Sewage Pumps and Leadership

If you don’t read Jim Taggart’s Changing Winds leadership blog, you really should add it to your list – he does a great job!  Yesterday I read his latest entry Work Hard, Play Hard: Leadership Lessons to Redefine Your Thinking about Michael Abrashoff, retired U.S. Naval Captain and co-founder of GLS Worldwide.  Jim’s post is a review of Michael’s book, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.

As I read this post it reminded me of the time I heard Michael speak in Toronto a few years ago.  He told one story in particular that always stuck with me – and it’s about time that I shared it with someone else…

The USS Benfold

When Captain Abrashoff took command of the USS Benfold in 1997,

the ship had one of the poorest service records in the U.S. Navy.  One year later the crew of the USS Benfold achieved the highest performance ratings in the fleet – and went on to win multiple awards and achievements.

The details of this remarkable turnaround are well worth the time it takes to read the book – I highly recommend that you check it out.


Here is the story (as I remember it)…


During the first 30 days of his new command Captain Abrashoff spent most of his time exploring the ship,
and one of the lessons he learned was that he had a sewage problem.

In the lowest part of the ship, in the dark of the bilge, there are pumps that move the ship’s sewage. It seems like such a meaningless thing – sewage pumps.  This is a fighting ship of the sea, outfitted with the latest technology that the U.S. defense industry can attach to a floating vessel with the purpose of blowing other things up.

But the sewage pumps were junk.  And they were junk in all of the ships of this class.  So there was a shortage of parts to keep them running.  And – as these things always go – there was a shortage of engineers who knew how to keep them running.

Big deal – these are just sewage pumps.  They have no impact at all on the ship’s capacity to launch missiles.

However, if these pumps are not functioning, the ship is not combat ready.  No sewage pumps, no operations.

Every Day

So, Captain Abrashoff, recognizing the importance of these pumps, but more importantly, recognizing the importance of the sailors who kept them functioning properly, would make the difficult climb down into the depths of the ship to check on his staff – every day.  Let’s repeat that — every day.

industrial_pump-280x187He could have just as easily picked up the phone and checked in, or had one of the ship’s officers do it for him.  But he recognized the critical failure point that these pumps represented in his efforts to change the performance and culture of his command.

So he took the time to personally visit these sailors so that they would clearly understand how important their work was to the success of the organization.

Where Are Your Pumps?

You might lead a small group or a large organization — either way, there are some great questions in this story:

  • Do you know where your sewage pumps are?  Can you describe — right now — which functions (processes) will stop your organization in its tracks.  Which ones seem vital, but under scrutiny maybe aren’t so critical as you thought?
  • How much time do you devote to those items deemed “important” by your managers and leaders that don’t add any value to actual accomplishment?  Do you have the guts to ignore these for the good of your organization?
  • Do you hide behind paperwork and reports or do you climb down into the “bilge water”?  How often do you get out of your office and talk to the people who make your organization actually work?  Not the “junior officers” and other middle-managers, but the “coal face” workers who make real things happen?
  • How important is prestige in your organization? Does the value of the paycheque dictate the value of the individual? Does your culture acknowledge the importance of those who “do” being just as (more?) important as those who “discuss”?

What other questions or observations can we draw from this story?  I would love to know if this story resonates with others as it did for me.

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 31 August 2011


2 Rules to Organize Yourself: Personal Kanban

Update 1 June 2011:

I have been exposed to Kanban and other Lean tools for a few years, which led to my exposure to Personal Kanban via the Lean community.  However, I was of the belief that this was a generic term and practice.  Apparently, not so.  I saw this tweet this morning, and must assume that Jim Benson, author of Personal Kanban, with Tonianne DeMaria Barry, originated the concept and name.  My apologies and regret for the oversight.  I did link to a review of the book in the N.B., but I should have been more thorough in my research.  Go read it and visit his site.

– Geoff

We have written extensively in this space about the relentless pace of change and turmoil that is accelerating around us. This upheaval is not limited to “the world”, but trickles down into the everyday demands that each of us must face as we “do more with less” – smaller budgets, reduced staff, and seemingly fewer hours in the day as our personal and professional lives bleed together.

The result is a flood of priorities – both small and large, both personal and professional – accompanied by the projects, the emails, the voicemails, the to-do lists – the endless number of things that we have to remember, attend to, and complete.

Your time and your attention are fixed, a non-renewable resource, regardless of the number of tasks that get “delegated” to you.

Productivity Porn

The psychological burden that each of us carries with us every single day continues to grow with each new ball that we have to keep in the air.

And so we seek new and better ways to keep track of it all.

Some of these things – dubbed Productivity Porn by the irrepressible Merlin Mann – are truly excellent (thinking of the David Allen empire or Atul Gawande and his Lists) while others I just find baffling (can someone make me understand the emotional need to pay triple for a paper notebook because it has a Moleskine label?).

So let me introduce yet another system for personal organization that may not be familiar: Personal Kanban.


Kanban is a system of visual communication – in Japanese “kan” means visual and “ban” means card – that was developed for the shop floor at Toyota by Taiichi Ohno to create transparent communications to everyone in the production process, not just the managers.

Eventually Kanban became another of the tools used in the Toyota Production System (TPS) – also known as Lean Manufacturing or World Class Manufacturing.

Email and Lean Manufacturing

So, what do just-in-time manufacturing processes have to do with your exploding Inbox? And what makes this Kanban nonsense any different from GTD or FranklinCovey or any of the other systems?

First, Kanban is not another personal productivity system in-and-of itself. It’s more a way of thinking about how you implement the system that you are currently using.

Kanban has only two hard and fast rules:

  1. visualize your workflow
  2. limit your work in progress

Visualize Your Work

Much like the GTD approach, Personal Kanban requires that you do a complete mental “dump”. You need to write down everything that is on your plate. Every project big or small, every task you need to remember, every little niggling thing that sits at the edge of consciousness abrading on your peace of mind.

The point is to get it all out of your brain and onto paper (pixels?).

Then it is placed into some version of a Kanban Board. This can be a cork board with note cards, a white board filled with post-it notes, or any one of many digital versions. It doesn’t matter which approach you take – it only matters that you are able to create a visual representation of your tasks.

The board is broken into three columns:

  • Backlog – these are your tasks that are waiting to be done
  • Doing – these are the tasks that you are working on right now (work in progress)
  • Done – yes, capture what you have done, see it

Limit Your Work in Progress

It’s becoming more apparent that the human brain doesn’t multi-task well. Yet we insist on multi-tasking all of the time in an effort to “be more productive”.

Kanban abhors this approach.

We each have a finite capacity. So, we must limit the amount of Work in Progress (WIP) to allow for proper focus on the task at hand. The human psyche isn’t a great juggler – too many balls in the air reduces our efficiency and makes it far more likely that one of them is going to drop. And the amount of concentration and psychic energy spent on constantly shifting contexts is concentration and psychic energy that isn’t available for the work itself!


Kanban doesn’t ask for great changes in the way we approach our own organization. However you sort and prioritize right now – keep doing that.

The steps that are required to use Personal Kanban:

  1. You must visualize your work – get it out of your brain and onto paper.
  2. Place your tasks in the ‘Backlog’.
  3. Based on your system of prioritization, pull two or three or four of those into the ‘Doing’ column. Only you can determine the proper amount of active tasks that you can handle. (Though I would note that very few people can juggle five balls…)
  4. As you complete a task, it gets pulled over into the ‘Done’ column.

That simple.

Why bother with the ‘Done’ column – why not just trash those tasks as completed? Two purposes are served:

  • It provides a record of your workflow for review and refinement. Are you working on the “right” things?
  • Back to that concept of “psychic energy” – visual cues from the ‘Done’ column provide an excellent source of positive reinforcement.

Your board can be reviewed on a daily or weekly basis – whichever works best for you. What matters is that you visualize your work and that you don’t take on too many things at once.

And, once you understand and implement this approach on a personal level, you can apply the same methods with your teams and your organization for greater transparency and efficiency in your communications.

N.B.  This post doesn’t pretend to provide a complete discussion of Kanban systems or how to best incorporate them into your own life. If you are really interested in exploring this topic, deep guidance is only a Google search away – or have a look at this review by Tim McMahon.

So what do you think? Does this approach resonate with you or is it yet another plank in the great pile of productivity porn?


Picture Attribution:
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note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 31 May 2011

Managers, it’s Time for an Easter Egg Hunt

I have two kids.

They love kid things – colouring, bikes, skating, dolls, birthday parties, video games, dancing, hockey, braids. All the usual stuff. And they really love holiday celebrations, with the Easter egg hunt coming in very near the top of the list.

It has always been fun for my wife and I to set up the hunt. We’re plastic egg people. I know, it’s not traditional – yes, we have a fake Christmas tree too – but it’s convenient and let’s us mix things up with the treats.

But here’s the deal. As the kids get older, setting up the hunt gets more and more challenging. Parents, you know what I’m talking about.

When they were 3 years old, we would just walk around the yard and put plastic eggs down wherever we felt like it. Everything was out in the open and easy to spot. Yet they still would not see all of the brightly coloured eggs. Why? They would just walk around, head down, staring at the ground in front of wherever their body ended up pointing. Egg was a foot off the ground sitting on a swing? Couldn’t see it – it wasn’t where their attention was focussed.

But with time and the hard-won experience of multiple Easter adventures, they learned to take in more of their environment. Perhaps the eggs were above the ground, maybe even above their heads – higher than they could reach without climbing. They realized that Mom & Dad even put eggs in places that they couldn’t find without making an effort to get to places where they had never been before.

Now we have to work to find places that are challenging for our little bloodhounds to find. Why bother? It’s not as fun when it’s easy.

The Peter Principle – not Peter Cottontail

As a manager, time and experience have the same effect on you.

As so often happens, The Peter Principle placed me in a manager’s position before I had acquired the emotional maturity and life experience needed to be really effective at leading a group of humans toward a common goal.

I was so inexperienced that I just couldn’t see some serious problems that were right there in front of me – out in the open. They may as well have been trapped in a big pink egg and sitting on a swing seat. I was focussed on the ground in front of me.

But I didn’t get fired, and time and hard-won experience led to some inevitable growth. I learned to sit back, relax, and scan the environment with a practiced eye. And, eventually, I could pick out those bits of colour where there shouldn’t be any.

Still, I didn’t grow into a real and effective leader for my team and manager for my department until I got off of my seat, out of my office, and started looking in the places where I had never been before. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes it was scary to go into those places. But eventually – like everything that is worthwhile – I struggled through and I learned.

It’s Time for Your Easter Egg Hunt

Here’s my challenge to you as we head into the egg hunting season – get off of your seat, out of your office, and go looking in those uncomfortable places where the real challenges and problems for your team will be found.

  • We have been trained to provide consistent and clear feedback to our direct reports. When is the last time that you asked for their feedback on your performance? Do you think that they will feel confident and secure enough to provide you with honest feedback? There’s a nice, cozy dark place to start in. Nothing like a little dose of self-awareness to rattle our assumptions.
  • Do you know the short and long term goals of each of your staff? Have you ever asked this question and given sufficient time, space, and – most important – attention to allow the individual to develop a comprehensive answer? Do they have learning and development plans in place to support these goals?
  • Do you understand the preferred working and communication style of each of your team members? Are your team members clear on your preferred working and communication styles? Are you aware of the importance of generational differences in these preferences?
  • Do your employees believe that you “have their back”? When trouble appears do they feel like they are on their own, or are they part of team that pulls together and has a leader that will work for the greater good of the team – not for his/her own personal benefit?
  • Does your team trust you? How can you be sure?

There are many more challenges that could be added to this list. The point is, you’ll never know if you don’t search.

The answers won’t be in plastic eggs sitting out in the open – they’ll be difficult to find. But that’s ok, it’s not as fun when it’s easy.

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 21 April 2011

Tools for Managers: The PESTLE Analysis

In a previous post, we discussed the use of SWOT Analysis and it’s usefulness as a framework for discussing the internal and external environment that an organization faces.  I would like to extend that discussion here to introduce the PESTLE Analysis – another framework used to guide your thinking as you participate in strategic evaluations.

You might recall that the ‘O’ and ‘T’ of the SWOT Analysis (Opportunities and Threats) focussed on the external issues impacting the firm.  The PESTLE Analysis is similar to SWOT in that it provides a framework to guide your discussions.  However, where the PESTLE differs is in its focus on the external environment.

And, it’s clearly an acronym – so what does it represent?








Here we have a list of factors that are external to the competencies and capabilities of the organization and can help you move logically through an evaluation of the external world in which you operate.  This framework was originally referred to as the PEST Analysis, but was expanded to PESTLE over the past ten years as Legal and Environmental factors gained increasing importance.  In fact, there are some in the strategy and analysis business who are encouraging people to move to STEEPLED in reaction to the current environment for greater emphasis on ‘Ethical’ concerns and ‘Demographics’.


What is happening politically in the environment in which you operate – these issues can take on a community, regional, national, or international perspective? A few months ago we might have shrugged our shoulders and thought, “Meh – nothing ever really changes.”  But I think the events of the past couple of months in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, etc., will have changed the minds of a great many people on that front.

Some issues to guide your discussion:

  • political stability
  • government structure
  • trade policy
  • tax policy
  • lobby impacts
  • local perceptions and attitudes
  • regional conflict


What is happening within the macroeconomy in which you operate – locally, regionally, nationally, globally?  Is it in decline, growth, recession, bubble status?

Our slow emergence from the global economic meltdown has provided a wakeup call for many who had come to expect that the good times would continue unchecked.  The level of expertise in currency management techniques within Canadian management circles has matured radically over the past two years.

Other aspects for economic awareness:

  • economic growth
  • interest rates
  • inflation
  • currency valuations
  • credit availability
  • employment rates


What is happening socially in the arena in which you operate – locally, regionally, nationally, globally?  Are cultural norms changing?  The coming change in the make-up of our workforce and the potential for an Intergenerational Divide is an example of a sociological challenge that our leaders will soon be facing.

Other examples of social factors:

  • demographics
  • skilled labour
  • education
  • health care
  • attitudes toward work
  • quality of life


What is happening within the technology sphere that can have a significant impact upon your operations?  If asked in 2005, would you have agreed that there would be an online social network that had 500 million members in 2010?

Some issues surrounding technology:

  • new research
  • rate of change
  • IT implementation in your area
  • product life cycles
  • government research funding
  • changes in Internet  use – service disintermediation, video and voice delivery, social networks
  • mobile telephony penetration and development – mobile applications, geolocation, near field communications
  • automation


An added facet to the original PEST model, this is in response to the increasing importance of the regulation and legislation on operations.  Maturity and appropriate enforcement of financial regulations will often form the baseline analysis for foreign direct investment.

  • tax law
  • trade
  • employment
  • security
  • resource acquisition


The second addition to the PEST model, this item also reflects the importance of environmental issues on nearly the operations of nearly any organization.  Some firms are adopting environmental impact as a key differentiator in their strategic development.

  • local regulation
  • international treaties
  • public perception
  • local climate concerns
  • client values


Again, like the SWOT, the PESTLE framework provides a tool to help you in guiding your discussion of the important external factors that can impact your organization.  However, some of the same weaknesses persist:

  • It is a “snapshot” analysis – findings will change over time, sometimes from day-to-day.
  • It will be as variable as the number of people involved in the discussion.
  • Be careful not to make sweeping judgments of future states on small data sets.

However, this can be a valuable tool in directing the analysis when used appropriately.  In fact, the SWOT – fuelled by the PESTLE – can be very effective in driving Scenario Planning activities.

If you would like to dig deeper into this tool, the RapidBI website has an excellent discussion and template for using the PESTLE Analysis.

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 15 March 2011

Are Your Employees Engaged? Are You Engaging Your Employees?

The discussion around employee engagement has been loud – and growing to deafening proportions – over the past several years.

Employee engagement has become the metric of preference (pdf) for HR and OD professionals as high engagement has been linked to remarkable profits, productivity, retention, and client engagement, while active disengagement leads to significant losses on multiple fronts.  In fact, our own Greg Tricklebank notes that, “Given the strategic importance of Employee Engagement as an internal management lever, it is worth some effort to understand and measure it as accurately as possible.”

The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat specifically breaks out Employee Engagement as one of the key components of the Management Accountability Framework.  And the Clerk of the Privy Council, Wayne Wouters, points to Employee Engagement as one the top five priorities for in 2010-11 in his Annual Report to the Prime Minister.

Given all of the hype regarding the importance of engaged employees, the question that quickly follows for most managers: “how do I measure employee engagement in my organization?”

Don’t Re-invent the Wheel

A small amount of time spent researching this topic will reveal a seeming constellation of options and opinions.  However, there are a couple of proven resources with deep statistical validation to support their use that have been created by Gallup Consulting and The Conference Board.

The Gallup instrument:

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.
  2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  7. At work, my opinions seem to count.
  8. The mission/purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  9. My associates (fellow employees) are committed to doing quality work.
  10. I have a best friend at work.
  11. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
  12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

The Conference Board “Employee Engagement Barometer”:

  1. I am proud to work for (company name).
  2. Overall, I enjoy working for my immediate supervisor.
  3. My job gives me a feeling of accomplishment.
  4. Overall, I am satisfied with my job.
  5. My job is interesting.
  6. I am motivated to contribute more than what is expected of me in my job.
  7. I am not currently planning on leaving (company name).
  8. I would feel comfortable referring a good friend to (company name) for employment.

Using either of these instruments will provide the manager with reliable information regarding the employees’ attitudes.

The Manager’s Side of the Equation

What I would like to see, however, is a validated measuring instrument that the organization can apply to its leaders and managers regarding their attitudes and behaviours.  Something like this might be useful to hold a mirror up to these leaders so that they can better understand their impact:

  1. My employees are proud to work for (organization name).
  2. My direct reports enjoy working for me.
  3. My employees have the materials and equipment that they need to do their job to the best of their ability.
  4. I value the opinions of my employees.
  5. I regularly speak with my direct reports and discuss their plans for professional development.
  6. My employees know where they stand with me at all times – they know exactly where I feel their strengths and weaknesses lie.
  7. My employees are committed to doing quality work.
  8. My employees are motivated to contribute more than what is expected of them in their jobs.
  9. My direct reports are not planning to leave my unit or the company.
  10. I provide my employees with the opportunities they need to learn and grow.
  11. My employees feel a sense of accomplishment in their jobs.
  12. Overall, my employees are satisfied with their jobs.

What do you think?  Do you think there would be value in applying questions like this to the leaders within the organization?  Would it be interesting to compare and contrast the reactions to these questions between the two groups?

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 15 February 2011

Re-visiting the SWOT Analysis

The first implementation of the SWOT Analysis seems to have been put to use somewhere in Southern France roughly 28,000 years ago by a local cave dweller who was evaluating the wisdom of pursuing a strategic move to the hunting of saber tooth cats.  At least it seems, to those who pay attention to the business publishing industry, to have been around that long.

The long history of SWOT

Actually, the use of SWOT has been linked back to a series of conferences held at Stanford University in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Or it came from the Harvard Business School during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Or it was formalized and accepted in it’s current form during the 1980’s.  The point is, in terms of business training and writing, it has been around “forever”.

So why hasn’t this tool faded away like so many other business strategy flavour-of-the-week tools?

It is simple to comprehend and apply very quickly – while still providing a framework for some reasonably deep and nuanced thinking on strategic issues.

What is SWOT?

SWOT is a framework typically used to evaluate the ability of an organization or firm to deal effectively with its environment.

The format is a quadrant-based matrix for evaluation with sections comprised of:

S: Strength – This is something that the organization/firm/group is good at doing or a characteristic that gives it an important capability.  It can be a skill, a competence, or a resource.  Maintain and build upon these:

  • best product
  • great HR practices
  • your location
  • superior technology
  • brand recognition
  • customer service
  • consumer experience
  • great managers

W: Weakness – The opposite of Strength.  Something that the organization/firm/group lacks, does poorly, or a condition that puts it at a disadvantage.  A weakness may or may not make an organization competitively vulnerable, depending on how much it matters in the competitive battle.  Eliminate, quarantine, or minimize these:

  • think the opposite of everything in the Strength list!

O: Opportunity – Any favourable situation in the organization’s environment.  It is usually a trend or a change of some kind, or an overlooked need that increases demand for a product or service.  Seek ways to capture these:

  • emerging new markets
    • internet
    • international
    • new segments
  • new technologies
  • partnering opportunities
  • exiting competition
  • cheaper inputs

T: Threat – Any unfavourable situation in the organization’s environment that is potentially damaging to its strategy.  It could be a barrier, a constraint, or anything that might cause problems. Mitigate or avoid these:

  • new competition
  • shifting consumer preferences
  • currency fluctuation
  • political environment
  • regulations

Internal v. External

The other important aspect in evaluating this matrix is noting that the “Strengths and Weaknesses” components are internal to the firm while the “Opportunities and Threats” are external to the organization.

Or, viewed another way:

Internal = Controllable Factors

External = Uncontrollable Factors

SWOT Quandrants


A basic list of items to provide a catalyst for your discussions:

  • markets
  • competition
  • financial resources
  • facilities
  • talent
  • technology
  • communication
  • services
  • management
  • culture
  • technical  trends
  • political environment
  • social environment
  • economy

It’s just a tool

Always bear in mind that the SWOT Analysis is just another tool to use as you refine your strategic thinking.

Because the premise is easily grasped, it can be very valuable to use in a group setting.  By engaging many people, the tool can be effective at uncovering a variety of items under each category that one person, working alone, might not have discovered.

However, this same simplicity can undermine the results.  It is a highly subjective exercise, and, given independently to ten people, will return ten different results.  It is also highly dependent on short-term data – this is not an activity that is done one day and is still applicable two months later.

Ultimately, you should think of the SWOT Analysis as a tool to guide your strategic thinking – not to direct it.

What’s your experience with this tool?  Have you used it effectively or been disappointed with the results?

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 21 January 2011

7 Steps to Straightforward Organizational Design

Every organization – regardless of size, age, complexity, or mission – will at some point face a changing landscape that will result in new and unique challenges.  Some organizations will be structured in such a way that they can easily adapt to the new realities and requirements of their situation.  Most won’t.

No organization is static.

Organizations will, from time to time, require re-design, re-alignment, or re-habilitation.

This is where the many challenges of Organization Design become apparent.  Organizations are made up of people, and where people are involved the results will be complex and messy.  Modern managers have enough mess and complexity to handle in their day-to-day existence; they aren’t on the lookout for more.  Sadly, we can’t bring simplicity to their organization without also removing all of the people.

We also can’t provide a comprehensive organizational design course in the context of a company blog.

What we can offer are some guideposts to help you, the manager, keep the goal in sight as you work through the complexities of this process.

The 7 Fundamentals

  1. Involve employees and key stakeholders in the design process:  Use the management team as the consultative group to work through acceptable options.
  2. Form follows function:  Focus on identifying the core functions.  Everything else is likely a waste of time and energy.  Efficient structures will emerge.
  3. Integration versus differentiation:  Identify logical clusters of related functions and activities – strike a balance between service delivery and functional expert roles.
  4. Trade off between hierarchical versus flat structures:  Focus on effective horizontal management practices while framing boundary spanning mechanisms.
  5. Identify clear roles and responsibilities:  The result will be increased functional leadership capacity and subject matter expert knowledge.
  6. Embrace flexibility and an ability to adapt with change:  Recognize that both formal and informal networks will always result – acknowledge this and integrate in a networked organizational structure.
  7. Provide for employee career development:  The intent is not to organize around individuals.  However, the recruitment and retention challenge must be recognized, and opportunities for career development and professional growth must be provided to all.

So, here are seven basic tenets – should there be eight, nine, or ten?  More?  I’m interested in your feedback; would you remove or modify any of these?  Would you like to add others?  Let us know in the comments.

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 28 September 2010