For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations (2015)
• Wednesday, September 17
Even though I can’t take the entire day off, I take Paige out for breakfast. She’s been holding things down on the home front single-handedly while I have spent every waking hour at work.
We’re at Mother’s, one of our favorite breakfast restaurants. We were here on their opening day almost eight years ago. The owner has since hit the big time. Not only has her restaurant become a local favorite, but she’s written a cookbook, and we saw her all over TV during her book tour.
We are so happy to see her success. And I know Paige loves it when the owner recognizes us, even when it’s crowded.
I look in Paige’s eyes as she sits across from me at the table. The restaurant is surprisingly crowded on a Wednesday morning. People having business meetings and local hipsters doing—well, whatever local hipsters do in the mornings. Working? Playing? I genuinely have no idea.
She says, holding the mimosa in her hands, “Thanks for taking some time off—are you sure you can’t spend the rest of the day with me?”
At first, I almost didn’t order one for myself, because I didn’t want to have anything alcoholic on a workday. But, for the second day in a row, I find myself saying, “Screw it.”
Drinking my orange juice and champagne, I smile sadly, shaking my head. “I really wish I could, honey. If we were in Development, I’d give the entire team the day off like Chris did. But, in Operations, we’re still finishing cleaning up from the Phoenix fiasco. I have no idea when life will be normal again.”
She shakes her head slowly. “I can’t believe that this is only your third week. You’ve changed. I’m not complaining, but I haven’t seen you this stressed out since…”
She looks up for a moment, reviewing her memories. She looks back at me and says, “Ever! Half the time we’re driving in the car, you have this distant look on your face. The rest of the time you’re clenching your jaw, like you’re reenacting some terrible meeting in your head. You never hear what I’m saying, because you’re so preoccupied by work.”
I start to apologize, but she cuts me off. “I’m not complaining. I don’t want to wreck this nice moment while we’re enjoying some time away from work and the kids. But, when I think about how happy you were before you accepted this role, I wonder why you’re doing it.”
I purse my lips together. Even with all the trauma in the past couple of weeks, I feel like the organization has been better off as a result of my contribution. And even with the imminent threat of being outsourced, I’m glad that I’m one of the people trying to fend them off.
And yet, for over five years, I was one of the very few people able to maintain any amount of work-life balance. And now that balance is completely gone.
A fellow NCO in the Marines once told me that his priorities were the following: provider, parent, spouse, and change agent. In that order.
I think about that. First and foremost, my most important responsibility is to be the provider for my family. My pay raise will help us get our debt paid down, and we can start saving money again for our children’s college education like we always wanted to. It’d be difficult to give that up and go back to feeling like we’re just treading water.
We both suspect that our house is now worth less than we paid for it. We tried to sell it a couple of years ago so we could move across town to be closer to her parents. But after nine months, we took it off the market.
With my promotion, we can pay off our second mortgage sooner. And maybe, just maybe, if things go well, in a few years Paige might be able to stop working.
But is it worth having to deal with Steve’s raving demands for the impossible, day in and day out?
Even worse: having to deal with that nutcase, Sarah.
“See? You’re doing it again. Let me guess,” Paige says, interrupting my thoughts. “You’re thinking about some meeting that you’ve had with Steve, and how he’s turned into a total asshole that no one can reason with. Except for that nutcase, Sarah.”
I laugh. “How did you know?”
She smiles. “It’s so easy. You start looking off somewhere, and then your shoulders and jaw tense up, and your lips press together.”
I laugh again.
Paige’s expression turns sad. “I keep wishing that they picked someone else for this job. Steve knew exactly how to get you to say yes. He just made it sound like it was your duty to save his job and the company.”
I nod slowly. “But, honey, now it’s really true—if they outsource all of IT, almost two hundred people in my group could be out of a job or working for some faceless outsourcing firm. And another two hundred people in Chris’ organization. I really feel like I can keep that from happening.”
She looks dubious, saying, “You really think you and Chris can stop them? Based on what you’ve said, it sure sounds like they’ve already made up their mind.”
After I drop off a subdued Paige at home, I take a moment in the driveway to look at my phone before driving into work.
I’m surprised when I see an upbeat e-mail from Wes.
From: Wes Davis
To: Bill Palmer, Patty McKee
Date: September 19, 9:45 AM
Subject: FW: Whew! A change management close call!
Check this out, guys. One of the DBAs sent this out to all the other engineers this morning.
>>> Begin forwarded message:
Guys, the new change process saved our bacon this morning.
Today, we had two groups simultaneously making changes to the materials management database and application servers. Neither group knew about the other.
Rajiv spotted the potential collision on the change wall. We decided that my changes would go in first, and I’d call him when we were done.
We could have totally made a mess of things.
Keep those change cards coming, guys! It saved our butts today!
Thanks to Rajiv, Tom, Shelly, and Brent —
At last, some good news. One of the problems of prevention is that you rarely know about the disasters you averted.
But here we did. Nice.
And even better yet, it came from one of the engineers, not a manager.
When I get to my desk, I see the Post-it note on my docking station and smile. I carefully power on my laptop, wait patiently for two minutes for the login screen to come up before plugging it into the docking station.
No screaming alarm. Exactly as documented. Nice.
Someone knocks on my door.
It’s Patty. “I’m glad I caught you. Do you have a minute? I think we have another problem.”
“Sure,” I say. “What’s on your mind? Let me guess—more people complaining about change management?”
Patty shakes her head, looking grim. “A little more serious than that. Let’s go to the Change Coordination Room?”
I groan. Every time Patty’s summons me there, it’s because of some new intractable problem. But problems, like dog poop left in the rain, rarely get better just by ignoring them.
I stand up and say, “Lead on.”
When we get to the conference room, I look at the change board. Something looks very different. “Uh-oh,” I say.
Patty looks at the board with me and says, “Uh-huh. Obvious, and yet, still kind of unexpected, right?”
I can only grunt in response.
On the board, up until last Thursday, it’s pretty much as I remember it. On each day, there are somewhere between forty and fifty changes, each marked completed. But on the days following, there are barely any changes posted at all. It’s like someone just wiped all the cards clean off the board.
“Where did they go?”
She points at another board on the side of the room that she’s labeled, “Changes To Be Rescheduled.” There’s a basket underneath, overflowing with piles and piles of index cards.
Presumably, six hundred of them.
Understanding starting to dawn on me, I ask, “And the reason none of the changes got completed is…”
Patty rolls her eyes. “Phoenix happened, that’s what. All scheduled work went out the window. We mobilized almost anyone who could type to help. And only now are they being released back to their normal duties. You can see on the board that today’s the first day that scheduled changes are starting to happen as planned again.”
This seems important for some reason.
And then it hits me.
I had called Erik briefly to tell him that I had discovered three of the four categories of work: business projects, internal projects, and changes. He merely said that there was one more type of work, maybe the most important type, because it’s so destructive.
And in a searing moment of insight, I think I know what the fourth category of work is.
And then suddenly, I don’t. My tenuous understanding flickers briefly, and then goes out entirely.
I say, “Damn!”
Patty looks at me questioningly, but I ignore her while I try to recapture that fleeting moment of clarity.
I look at the portion of the change board with no cards on it. It really is like some giant hand swept all those change cards aside that we had so meticulously scheduled and arranged on the board. And we know what swept it aside: It was Phoenix blowing up.
But Phoenix isn’t the fourth category of work.
Maybe what I’m looking for is like dark matter. You can only see it by what it displaces or how it interacts with other matter that we can see.
Patty called it firefighting. That’s work, too, I suppose. It certainly kept everyone up at all hours of the night. And it displaced all the planned changes.
I turn back to Patty and say slowly, “Let me guess. Brent didn’t get any of his non-Phoenix change work completed either, right?”
“Of course not! You were there, right?” she says, looking at me like I had grown eight heads. “Brent was working around-the-clock on the recovery efforts, building all the new tooling to keep all the systems and data up. Everything else was put on the back-burner.”
All the firefighting displaced all the planned work, both projects and changes.
Ah… Now I see it.
What can displace planned work?
I laugh uproariously, which earns me a look of genuine concern from Patty, who even takes a step back from me.
That’s why Erik called it the most destructive type of work. It’s not really work at all, like the others. The others are what you planned on doing, allegedly because you needed to do it.
Unplanned work is what prevents you from doing it. Like matter and antimatter, in the presence of unplanned work, all planned work ignites with incandescent fury, incinerating everything around it. Like Phoenix.
So much of what I’ve been trying to do during my short tenure as VP of IT Operations is to prevent unplanned work from happening: coordinating changes better so they don’t fail, ensuring the orderly handling of incidents and outages to prevent interrupting key resources, doing whatever it takes so that Brent won’t be escalated to…
I’ve been doing it mostly by instinct. I knew it was what had to be done, because people were working on the wrong things. I tried to take all necessary steps to keep people from doing wrong work, or rather, unplanned work.
I say, cackling and pumping my arms as if I had just scored a game-winning, sixty-yard field goal, “Yes! I see it now! It really is unplanned work! The fourth category of work is unplanned work!”
My ebullient mood is tempered when I look at Patty, who looks puzzled and genuinely concerned.
“I promise to explain later,” I say. “Just what is it that you wanted me to see on the change board?”
She’s taken aback, but points again at the void of completed changes for the past week. “I know you were concerned about when sixty percent of the changes weren’t getting completed. So, I thought you’d really flip your lid when one hundred percent of the changes didn’t complete. Right?”
“Yep. This is great work, Patty. Keep it up!” I say agreeably.
And then I turn around and head out the door, reaching for my cell phone. There’s someone I need to call.
“Hey!” Patty calls out. “Aren’t you going to fill me in?”
I yell over my shoulder, “Later! I promise!”
Back at my desk I search everywhere for that slip of paper that Erik gave me. I’m pretty sure I didn’t throw it away, but I honestly didn’t think that I would ever use it.
I hear Ellen say from behind me, “Need help with anything?”
And soon, both of us are scrounging all over my desk to find that little piece of paper.
“Is this it?” she asks, holding up something that she retrieved from my inbox.
I look more closely, and yes! It’s the crumpled two-inch strip of paper that Erik gave me. It looks like a gum wrapper.
Taking the piece of paper from her and holding it up, I say, “Great! Thank you so much for finding this—believe it or not, this may be the most important piece of paper I’ve gotten in years.”
I decide to sit outside while I talk. In the bright autumn sunlight, I find a spot on a bench near the parking lot. As I sit down, there’s not a cloud in the sky.
I call Erik, who answers on the first ring. “Hey, Bill. How are you guys doing after Phoenix crashed and burned so spectacularly?”
“Yeah, well… Things are improving,” I say. “You may have heard that our POS systems went down, and we also had a small credit card number breach.”
“Ha! ‘Small credit card breach.’ I like that. Like ‘small nuclear reactor meltdown.’ I’ve gotta write that one down,” he says, snorting.
He’s chuckling as though he predicted this level of calamity would occur, which, come to think of it, I suppose he did, in the conference room when I first met him. Something about “clearing the calendar.”
Just like clearing the change board, I realize. I kick myself for not picking up on his clue sooner.
“I trust you can tell me now what the four categories of work are?” I hear him ask.
“Yes, I think I can,” I say. “At the plant, I gave you one category, which was business projects, like Phoenix,” I say. “Later, I realized that I didn’t mention internal IT projects. A week after that, I realized that changes are another category of work. But it was only after the Phoenix fiasco that I saw the last one, because of how it prevented all other work from getting completed, and that’s the last category, isn’t it? Firefighting. Unplanned work.”
“Precisely!” I hear Erik say. “You even used the term I like most for it: unplanned work. Firefighting is vividly descriptive, but ‘unplanned work’ is even better. It might even be better to call it ‘anti-work,’ since it further highlights its destructive and avoidable nature.
“Unlike the other categories of work, unplanned work is recovery work, which almost always takes you away from your goals. That’s why it’s so important to know where your unplanned work is coming from.”
I smile as he acknowledges my correct answer, and am oddly pleased that he validated my antimatter notion of unplanned work, as well.
He says, “What is this change board that you mentioned?”
I tell him about my attempts to get some sort of change process going and my attempt to elevate the discussion above how many fields there were on the change form, which then resulted in getting people to put their intended changes on index cards and our need to juggle them on the board.
“Very good,” he says. “You’ve put together tools to help with the visual management of work and pulling work through the system. This is a critical part of the First Way, which is creating fast flow of work through Development and IT Operations. Index cards on a kanban board is one of the best mechanisms to do this, because everyone can see WIP. Now you must continually eradicate your largest sources of unplanned work, per the Second Way.”
Until now, having been so wrapped up in defining what work is, I had forgotten about Erik and his Three Ways. I dismissed them before, but I’m now listening closely to his every word.
And over the next forty-five minutes, I find myself telling him the entire tale of my short tenure. I’m interrupted only by Erik’s loud laughs and guffaws as I describe the calamities and my attempts to curb the chaos.
When I’m finished, he says, “You’ve come much further than I thought: You’ve started to take steps to stabilize the operational environment, you’ve started to visually manage WIP within IT Operations, and you’ve started to protect your constraint, Brent. You’ve also reinforced a culture of operational rigor and discipline. Well done, Bill.”
I furrow my brows and say, “Wait. Brent is my constraint? What do you mean?”
He replies, “Ah, well if we’re going to talk about your next steps, you definitely need to know about constraints because you need to increase flow. Right now, nothing is more important.”
Erik assumes a lecturing voice as he starts, “You say you learned about plant operations management when you were in business school. I hope as part of your curriculum, you read The Goal by Dr. Eli Goldratt. If you don’t have a copy anymore, get another one. You’re going to need it.”
I think my copy of that book is in my office at home. As I jot a quick reminder to look for it, he continues, “Goldratt taught us that in most plants, there are a very small number of resources, whether it’s men, machines, or materials, that dictates the output of the entire system. We call this the constraint—or bottleneck. Either term works. Whatever you call it, until you create a trusted system to manage the flow of work to the constraint, the constraint is constantly wasted, which means that the constraint is likely being drastically underutilized.
“That means you’re not delivering to the business the full capacity available to you. It also likely means that you’re not paying down technical debt, so your problems and amount of unplanned work continues to increase over time,” he says.
He continues, “You’ve identified this Brent person as a constraint to restore service. Trust me, you’ll find that he constrains many other important flows of work, as well.”
I try to interrupt to ask a question, but he continues headlong, “There are five focusing steps which Goldratt describes in The Goal: Step 1 is to identify the constraint. You’ve done that, so congratulations. Keep challenging yourself to really make sure that’s your organizational constraint, because if you’re wrong, nothing you do will matter. Remember, any improvement not made at the constraint is just an illusion, yes?
“Step 2 is to exploit the constraint,” he continues. “In other words, make sure that the constraint is not allowed to waste any time. Ever. It should never be waiting on any other resource for anything, and it should always be working on the highest priority commitment the IT Operations organization has made to the rest of the enterprise. Always.”
I hear him say encouragingly, “You’ve done a good job exploiting the constraint on several fronts. You’ve reduced reliance on Brent for unplanned work and outages. You’ve even started to figure out how to exploit Brent better for the three other types of work: business and IT projects and changes. Remember, unplanned work kills your ability to do planned work, so you must always do whatever it takes to eradicate it. Murphy does exist, so you’ll always have unplanned work, but it must be handled efficiently. You’ve still got a long way to go.”
In a more stern voice, he says, “But you’re ready to start thinking about Step 3, which is to subordinate the constraint. In the Theory of Constraints, this is typically implemented by something called Drum-Buffer-Rope. In The Goal, the main character, Alex, learns about this when he discovers that Herbie, the slowest Boy Scout in the troop, actually dictates the entire group’s marching pace. Alex moved Herbie to the front of the line to prevent kids from going on too far ahead. Later at Alex’s plant, he started to release all work in accordance to the rate it could be consumed by the heat treat ovens, which was his plant’s bottleneck. That was his real-life Herbie.”
“Fully two decades after The Goal was published,” he continues, “David J. Anderson developed techniques of using a kanban board to release work and control WIP for Development and IT Operations. You may find that of interest. You and Penelope are close with your change board to a kanban board that can manage flow.”
“So, here’s your homework,” he says. “Figure out how to set the tempo of work according to Brent. Once you make the appropriate mapping of IT Operations to work on the plant floor, it will be obvious. Call me when you’ve figured it out.”
“Wait, wait,” I say, hurriedly before he hangs up. “I’ll do the homework, but aren’t we missing the entire point here? What caused all the unplanned work is Phoenix. Why are we focusing on Brent right now? Don’t we need to address all the issues with Phoenix inside of Development, where all the unplanned work actually came from?”
“Now you sound just like Jimmy, complaining about things you can’t control,” he sighs. “Of course Phoenix is causing all the problems. You get what you design for. Chester, your peer in Development, is spending all his cycles on features, instead of stability, security, scalability, manageability, operability, continuity, and all those other beautiful ’itties.
“On the other end of the assembly line, Jimmy keeps trying to retrofit production controls after the toothpaste is out of the tube,” he says, scoffing. “Hopeless! Futile! It’ll never work! You need to design these things, what some call ‘nonfunctional requirements,’ into the product. But your problem is that the person who knows the most about where your technical debt is and how to actually build code that is designed for Operations is too busy. You know who that person is, don’t you?”
I groan. “Brent.”
“Yep,” he says. “Without solving your Brent problem, you’ll just be inviting him to design and architecture meetings with Development, but he’ll never show up because…”
Being prompted again, I respond, “Unplanned work.”
“Good!” he says. “You’re getting better at this. But before you get a big head, I’ll tell you that there’s still a big piece of the First Way that you’re missing. Jimmy’s problem with the auditors shows that he can’t distinguish what work matters to the business versus what doesn’t. And incidentally, you have the same problem, too. Remember, it goes beyond reducing WIP. Being able to take needless work out of the system is more important than being able to put more work into the system. To do that, you need to know what matters to the achievement of the business objectives, whether it’s projects, operations, strategy, compliance with laws and regulations, security, or whatever.”
He continues, “Remember, outcomes are what matter—not the process, not controls, or, for that matter, what work you complete.”
I sigh. Just when I think I have a concrete enough understanding of constraints, once again Erik becomes illusive.
“Don’t get distracted. Call me when you know how to throttle release of work to Brent,” he says and hangs up.
I can’t believe it. I try calling him back twice, but it rolls immediately to his voicemail.
Sitting down on the bench, I lean back, take a deep breath, and force myself to enjoy the warm morning. I hear birds chirping and the noise of traffic from the road.
Then, for the next ten minutes, I capture as much as I can remember on my clipboard, trying to piece together what Erik covered.
When I’m done, I head inside to call Wes and Patty. I know exactly what I need to do and am excited to get started.