Tag Archives: management

Burnout at Work? It’s Not Your Fault

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.

But how do you know which path to take? First and foremost, it’s important to understand where burnout comes from. In December 2019, Harvard Business Review published a great article that makes it clear:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Jennifer Moss, in Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People

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!

Top 10 Business Books You Should Read in 2020


I read well over a hundred books a year, and review many for Quality Management Journal and 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:

  1. 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.)
  2. Did the book have an impact on me? In particular, did it transform my thinking in some way?
  3. 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.)
  4. Did I read it in 2019? (Unfortunately, several amazing books I read at the end of 2018 like Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Antisocial Media.)

#10 – Understanding Agile Values & Principles (Duncan)

Duncan, Scott. (2019). Understanding Agile Values & Principles. An Examination of the Agile Manifesto. InfoQ, 106 pp. Available from https://www.infoq.com/minibooks/agile-values-principles

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.


Hope you found this list enjoyable! And although it’s not on my Top 10 for obvious reasons, check out my Introductory Statistics and Data Science with R as well — I released the 3rd edition in 2019.

KPIs vs Metrics: What’s the Difference? And Why Does it Matter?

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 more metrics. 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.

How the Baldrige Process Can Enrich Any Management System

Another wave of reviewing applications for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (MBNQA) is complete, and I am exhausted — and completely fulfilled and enriched!

That’s the way this process works. As a National Examiner, you will be frustrated, you may cry, and you may think your team of examiners will never come to consensus on the right words to say to the applicant! But because there is a structured process and a discipline, it always happens, and everyone learns.

I’ve been working with the Baldrige Excellence Framework (BEF) for almost 20 years. In the beginning, I used it as a template. Need to develop a Workforce Management Plan that’s solid, and integrates well with leadership, governance, and operations? There’s a framework for that (Criterion 5). Need to beef up your strategic planning process so you do the right thing and get it done right? There’s a framework for that (Criterion 2).

Need to develop Standard Work in any area of your organization, and don’t know where to start (or, want to make sure you covered all the bases)? There’s a framework for that.

Every year, 300 National Examiners are competitively selected from industry experts and senior leaders who care about performance and improvement, and want to share their expertise with others. The stakes are high… after all, this is the only award of its kind sponsored by the highest levels of government!

Once you become a National Examiner (my first year was 2009), you get to look at the Criteria Questions through a completely different lens. You start to see the rich layers of its structure. You begin to appreciate that this guidebook was carefully and iteratively crafted over three decades, drawing from the experiences of executives and senior leaders across a wide swath of industries, faced with both common and unique challenges.

The benefits to companies that are assessed for the award are clear and actionable, but helping others helps examiners, too. Yes, we put in a lot of volunteer hours on evenings and weekends (56 total, for me, this year) — but I got to go deep with one more organization. I got to see how they think of themselves, how they designed their organization to meet their strategic goals, how they act on that design. Our team of examiners got to discuss the strengths we noticed individually, the gaps that concerned us, and we worked together to come to consensus on the most useful and actionable recommendations for the applicant so they can advance to the next stage of quality maturity.

One of the things I learned this year was how well Baldrige complements other frameworks like ISO 9001 and lean. You may have a solid process in place for managing operations, leading continuous improvement events, and sustaining the improvements. You may have a robust strategic planning process, with clear connections between overall objectives and individual actions.

What Baldrige can add to this, even if you’re already a high performance organization, is:

  • tighten the gaps
  • call out places where standard work should be defined
  • identify new breakthrough opportunities for improvement
  • help everyone in your workforce see and understand the connections between people, processes, and technologies

The whitespace — those connections and seams — are where the greatest opportunities for improvement and innovation are hiding. The Criteria Questions in the Baldrige Excellence Framework (BEF) can help you illuminate them.

Lack of Alignment is an Organizational Disease. Here are the Symptoms.

Streamlines on a field. Created using the pracma package in R.

Like a champion rowing team, your organization needs to make sure everyone is working together, engaged in synchronized work and active collaboration, and not working at cross-purposes.

But like risk management, working on alignment can seem like a luxury. No one really has time to slow down and make sure everyone’s moving in the same direction. And besides, alignment just happens naturally if each functional area knows what they’re supposed to be working on… right?

Neither of these statements are, of course, true. Synchronizing people and processes – and making sure they’re aware of the needs and desires of real customers instead of cardboard personas – takes dedicated effort and a commitment from senior leaders. There are other critical impacts too: lack of alignment negatively impacts not only project outcomes – but also professional relationships and the bottom line.

An Example of Diagnosing Misalignment

Although alignment is a many-to-many problem, and requires you to look at relationships between people in all your functional areas, a January 2018 survey from Altify examined one part of the organizational puzzle: alignment between sales and marketing. This is a big one, because sales teams use marketing materials to understand and sell the product or service your company offers. Their survey of 422 enterprise-level executives and sales leaders showed that:

  • 74% of marketers think they understood customer needs, but only 44% of sales people in their organizations agreed
  • 71% of marketers think sales and marketing are aligned, but only 59% of sales people in their organizations agreed

These differences may seem small, but they reveal a lack of alignment between sales and marketing. One group thinks they “get it” – while people in the other group are just shaking their heads.

Symptoms of Misalignment

…include things like:

  • Vague Feelings of Fear. Your organization has a strategic plan (knows WHAT it wants to do), but there is little to no coordination regarding HOW people across the organization will accomplish strategic objectives. You know what KPIs you’re supposed to deliver on, but you don’t know how exactly you’re supposed to work with anything in your power or control to “move the needle.”
  • Ivory Tower Syndrome. You’re in a meeting and get the visceral sense that things aren’t clear, or that different people have different expectations for a project or initiative. But you’re too nervous or uncertain to ask for clarification – or maybe you do ask, but you get an equally unclear answer. Naturally, you assume that everyone in the room is smarter than you (particularly the managers) so you shut up and hope that it makes sense later. The reality is that you may be picking up on a legitimate problem that’s going to be problematic for the organization later on.
  • Surprises. A department committed you to a task, but you weren’t part of that decision. Once you find out about it, the task just may not get done. Alternatively, you’ll have to adjust your workload and reset expectations with the stakeholders who will now be disappointed that you can’t meet their needs according to the original schedule. Or maybe work evenings and weekends to get the job done on time. Either way, it’s not pleasant for anyone.
  • Emergencies. How often are you called on to respond to something that’s absolutely needed by close of business today? How often are you expected to drop everything and take care of it? How often do you have to work nights and weekends to make sure you don’t fall behind?
  • Lead Balloons. In this scenario, key stakeholders are called into projects at the 11th hour, when they are unable to guide or influence the direction of an initiative. The initiative becomes a “dead man walking” that’s doomed to an untimely end, but since the organization has sunk time and effort into it, people will push ahead anyway.
  • Cut Off at the Pass. Have you ever been working on a project and find out – somewhere in the middle of doing it – that some other person or team has been working on the same thing? Or maybe they’ve been working on a different project, but it’s ultimately at cross purposes with yours. Whatever way this situation works out, your organization ends up with a pile of waste and potential rework.
  • Not Writing Things Down.You have to make sure everyone is literally on the same page, seeing the world in a similar enough way to know they are pursuing the same goals and objectives. If you don’t write things down, you may be at the mercy of cognitive biases later. How do you know that your goals and objectives are aligned with your overall company strategy? Can you review written minutes after key meetings? Are your organization’s strategic initiatives written and agreed to by decision makers? Do you implement project charters that all stakeholders have to sign off on before work can commence? What practices do you use to get everyone on the same page?

How do you fix it?

That’s the subject for more blog posts that will be coming this spring – as well as what causes misalignment in the first place (hint: it’s individual behaviors on an organizational scale). The good news is – misalignment can be fixed, and the degree of alignment can be measured and continuously improved. Sign up to follow this blog so you don’t miss the rest of the story.

What other symptoms of misalignment have you experienced?

Make Strategic Alignment Actionable with Baldrige

It can be difficult to focus on strategy when your organization has to comply with standards and regulations. Tracking and auditing can be tedious! If you’re a medical device manufacturer, you may need to maintain ISO 13485 compliance to participate in the supply chain. At the same time, you’ve got to meet all the requirements of 21 CFR 820. You’ve also got to remember other regulations that govern production and postmarket. (To read more about the challenges, check out Wienholt’s 2016 post.) There’s a lot to keep track of!

But strategy is important. Alignment is even more important! And in my opinion, the easiest way to improve alignment and get “Big Q” quality is to use the Baldrige Excellence Framework. It was developed by the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, and is administered by NIST.

In Is Good, Good Enough for You? Taking the Next Step After ISO 9001:2015, former Baldrige Program Executive Director Harry Hertz outlines similarities and differences between ISO 9001:2015 and Baldrige. After examining complements, Harry shows how Baldrige helps organizations grow beyond the conformance mindset:

I have not shared all the commonalities of or differences between ISO 9001:2015 and the Baldrige Excellence Framework. Instead, I have tried to show the organizational possibilities of building on conformity assessment to establish a holistic approach for achieving excellence in every dimension of organizational performance today, with a look to the strategic imperatives and opportunities for the future. Baldrige helps an organization take this journey with a focus on process (55% of the scoring rubric) and results (45% of the rubric), recognizing that great processes are only valuable if they yield the complete set of results that lead to organizational sustainability… I encourage organizations that have not gone beyond conformity to take the next step in securing your future.

Read More Here! –>

Yes, You Do Need to Write Down Procedures. Except…

近代工芸の名品― [特集展示] 

A 棗 from http://www.momat.go.jp/cg/exhibition/masterpiece2018/ — I saw this one in person!!

Several weeks ago we went to an art exhibit about “tea caddies” at the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art. Although it might seem silly, these kitchen containers are a fixture of Japanese culture. In Japan, drinking green tea is a cornerstone of daily life.

It was about 2 in the afternoon, and we had checked out of our hotel at 11. Wandering through the center of the city, we stumbled upon the museum. Since we didn’t have to meet our friends for several more hours, we decided to check it out.

Confession: I’m not a huge fan of art museums. Caveat: I usually enjoy them to some degree or another when I end up in them. But I didn’t think tea caddies could possibly be useful to me. I was wrong!

When to Write SOPs

One of the features of the exhibit was a Book of Standard Operating Procedures. It described how to create a new lacquered tea caddy from paper. (Unfortunately, photography was prohibited for this piece in particular.) The book was open, laying flat, showing a grid of characters on the right hand side. The grid described a particular process step in great detail. On the left page, a picture of a craftsman performing that step was attached. The card describing the book of SOPs explained that each of the 18 process steps was described using exactly the same format. This decision was made to ensure that the book would help accomplish certain things:

  • Improve Production Quality. Even masters sometimes need to follow instructions, or to be reminded about an old lesson learned, especially if the process is one you only do occasionally. SOPs promote consistency over time, and from person to person. 
  • Train New Artists. Even though learning the craft is done under the supervision of a skilled worker, it’s impossible to remember every detail (unless you have an eidetic memory, which most of us don’t have). The SOP serves as a guide during the learning process.
  • Enable Continuous Improvement. The SOP is the base from which adjustments and performance improvements are grown. It provides “version control” so you can monitor progress and examine the evolution of work over time.
  • Make Space for Creativity. It might be surprising, but having guidance for a particular task or process in the form of an SOP reduces cognitive load, making it easier for a person to recognize opportunities for improvement. In addition, deviations aren’t always prohibited (although in high-reliability organizations, or industries that are highly regulated, you might want to check before being too creative). The art is contributed by the person, not the process.

When Not to Write SOPs

Over the past couple decades, when I’ve asked people to write up SOPs for a given process, I’ve often run into pushback. The most common reasons are “But I know how to do this!” and “It’s too complicated to describe!” The first reason suggests that the person is threatened by the prospect of someone else doing (and possibly taking over) that process, and the second is just an excuse. Maybe.

Because sometimes, the pushback can be legitimate. Not all processes need SOPs. For example, I wouldn’t write up an SOP for the creative process of writing a blog post, or for a new research project (that no one has ever done before) culminating in the publication of a new research article. In general, processes that vary significantly each time they’re run, or processes that require doing something that no one has ever done before — don’t lend themselves well to SOPs.

Get on the Same Page

The biggest reason to document SOPs is to literally get everyone on the same page. You’d be surprised how often people think they’re following the same process, but they’re not! An easy test for this is to have each person who participates in a process draw a flow chart showing the process steps and decisions are made on their own, and then compare all the sketches. If they’re different, work together until you’re all in agreement over what’s on one flow chart — and you’ll notice a sharp and immediate improvement in performance and communication.

« Older Entries