Tag Archives: strategy

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?

Strategic Planning and To-Do Lists… with EASE

Thompson Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. Image Credit: (c) 2008, Nicole Radziwill.

Thompson Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. Image Credit: (c) 2008, Nicole Radziwill.

In his September post to the Influential Voices, ASQ CEO Bill Troy discusses principles for effective strategic planning, gleaned from his years of experience with the U.S. Army. He also asks what principles we’ve found useful. Today, I’d like to share a little heuristic that Ron DuPlain and I came up with over lunch several years ago. It’s useful not only for strategic planning, but also for creating your daily or weekly to-do list, or even things like making a good grocery list.

EASE stands for Expectations, Actionability, Sustainability, and Evaluation. Here are some excerpts on EASE from a book I wrote for college students. (Note that several of the examples have to do with setting goals as a student… but these can be easily applied to any work situation.)

When you face a challenging problem, examine your scenario through the lens of EASE. Usually, you’ll find that you have a “failure” in only one or two of the EASE letters, and when you remedy that issue, all of a sudden your problem becomes easier to solve. Make sure all four elements are addressed when tackling a challenge that involves people (including you!) and obligations (such as meeting due dates, completing exams, and satisfying learning objectives).

E: Expectations. Did you ever ask your parents to borrow their car so you could go out with your friends? Chances are, unless you have the kind of parents I wished I’d had growing up, they set some expectations with you up front. When are you going to be home? Is anyone else going to be riding in the car with you? Are you going to pay for your own gas? Expectations like these help two people establish a shared situation that won’t get either of them mad or upset. You will need to set expectations with your stakeholders (in college, that primarily means your professors) and yourself about what you would want to get out of a particular class. Make sure everyone knows what the expectations are!! Check out the learning objectives that are outlined in the syllabus, and decide how you want to achieve them. (This means you need to set clear, specific, and reasonable goals.) Expectation setting ALWAYS beats surprises.

A: Actionability. Once you set your own clear goals, you need to figure out what actions to take to achieve those goals, and the actions must be actionable. I know this sounds funny, but I have seen way too many to-do lists where the doer has no hope to actually get the stuff done. Example: I had an item on my to-do list this morning that said “Tax Woman.” (What? I’m supposed to do the tax woman? OMG.) That task is not actionable, but if I’d said “Look up tax woman’s address, write and send payment” then… all of a sudden… I can get that job done. Making tasks actionable means figuring out how you are going to be an active and informed participant in achieving your goals. Figure out what you NEED for items on your to-do list to actually get done. All too often, you will have some tasks on your to-do list that you have no clue how to begin, and those items are not actionable. If you do not have all the resources, help, confidence, information, time, and skills to knock a task off your list, that task is not actionable. Don’t even try to start a task that’s not actionable, because you’ll end up sad or confused. You could potentially even start a downward spiral or fuel a pre-existing spiral with vigor and reckless abandon, if you dare to spend time on a task that’s not actionable.

S: Sustainability. Figure out how you are going to sustain the effort and the semblance of mind throughout the duration of your efforts… so that you can actually make your goal happen. Before the semester begins, figure out how you’re going to balance work life and school life so that you’re not maxing out your waking hours on the stressful pursuit of progress. (For example: if you are working at three jobs a total of 45 hours a week and taking 21 semester hours, this is not sustainable. However, you probably won’t know that until 70% of the way through the term when you catch pneumonia due to exhaustion, lose two of your three jobs, and miss so many classes and so much homework that you have to withdraw from one class and take an incomplete on another. What? You say that’s a completely unbelievable story? Answer: you’re wrong. This was my personal story the second semester of my sophomore year.)

E: Evaluation. Figure out how you’re going to measure whether you are on track or off track – and what you’re going to do as a corrective action if you find out you’re off track. Similarly, identify up front how often you are going to take a critical look at your progress. For coursework, you might want to check and see whether you’re allowing enough time to do your assignments. You may want to take a look at the grades and feedback you’re getting. Most of the time, just gauging how you feel about a situation or a problem is the most useful way to evaluate whether you’re progressing. If you feel nervous, anxious, or unsettled, chances are you’re not responding and reacting to that situation in a positive way. If you feel calm, peaceful, in control, paced, and you are enjoying yourself, chances are you are visualizing your desired goals constructively, detaching from outcomes (especially grades), and appreciating the journey towards your goals.

When you examine a strategy using EASE, oftentimes, you’ll find that you have a major failure on one or two of the four points. Simply by addressing those points, you will strengthen your ability to realize your strategy. Here are four types of “EASE failures”:

  • Expectation Gap – One or more stakeholders in your situation has no expectations or ill-defined expectations, or different players have conflicting expectations which sets up an expectation gap. The solution here is to set expectations through conversations and by recording points you agree on, or alternatively, to close expectation gaps through conversation and consensus.
  • Limited or No Actionability – You’ve got stuff to do and tasks defined, but you don’t have the time, resources, skills or clarity required to do them. Fix this by making sure you have everything you need to get started on each to-do list item, and you can launch into them with confidence.
  • Inability to Sustain – You’ve bit off more than you can chew or are working at a pace that will exhaust your time, resources, emotions, or well-being. Scope down and set more reasonable expectations. Figure out how to work at a comfortable pace where you can make more regular, steady progress.
  • Lack of Assessment or Evaluation – You’ve set expectations and have actionable tasks, but you aren’t revisiting the expectations to make sure that they remain relevant, or perhaps you’re just not doing it frequently enough. Also check your emotional barometer.

By examining your intended strategy or activity through the lens of EASE, you can identify and remove potential blocks before they become problematic. Good luck!

Peripheral Visioning

doug-jan-d

Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to

Somehow, some way, over the course of too many years growing up staring into a computer screen — my eyesight became much-less-than-perfect.

Only I didn’t know it. I thought everyone lived in a slightly hazy, cloudy world, where all the colors naturally blended into postmodern mosaics of distant trees and mountains. It was never a problem for me until the day about ten years ago that I was headed east on I-64 into Charlottesville, and coming over the hill into town, struggled to identify what that giant number on the speed limit sign was. I squinted, closed one eye at a time, and figured that the number was probably 55… so I slowed down. Then I realized:

They probably make those speed limit signs big enough for anyone to see.

I got scared, and drove straight to the walk-in eyeglass clinic, where I explained my predicament. They quickly made room in their schedule for an emergency appointment. Usually afterwards, they make you wait 24 hours to pick up your new glasses, but with my 20/400 vision, they wouldn’t let me leave without them. Fortunately, my eyesight could be corrected to almost 20/20, which was nice. I walked out of the store with my new glasses on — and into an amazing, sparkly new world! The trees all had individual leaves on them!! Cars were so shiny! I could read license plates — from MY driver’s seat!

But immediately, I recognized how I’d managed to drive for all those years with bad vision!

Because I couldn’t really see what was ahead of me, I just focused my vision off and to the right side of the road, on the ground. I kept the road and the cars in my peripheral vision, so I could easily sense where they were, and make accommodations. If I tried to look straight ahead, I got frustrated quickly, emotionally wrapped around my own axle, because I couldn’t see any of the detail… and ultimately, that state of being wasn’t safe for driving. I couldn’t focus on what I was worried about, or I’d be a danger on the road.

Not long after that, I realized how effective a strategy this was in my work — because there’s so much change and uncertainty, it’s impossible to look directly ahead of you and see clearly. And that can be scary and unsettling! My solution was: if there was some big goal I was trying to achieve, the best way to reduce my angst and qualm my (sometimes very subtle) emotional stranglehold on myself — was to focus on something else. Something just as important, maybe even something that contributed to the main goal, but something I was not quite so emotionally wrangled by!

I starting calling this my “peripheral visioning” technique. It actually helped me achieve my primary goals – because by consciously setting my primary goal to the side, and focusing on something related to it (or maybe in support of it), I was still making progress but I wasn’t experiencing as much stress. And as a result, I was more open to the serendipity and the chance encounters – with people and with information – that helped me make progress on the primary goal!

Set an intention, get your ducks in a row, and then get out of your own way by focusing on something else!

The Origins of Just-In-Time

A couple weeks ago, the students in my ISAT 654 (Advanced Technology Management) class at JMU asked about where and when Just-In-Time (JIT) manufacturing actually started in the United States. Although I still can’t identify the FIRST company to adopt this approach, I was also curious about how the adoption of JIT in the US grew from the Toyota Production System (TPS).

Just-in-Time (JIT) is only one element of lean manufacturing, which is a broader philosophy that seeks to eliminate all kinds of waste in a process.  Although JIT is often considered an enterprise-wide philosophy of continuous improvement, I’d like to focus on the mechanistic aspects of JIT – that is, the development and operations of a production system that employs continuous flow and preventive maintenance. In an effectively implemented JIT production system, there is little or no inventory – which includes Work-In-Process (WIP) – and production is tightly coupled to demand.

The origin of JIT can be traced back to Henry Ford’s production line, in which he was keenly aware of the burdens of inventory. However, Ford’s production system generated large volumes of identical products created in large batches – there was no room for variety, and the system was not coupled to demand levels.

In post-war Japan, Taiichi Ohno (“Father of JIT”) adapted the system at Toyota to handle smaller batch sizes and more variety in the parts that could be used to construct assemblies. In 1952, work on their JIT system was initiated, with full deployment of the kanban pull system by 1962. This was the genesis of the Toyota Production System, an elegant (and sometimes elusive) socio-technical system for production and operations. This approach bridged the gaps between production and continuous improvement and became the basis for lean manufacturing as it is known today.

After the oil crisis in 1973, other Japanese companies started to take note of the success of Toyotaand the approach became more widely adopted. The JIT technique spread to the United States in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, but due to inconsistencies in implementation and a less mature grasp on the human and cultural elements of the Toyota Production System, western companies experienced limited success. The Machine that Changed the World by James Womack made the JIT+TPS concept more accessible to US companies in 1990, which led to the widespread adoption of lean manufacturing techniques and philosophies thereafter.

JIT is very sensitive to the external environment in which it is implemented. For a review of Polito & Watson’s excellent 2006 article that describes the key barriers to smooth JIT, read Shocks to the System: Financial Meltdown and a Fragile Supply Chain.

(P.S. Why the picture of butter? Because JIT, when implemented appropriately, is perfectly smooth and slippery and thus passes The Butter Test.)

A Quality Manager for Obama

nancyPresident-Elect Obama has hired a quality manager, and her name is Nancy Killefer. She is the newly appointed “Chief Performance Officer” whose mandate is to manage budget reforms while eliminating waste in government processes, ultimately making it more effective. An MIT & McKinsey alum, Time calls her the “first official waste watchdog.”

From the Washington Post:

“We can no longer afford to sustain the old ways when we know there are new and more efficient ways of getting the job done,” Obama said during a news conference this morning at his transition office. “Even in good times, Washington can’t afford to continue these bad practices. In bad times, it’s absolutely imperative that Washington stop them and restore confidence that our government is on the side of taxpayers and everyday Americans.”

This is a fantastic indication of our new administration’s commitment to quality, and its recognition that the current economic crises can only be solved by fiscal pragmatism and solid foundations.

Regardless of what happens next, I am pleased to see that our new administration’s attitude is so positive:

As he named Killefer, Obama promised to scour the federal budget to eliminate what doesn’t work and improve what does to “put government on the side of taxpayers.” He said: “We can no longer afford to sustain the old ways when we know there are new and more efficient ways to getting the job done.”

Nancy, you should join ASQ (if you’re not already a part of the organization). There are 100,000+ of us, more or less, that not only support you but want to help you develop a high-performance government. We come from all industries, are adept at process improvement at creative solutions for increasing efficiency, and can be effective advocates for your mission. Let us know how to help!

Strategic Advice for the McCain-Palin Campaign

I am always on the lookout for examples in the news of challenges that people have aligning strategy and tactics, because quality management based on a plan that’s not aligned with the strategy is bound to fail. I found one of these examples this morning in the Washington Post, encouraging the Republican ticket to shift its strategy:

In these last days before the vote, Republicans need to face some strategic realities. Our resources are limited, and our message is failing. We cannot fight on all fronts. We are cannibalizing races that we must win and probably can win in order to help a national campaign that is almost certainly lost. In these final 10 days, our goal should be: senators first.

Whether this is the right way to go or not for McCain and Palin, I was struck by the timeless statement: Our resources are limited, and our message is failing. We cannot fight on all fronts. This battle scenario is not unique to a political campaign – there are people in many companies who might feel the same way, particularly in the midst of a financial crisis. For every person that wants to focus those resources, there will be another whose position is to press forward – just do what we can, don’t adjust the strategy, just stay the course.

[I’ll need to follow up on this topic (tonight maybe) to find some gems from the strategic management literature that provide advice in this situation. There is plenty to choose from.]

What Obama and McCain can learn from Michael Porter

On September 26, in the first Presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, the candidates discussed the perceived success or failure of the war in Iraq. McCain vigorously promoted his feeling that the troop surge was a success, while Obama focused on the rationale behind invading in the first place – claiming that the tactics may be working, but the bigger picture, the strategy – was misplaced. McCain launched back with a criticism: “I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.”

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” — Sun Tzu, Chinese General, 500 B.C.

Pundits have questioned whether either of the candidates really knows the difference between strategy and tactics, despite some evidence to the contrary. In politics, the distinction between strategy and tactics is compounded by the fact that the military defines strategy in a very specific context where the concepts of policy and strategy can easily be entangled.

But politics aside… do you know the difference? And do you know why you should care?

The answer lies in a 1996 article in Harvard Business Review by Michael Porter entitled “What is Strategy?” – one of the classic articles in management. He argues that there is a fundamental difference between strategy, which involves striking a contrast between yourself and your competitors, and operational effectiveness, which means “performing similar activities better than rivals perform them.” All of the pillars of managing quality and productivity fall into this latter category, which explains why executives have, according to Porter, struggled to translate those operational improvements into sustainable profitability.

“Improving operational effectiveness is a necessary part of management, but it is not strategy… The operational agenda is the proper place for constant change, flexibility, and relentless efforts to achieve best practice. In contrast, the strategic agenda is the right place for defining a unique position, making clear trade-offs, and tightening fit… strategic continuity, in fact, should make an organization’s continual improvement more effective.”

Using this frame of reference, a country’s foreign policy is more akin to its strategy than war plans or their means of execution.

Why should you care? Because fighting the good fight of operational effectiveness will not necessarily win you the strategic war. Figuring out what you do uniquely, how and why you do it uncommonly well, and understanding how to align your capabilities with your mission is the secret to success. Are either of the candidates meeting these criteria? It’s your call.


Porter, M. (1996). What is strategy? Harvard Business Review, November-December 1996, 61-78.