CustomersThe Customer is the Purpose of Our WorkCustomer Focus and Internet Travel Search

Continue reading

Leading Improvement and Enjoying the Rewards

The better job you do of managing the easier your job becomes.

As a manager your primary responsibility is to improve the system: both the systems within your sphere of control and those outside of it. The more effectively you do so, the less firefighting you have to do. The less firefighting the less hectic and chaotic your days are. And the more time you have to focus on improving the system.

The better you are at leveraging your efforts, the greater your impact, and more quickly your job gets easier. Most effective leveraging involves improving the system. Improvement to the system continue to deliver benefits continuously.

A specific form improving the system is coaching people so they are able to be more effective at improving the system themselves. One valuable role you can play is to help avoid the existing traps that prevent improvements. Early in a transformation to a continual improvement culture there are significant barriers to improvements. Those not only prevent the system from improving rapidly they can easily derail the motivation people have to improve. It is hard to maintain a desire to improve if every effort to do so feels like a long slog through quicksand.

As you create a system where people have the knowledge, drive and freedom to improve you get to enjoy continual improvement without any direct action by you. As this happens you are able to spend more time thinking and learning and less time reacting. That time allows you to find key leverage points to continue the progress on improving the management system.

Related: Engage in Improving the Management SystemKeys to the Effective Use of the PDSA Improvement CycleGood Process Improvement Practices

Management Blog Posts From November 2006

I have selected a few great posts from the Curious Cat Management Blog back in November 2006.

  • What Could we do Better? – There are many important ideas to improve management. This is one of the most important tips to aid improvement that I know of: it is easy to do, brings huge benefits and most organizations fail to do it. Ask your customers: “What one thing could we do to improve?”
  • Ackoff’s F-laws: Common Sins of Management presents 13 common sins of management, such as: Managers who don’t know how to measure what they want settle for wanting what they can measure
  • Common Cause Variation – “Every system has variation. Common cause variation is the variation due to the current system. Dr. Deming increased his estimate of variation due to the system (common cause variation) to 97% (earlier in his life he cited figures as low as 80%). Special cause variation is that due to some special (not part of the system) cause.”
  • Sub-Optimize by Interrupting Knowledge Workers – “The general consensus is that the loss from interrupting [software] developers is much greater than for interrupting most other forms of work and therefor a great deal of effort is placed on improving the system to allow developers to focus.”
  • Amazon Innovation – “I believe Amazon uses technology very well. They have done many innovative things. They have been less successful at turning their technology into big profits. But I continue to believe they have a good shot at doing so going forward (and their core business is doing very well I think).” [Amazon announced great sales numbers today, continuing their long term tread. They are also continuing to be very slow to grow profits (CEO, Jeff Bezos remains willing to challenge common practices – such as his willingness to build business and sacrifice current profits)].

Don’t Treat People Like You Want to be Treated

I have never understood the logic behind the idea that you should treat people like you want to be treated. I know I am different; I don’t want what lots of other people seem to want. If I treat them how I want to be treated, they are not happy.

I understand the sentiment behind the statement. I think it is much more effectively stated as: treat people how they want to be treated. An understanding of psychology will provide you with the understanding that people are different and want to be treated differently, while wanting to feel that they are valued and respected. Some people will like a boisterous extroverted environment and others will want to be able to have some time to concentrate and think by themselves. Some people will want to avoid confrontation at almost any costs others will want to deal openly and directly with issues confronting the organization. And most people will be somewhere in between the alternatives.

I don’t want to be thanked for trivial matters. But I have seen lots of people do like this. I do like to be challenged on what I claim and debate the merits of the idea (if I can learn I am wrong, it is much better to do it early and change – instead of waiting for some problem to develop). I notice a lot of others don’t like this at all. I don’t like to be interrupted when I am trying to concentrate. I know lots of others don’t understand this. And when they are treating others as they want to be treated the thought that others are trying to concentrate doesn’t cross their minds. They are not intentionally trying to be disruptive. They are trying to include others as they would like to be included. I find it annoying when we celebrate some minor success while much more serious problems are left unaddressed. I realize most others don’t have this problem.

I like to see data and evidence to back up claims and to explore what the data strongly shows and what conclusions are more tenuous. I know many just get bored by numbers and don’t want to see endless charts and figures. I like to be challenged and asked difficult questions in meetings. I know lots of people do not like this. I would like to ask other people difficult questions (but don’t – if I went with the treat people like you want to be treated idea I would ask). I like change that is part of a sensible strategy of improvement (that measures results to avoid change for that isn’t improvement, which I don’t like). However, I understand many people are uncomfortable with change. I despise sitting in meetings without agendas or a clear purpose that wander and don’t seem to accomplish anything. Others seem un-bothered by this (though I know in this feeling I am with the majority).

I think a key to managing people is to take time to think about the individuals involved, what your intention is, and then to act in a way that is tailored to how that person wants to be treated. Some people will want to be recognized publicly. Some people may want to discuss in private how they could do even better. Some people may like to be given the opportunity to lead a meeting. Others would rather be given the opportunity to create a new design for the intranet. Others may like the opportunity to train new staff on some aspect of their job. Some people may want opportunities to move up the corporate ladder. Others would rather have some time off to pursue other interests.

You should treat people how they want to be treated, not how you want to be treated.
Continue reading

Delighting Customers

If you have customers that see you as adequate you will keep customers based on inertia.

But you have several big problems awaiting you. Those trying to win your customers business only have to overcome inertia – which can be very low hurdle (saving a small bit of money, some minor additional feature). If your customers are delighted they won’t leave (by and large) without significant reasons to.

Also your attempts to increase price are very likely to lead to increased customer losses (than if customers are delighted). Delighted customers are willing to pay a premium which helps profits enormously (Apple has done this quite well).

Delighted customers will refer others to you – great free marketing.

Satisfied customers leave you very little leeway for error. If you cause satisfied customers some problem (which granted, hopefully you won’t but if you do) they are not likely to be forgiving. If they are delighted they may well stay even if you have a delay, provide less than stellar customer service for some request…

There are many ways to attempt to delight customers. One of the simplest powerful tools is to ask a very simple question: What Could we do Better?

Related: What Job Does Your Product Do?It Just WorksKano Model of customer satisfactioncustomer focus resources

Actionable Metrics

Metrics are valuable when they are actionable. Think about what will be done if certain results are shown by the data. If you can’t think of actions you would take, it may be that metric is not worth tracking.

Metrics should be operationally defined so that the data is collected properly. Without operationally definitions data collected by more than one person will often include measurement error (in this case, the resulting data showing the results of different people measuring different things but calling the result the same thing).

And without operational definitions those using the resulting data may well mis-interpret what it is saying. Often data is presented without an operational definition and people think the data is saying something that it is not. I find most often when people say statistics lie it is really that they made an incorrect assumption about what the data said – which most often was because they didn’t understand the operational definition of the data. Data can’t lie. People can. And people can intentionally mislead with data. But far more often people unintentionally mislead with data that is misunderstood (often this is due to failure to operationally define the data).

In response to: Metrics Manifesto: Raising the Standard for Metrics

Related: Outcome MeasuresEvidence-based ManagementMetrics and Software DevelopmentDistorting the System (due to misunderstanding metrics)Manage what you can’t measure

Building on Successful Improvement

Do ‘Quick Wins’ Hurt Lean Initiatives?

This becomes very difficult, since in many organizations these executives have the strategic attention span equivalent to the life-cycle of a mayfly. When the ‘quick win’ approach is taken, the savings / impact becomes like a drug to the executives. They see the benefit and they want more – NOW. Usually they are able to get this for a while, since they are very interested in the program at the beginning and show their support thought attending events and removing obstacles, and in general there are a lot of opportunities in healthcare for immediate improvement. However, as these opportunities dry up, and the work gets harder, while the executives focus shifts elsewhere, the expectation is to continue to deliver exponential results (a clear sign the truly do not understand the fundamental concepts at play here), and those who are leading the Lean charge, try to appease.

If you don’t change how people think, the quick improvement can end up not helping much. I think quick wins help. But managing how those quick wins happen is important. Creating a maintaining a dialogue that while quick wins are possible, much bigger wins are possible by building on the gains to adopt more critical improvement (and often more complex and requiring more effort) .

As quick wins are achieved try and be sure they are building capacity at the same time. Get people to think in new ways and see improvement opportunities. Also have people learn new tools to attack more problems with. I firmly believe you learn lean best by doing lean. So getting quick successes is great training – better than classroom training. But in doing so, you do want to focus on making sure people understand how the quick fix is a process they can repeat to improve other areas.

And one of the skills you have to practice in the example mentioned in the post mentioned above is managing up. It is tricky but part of what you need to do is coach your bosses to understand lean so that you can expand the adoption of more lean thinking in your organization.

Related: How to ImproveBuilding a Great WorkforceFlaws in Understanding Psychology Lead to Flawed ManagementLeadership

Classic Management Theories Are Still Relevant

Good management is good management: it doesn’t matter if someone figured out the good idea 100 years ago or last week.

Are “Classic” Management Theories Still Relevant?

It did make me wonder about the staying power of management models, processes, skills, and conventional wisdom…

There are way too many people in our field that are not true professionals – they don’t do their homework, and rely too much on their own personal experience. They’re the ones who tend to jump from one fad to the next, enthusiastically promoting each one with an almost religious passion.

However, there’s also a danger of not keeping up with the times and sticking with models or skills that really have outlived their usefulness. At best, you run the risk of coming across as a dinosaur when you explain a management model that was developed in the 1920’s to a group of Millennials. Even worse, you may be relying on models that really don’t apply in today’s world.

Classic management ideas are definitely very valuable today. It is amazing how little use of long known good leadership lessons actually takes place in organizations. You don’t need to discover secrets to improve, just adopt ideas others ignore since they are not new (or whatever justification they use for ignoring them).

One of the main things I have been trying to do with my web sites is to get people to use the already well documented successful management practices.

Bad management ideas are bad: Regardless if they were good ideas 40 years ago, or not. I find bad management practices most often never were good practices so worrying about outdated good practices is not something that merits much time. Just avoid bad practices, don’t worry about when the practices were adopted.

As Dan McCarthy says in his post: “Read and respect the classics and keep up with the latest.”

And if you have to focus on one, focus on the classics. Most of what is new isn’t worthwhile so you will likely spend a lot of time reading about fads that die before you can even try to adopt the ideas into your organizational system. There are good new ideas – read Clayton Christensen, for some good new ideas (even many of those are nearly 10 years old now). Agile software development is another area where good tactics seem new. Mainly agile management offers good ideas on tactics for applying lots of good management ideas (often these ideas are not new), it seems to me.

Related: New or Different? Just Choose BetterManagement Advice FailuresNew Management Truths Sometimes Started as HeresiesNot New Rules for Management

Interruptions Can Severely Damage Performance

Interruptions can severely degrade your performance. The type of work you are doing impacts the cost greatly. I have spent some of my time programming web applications. When I am doing that interruptions are huge drain on my performance (for me the costs of interruptions while programming are far higher than any other type of work I have done – many times higher). If the interruption disrupts my flow (an interruption needn’t necessarily disrupt it I found, instant messages may not, while speaking to someone else almost surely would – it is a factor of how much of your brain much shift focus I imagine) it can take a huge amount of time to get back into a high performing state. Other work I do can be interrupted with much less impact. I am easily able to slip back into what I was doing.

For me the main cost of interruptions is the time it takes to get back to where I was before the interruption. And the cost is related to how much focus is needed to address what you are working on. Most programming takes a huge amount of focus.

Another big cost of interruptions is the increased risk of mistakes. When people are distracted and then have to go back to a task, and then are distracted, and then go back and… it is more likely they will miss a step or miss noticing some issue than if they can work without distraction. One tool to help cope for distractions that can’t be designed out are checklists.

Paul Graham addressed the importance of managing the system to provide uninterrupted time very well in, Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule

One reason programmers dislike meetings so much is that they’re on a different type of schedule from other people. Meetings cost them more

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

Paul Graham’s article also shows why managers so often fail to adequately address this issue. Manager, by and large, work in an environment where interruptions are the work. I know, much of my time as a program manager is driven by interruptions and is doable even with many interruption every day.

When managing you need to understand how big a cost interruptions have and design systems appropriate to optimize system performance for all parts of the system. The design of the system needs to take into account the costs and benefits of interruptions for those people working on various processes in the system.

Related: Understanding How to Manage GeeksExplaining Managers to ProgrammersWhat Motivates Programmers?Joy in Work – Software DevelopmentProgrammers CartoonChecklists in Software Development

Circle of Influence

In, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey discusses the circle of control, circle of influence and circle of concern. This provides a good framework from which to view issues as you look for improvement strategies.

Within your circle of control you have much more autonomy and have less need to win others over to your plan. However, in practice, even here, you benefit from winning over those who are involved (for example you are their boss).

Our circle of concern covers those things we worry about. Often, we believe because we worry we should find solutions. Problems that fall into this category (but outside our circle of influence) however often prove difficult to tackle. And often people don’t understand why they get frustrated in this case. You can save your energy for more productive activities by seeing some things are outside your influence and avoid wasting your energy on them.

A problem with this, I see in practice however, is that if you are creative many things that people think are beyond their influence are not. With some imagination you can find ways to have influence. Good ideas are powerful. And often that is all that is needed for influence is offering a good idea.

Understanding to what extent an issue is within your control or influence can help a great deal in determining good strategies. Where you have a good chance to influence the process you can focus on strategies that may require much more of your participation to be successfully adopted. As you have less influence such a strategy is likely a poor one.

You should remember, that there is a temporal component to your circle of influence. On some current issue, I may have a very low chance of success for getting the organization to adopt an improvement I think is best. But certain actions can build the understanding that will allow me later to have more influence. This can even be completely separate from how people normally think of circle of influence. By building an organization that moves toward data based decision making and therefore reduces HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) decision making I increase my ability to influence decision making in the future.

Long term thinking is a very powerful, and much under-practiced, strategy. Your influence within an organization is limited today but has great potential to expand, if you act wisely.

Thinking about the extent a current issue falls within your sphere of influence is important it determining the best strategies. But the most valuable insight is to understand how import your sphere of influence is. It determines what strategies you can pursue. And building your sphere of influence should be part of your decision making process.

By taking the long view you can put yourself in good positions to have influence on decisions. There are many ways to do this. My preferred method is fairly boring. Prove yourself to be valuable and you will gain influence. Help people solve their problems. They will be inclined to listen to your ideas. Provide people useful management tools and help them apply them successfully. Help get people, that you know are good, opportunities to succeed. Often this gains you two allies (the person you helped gain the opportunity for and the person that was looking for someone to step in). Work hard and deliver what is important. It isn’t some secret sauce for quick success but if you make those around you successful you grow your circle of influence.

Related: How to ImproveHelping Employees ImproveOperational ExcellenceManagement Advice FailuresManagement Improvement

Making Better Decisions

I think the most important thing you can do to make better decisions is to learn from the decisions you make. It sounds easy, but very few people do so effectively.

The best strategy to learn from decisions is to:

Carve Out Time to Think

Dan Markovitz recently discussed the practice of the CEO of eBay to take thinking days, Why isn’t “thinking time” part of your standard work?,

Some people think that it’s all well and good for a CEO to unplug himself — when you’re the big cheese, you make the rules — that’s just not possible for the folks in the trenches. But I think that’s a lie. Unless you’re in a sadly dysfunctional organization (and if you are, feel free to stop reading now and go to ESPN.com for the latest baseball scores), you’re being paid to create value for customers (internal or external). You’re not being paid to respond to every random thought or idle question in 8 nanoseconds. And to create value, sometimes you have to actually stop and think.

And a recent Business Week article quotes Turner Broadcasting CEO, Phil Kent: “carve out time to think, not just to react.”

I agree. We need to take more time to think and reflect on how to improve the system to produce better results. We too often find ourselves trapped by spending so much time reacting to seemingly urgent but less important matters. We need to make time to focus on important but perhaps less urgent matters. And taking time to think is part of doing so.

Related: Think Long Term Act DailyHow to ImproveMost Meetings are MudaManaging Innovation