Superman Syndrome

October 19, 2014

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There you are, in your tenth meeting of the day. You haven’t even had lunch, just one meeting after another. You’d skip the meetings, but you are required and half the meetings are yours anyway. You finish the day without having accomplished one single thing (except a bunch of meetings). Your todo list has only grown longer and the only time remaining is after hours (because nobody can schedule a meeting then). If this is you, then you might have superman syndrome.

It’s pretty common in software development. The nicest people get sucked into it (no, really, they’re too damn nice). You are competent, eager to please, and really can’t say no. It’s a great ego boost – you are needed! Well, I’ve got some bad news: you’ve got Superman Syndrome.

That’s right, you got it bad. Now sit down. This is where we get to play product owner. Product owner of your life. Write down that list of all thing things you have to do. Go ahead, put it in priority order. That’s right, it’s not easy. Product ownership is a bitch. Good, now cancel all your meetings. I know it hurts. Do it anyway. Send some polite excuse about being behind in your work (because it’s true) and you’ll catch up with them later (maybe never).

Now take that one thing at the top of the list (it is just one thing, right?) and get to work. Here’s the new rule, you don’t get to work on anything else until that thing is done. Take comfort in the fact that you are working on the most important thing that you could be working on. No one can fault you for that. You see what we are doing is limiting your work in progress (WIP). Limiting the amount of work you take on is like kryptonite to Superman Syndrome.

While we’re at it, let’s just turn outlook off. Yeah, completely off. You have a WIP limit here too: twice a day. Once before lunch and once before you go home. That’s it. That’s all.

While we are having so much fun setting WIP limits, we might as well put a WIP limit on your meetings. That’s right, nobody can reasonably expect you to do your job AND attend every single meeting: so don’t. Set a reasonable limit (no more than 2 hours of meetings/day). That way you are available if the issue is REALLY important, but otherwise, they’ll have to just get along without you. Again, polite apologies all around.

Try that on for a while and see how that works for you. Come back and chat with me when you think you are ready to change your WIP limits.

Now to take my own advice…wish me luck.

Yours truly,
Superman

Standard Work for Personal Improvement

August 16, 2009

checklistStandard work is a notion from the lean manufacturing world that refers to having some sort of pre-defined standard way of doing things for a given activity or process. Actually, in the lean lexicon there is an awful lot related to standard work. Perhaps the most concise definition I’ve seen is this:

“Standardized Work is an agreed upon set of work procedures that establish the best method and sequences for each process. It defines the interaction of people using processes to produce a product. It is centered around human movements, it outlines efficient, safe work methods and helps eliminatemuda/waste.”

– cited from The no-nonsense guide to Standard Work

It can be as simple as simply documenting the work that is already done. It can also be used as part of a continuous improvement effort (you have to have a standard process so that you can measure the impact of changes). In much of the literature that I have read, the typical examples of standard work are taken from processes from the floor of a manufacturing plant. It seems pretty easy to define all the steps in a process when all you are doing is processing widgets. Compare that sort of work to the kind of work that is typically done by your average knowledge worker. Naively, they seem as though the two contexts are worlds apart.

For example a worker in a factory may do the same thing over and over again all day long. On the other hand, a knowledge worker never does the same thing twice – and certainly never the same way. Consider also that a typical factory worker works on a fairly rigid schedule that does not admit to many interruptions. The knowledge worker by comparison is sometimes referred to as “interrupt driven”, often suffering a non-stop stream of interruptions and changes in focus (depending on your situation of course). So how is it that we can apply the same sort of techniques for standard work to the knowledge worker that we would apply to the factory worker?

There was an interesting article over on InfoQ, Lean ‘Standard Work’ Applied to Software Development, that outlined some of the issues in trying to understand what it really means to apply the concept of standard work to knowledge work (or more specifically to software development). A few things become clear from this discussion:

  1. There are different ways or levels of understanding how standard work can be applied to knowledge work. For example: scheduling, task completion, process performance, coding standards, etc.
  2. Some would even assert (I believe incorrectly) that standard work does not exist in Agile software development.

I might even argue that in order to really understand how standard work can be applied to software development we have to take it down to the individual level. The question becomes: Where can each of us find standard work in our everyday lives? Here are some ideas:

  1. The daily schedule – imagine standardizing your daily calendar in outlook. I saw an amazing version of this in a presentation done at the LEI lean conference by the folks at Group Health.
  2. Meeting management – a well run meeting can be run according to a standardized structure. In fact that’s what a lot of management books are all about.
  3. Quality checklists/templates – what are the criteria that we use to assess the quality of the work we have done?
  4. To do lists/chores – what are the things I need to accomplish each day?

As you can see there are an awful lot of opportunities for standardization in a person’s day. Right now I’m playing with these ideas. This standard work stuff seems to border on time management (Stephen Covey, David Allen) as well as with Lean, and other process management methodologies. Exploring this sort of thing, especially at the individual level is a form of self-experimentation that can be very valuable. It can help reveal the principles behind these concepts in ways that our deeply meaningful to us in personal ways. It is through discovering that deeper meaning behind many of these principles that makes each of us better at bringing these concepts to bear in a work context. So I’m going to continue to play with this stuff, and if it interests you I would encourage you to do the same thing. You might find a lot of standard work lurking in your life.