I find it amusing that my last post, exactly 9 months and 1 day ago, was about burnout. That’s before we knew what would happen just 8 weeks later, when we’d all go into a collective (and very dull) sweat lodge to rediscover ourselves by immersion in the ordinary. Which, as it turns out, also leads to burnout. Who would have guessed.
And not unexpectedly, in that interim, WordPress changed Gutenberg again and the editor is unrecognizable. I wish developers would stop making slick UIs that make it difficult to get tasks done, or that surprise unwitting users with an unplanned for cognitive load, without great up front preparation and expectation setting. (I’ll probably end up loving the new interface. Give me until Saturday.)
What’s been going on all this time? Two main things! First, my newest book came out from ASQ Quality Press: Connected, Intelligent, Automated: The Definitive Guide to Digital Transformation with Quality 4.0. It’s great for anyone who wants to get a really good, deep-in-the-bones feel for what digital transformation really means, along with its pals AI and Machine Learning, and how to make it happen in a way that will benefit the business. (Have a business person who works in tech on your holiday shopping list who throws around a lot of buzzwords? Do you want to cure them? This would make a great gift.)
The second thing is that I joined Ultranauts, an early stage professional services startup that provides quality assurance and quality engineering via functional, manual and accessibility testing; software test automation; and data quality engineering. We’re unique because over 75% of the workforce is autistic or otherwise neurodivergent… and unlike other similar companies or “autism at work” initiatives, we just focus on creating an individualized work environment where everyone can thrive. (Sounds like something that would be great in any company, right? Exactly… that’s what we’re working on.)
I’m still not out of the pandemic fog. In fact, it’s been so thick since maybe July that I haven’t been able to focus on anything but work and related obligations, and sleeping (so apologies to anyone whose messages I’ve missed; I’ve been firing on fumes). Since I started this blog 11 or 12 years ago, I’ve rarely missed a month on the board… posting is enjoyable to me, and a great way to make sure fleeting thoughts don’t completely fleet away. So here’s to the fog lifting, the posts starting to flow again, and a new life pattern emerging.
Preferably one that includes traveling to other countries. And trains.
Over the past week, I’ve noticed lots of people on social media talking about burnout — loss of energy, loss of enthusiasm, and loss of self-confidence at work. The holidays have ended, and it seems many are not getting back into the swing like they hoped they might.
Are you burned out? If so, you’ve probably taken steps already to fix it. Most people have a natural desire to do well at work, and to make valuable contributions… and besides, burnout doesn’t feel good day to day. Maybe you spent lots of time away from your email or phone, and with family or friends. Maybe you focused on “self-care” — those activities that are supposed to pull you back to center, to restore your depleted energy.
And if the concerted steps you’ve taken don’t seem to be working, you’re probably even more stressed out (and more burned out) than you were weeks or months ago.
What’s the solution?
The good news is, the burnout won’t last forever. There’s a natural endpoint for burnout, and that’s when you completely reach your limit and don’t even have the energy to remember why you cared in the first place. Most of us would rather not get to this point. So what’s the alternative?
You have two choices, both of which can have huge impacts on your life:
Stay, and work on improving the situation, or
Leave, recognizing that you’re not able to contribute to a solution.
Unfair treatment at work. If you’ve been treated unfairly, or if you see coworkers being treated in ways that you feel is unfair, your trust in the organization is going to falter. It takes a long time to build trust, but only one or two incidents to break it.
Unmanageable workload. If you’re given too much to do, or if you work on tasks that (for some reason or another) tend to get changed, shifted, or cancelled in-progress, you’ll have a hard time seeing your efforts pan out. Everyone needs a chance to see their work come to fruition.
Lack of role clarity. If you don’t know (or are not told) what to focus on, OR if you’re told to focus on one area and then later discover someone else actually owns it, conflicts are bound to emerge.
Lack of communication and/or support from your manager. This doesn’t mean you don’t talk to each other, or that your manager doesn’t philosophically support your work — it means that they aren’t doing enough to make sure that #1, 2, 3 and 5 aren’t happening.
Unreasonable time pressure. Being expected to pull off heroics can lead to burnout, especially when it’s the status quo. The people who do the work should always be asked to provide effort estimates, particularly when the work is engineering or software development. Failure to develop and implement systematic, repeatable processes for effort estimation can lead to mass burnout later.
But here’s the part of that HBR article that really resonated with me…
The list above clearly demonstrates that the root causes of burnout do not really lie with the individual and that they can be averted — if only leadership started their prevention strategies much further upstream.
In our interview, Maslach asked me to picture a canary in a coal mine. They are healthy birds, singing away as they make their way into the cave. But, when they come out full of soot and disease, no longer singing, can you imagine us asking why the canaries made themselves sick? No, because the answer would be obvious: the coal mine is making the birds sick.
The lesson here is: If you’re burned out, it’s not a personal failure.
Burnout is a symptom of structural or process issues… that senior leaders are responsible for repairing.
The “Should I stay or should I go?” question, then, boils down to this:
Stay if you can help the organization treat people more fairly, establish manageable workloads, define more clear roles, improve communication with managers, and/or alleviate time pressure.
Leave if you can’t.
Granted, the decision process for you individually is probably more complex than this… but perhaps, by realizing that burnout is a characteristic of your environment and not a referendum on your personal resilience, you’ll be able to figure out your own path more easily. Good luck!
I read well over a hundred books a year, and review many for Quality Management Journaland Software Quality Professional. Today, I’d like to bring you my TOP 10 PICKS out of all the books I read in 2019. First, let me affirm that I loved all of these books — it was really difficult to rank them. The criteria I used were:
Is the topic related to quality or improvement? The book had to focus on making people, process, or technology better in some way. (So even though Greg Satell’s Cascades provided an amazing treatment of how to start movements, which is helpful for innovation, it wasn’t as closely related to the themes of quality and improvement I was targeting.)
Did the book have an impact on me? In particular, did it transform my thinking in some way?
Finally, how big is the audience that would be interested in this book? (Although some of my picks are amazing for niche audiences, they will be less amazing for people who are not part of that group; they were ranked lower.)
Did I read it in 2019? (Unfortunately, several amazing books I read at the end of 2018 like Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Antisocial Media.)
The biggest obstacle in agile transformation is getting teams to internalize the core values, and apply them as a matter of habit. This is why you see so many organizations do “fake agile” — do things like introduce daily stand-ups, declare themselves agile, and wonder why the success isn’t pouring in. Scott goes back to the first principles of the Agile Manifesto from 2001 to help leaders and teams become genuinely agile.
#9 – Risk-Based Thinking (Muschara)
Muschara, T. (2018). Risk-Based Thinking: Managing the Uncertainty of Human Error in Operations. Routledge/Taylor & Francis: Oxon and New York. 287 pages.
Risk-based thinking is one of the key tenets of ISO 9001:2015, which became the authoritative version in September 2018. Although clause 8.5.3 from ISO 9001:2008 indirectly mentioned risk, it was not a driver for identifying and executing preventive actions. The new emphasis on risk depends upon the organizational context (clause 4.1) and the needs and expectations of “interested parties” or stakeholders (clause 4.2).
Unfortunately, the ISO 9001 revision does not provide guidance for how to incorporate risk-based thinking into operations, which is where Muschara’s new book fills the gap. It’s detailed and complex, but practical (and includes immediately actionable elements) throughout. For anyone struggling with the new focus of ISO 9001:2015, this book will help you bring theory into practice.
#8 – The Successful Software Manager (Fung)
Fung, H. (2019). The Successful Software Manager. Packt Publishing, Birmingham UK, 433 pp.
There lots of books on the market that provide technical guidance to software engineers and quality assurance specialists, but little information to help them figure out how (and whether) to make the transition from developer to manager. Herman Fung’s new release fills this gap in a complete, methodical, and inspiring way. This book will benefit any developer or technical specialist who wants to know what software management entails and how they can adapt to this role effectively. It’s the book I wish I had 20 years ago.
#7 – New Power (Heimans & Timms)
Heiman, J. & Timms, H. (2018). New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World – and How to Make it Work For You. Doubleday, New York, 325 pp.
As we change technology, the technology changes us. This book is an engaging treatise on how to navigate the power dynamics of our social media-infused world. It provides insight on how to use, and think in terms of, “platform culture”.
#6 – A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession (Maldonado)
Maldonado, J. (2019). A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession: The Relentless Pursuit (CRC Focus). CRC Press: Taylor & Francis, Boca Raton FL, 154 pp.
One of the best ways to learn about a role or responsibility is to hear stories from people who have previously served in those roles. With that in mind, if you’re looking for a way to help make safety management “real” — or to help new safety managers in your organization quickly and easily focus on the most important elements of the job — this book should be your go-to reference. In contrast with other books that focus on the interrelated concepts in quality, safety, and environmental management, this book gets the reader engaged by presenting one key story per chapter. Each story takes an honest, revealing look at safety. This book is short, sweet, and high-impact for those who need a quick introduction to the life of an occupational health and safety manager.
# 5 – Data Quality (Mahanti)
Mahanti, R. (2018). Data Quality: Dimensions, Measurement, Strategy, Management and Governance. ASQ Quality Press, Milwaukee WI, 526 pp.
I can now confidently say — if you need a book on data quality, you only need ONE book on data quality. Mahanti, who is one of the Associate Editors of Software Quality Professional, has done a masterful job compiling, organizing, and explaining all aspects of data quality. She takes a cross-industry perspective, producing a handbook that is applicable for solving quality challenges associated with any kind of data.
Throughout the book, examples and stories are emphasized. Explanations supplement most concepts and topics in a way that it is easy to relate your own challenges to the lessons within the book. In short, this is the best data quality book on the market, and will provide immediately actionable guidance for software engineers, development managers, senior leaders, and executives who want to improve their capabilities through data quality.
#4 – The Innovator’s Book (McKeown)
McKeown, M. (2020). The Innovator’s Book: Rules for Rebels, Mavericks and Innovators (Concise Advice). LID Publishing, 128 pp.
Want to inspire your teams to keep innovation at the front of their brains? If so, you need a coffee table book, and preferably one where the insights come from actual research. That’s what you’ve got with Max’s new book. (And yes, it’s “not published yet” — I got an early copy. Still meets my criteria for 2019 recommendations.)
#3 – The Seventh Level (Slavin)
Slavin, A. (2019). The Seventh Level: Transform Your Business Through Meaningful Engagement with Customer and Employees. Lioncrest Publishing, New York, 250 pp.
For starters, Amanda is a powerhouse who’s had some amazing marketing and branding successes early in her career. It makes sense, then, that she’s been able to encapsulate the lessons learned into this book that will help you achieve better customer engagement. How? By thinking about engagement in terms of different levels, from Disengagement to Literate Thinking. By helping your customers take smaller steps along this seven step path, you can make engagement a reality.
#2 – Principle Based Organizational Structure (Meyer)
Meyer, D. (2019). Principle-Based Organizational Structure: A Handbook to Help You Engineer Entrepreneurial Thinking and Teamwork into Organizations of Any Size. NDMA, 420 pp.
This is my odds-on impact favorite of the year. It takes all the best practices I’ve learned over the past two decades about designing an organization for laser focus on strategy execution — and packages them up into a step-by-step method for assessing and improving organizational design. This book can help you fix broken organizations… and most organizations are broken in some way.
#1 Story 10x (Margolis)
Margolis, M. (2019). Story 10x: Turn the Impossible Into the Inevitable. Storied, 208 pp.
You have great ideas, but nobody else can see what you see. Right?? Michael’s book will help you cut through the fog — build a story that connects with the right people at the right time. It’s not like those other “build a narrative” books — it’s like a concentrated power pellet, immediately actionable and compelling. This is my utility favorite of the year… and it changed the way I think about how I present my own ideas.
Fifteen or so years ago, I was a member of a review team that assessed a major, multi-million dollar software project. We were asked to perform the review because the project had some issues — it cost nearly $2M a year, was not yet delivering value to users, and had been running for 17 years.
Were I the ultimate decision-maker, my plan of action would have been simple: shut down the project, reconstitute a team with some representation from the old team, and use the lessons learned to rearchitect a newer, more robust solution. It would have customer involvement from the start to ensure a short time-to-value (and continuous flow of value). But there was one complication: the subject matter for this software package was highly specialized and required active involvement from people who had deep knowledge of the problem domain… and the team already had about 60% of the world’s experts on it.
Still, I was focused on the sunk costs. I felt that the organization should not choose to keep the project going just because over $20M had been poured into it… the sunk costs should not factor into the decision.
But then something very curious happened two years later, as the project was still hemorrhaging money… I was put in charge of it. So what did I do? Launched a two-month due diligence to reassess the situation, of course.
I was not on the review team this time, but their assessment was not a surprise — can the project, reconstitute the team, use the lessons learned to plan a new approach to delivering value quickly.
So that’s what I did… right? NOOOOO!!! I decided to try a little harder… because of course we could get the current software project to be stable and valuable, if we just gave it a little more time.
Even I was shocked by my transformation. Why was I feeling like this? Why was I ignoring the facts? Why was I, all of a sudden, powerless to make the appropriate and most logical choice?
Turns out, I was just demonstrating human nature via the Endowment Effect — which says, simplistically, that once you own something you value it more than before you own it. This is not just a curiosity though… because it can get in the way of effective decision-making.
Think about it:
Before you buy a house, you psychologically devalue it because you want to get a better deal. But once you move in, your psyche inflates the value because you stand to win as the value increases.
Why is it that leaders often value the opinions of consultants more than the opinions of full-time staff? Because consultants are more expensive, and once their reports have been submitted, you now own the intellectual property… and value it more.
The same effect occurs if you buy a company. You may be sensitive to issues and opportunities for improvement prior to the sale, but once your signature is on the dotted line… the endowment effect kicks in, and the rose-colored glasses magically appear.
This has a huge implication for quality and process improvement. Once you own something, you are less able to see the problems that need to be solved. This is why we use external auditors for our ISO 9001 programs, or review panels for our government projects, or a quality award assessment process for evaluating how well we are translating strategy to action.
Other people can see areas for improvement that you can’t, if you’re an owner of the process that has problems. The lesson? Get external eyes on your internal issues, and pay attention to their insights.
…your organization’s blueprint: it identifies your business model and processes, provides details about how your people will work together to get things done, and establishes specifications for performance — so you can tell if you’re on track… or not.
By this definition, the U.S. Constitution is a quality system — just like ISO 9001, or any system developed using the Baldrige Criteria, or a system for strategy execution based on Hoshin planning and other lean principles. The Constitution defines the blueprint for how power will be distributed (among the three branches of government, and between the country and the states), provides details about how the branches will work together and what principles they will abide by, and establishes clear standards for performance right up front:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
(The preamble is the Constitution’s quality policy.)
But even though I’ve been working with (and researching) quality systems since the late 90s, I didn’t see the connection until yesterday, when I read some excerpts from the Don McGahn case. McGahn, who was subpoenaed by the House of Representatives to testify in the Trump impeachment hearings, was instructed by the White House to disobey the order. He asked a court to decide whether or not he should be made to appear. Federal District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, in a 120-page response, called on the characteristics of the Constitution that make it a quality system to make the determination:
…when a committee of Congress seeks testimony and records by issuing a valid subpoena in the context of a duly authorized investigation, it has the Constitution’s blessing, and ultimately, it is acting not in its own interest, but for the benefit of the People of the United States. If there is fraud or abuse or waste or corruption in the federal government, it is the constitutional duty of Congress to find the facts and, as necessary, take corrective action.
This pattern should be really familiar to anyone who’s worked with ISO 9001 or similar quality systems! After your company’s processes and procedures are put in place, and your performance standards are defined (for products as well as processes), you implement a monitoring system to catch any nonconformance that might arise. Then, after root cause analysis, you implement a corrective action to improve the impacted process.
In the U.S., those nonconformances are fraud or abuse or waste or corruption or even injustice that one person (or entity) experiences at the hands of another. You can take up the issue with the courts, which will (in many cases) interpret the laws, implement countermeasures, and potentially lead to larger-scale corrective actions, like new laws.
How can you tell if the quality system defined by the Constitution is working? Evaluate it against the performance standards. Is justice taking place? Is there domestic tranquility, adequate defense, and general welfare? If not, then the structure of the quality system (e.g. the Amendments) should change to better enable the desired outcomes.
Although the system is imperfect, it does — by design — support continuous improvement that incorporates the Voice of the Customer (VoC). This is done through Congressional representation, carefully selected juries of peers, and NGOs that research and advance specific interests.
So the next time you’re wondering whether your ISO 9001 system adds value, ask yourself… does the U.S. Constitution add value? I think you’ll conclude that both can provide a necessary foundation.
The link between quality and structures in the U.S. government was also noted by Tim J. Clark in this 2008 article from the Indianapolis Star, entitled “People working together can make a more perfect union.” He notes that ‘The aim of the American system of government is to enable “We the People” to work together to make progress – not toward a “perfect” union, which would be impossible – but rather toward a “more perfect” union’ and explains how this aligns with Deming’s philosophy.
Although there are many aspects of my life that I’m thankful for (e.g. my cat, the people around me, the amazing R community and the software they build), this post is going to be focused on THINGS I am thankful for. These things definitely improve my quality of life.
I don’t usually venture outside the bounds of management, quality, or data science, but I’m on “vacation” (ie, not working for a week) and my chemical exposure model has an Object of Type Closure is Not Subsettable error (which means I need to let it sit for a while) so want to share with you things in my life that spark joy. And… Happy (American) Thanksgiving!
#1 My Brita Water Filter
I drink a lot of water… and a lot of coffee. And I’m really sensitive to the way the water tastes, especially after an incident years ago where the water in my house had black mold (no one else could taste it, but I swore there was something with the water — they started believing me when I broke out in hives from drinking it.) When the Brita entered my life, my quality of life changed drastically.
We make coffee with Brita water… we give the cat Brita water. We even got a 2nd Brita so we wouldn’t have to wait if the water in the first Brita ran out. I love these things.
#2 My Behmor Coffee Machine
Initially, I was skeptical about this coffee machine. It looked like it didn’t hold enough cups, and for goodness sake, I don’t need my coffee maker to be hooked up to the internet. Turns out I do. Every time I wake up, the coffee is already made for me, and there’s a cool app where you can customize the temperature of the water and other factors. It is the nerd’s ultimate coffee machine. I have no idea why it’s got weak reviews on Amazon.
I like this so much, we bought a second one that’s sitting in the closet — waiting for the moment that the first one breaks.
#3 New Mexico Pinon Coffee
I always thought I’d live in New Mexico… I did work there for a while (if you count traveling to your office’s other site) and I do have a graduate certificate in management from the U of NM. But who needs to live there when you get to taste pinon in your coffee every morning! That’s right. We usually mix 40% pinon to 60% french roast.
#4 My Smart Mattress Cover
I’ve had pretty serious thyroid problems since I was a kid, and every so often, it gets out of control. The past several months, it’s been really bad. In addition to being super sluggish with dry skin, it also makes you cold which means (for me, at least) that it’s hard to fall asleep at night. But not when you have the smart mattress cover! A few minutes before I go to bed, I pick up my phone, connect to my mattress, and turn on the heat timer… which roasts me for up to 8 hours and then shuts off. I love this so much that I miss it when I’m away from home on travel. I have never missed being away from home while traveling, so this is a Big Deal.
I am not a huge fan of this company’s mattresses, but their mattress cover is A+. The app also comes with a sleep monitor, but I swear, they’ve got new software developers tweaking their algorithm on a daily basis. We don’t trust the sleep score any more, and the sleep app UI is so infuriating (and changes so often) that we’ve stopped using it. But it doesn’t matter because… the heater is blissful. Did I mention that the heater works separately for each side of the bed? So you can roast while your partner… doesn’t have to.
There’s another fringe benefit… you can always tell when someone else has been sleeping in your bed because your phone will alert you. And it will also tell you exactly what minutes your side of the bed was being occupied. I’m sure some people would like to have this kind of information.
#5 South Dakota Fry Bread
When I lived in South Dakota, I was introduced to fry bread via Indian tacos. Today, when I fry this up, I’m immediately taken to a part of my life that was simpler and more carefree. The fry bread might taste good just because it evokes these emotions in me, but who knows… it might work for you too. And you don’t even need to do the taco part! Just fry up the bread, eat it, and be transported to… South Dakota.
I may add more Things I’m Thankful For as I think of them.
Years ago I consulted for an organization that had an enticing mission, a dynamic and highly qualified workforce of around 200 people, and an innovative roadmap that was poised to make an impact — estimated to be ~$350-500M (yes really, that big). But there was one huge problem.
As engineers, the leadership could readily provide information about uptime and Service Level Agreements (SLAs). But they had no idea whether they were on track to meet strategic goals — or even whether they would be able to deliver key operations projects — at all! We recommended that they focus on developing metrics, and provided some guidelines for the types of metrics that might help them deliver their products and services — and satisfy their demanding customers.
Unfortunately, we made a critical mistake.
They were overachievers. When we came back six months later, they had nearly a thousand metrics. (A couple of the guys, beaming with pride, didn’t quite know how to interpret our non-smiling faces.)
“So tell us… what are your top three goals for the year, and are you on track to meet them?” we asked.
They looked at each other… then at us. They looked down at their papers. They glanced at each other again. It was in that moment they realized the difference between KPIs and metrics.
KPIs are KEY Performance Indicators. They have meaning. They are important. They are significant. And they relate to the overall goals of your business.
One KPI is associated with one or moremetrics. Metrics are numbers, counts, percentages, or other values that provide insight about what’s happened in the past (descriptive metrics), what is happening right now (diagnostic metrics), what will happen (predictive metrics or forecasts), or what should happen (prescriptive metrics or recommendations).
For the human brain to be able to detect and respond to patterns in organizational performance, limit the number of KPIs!
A good rule of thumb is to select 3-5 KPIs (but never more than 8 or 9!) per logical division of your organization. A logical division can be a functional area (finance, IT, call center), a product line, a program or collection of projects, or a collection of strategic initiatives.
Or, use KPIs and metrics to describe product performance, process performance, customer satisfaction, customer engagement, workforce capability, workforce capacity, leadership performance, governance performance, financial performance, market performance, and how well you are executing on the action plans that drive your strategic initiatives (strategy performance). These logical divisions come from the Baldrige Excellence Framework.
Similarly, try to limit the number of projects and initiatives in each functional area — and across your organization. Work gets done more easily when people understand how all the parts of your organization relate to one another.
What happened to the organization from the story, you might ask? Within a year, they had boiled down their metrics into 8 functional areas, were working on 4 strategic initiatives, and had no more than 5 KPIs per functional area.They found it really easy to monitor the state of their business, and respond in an agile and capable way. (They were still collecting lots more metrics, but they only had to dig into them on occasion.)
Remember… metrics are helpful, but:
KPIs are KEY!!
You don’t have thousands of keys to your house… and you don’t want thousands of KPIs. Take a critical look at what’s most important to your business, and organize that information in a way that’s accessible. You’ll find it easier to manage everything — strategic initiatives, projects, and operations.