Many companies struggle to deliver a consistent and easy buying experience for their customers.
Consider the following scenario: A manager wants to purchase some computer software for her business. She asks an analyst on her team to do an online search for information. The analyst recommends a particular software company’s solution. The manager peruses that company’s website and requests more information by entering data about her needs through a webform. The software company emails relevant materials which the manager reviews before reaching out to an inside salesperson with questions.
But then things begin to break down. The inside salesperson hasn’t seen the webform data, so the manager must repeat much of the information she had already entered. Furthermore, some of the advice the inside salesperson shares contradicts what the manager recalls reading on the website. The manager decides to meet with a field salesperson to get clarity and to work out some details for a quote. Then, just days after receiving the quote, the manager gets an unsolicited email from the software company’s marketing team offering a better deal. The mounting number of inconsistencies and redundancies confuse and frustrate the manager. At the same time, the software company has wasted time and resources on duplicate, uncoordinated, and ineffective marketing and sales outreach.
As customers have begun interacting with sellers through websites, emails, texts, social media posts, print and TV ads, and salespeople, it’s become difficult for companies to synchronize these communications. (The profusion of independent information sources, such as customer reviews and price comparison sites, adds to the confusion.) When it’s time to actually buy, customers may do so via purchasing portals, internet chat reps, call centers, field salespeople, or other sources.
Customers move frequently and unpredictably between these various channels when buying. For simple purchases, they might buy online exclusively. For complex purchases, they might start with online information, then talk with salespeople, and then return to online sources to validate what the salespeople said. The buying process is no longer linear or consistent.
For companies that sell to businesses, meeting the buying needs of today’s customers requires a mindset shift. Companies need an orchestrator to ensure marketing and sales outreach is well-coordinated and aligned with customer buying needs. In some cases, the orchestrator is a computer system. In other cases, the orchestrator is a person enabled by data and analytics.
Amazon is a prime example of a company using a computer system to effectively orchestrate customer buying. Amazon’s analytics use data to make inferences about what products each customer might buy. The analytics also suggest an automated–yet coordinate–way to reach each customer with the right offer at the right time. For example, Amazon makes customized purchase suggestions on its website. If a customer clicks on a suggestion but doesn’t purchase, Amazon can follow up with a reinforcing email or post on the social media platform the customer uses. Companies are using computer-based orchestration frequently with business customers, especially for smaller accounts and simpler purchases.
For larger accounts and more complex purchases, companies are giving account managers responsibility for orchestrating marketing and sales outreach to customers. In their expanded role, account managers decide what the company should offer each customer, along with the best message timing and delivery channel (e.g. digital message, phone call, personal visit). Account managers are more effective when they are armed with insights from data and analytics.
For example, a telecom company used predictive analytics to help account managers orchestrate outreach to under-performing, high-potential customers. The analytics found “data doubles” for these customers – i.e. similar customers who were buying much more. The company shared insights with account managers about which customers had significant unrealized opportunity and what sales strategies had worked previously for their data doubles. The insights helped account managers offer the right products with the right sales messages, thus increasing sales at under-performing accounts.
In another example, a pharmaceutical company used a computerized suggestion engine to help account managers orchestrate the sharing of prescription drug information with physicians. The company provided physicians with information through various sales team members (e.g. account manager, reimbursement specialist, medical science liaison) and marketing channels (e.g. emails, podcasts, mobile apps, invites to conferences, company website). By examining data about each physician’s situation and preferences, the suggestion engine told account managers which actions, and the timing of those actions, were likely to produce the best results. This allowed account managers to tailor communication to each physician’s needs. For example, an account manager might get a message on his tablet: “Dr. Jones just logged on to the company’s website to investigate drug side effects. Suggest visiting Dr. Jones to discuss her concerns.” During the visit, Dr. Jones asks about drug effectiveness and mentions she hates receiving unsolicited email. The account manager updates Dr. Jones’ profile to stop marketing emails and asks a company medical science liaison to call Dr. Jones to answer her questions. By tracking physician preferences, behaviors and results, and sharing insights with account managers, the company continually improved its relationships with physicians.
More companies and industries are taking on the challenge of orchestrating marketing and sales outreach to align with modern customer buying needs. As the volume, variety, and velocity of business data escalate, analytics (including artificial intelligence) will play an even bigger role in the effort to improve the customer buying experience.
Micromanagement gets most of the attention, but under-management may be just as big a problem.
This is the term I’ve given to a constellation of behaviors that I’ve seen occurring together often during my 24 years in management: weak performance management, a tendency to avoid conflicts with employees, and generally lackluster accountability. As the name suggests, there’s just not quite enough management being done—and results often suffer as a result. But under-management can often fly under the radar because the managers who have these tendencies aren’t necessarily incompetent; on the contrary, they often know their business well, are good collaborators, and are well-liked.
One HR executive I spoke with about the problem estimated that some 10% to 25% of her company’s managers were under-managing. And I well remember one of my own company’s Human Resource VP’s exclaiming in frustration, “The trouble with our managers is that too often they just don’t manage!”
Take Jamie, a product development manager (he’s not a real person, but a composite of numerous people I’ve known). He knew the technical details of his team’s products well and got along well with other department heads in his division. He was a good communicator—unlike several other product development managers in the division, who were stronger on the technical side than in dealing with human beings—and his team liked working for him. They reported above-average morale, unlike many teams in the company.
But his team struggled to deliver results. For example, on large projects they had persistent trouble meeting deadlines. When this came up with Jamie’s boss and peers during management team meetings, he maintained his team couldn’t be working any harder—though other managers didn’t always agree. When Jamie’s boss or other members of the management team pressed Jamie about members of his team who might possibly be weaker links, Jamie strongly defended them. There are no weak links on my team. In baseball parlance, Jamie was “a player’s manager.”
There are several intertwined causes behind this phenomenon. Too strong a desire to be liked can get in the way of fully productive management because it can make you reluctant to do the things you need to do. Conflict avoidance is a related element of the equation; conflict is inherently stressful and unpleasant, and it’s easy to think that if one can get by with less of it, so much the better!
True, pushing your people and holding them accountable for strong performance won’t win you any popularity contests, and it requires some level of comfort with conflict. But while maintaining positive relationships with your own employees is a good thing, over the long run your priority is to deliver results.
If you think you might be under-managing, here are three tangible steps to take. The good news is that it’s possible to improve one’s performance in these areas; though it takes practice these are primarily issues of will, rather than ability: you need to commit to them first.
Don’t be a conflict-avoider. Let’s start with the handling of conflict. Early in my management career I was fortunate to have a mentor who took me aside and told me straight-out that if I was going to succeed in management, I needed to become more effective in my handling of conflict. I still remember his exact words. He praised my abilities (my knowledge of our business and my work ethic), but added, “Frankly, I don’t know if you want to handle conflict. I don’t know if you have the stomach for it.” I realized that if I was going to be successful in management, this was a problem area and I was going to have to work on it. So I did — diligently. I became highly conscious of conflict and not ducking it. Truth be told I still don’t like dealing with conflict (most people don’t), but I recognized it was a vital part of the management role and over time I became more comfortable with it and competent at it.
View goal-setting as mission-critical. If you’re not delivering the results you need to, which is the risk at the heart of under-management, first make sure the goals your employees need to achieve are well-conceived and clear. Most managers don’t spend nearly enough time on goal setting; too often we approach it as a nettlesome bureaucratic exercise (why is Human Resources torturing me this way, making me fill out these endless forms?). But thoughtful goals that are agreed to by employees can be a manager’s best friend because you can manage to them: they become a roadmap to guide your work with your team all year.
“Is this work the absolute best you can do?” This is a simple but powerful question I learned from a longtime colleague and friend who was a retired U.S. Army colonel, who had picked it up from one of his officers. Asking it when someone hands in an assignment will make them aware that they’re being held accountable. (It’s also a good question to ask yourself if you suspect you are under-managing as an exercise in self-accountability. Is this work the absolute best you can do? Are you doing all you can to set appropriate goals, hold people accountable to them, and deliver the results you need to?)
Ultimately, rising above under-management is the proverbial win-win situation: better for your organization—and for your career.
After a public outcry over privacy and their inability — or unwillingness — to address misleading content, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms finally appear to be making a real effort to take on fake news. But manipulative posts from perpetrators in Russia or elsewhere may soon be the least of our problems. What looms ahead won’t just impact our elections. It will impact our ability to trust just about anything we see and hear.
The misinformation that people are worried about today, such as made-up news stories or conspiracy theories, is only the first symptoms of what could become a full-blown epidemic. What’s coming are “deep fakes” — realistic forgeries of people appearing to say or do things that never actually happened. This frightening future is a side effect of advances in artificial intelligence that have enabled researchers to manipulate audio and video — even live video.
The end result of this manipulated reality may be that people no longer believe what they hear from a world leader, a celebrity, or a CEO. It could lead to “reality apathy,” when it is so hard to distinguish truth from lies that we stop trying altogether. This means a future in which people believe only what they hear from a small circle of trusted friends or family — more similar to a conflict region than to a modern economy. Try factoring that into your quarterly earnings call or televised speech.
An obvious scenario, one that some companies might find themselves dealing with in the not-too-distant future, is a faked video of their CEO making racist or sexist comments, or bribing a politician. But equally damaging could be a video about, for example, corporate spending.
Imagine an authentic-seeming video of a CEO saying their company will donate $100 million to feed starving children. This surprise announcement — which never actually happened — leaves the company with a stark choice: go ahead with the donation or publicly state that you don’t care that much about starving children after all.
As corporate leaders grapple with the question of how to prove something is (or isn’t) real, they will need to invest in new technology that helps them keep one step ahead of bad actors. And they will have to do it quickly. A company won’t be able to stay ahead of determined, tech-savvy manipulators if it has a yearlong procurement cycle.
One crucial step is for the social media platforms to incorporate real-time forgery detection into all of their products, building out systems that can adapt with improvements in the technology. But that technology is still in its early stages, and as it develops you can be sure that bad actors will be working on ways to defeat it.
It may also be possible to create software that can timestamp video and audio, showing when they were created and how they have been manipulated. But relying on the tech sector to quickly address societal challenges like this without accountability from regulators and users hasn’t worked all that well in the past.
Corporate marketers and communicators, as the people who supply platforms with the money that is their lifeblood, are in a strong position to push for faster action. Last year P&G pulled $140 million in digital ad spend, in part because of brand safety concerns that arose when its ads were placed next to questionable content.
You can bet this got the attention of social media companies. But it worked only because P&G was willing to back up its words with action. Platforms are more likely to take proactive measures if they know that inaction will hurt their profitability. Industry pressure helped push YouTube, for example, to reevaluate its content policies and dramatically increase its investment in human moderation.
Industries often form coalitions to influence the government on regulations affecting their business interests. With some of the biggest tech companies starting to rival governments in their reach and power, the same model could be employed here, using the threat of lost ad revenue. These coalitions may find it helpful to partner with consumer groups and NGOs to amplify their message. Pushing these platforms to take the future of misinformation seriously would be good not only for corporations but also for society at large.
In addition, companies must begin to factor deep fakes and other reality-distortion techniques into their crisis-scenario planning. Reputation protection in this new world will require adding a new layer to a company’s rapid response and communications strategies. Executives must be prepared to communicate the facts quickly and to correct the fictions before they spread too far.
Communicators should make sure they have the right tools in place to deal with a fast-moving manipulated-reality crisis. New companies are forming that use technology, open-source intelligence techniques, and crowdsourcing to quickly discern what’s real and what’s not. The key to uncovering a falsehood may lie in someone using geolocation, or simply their own knowledge, to recognize that a street sign in a faked video isn’t really at that location. As with any crisis, social-media analytics tools are critical when it comes to tracking the spread of misinformation. These tools can help executives see whether a story is gaining traction and identify the most-influential people spreading the misinformation, whether wittingly or unwittingly.
It is crucial that individual companies learn to understand and mitigate their particular risks — but that alone will not protect them. Our information ecosystem is like a game where deceivers have a massive edge; a company may lose even if it “plays” perfectly. That’s why we need to fix the rules. We all must pitch in to support cross-company, cross-industry, and even cross-sector efforts to turn the tide. It will be incumbent on everyone with a stake in a reality-based society to work together to ensure that we can continue to discern fact from fiction.
In recent years, companies across a variety of industries have shown an increased interest in learning about and exploring lean strategies for organizational management. Lean is a methodology that appears on the surface a bit nebulous, entrenched in a philosophical outlook on workflow strategy rather than a practical, day-to-day approach that can be instituted across the board in a way that everyone in your organization can appreciate. The reality is that once you delve deeper, you discover how transformative lean practices can be and how practical lean tools become.
The benefits of lean extend far beyond that of project success and revenue growth. Companies that have utilized lean strategies have reported benefits ranging from a greater propensity to manage complex team processes, an increase in team morale, all the way to increased team productivity and reduced lead time. Efficiency is often measured in dollars, and there is no doubt that a successful lean campaign will reduce costs and foster a more efficient business process.
But it is often the unforeseen value that derives from these strategies that makes them even more attractive. For instance, lean practices focus on streamlining workflow in a very specific manner (that we will dive into a little later). However, a typically unexpected outcome is that customer experience is significantly enhanced through events such as a more predictable delivery of customer value. Customers greatly appreciate being able to employ your service and know, without asking, approximately how long it will take your team to deliver. This kind of benefit extends further than you can even imagine and positively affects your reputation in a way that might surpass the cost of service as an attractor of business.
With all the benefits of lean processes out on the table, let's turn our attention to what exactly lean is and its origins. Then, we will look at some lean tools you can start using today as you orient your business to the lean methodology of operating.
What is lean and where did it come from?
In its essence, lean is a business methodology that is seeing a wide distribution across virtually all disciplines of knowledge work. The principal goal of the process is to assist teams in working smarter and more efficiently with a higher grade of satisfaction and deliver increased value to the organization and its customer base.
Increased value is not always increased revenue. Lean has the advantage of being adaptable, and with that comes a change of the practical definition of value based on the application of the process. In some instances, yes, value will be measured more tangentially with revenue. In other cases, that revenue flow may be several steps removed from the initial aim of the methodology. Perhaps you're employing lean in a human resources setting and your end goal is to achieve a greater level of understanding when it comes to issues such as companywide codes of conduct or expediting the new-hire process. Sure, these outcomes may positively affect the company's bottom line, but lean strategies can be applied across knowledge work to find greater and new value throughout an organization by means of increased efficiency.
Any business manager can tell you that one of their primary responsibilities is to fully comprehend how critical it is to avoid unnecessary waste in production. Organizations constantly search for new ways to cut down on the means of production. Unfortunately, many of the tried methods do not take a holistic or scientific approach; they merely follow the trends across the industry. They also have a regrettable tendency to negatively impact team morale, a factor not always traditionally accounted for when measuring production waste in an analytical manner. Lean instead succeeds because it is worker-centric, and the strategies revolve around the skill sets and limits of your team.
Lean is about reducing waste and increasing efficiency, but what else? And where does it come from? If the frequent references to phrases such as "production" and "efficiency" conjure images of being placed deep in the bowels of an industrial manufacturer plant, that would hardly be surprising. Lean methods found their structured beginnings from inspiration in just that very setting. In a sense, lean philosophy is as old as humanity. It is all about maximizing efficiency during the production cycle, no matter what is being produced. Thinking back to the dawn of the agricultural era, it is certainly easy to imagine humans exercising a thought process based around an aversion to waste and aiming at perfecting their craft to maximize a crop yield. With that said, the version of lean we embrace today is credited to the inner workings of Japanese automobile manufacturer Toyota.
While evolving over several decades of production that was often heavily scrutinized by founder Kiichiro Toyoda, who directed improvement teams to constantly inspect every stage of production intensely, the themes of lean came together under Taiichi Ohno (who credits the basis of many of his concepts to Henry Ford) in the 1970s and 1980s. The critical pillar of lean strategies, the notion of a pull-based workflow, was adopted by Toyota during this time. Pull insinuates that products be based on a build-to-order flow, rather than target-driven push methods that Toyota found led to overproduction.
Thinking about this in a different way, the general concept of lean thinking is that workflow is often dictated by push targets. Organizations operate with a focus on output, setting strict expectations for what they will generate with less regard for customer experience and the input of work. Lean looks at the team as a unit, then sets up continuous experiments to measure how much workflow the unit can properly handle at each stage of production, then designs systems based on left-to-right methods with a focus on only producing the set capacity for each stage of development. It is through this chain of thought that the process shifts focus from products to customers and teams.
To accomplish lean workflow, there are several tools that can be employed. Popular concepts range from the pull system just described to strategy testing, A/B testing, minimum value product testing and an assortment of other worthwhile tools. There's no one trick to implementing lean, but using information gleaned from the Lean Business Report survey data on knowledge work, there are three tools more widely used than others when adopting a lean strategy. These tools, which will be described in greater detail, are Kanban boards, work-in-progress (WIP) limits, and continuous improvement. Developing a lean strategy based on any one (or all three) methods is a great way to introduce lean thinking into your organization. Let's turn our attention to the most commonly-used lean tool: Kanban boards.
The Kanban board: Visualizing your approach to lean methods
The first lean tool is decidedly the most popular; nearly 83 percent of respondents in the Lean Business Report claimed to use the concept in some form with their team. Imagine having a representation tool that is designed to imbue a visualized approach to your workflow strategy. It can function as the centerpiece of your team, a one-stop shop to stand before and study your organization's work patterns, where everyone can measure assignments and projects to determine which phases are progressing the quickest and slowest. What you are picturing in your head is what lean strategies refer to as the Kanban board.
A Kanban board is a work and workflow simulation tool designed for the visually minded team. It is a visualization enabler that allows you to optimize your workflow. The Kanban board can be physical, typically through using sticky notes on a whiteboard to communicate the status and ongoing progress of projects, assignments, and issues with your team (in a way, it’s like a ticketing system at a restaurant). Online Kanban boards also exist and are usually a much cleaner approach to the Kanban board, bringing sleek graphics and the ability to take your Kanban board with you anywhere you go via a mobile device. Much of your decision will be based on whether your team is 100 percent colocated, and what other electronic communication implements your team already uses.
The Kanban board emerged as a product of the Toyota manufacturing team that we mentioned previously. Line workers would flash colored cards known as kanbans to notify other personnel that demand existed in their stage of the manufacturing process for more parts and assembly work. The visual degree of the process allowed for teams to communicate on what work needed to be done relatively effortlessly in an otherwise loud, fast-paced environment. It further created a standardization of cues in the manufacturing process, which reduced waste and allowed for a more seamless transition for new team members and substitutes.
Kanban, in the footsteps of lean, is an excellent tool due to its versatility. The application of Kanban's core principles works the same in knowledge-based industries, like advertising and software development, as it does in labor-intensive industrial manufacturing. It's all about visualizing your work, focusing on and practicing a continuous movement of workflow, and limiting your work in progress.
Kanban boards add the visible structure of a manufacturing production line to knowledge work that is traditionally opaque. Using columns to map out the steps on a Kanban board provides insight into the many aspects that make up your projects, including how workflows from left to right, start to finish. Simple processes are set out as vertical lanes on the board, and different project types are noted by certain color assignments.
As an example, a sample physical board for a marketing department might contain six columns (though it could have as few as three for To Do/Doing/Done). We will refer to these six columns as To Do/Plan/Develop/Test/Deploy/Done. We'll assign three colored Kanban cards: blue for marketing videos, yellow for written marketing content, and green for meeting and trade shows. As an alternative, card color can also represent priority and can be used much like a traffic light (green for expedite, yellow for normal, and red for least urgent). On the card itself, information exists, such as who is assigned the work, which customer is demanding the service, an expected delivery date and other relevant details.
By mapping the workflow, your team's efforts are now transparent inside your team and beyond to other departments. Visualizing your workflow is beneficial in that the human brain is, itself, visual. The brain can comprehend visual information over 60,000 times faster than text. The whole purpose of the Kanban board is to make optimize your work environment and relieve the stress of multitasking. The board represents a shared visual language that everyone can understand, simplifying communication and giving team members and stakeholders access to information in a frictionless form of cognition.
The other goal of the board is to limit the amount of work in process so the work flowing through the system matches its capacity. Stuck work becomes easy to spot on a Kanban board; it'll stick out like a sore thumb when a card has stayed in the same place for a week or more. But the prevention of a veritable logjam in workflow isn't accomplished by the Kanban board itself. Another critical tool to lean strategy is necessary to employ in conjunction with the Kanban way of thinking to understand the actual capacity of the team.
In the work environment, humans often take on more work than they are capable of finishing and set deadlines that are ambitious. We aren't always the best at anticipating daily distractions that sidetrack us from completing our work on schedule, and we lead an unsustainable pace. The inevitable response to such actions is a bottleneck of project progress. Projects fall to the wayside, and over time, a larger and larger chunk of your schedule is eaten up by having to explain to stakeholders what stage an assignment is at in the workflow stream. Frustration mounts, which can lead to a negative impact on morale, which can affect motivation and work quality.
In other words, it's easy to let your team's workflow spiral into an unmanageable state. We like to say yes to customers and superiors because it often feels easier than saying no. The Kanban board is great for visualizing the workflow process and catching a glance at how your team is performing, but without variable control, it ultimately amounts to a glorified to-do list. To maximize your lean efficiency, introducing work-in-progress (WIP) limits can give your team a better idea of how much work they can truly take on.
A WIP limit is placing a capacity on work that can be absorbed by a team in each stage of production. When you have too much WIP, you are simply working on too many things at once and your brain is naturally going to be scattered. To introduce WIP limits to your team, look at your Kanban board. Map the process across the board and take note when items are getting stuck in the process. Consider the time already spent on the item and the cost associated with it, then ask yourself, "Why is this expensive project getting stuck?" In all likelihood, your project isn't seeing any movement because it is competing for time with one (or more) of the same obstacles that regularly get in the way for businesses.
The first is conflicting priorities. No two items can vie for the spot of top priority successfully; one must win out. When dozens of projects are happening simultaneously, drawing attention away from one another and competing for the same resources and personnel, team members must constantly context-switch and split time between tasks that ultimately results in a larger amount of partially completed projects.
Another issue that arises is unplanned work. These seemingly appear out of nowhere throughout the week in the form of requests within and outside of your department. These unforeseen work interruptions can wreak havoc on your WIP. Sometimes they spawn from true emergencies, and sometimes others perceive them as emergencies and try to sell you on the urgency.
A final issue that frequently comes up is a dependency on an expert or party outside of your team to complete a crucial part of your project. When an item becomes blocked in your Kanban board due to waiting for someone with a specific skillset to address it, chances are your team is competing with other teams and clients for that person's attention. Experts aren't always available when you need them to be, and WIP can grind to a halt.
WIP limits are designed to identify the sequences in your workflow that are bottlenecking. It's truly a trial and error process. Start out with a study period of two to four weeks so you can gather data on where work is halting in the workflow process and meet with team members to discuss the reasons. Then design a limit on that specific stage so that fewer items can exist there at any given time. If you find that you didn't place a high enough limit after a few weeks of testing or that now you have too much free time, adjust accordingly.
With acclimated WIP limits in place, issues of unplanned work resolve themselves; the limits exist within an objective state of your office that accounts for the occurrence of unplanned work rather than the subjective feelings of what you believe you can accomplish. Priorities no longer conflict, as the WIP limits dictate how and when work is prioritized. The entire conceptualization of the workflow process is essentially automated. The final issue, expert dependency, can be alleviated by organizationwide Kanban boards. Typically in a digital form, these boards allot extra visibility to potential obstacles. You can even place WIP limits based on specific expert approval so you're not left sitting with dozens of tasks in the lap of someone outside of your department.
With WIP limits in place, this brings us to one final tool that you can implement in succession to round out your initial lean strategy.
Constant flexibility through continuous improvement
The experimental approach of lean requires a constant state of business evolution. Equal parts team philosophy and formalized practice, continuous improvement emphasizes remaining cognizant of how your processes can always be improved. It's easy to fall into the groove of things once you're comfortable and begin to passively take on tasks with little regard for what you're actually doing and how you're doing it. Continuous improvement attempts to break you of this habit and keep your team focused on enhancing your quality of work through adaptability.
The main process for continuous improvement focuses around a four-step approach. You must first identify the workflow processes that require improvement, typically done in conjunction with WIP limits. Next, you want to meet with your team and plan a course of action. With a strategy in place, it becomes time to execute and implement the strategy over a set time frame. The final step is to review the execution and measure areas where the plan succeeded and failed.
The continuous improvement lean strategy calls for you to not stop at step four, but rather cycle back around and start over. It's designed to consider your improvement in a circular motion, rather than with start and finish points. It sheds the notion of perfection and embraces an environment of constant growth and learning. In addition to this cyclical improvement, there are two other techniques to explore under the continuous improvement banner.
The first technique is to eliminate non-value-adding activities. This can happen as you conduct your continuous improvement cycle. Identifying areas of waste and looking for opportunities to make better use of your employees' talents and skillsets will ultimately create better value for your customers and company. With this technique comes the potential to disrupt morale by placing employees in a position where they must ask themselves if their position is an area of waste. That’s why, when embracing this technique, you should remain transparent with your team and reassure them of their value. The goal is not to cut, cut, cut and cut some more. The objective is instead to assist each team member in growing into their position and maximizing their individual efficiency and output.
The other technique to consider is to define what waste means to you and your organization. One way to think of waste: If a customer sees something as a line item and they would not want to pay for it, it's waste. Occasionally these activities are unavoidable; tasks that might appear mundane, like emailing potential clients on the behalf of customers, are necessary and have a cost associated, but the customer may not want to pay for them. The challenge often becomes distinguishing between what can be cut and what can only be minimized.
Sometimes waste is difficult to see when projects require several hands in the pot. By the time each "expert" has left their mark on the project, it's entirely possible that the context has changed and the problem that the project was meant to address has shifted. The time spent partitioning winds up as a wasted opportunity. This is often a symptom of an organization that functions by siloing team members to work only on specific tasks in which they're believed to be especially gifted. It sounds like a great idea, but in practice, it morphs into non-utilized talent. Applying continuous improvement to the growth of your team will help team members develop into well-rounded, dynamic members of your organization that can step up to pull projects to their next stage.
As you consider which lean strategies to embrace in the beginning stages, don't worry too much about success and failure. By now you can see that lean isn't really about that; it's a methodology based on the idea of constant imperfection. This may seem stressful if you're a perfectionist, but exploring notions of continuous improvement and methods to develop your team into a more cohesive unit will do wonders in creating added value within your organization through a variety of measurable ways.
Kanban boards aren't for everybody. Accept input from your team members on the subject. WIP limits will likely fail the first time around. Continuous improvement will seem never-ending. But once you decide to go all in on these lean strategies and let them develop within your organization, adapting to your needs, you'll find that the results are well worth your time.
As is the case with all equipment expected to last several years, when it's time to get a wide-format printer, the big question is whether to buy, lease or outsource your company's printing. Each approach has its pros and cons, so there's no right or wrong answer. It all depends on the details of your business.
It's hard to make decisions for far into the future, but start by deciding how much large printing you plan to do over the next three or four years. The more printing you do, the more sense it makes to buy the printers you need, because it's not only the cheapest method but the one that provides the most flexibility. In contrast, leasing is a good option that doesn't require much upfront money, but it can be more expensive in the long run. Finally, if you want to avoid a commitment, farm out your wide-format printing to a print shop. It can be the most expensive of the three approaches, but it also has its benefits.
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A large-format printer can cost a bundle, but it lets you print posters, banners and large items whenever you want. It means you can create everything in-house on your schedule and fine-tune the output exactly how you want.
Need to do something right away, like reprinting a stack of posters with a typo before a big introduction? You can do it on a priority basis because you control what gets printed when.
If you print a lot, you're better off buying the printer outright and letting it pay for itself. The more you use the printer, the higher its capacity utilization rate and the lower its per-print cost.
On the other hand, the purchase of a wide-format printer can tie up five or six figures of valuable cash that might be better used elsewhere. You'll also need to dedicate space and personnel for it. On the other hand, having the printer in the same building or on the same campus means that it's there to make your business more efficient at responding to quick changes.
Leasing is an attractive alternative that doesn't tie up as much cash and transforms what was a capital cost into a monthly expense. However, leasing may negate some of the tax advantages of buying the new equipment.
It works like this: Rather than buying a Roland Soljet EJ-640 printer for $22,000, the company will lease it to you over five years at $440 a month. This adds up to $26,400 or nearly $5,000 extra to finance the lease. The downside is that if you want to lease it for a shorter period, say a year or two, the monthly payment goes up.
In one important respect, it's like owning the printer: It's nearby, you control its use, and you can use it as often as needed – that is, unless you fall behind on your payments and the company repossesses it.
As with car leases, there's a bonus. Some manufacturers have generous trade-up options midway through the lease, letting you switch to a newer machine on a new lease.
Outsourcing to a contractor
The final option is to not have a wide printer at all and work with a reliable and conscientious print shop, hopefully nearby, to do the work for you. Someone else owns, operates and maintains the machinery, so there's neither a purchase cost nor a monthly lease payment.
However, using outsiders to print your material is usually more expensive on a per-print basis, and they generally stay the same rather than dropping the more you use the printer.
The employees of a good printing company will likely go out of their way to do your orders correctly in a timely fashion, but they control the printing process. This means that another customer might sneak in front of you in line or there might be extra charges for rush jobs. In other words, they control the schedule, not you.
Most print shops won't allow you to be there to fine-tune the printing process, although they will often send you a proofing sheet for complicated jobs. This can help get it right but slows the process.
An owned or leased machine will be close at hand, while using a print shop puts some distance between you and the output. You can upload the digital images you need printed, but once they're produced, getting them will entail a messenger, overnight shipping or picking it up. This can further slow the process.
Having outsiders do your printing is attractive because you don't need to dedicate space, personnel or cash flow. Because they work for many clients, print shops typically turn their equipment over faster than a business can afford to. That means shops will have newer printers with a wider variety of features than an aging in-house printer.
Whether you lease, buy or use a printing service to produce your large-format materials, it comes down to how much control you require. If you need to keep to a schedule and want to tweak the process, then buy or lease your printers. If you can stand to let others do the dirty work, are flexible on timing and not concerned about the extra cost, by all means, have an outside shop print your items for you.
The printer predicament
Pro: Flexibility to print on your schedule
Pro: Flexibility to print on your schedule
Con: Not flexible
Pro: Printer onsite for rush jobs
Pro: Printer onsite for rush jobs
Con: No emergency jobs and need to ship prints
Pro: Can save over leasing or farming out work
Con: More expensive than buying printer
Con: Can be expensive on a per-print basis
Pro: The more you print, the cheaper it gets
Pro: The more you print, the cheaper it gets
Con: Pay per print
Con: High upfront costs
Pro: Little or no upfront costs and turns capital cost into monthly expense
Executives and managers need deadline estimates to guide long-term strategy, but when it comes to day-to-day reality, Murphy's law reigns supreme. That's because top-down estimation never works. Leaders try to shoehorn big goals into small chunks, employees get frustrated, and everything ends up finishing late anyway.
Research backs this scenario. After analyzing more than 1,800 completed software development projects, McKinsey & Co. discovered that more than 30 percent of them missed their original deadlines. And even the 20 percent of projects that did cross the finish line on time only did so because the team removed features along the way.
To combat this, my company has converted entirely to bottom-up estimation for projects. That might sound scary, but when it's executed well, the benefits are enormous. By having employees self-develop their plans, leaders gain insight into how employees view their capabilities and how well teams work together. Further, managers have an easier time holding employees to deadlines when the employees made the deadlines themselves.
No matter who's responsible for setting deadlines, though, projects still run over when the people making the estimates don’t account for all the variables. A manager might not account for the full difficulty of technical development, while an engineer might not anticipate how much administrative work the project requires. Bottom line: When people underestimate complexity and overestimate productivity, disappointment is inevitable.
Charting Accurate Timelines
Whether they're in large or small businesses, managers and developers must learn to make more accurate estimates of project timelines in order to keep projects on track. This eight-step process can help teams of all sizes and compositions do just that:
1. Provide high-level guidance.
Agile refers to this step as “epics.” When an executive asks a team to build something within the quarter, that defines the broad scope of the project. General timelines indicate to development teams the importance of their projects and the expectations associated with those projects. During this first step, developers and their managers should communicate with the leadership team to understand the problem they are solving, clarify acceptable deliverables, and ensure everyone understands how success will be measured.
2. Identify individual work.
With the larger goal established, work with teams to parse out individual tasks. Team members should be free to make suggestions and adjust the timelines of tasks as needed. This step is critical to establish a sense of ownership within the team. Break down big pieces into user stories to communicate to developers what the product needs to do for users, not just a list of features.
3. Aggregate and prioritize.
By this point, everyone understands the work that lies ahead. Put all the tasks together, and discuss the full project as a team. Encourage developers to point out gaps to ensure all tasks are accounted for, and there will be minimal unexpected "gotchas" that pop up mid-project. Place tasks in order of priority and dependency to keep things running smoothly.
4. Agree on point values.
Rather than assign hours to tasks, have everyone involved in the project write down a value for each task at the same time. This allows managers to hear all voices and get a better idea of how the work will progress. Developers are notoriously bad at estimating timelines, so keep points related to complexity, not time. (We'll discuss how to translate those points to time later.) We've built a free tool, Points Poker, that's a great resource for doing this remotely.
5. Discuss discrepancies.
If developers put vastly different point totals on the same task, talk about it. This process fleshes out concerns and helps identify potential issues before they become bigger ones. For example, let's say the task is to create a select view of buying options. One developer might assign a low point value, but someone more experienced with the system might remember that unstructured data could make this task far more difficult. Following this process in the early stages gets the team talking and results in more accurate time estimates.
6. Break down big items.
If some tasks appear to be much larger than the others, break them into smaller components. The point of this exercise is to make things as granular and easy as possible. Refer to step three, and organize these smaller breakdowns by priority and dependency to keep the project on track.
7. Execute and track.
When every task carries a point value and the team agrees on a prioritization order, let developers begin work. Keep tabs on how many tasks the team completes and what their point values are. With these being very granular and previously discussed, there should not be too many surprises, but try to note patterns if they develop. Get regular status updates, and make sure to remove blockers that your team might be encountering.
8. Use velocity to set the schedule.
After a week, the team’s velocity (number of points completed within the week) should become clear. Compare that velocity to the total task list to get an accurate assessment of how long the project will take.
If the team completed 20 points of a 100-point project, for example, you can fairly accurately project that it will take five weeks to complete. If the leadership team needs the project finished sooner, use the velocity estimate to adjust. Add more team members, incentivize employees, or deprioritize features that matter less. Put high-point tasks at the bottom of the list if the leadership team needs a working prototype sooner.
This process takes a bit of time, to be sure, but it’s far more effective and reliable than the top-down systems practiced at so many companies. Use these steps to create the timeline for the next project and compare results to those of the past. Small business leaders can continue to refine the approach to work for their organizations, and before long, deadline extensions will become a thing of the past.