The "Busyness" of Business - Talking with Steve Stanton

Smart Work

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Peter Schooff: Hello. This is Peter Schooff at bpm.com, speaking with Steve Stanton, managing director of FCB Partners. He is an author, consultant, and teacher who has been a pioneer in process innovation for the past 30 years with a main focus on improving the capability of organizations to transform themselves. Steve also has a new book out that's titled "Smart Work: Why Organizations Full of Intelligent People Do So Many Dumb Things and What You Can Do About It". Great title, Steve. This is what we're going to talk about in the podcast. First of all, thank you so much for joining me today, Steve.

Steve Stanton: Thank you for inviting me, Peter.

Peter: Now, in your book, I got an overview of it and it's a really helpful book, you mentioned the problem of busyness. Why is this such a problem for businesses today?

Steve: Well, it's an enormous and often invisible and certainly un-owned problem. These days most employees on average get 125 emails per day, so it's taking people 3-4 hours a day to paw through that. On top of that, people go to an endless stream of nonproductive meetings, and the net result is there are many fewer hours every day to really spend on productive value generating work, and that's makes everybody busy. When people are busy, a number of really problematic things occur. The urgent drives out the important, for example. People are managing their to-do list instead of managing strategic priorities. People are often manage symptoms rather than solve the root causes, because they have no time. Because the core issue is when people are that busy, they have no time to think and they're operating on instinct emotion, reaction rather than as in responsive deep reflective thought, and that's very dangerous in a complex environment that most organizations find themselves today. There's no time to think.

Peter: That makes a lot of sense. Now in your book you definitely delve into some other dysfunctions, so why don't you cover some of the other top dysfunctions?

Steve: I talk about a number of deeply problematic behaviors hidden deep in the conventional organizational model. They're marbled into the DNA, they're part of the hidden logic. Some of these dysfunctions include more. Most of the organizations I see in our classes and in my consulting are additive in their fundamental nature. More work, more projects, more measures, more everything. When people are given new assignments, rarely is anything taken off their plate, so more and more is asked one of them.

Superficiality is another. As we talked about, when there's no time to solve the root cause, people are putting band-aids on everything. Another is urgency. I find many organizations shriek every time something happens because it's urgent, it has to happen now. It's a false urgency that pervades organizations because they can't think strategically, so everything's equally important. In comparison, hospitals have a wonderful term, STAT, which really does separate the urgent from the important but less urgent activities. Organizations have no equivalent until they go into panic about that.

The other dysfunctions are perhaps a little more visible to people who are listening to this podcast. There's a short-term- ism, when everything is magnified in terms of getting it done now rather than later. There's a localism. Many organizations are fragmented and success is defined locally. There's' an insularity. Many organizations talk about customers, but they don't actually spend a lot of resources to deeply understanding them. Then there's an inability to cross the divide and think quantitatively and objectively about measurement, which is where many organizations have serious problems, because they can't come up with good measures to define the right performance parameters for their processes.

Peter: Right, and those are some definite fundamental problems. How would you say companies should go about tackling these problems?

Steve: Well, a lot of it has to do with remedying what we've already talked about. What's interesting about staff meetings and email is that they are pervasive problems, but they're organizational orphans. Who owns email in most organizations? Now, somebody might say the IT department, but they really own the platform on which it runs; they don't really own it. There's no EDP of email. Meetings are an unknown problem. The rules for having effective meetings are pretty well known and they're not rocket science, but there's no senior vice president of meetings.

So what do work organizations need to do? They need to realize they have this huge productivity problem, and they need to create policies for meetings and emails. Even more than that, they need to manage the issue of more in superficiality. What does that mean? That means stopping projects. One of the deep problems in most organizations is the fact that most of their process improvement projects fail, and they fail for a number of predictable reasons. Many of them are about having too many. When you have too many projects, you can't possibly have enough good project managers. When you can't staff them with the right staff with the right amount of that staff's time. You can't correlate or coordinate or integrate or prioritize those projects, so what do organizations need to do? Less.

Peter: Definitely. Now, as we’re recording this for bpm.com, Business Process Management, what do business processes play what role do they play in this solution?

Steve: Well, now we hit something a little more controversial. I've been in the process world for 30 years, and I think all work is process work and everything that goes on in every organization is part of a process. Where this impacts the process world and process practitioners is that for the last 10 years or so, the dominate improvement methodologies have been bottoms up in a variety of forms of continuous improvement or operational excellence. I think that's led to the quantity of projects, lots of small projects, and I think what's happened is that organizations have lost the capability and the appetite to tackle bigger, more transformational projects. They're incrementalizing themselves, they're settling in this environment of speed and urgency and more for better sameness rather than transformational difference.

For us in the process world, I think we have to be the revolutionaries saying organizations need a mix of bottoms up and tops down types of process improvement projects. We can't live forever with just CI. Agile and Lean Six Sigma are terrific but insufficient to solve all the issues for major organizations. The process world has become far too ideological, and organizations need a big and robust tool set and the wisdom to know which tool to use to solve which kind of problem. When all you have is Lean Six Sigma, that's all you do, and everything looks like a Lean Six Sigma problem. I think that inadvertently CI has made it harder for transformation. It allows the façade of change without deep, political boundary busting change, which in many cases is exactly what large organizations need.

Peter: Definitely. Now in your book you bring up smart improvement. Let's discuss smart improvement and when do you think a company should begin smart improvement?

Steve: Now, smart improvement means realizing that organizations really have a finite capacity for change in two ways. They can only adequately stamp and lead a certain number of projects, and they can only absorb a certain number of projects. Many of the organizations have behaved as if change is free and that there's no accountability for the resources that improvement consumes. It's not free and there are finite limitations, so smart improvement realizes that the goal is to have a balanced portfolio of change projects, a mix of small, medium, and large, a mix that includes serving different constituencies, cost-reduction projects to serve shareholders, customer and service enhancing projects to make customers happy, internal projects to improve engagement, regulatory compliance activities. They need a balanced mix and they need to keep track.

I ask organizations all the time, "What's your success rate?" Then people hem and haw and they shyly look down. Most organizations don't track it. You want to get better, you track every project, its successes, and for every single project that an organization is doing, you have an after action review, post-project review to see what happened, what can be learned, and how can those lessons be exported to all the other projects that might gain from this lesson. Many organizations don't do these post-project reviews, why? There were so many projects and they're too busy. They're on to the next project.

Peter: Which brings us right back to the first point. I think this is quite an important message, so if there was one overlying takeaway you want people to get from this podcast and from your book, what would that be?

Steve: Well, I go back to the old IBM marketing message from the 1970s and 80s, where their message to the marketplace was, "Think." I think the reason I titled the book "Why Organizations Full of Smart People Do So Many Dumb Things," is organizations haven't found a way to use the organic human brains in their organization. They stifle them with stupid busyness, they overwhelm them with too much work, and organizations are dumber than the people who work in them. If organizations were employees, they'd be fired for what they cause to the people who work in them.

In today's highly competitive supercharged marketplaces, you can't afford to be dumb. You want to survive in a Darwinian environment, you need your wits about you. You need to carve out time for people to have time to think and use their intelligence, to use all the data that surrounds the organization, because that's the next revolution in process world. We live in this data-saturated world, but if you're knocking down moles, playing whack-a- mole instead of really thinking, you'll never really take advantage of all that data.

Peter: Excellent information, Steve. This is Peter Schooff at bpm.com speaking with Steve Stanton. Make sure you check out Steve's book, "Smart Work: Why Organizations Full of Intelligent People Do So Many Dumb Things and What You Can Do About It".

Steve, thanks a lot for another great podcast.

Steve: Thank you very much, Peter. You have a good day.

Author: Peter Schooff