Tag Archives: time management

What if Your Job Was Focused on Play?


James Siegal (picture from his Twitter profile, @jsiegal at http://twitter.com/jsiegal)

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to talk to James Siegal, the President of KaBOOM! – a non-profit whose mission is lighthearted, but certainly not frivolous: to bring balanced and active play into the daily lives of all kids! James is another new Business Innovation Factory (BIF) storyteller for 2015… and I wanted to find out how I could learn from his experiences to bring a sense of play into the work environment. (For me, that’s at a university, interacting with students on a daily basis.)

Over the past 20 years, KaBOOM! has built thousands of playgrounds, focusing on children growing up in poverty. By enlisting the help of over a million volunteers, James and his organization have mobilized communities using a model that starts with kids designing their dream playgrounds. It’s a form of crowdsourced placemaking.

Now, KaBOOM! is thinking about a vision that’s a little broader: driving social change at the city level. Doing this, they’ve found, requires answering one key question: How can you integrate play into the daily routine for kids and families? If play is a destination, there are “hassle factors” that must be overcome: safety, travel time, good lighting, and restroom facilities, for starters. So, in addition to building playgrounds, KaBOOM! is challenging cities to think about integrating play everywhere — on the sidewalk, at the bus stop, and beyond.

How can this same logic apply to organizations integrating play into their cultures? Although KaBOOM! focuses on kids, he had some more generalizable advice:

  • The desire for play has to be authentic, not forced. “We truly value kids, and we truly value families. Our policies and our culture strive to reflect that.” What does your organization value at its core? Seek to amplify the enjoyment of that.
  • We take our work really seriously,” he said. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously. You have to leave your ego at the door.” Can your organization engage in more playful collaboration?
  • We drive creativity out of kids as they grow older, he noted. “Kids expect to play everywhere,” and so even ordinary elements like sidewalks can turn into experiences. (This reminded me of how people decorate the Porta-Potties at Burning Man with lights and music… although I wouldn’t necessarily do the same thing to the restrooms at my university, it did make me think about how we might make ordinary places or situations more fun for our students.)

KaBOOM! is such a unique organization that I had to ask James: what’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever observed in your role as President? He says it’s something that hasn’t just happened once… but happens every time KaBOOM! organizes a new playground build. When people from diverse backgrounds come together with a strong shared mission, vision, and purpose, you foster intense community engagement that yields powerful, tangible results — and this is something that so many organizations strive to achieve.

If you haven’t made plans already to hear James and the other storytellers at BIF, there may be a few tickets left — but this event always sells out! Check the BIF registration page and share a memorable experience with the BIF community this year: http://www.businessinnovationfactory.com/summit/register

Quality Tools in Daily Life

Image Credit: Lucy Glover Photography

Image Credit: Lucy Glover Photography

This past month, ASQ asked the Influential Voices: “How do you incorporate quality tools into your daily life?” That’s a topic I’ve covered here often, and from many different perspectives:

Another simple way I apply principles from quality management to my day to day life is by structuring my problem-solving plans in terms of DMAIC, DMADV, or Root Cause Analysis. Sometimes, more than one methodology can be useful. How do you choose which methodology to use? Here’s how I do it:

  • DMAIC is applied to process improvement. The process has to exist already… and it’s already performing to specifications. But you want to make it even better. Applying the measurements and analysis tools associated with DMAIC can help.
  • DMADV is applied to new process design. The process doesn’t exist yet… and you need to create it so that it satisfies needs. This approach helps you articulate and implement innovative possibilities.
  • Root Cause Analysis is also applied to process improvement. The process exists already… but something’s wrong! Quality standards or performance standards are not being met, and we need to figure out why, so we can fix it. Applying the basic quality tools that are associated with RCA can help.

Here’s an examples of how we’ve applied this approach.

One of the members of my household is frustrated by the way the dishwasher is loaded. He thinks the process can be substantially improved, so that we can fit more dishes in at any given time (thus conserving water and dish detergent) and relieving his frustration. We applied RCA tools (FMEA and Pareto charts) to determine that it was a training issue… one person in the house needed to be trained on the appropriate process for queueing up the dishes and loading them. DMAIC was applied to make sure that this training occurred, and that there was a control plan in place to ensure that the lessons learned were consistently retained. This resulted in an increase in cycle time (good!) from once a day to once every three days, and a decrease in almost all frustration. 🙂

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!

Google Docs to Markdown Converter: A Gateway Drug to Getting Your Books on LeanPub


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

Following in the footsteps of fellow ASQ Influential Voice John Hunter (who published Management Matters on LeanPub) — I’ve had the intention for the past couple years to write my next book using LeanPub too.

There’s only one problem: LeanPub requires that you prepare and format your book in Markdown. I know Markdown is not that hard, but in order to move forward with it, I would have to find at least a couple days without distractions to get my head into it and start flowing with that approach. With work and kid’s-school-schedule and my travel schedule, this has been darn near next to impossible.

Until today! I found an article that shows how you can convert Google Docs to Markdown using a simple script.

I haven’t tried it yet, but I am convinced this huge productivity booster will be the gateway drug to getting my books onto LeanPub.


Peripheral Visioning


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!

Quality in Unexpected Places: Elementary School

doug-feb2(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

I just read a blog post written by 4th grade teacher Lori Rice — who reflects on the tendency of her students to speed through worksheets and assignments in class, then jubilantly report “I’m Done!” 

Not all students, of course, will finish work at the same time – some will be faster, and some will be slower, and an individual’s skill and speed will even vary between assignments. There will be variation, not surprisingly. But this teacher reports that the variation in done-ness within a classroom actually poses challenges for classroom management AND learning management:

It is a feared utterance that teachers hear far too often from students.  In a classroom full of diversified learners, there are very few lessons that allow everyone to finish at the same time.

This is a problem for two reasons: 1) the students need to have something to do when they’re “done,” and 2) if the students perceive that there’s something to do after the assignment that’s more enjoyable than the assignment, they tend to rush through to get to “done” so they can go do the something else.

But Lori has found a solution for her classroom: she teaches her students about standards for quality, and also instructs them on how to examine their own work to see if they are meeting the standards — and if not, how to continually improve. (Note: this is HUGELY significant! How many times do you remember, when you were in school, having a teacher or professor tell you about a process you could use to evaluate and continually improve your own work??!! I remember once, as a senior in high school at NCSSM. That’s all.) Here’s how Lori does it:

I spend the beginning of the year with my new, eager fourth graders, explaining what quality work looks like.  We talk about, discuss, and practice self-checking for accuracy and neatness.  When you finish a worksheet or project the first thing to do is look it over and think, “Is this MY  best work?”  It takes the first nine weeks before this is done independently by the majority of the class.  Before it is independent I spend a lot of time asking, “What do you do when you finish?  Look it over and see what you can make stronger.”  Step one to the “I’m done!” declaration.

To close the loop, she also helps them explore choices for what they can work on if they really have achieved the state of done. Although she requires that they find new activities to explore that are relevant to the subject block (e.g. math-related explorations during “math time”) she is open to the students uncovering new interests and talents when they’re “done” with their assigned work.

2012 Management Improvement Carnival – Part 1

doug-jan-e(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

I am pleased once again to host ASQ Influential Voices blogger John Hunter’s Management Improvement Carnival, featuring some interesting or noteworthy articles that have been posted over the past year. Be sure to check out previous installations of the Carnival to get a broad sample of the most recent blog posts that are relevant to managers who are interested in quality, innovation and process improvement.

This post covers two of the four blogs I’m reviewing for the Management Improvement Carnival: StatsMadeEasy and the Harvard Business Review’s (HBR) collection of insights from Peter Bregman.

The first blog I reviewed for 2012 is Mark Anderson’s “Stats Made Easy” at http://statsmadeeasy.net. I like this blog because I teach statistics, and I really appreciate the efforts Mark goes to each year to explain statistical concepts clearly and with flair.

In August, Mark reviewed some recent research, based on A/B testing, that indicates sans serif fonts attract more attention in blogs and email. This was great news for me – a dedicated disciple of Calibri! In November, he drew an interesting conclusion based on comparing Nate Silver’s presidential election predictions on the FiveThirtyEight blog to hurricane predictions using spaghetti charts… that perhaps it’s OK to average the results of stochastic output from simulations to yield a “best guess” forecast. I’m not sure how rigorous this approach is, but certainly, the result that ” meteorologists now predict the bulls-eye within a 100-mile radius—compared to 350 miles 25 years ago” is significant. As a meteorologist, this intrigues me, and makes me want to delve into even more research on how spaghetti charts are statistically useful for prediction.

Mark’s posts are not limited to statistical reflections. In “Brain Drizzling? Try Linking Instead” he reflects on Osborn’s techniques for brainstorming, and suggests that finding associations between seemingly unrelated concepts may, in fact, be the preferred approach for generating truly novel ideas. As the shared basis for historically leveraged methods like TRIZ, I’d support this stance.

As a university professor, I was also intrigued by one of Mark’s posts from October, where he discussed French President Hollande’s call to “ban all homework”. Supported by the Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch, the data does indeed show that there is a negative association between the amount of hours spent each night studying, and students’ performance on skills exams.

The second blog I reviewed for 2012 is Peter Bregman’s posts to the Harvard Business Review online blog network. Peter advises CEOs on strategy and leadership, and is not afraid to venture into less mainstream topics like meditation and emotions. This really appeals to me, since I believe that positive psychology has a role to play in the future of quality improvement.

In January, he tackled “The Biggest Myth in Time Management,” explaining that we set ourselves up for failure when we believe we can get it all done. In fact, if we completed all of the tasks on our to-do lists, we’d have nothing to do – and there would be no progress to be made! Progress itself is a journey, and the fact that our to-do lists grow and expand and never seem to “end” is actually a wonderful sign – it’s a sign that we are expanding our capabilities, our potentials, and our ability to add value to the situations around us. Peter recommends, instead, that we focus on the devil of “follow-through” (or willpower) to make us feel more productive.

One of his February posts examined the role of expectations – and whether they are useful, or can hinder our efforts. I’m interested in this topic because of the Buddhist encouragement to release all expectations in order to release desire… and thus suffering. Sounds really useful, but I just haven’t been able to get there myself (although I can easily see problems with others’ expectations). He proposes a solution though:

High expectations can have a positive effect; people need a high bar to stretch towards. But I think many of us take it too far. We slip so easily into criticisms of ourselves and those around us — family, friends, coworkers, public figures — that we no longer expect people to be human beings. And when we shame ourselves and others for failing, we make things worse. We contribute to pain while nurturing impotence.

When we face weakness — ours or someone else’s — it doesn’t help to blame someone or something, pretend it’s not important, or simply decide to change. And it’s not sufficient to identify a three-step process to fix the problem. So what does help?

 Here’s the best I’ve come up with: compassion.

One of the things I try to do, personally, is manage my emotional guidance system – and always try to move towards better-feeling thoughts. One of Peter’s May posts asks “Do You Know What You Are Feeling?” He suggests that being more mindful, more conscious of your feelings from moment to moment – might actually help you make better decisions in the workplace, especially when those decisions involve how you act and react in response to others.

He also recommends not setting goals in 2013. Are you strong enough to accept that challenge?

I strongly suggest that you just go read ALL of Peter’s posts. He is so reflective and honest in his assessments of self that I think he provides an excellent example for all of us.

Part 2 of my Carnival report follows tomorrow.

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