Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Only machines do more with less

One of the best metaphors that I picked up from Jim Collin's books is that of building a fly wheel. He talks about how great companies build a process, which is like a large fly wheel, and then start using that process. The first time they do it, the fly wheel starts turning slowly. The next time, it builds a little more momentum. After a while, the fly wheel is moving fast, and the process simply can't be stopped, which for the company leads to continued excellence in that area.

I tell my staff at work that we build wheels and then turn them. When I ran my division, we had an issue with getting tasking done. Everyone was busy, and we never seemed to get the tasks done during the day that needed to be finished. I sat down with my chief and we discussed all the problems in our way to making this happen, and we came up with a solution: doing a task list review in the morning, and keeping our tasks on an Intelink wiki page so that they could be updated by anyone, and checked at any time. That way, we didn't need constant status updates.

The first week we tried this, I think we got 2 out of 5 task list reviews done. The next week, we were 4 out of 5. By week three, we did one every day, and we noticed that the reviews got faster, more efficient, and best of all, the tasks were flying off the list into the "completed" pile.

But for the most part, I wasn't going home any earlier.

I pondered this the other day. How in the heck could I be getting more and more efficient, flying through our tasks, building great wheels and cranking them, and yet I wasn't leaving at 1500 for a tee time? So I started asking myself, while I drove home at the end of the day, what exactly was I doing with my time?

The answer sort of shocked me: I was talking to people. A lot. From a guy that tends to be a bit more introverted than most, this is a bit of a surprise.

But then again, is it? What should we be doing with extra time? If we manage to get our work done early because we are becoming more effective during the work day, then what exactly should we do with our spare time?

With our extra time, we could pick up extra work. I did that a lot, and still do today, but I temper myself from being too overeager. I found quite a few drawbacks to always taking on more:

1. It allowed others to be lazy. I took on too many tasks that others simply chose not to do, and by doing them I allowed that person to be lazy. Just like a parent that always picks up her daughters room, I was allowing other sailors to get away with not working on something.

2. I wasn't allowing subordinates to develop. This one really hit home when I realized that I was becoming a lynch pin in my organization. By doing everything because I could do it better than others, I was not allowing the others to learn. Funny enough, when I was learning I would always want to push my seniors out and say "Man I can't wait to replace them," but when the shoe was on the other foot I didn't always step out of the way for my subordinates.

Sounds like poor leadership.

With our extra time, we could go home early. While this seems logical, we fall into a really ugly trap: we make the Navy simply a place to work. I see this at my command now: sailors want nothing to do with the command and head home as soon as possible. Granted, we don't want to hang out at work all the time, with family and other commitments to attend to, but if we are focused solely on getting out of work as soon as possible, what that really says is that we hate our job and just can't wait to leave.

Sounds pathetic really.

Or, we can spend some time with our fellow sailors, swapping stories, delving into work subjects and wanting to make every little detail just right.

Today I spent 30 minutes talking with three of my staff on what I thought would be a 5 minute discussion about how the Army post we are on is trying to unfairly boss around our sailors. My goal was to simply put out my policy on what to do, but the discussion delved into all sorts of subjects. From the outside looking in, one might think it was wasted time: I could have gotten the point across in 5 minutes and moved on, so taking 30 minutes on it meant I could have done 25 minutes of work on something else.

But was it really wasted?

I got some smiles out of all three staff members. I learned a little bit about each one of them. They probably learned a little bit about me. We learned that all of us thought similarly on the subject. Perhaps they now trust me a bit more that I have their best interests in mind. I know I trust that they will execute my orders on this matter not just to the letter, but also in intent.

The funny thing is, you can't measure that experience gain. The bean counters can measure the 25 minutes "lost" to inefficiency, but can you measure the increase in trust? The increase in efficiency in the future if my staff enjoys work a bit more because they can chat with their boss freely? Can you measure the gain from ending work on a good note and how that may carry over at home?

As an engineer, I can design a great process, make it accomplish a task well, and execute it flawlessly, saving me lots of time. For a machine, this simply means it can execute more tasks in a given time. For humans, it means we free up more time to make human connections because we AREN'T machines. We're not simply robots that execute tasking in an unemotional manner. If we were, we could be replaced by robots. But we haven't been. Despite all the advances in life, while many functions can be automated, we humans simply find more creative ways to connect with the time given to us.

As you settle into your job, if you put in effort to make the place better, you will inevitably become more efficient and wind up with more time. What will you do with it?

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