The Elephants and Memory Cliché
Updated: Jun 19
Let’s recap what’s been covered in this column. We started out by taking on the very notion of time and observed that too many operations routinely attempt to run by employing techniques that violate the (macro) physics of time by trying to control it. We provided examples of what that looks like and suggested that since we cannot control time we should leverage it, and what that looks like instead.
The piece after looked at a key enabler of better operations +higher quality, customer satisfaction, and cost control. This was achieved by the simplest act of creating the conditions for and allowing employees to respond to undesirable situations very quickly that minimize disruptions and follow-on impacts of the situation.
Next, we laid out the many detriments to long queues. In particular, that long queues promote large delays of being responsive, cause inefficiencies to overall performance, and lead us down the slippery slope of attempting to keep the joint running using time travel.
And in the most recent piece, we introduced the idea that bottlenecks are often not as rudimentary as we may believe. That in fact, we often create the bottlenecks because we’re unintentionally assuming more work than we have capacity or the margin to absorb lacking feedback. Work waiting around to get done is vulnerable because chances are high that we’ll put in a lot of effort only to realize—late—that we need to change something. We called the work “batches,” and pointed out that batches aren’t bad, just those that are too big for our capacity or appetite for operating blind. We also suggested that we’re trained to make our batches too big.
So, what do we do with all that?
Where can a company start if everything seems interconnected? This is both an excellent question and one that is surprisingly easy to answer. Start with anything, anywhere.
Mathematically, physically, and practically speaking, each of these business elements are connected through a time constant. Pick an area of the business that you feel needs attention.
Losing insight into the progress of the work (“large batches”)? Break work down into smaller pieces to you can get a better sense of when something is done and when it’s stuck or defective. And then going forward, plan work in smaller pieces Work piling up at a certain point in the flow (“long queues”)? Stop starting new work until prior work is complete. You can also alleviate the queue by aiding the overburdened step with extra resources or automation.
Customers unhappy, quality in the dumps, or costs spiraling (“slow response rates”)? Empower every single person to raise the alarm at any time, for any reason, without any repercussions any time they realize something’s not right.
Work, everywhere, all the time, moving through molasses? Check whether particular resources are slated to be working on multiple things at once; whether tasks requiring different resources are slotted to happen at the same time; or whether you’ve mandated that something get done using Hermione Granger’s time turner (from the Harry Potter series).
You see, the entire operation is an interconnected system. The entire system must “run on time” for the end result to work out the way we want. This is why any one of these angles is a good place to start. All the other pieces will come into play.
(It might make it a little harder if you’re not already looking at your operation as a system.)
No, really. How do we start?
This is where this “Time Matters” column will take a turn for the remainder of the series. Thus far we’ve focused on managerial or programmatic aspects of the work. From here we turn to a number of aspects deliberately previously unaddressed: people, communication, and accountability.
Many business leaders have had the exasperated thought, “why am I the last to know?!” Another easy answer: because you are not doing the work.
Whether a business’ ability to deliver its products and services are held back due to misuse of time, lack of response, much work-in-progress, or biting off more than they can chew, the single best place to start is with the people doing the work. They are the ones closest to the system. If a leader isn’t getting timely information, it’s most likely because they haven’t set things up to get it.
“Setting things up” is a different part of the system. It’s the part that deals with how decisions are made: How is accountability established? How is information communicated? How does everyone get synchronized? How is the organization structured? And… is all of this aligned with how the work gets done?
We’ll close this issue out with some clues: What’s the ratio of time spent discussing status (i.e., in meetings— formally or informally) to total time worked? What aspects of the operation got better, worse, or stayed the same during the pandemic? How much work is sitting idle right now waiting for a decision? Time remembers everything.