Lean operations in real life – MBA Learnings

In the past week, we’ve been deconstructing the idea of “Lean operations” in our Operations Management classes. Lean, for the uninitiated, is a way of operations pioneered by Toyota’s legendary founder Taiichi Ono. It was simply called the “Toyota Production System” till academics from the west re-branded it as “lean.”

Lean embraces the idea of “kaizen” or continuous improvement. The process behind Lean improvement is illustrated by the image below –

Photo credit – Handsongroup.com

The concept illustrated here is that having large amounts of inventory can hide the issues in the system. The best way to understand and fix problems is to gradually lower the inventory level. As soon as we do that, we start bringing problems to light and can begin the process of continuous improvement. It is critical that we don’t bring the water down all at once as it is impossible to fix everything together. In fact, yesterday’s solution is, very often, today’s problem. So, it has to be one at a time and it has to be continuous.

The beauty about learning Operations Management is that every learning has a direct application in our daily lives. There was an interesting article on 99U.com titled “Don’t work harder, work faster” – inspired by social media consultant, author, investor and speaker Gary Vaynerchuk. This is Gary talking about the idea of working faster –

“I always tell people to start working harder, to hustle. I truly believe that people could watch an hour less of Scandal and instead do some f****** work. But there’s another variable that I don’t talk about enough: be much faster in the hours you’re already in. Train yourself to do a little bit more in each hour than you normally would. Every day add something, and get it all done. The first few days you may not get it all done, but keep adding on, and you’ll get there. It’s training for a marathon. It takes time, but once you’re done, you’ll see that you’re doing much more in a day because you’re moving faster.”

That’s lean operations in action. Even though I am nowhere close to as prolific as Gary, that’s been my experience with thinking about a learning every day too. Over these years, it’s been a gradual process of thinking about ideas like productivity and making small tweaks that have all added up over time. I feel myself getting through larger volumes of work than I ever thought possible a few years back and, yet, seem to be able to make time for sleep, food, exercise, read and even meditate for 15 minutes. This was in complete contrast to my life just three years ago – I’d barely manage 7 hours of rest, exercise half the amount I do now and never find time/space to meditate.

Small improvements over a long period of time add up. That’s what makes Lean and the idea of “kaizen” really powerful. It isn’t a one shot “to do” list item though. It is like taking a bath – you need to take one every day.

Lean is a way of life.

Knowledge work and connection work

In today’s world, most of us in non-industrialized jobs have two kinds of work – knowledge work and connection work. These kinds of work require different sets of tools –

Knowledge work – where thinking is the main action. The requirements here are an ability to think, an ability to facilitate creative thought when working in groups and an ability to synthesize.
Common tools: White boards, pen and paper, meetings (if you are facilitating knowledge work in groups)

Connection work – where connection is the main action. The requirements here are an ability to build relationships, organize groups of people and be available, responsive, and open to making all sorts of connections.
Common tools: Email, meetings, Skype and other video tools

An executive probably has a 30-70 split between knowledge work and connection work as most of her time is spent executing strategic plans. A venture capitalist probably has a 20-80 split as a lot of his time is spent meeting either prospective entrepreneurs or teams at his portfolio companies. An analyst, on the other hand, probably has an 80-20 split. You’ll probably see a similar split for a young researcher who will probably need to spend 90% of her time on research and 10% on connection.

The trend, however, is that as you age and, arguably, do work that has more impact, the proportion of connection work in your life increases. Leadership, if I were to generalize, is probably 25% knowledge work and 75% connection work. The knowledge work piece is critical because it makes sure you’re thinking, prioritizing and working on the right things. But, it is in connecting with and moving people where you get things done and create impact.

There are 3 important takeaways here –
1. It is important to understand the nature of our jobs and the degree of knowledge and connection required. This can be a wonderful way to to gauge fit (some of us are more comfortable with knowledge over connection for example) but is also critical to understand what will make you successful.

2. While connection work requires us to be connected, knowledge work requires us to be disconnected. So, it is important that we do both kinds of work justice. Too often, we spend way too much time connected while barely moving the needle on the connection activities we actually need to get done (hello snapchat!).

3. It is critical we master the tools required to get both kinds of work done. We’ll definitely need both and there’s no point complaining about emails and meetings (more on these another day) – they will remain as critical tools as long as we have a connection-based economy. And, I’d argue that the connection economy is here to stay.

Nap clarity

Every time I have a problem that gnaws at me, I find myself taking a quick nap. And, very often, I wake up with absolute clarity on what needs to be done next.

I remember a post from Fred Wilson on ‘subconscious information processing‘ a few years ago when he spoke about a lesson he’d learnt from his father about starting on projects as early as possible. In Fred’s words –

“He explained that I should start working on a project as soon as it was assigned. An hour or so would do fine, he told me. He told me to come back to the project every day for at least a little bit and make progress on it slowly over time. I asked him why that was better than cramming at the very end (as I was doing during the conversation).

He explained that once your brain starts working on a problem, it doesn’t stop. If you get your mind wrapped around a problem with a fair bit of time left to solve it, the brain will solve the problem subconsciously over time and one day you’ll sit down to do some more work on it and the answer will be right in front of you.

I’ve taken that approach with every big problem I’ve faced ever since. I used this technique to get through high school, college, and business school. I’ve used this technique to develop a career in investing and technology. I’ve even used this technique to deal with our own parenting challenges.”

I’ve begun to appreciate this concept since I read this on Fred’s blog 4 years back. It is true and it works.

The reason it works is because our brain processes information when we give it time and space. This process can’t be forced. All we can do is create space and wait. And, sleep/rest is a wonderful way to create space. To me, it also speaks to the importance of getting more than our fair share of sleep. It is when we get past our deep sleep phase / the minimum required for us to feel rested that the magic really happens.

And, it is magic – let’s make no mistake about it.

Celebrating ourselves and those around us

We had a lovely tribute to the friend I wrote about on Saturday. At the end of the hour in which many of us recalled lovely memories and celebrated his life, I was left with a niggling question – how many of us let each other know how much we appreciated each other and care? How many of us appreciate ourselves and what we have?

Many of us often spend too long being hard on ourselves for every mistake we make and discount every nice thing we do. We do the same for people around us – too often we just kill relationships with high expectations and unnecessary negativity. And, we also mess with our incredible bodies – eating poorly, sleeping less than we need, and never exercising our body and mind.

Do we always need a shock or horrible outcome to do justice to our lives?

If we feel we do (and that’s okay as long as we accept it), perhaps a better way to approach it would be to write down 3 things we’re thankful for every morning and 3 things we’d do today if we knew it was our last day. Think about it, be intentional and don’t let life happen to you.

What we have is a gift. And, it is entirely up to us to use it well. Let us be excellent to ourselves and each other.

And, I thought I’d begin with you today – thank you for reading these notes, thank you for sharing them as you do, and thank you for writing in every once a while. To be connected with you through a combination of these words, the ether and a few differently shaped devices means more to me than you can imagine. Have a great day and week.

Process, spot and Rory McIlroy – The 200 words project

I hope you’re having a nice weekend. Here’s this week’s 200 word idea thanks to Steven Pressfield’s blog post about Rory Mcillroy..

When golfer Rory McIlroy was having the tournament of his life at the British Open championship, reporters asked him, “Do you have ‘secret thoughts’ that are helping you play so well?” Rory confessed that indeed he had two specific words that he was repeating to himself. But, he said, he wasn’t going to say anything until the championship was over. He won – at age 25!

When reporters asked him again, he said – “I just thought ‘Process’ and ‘Spot.” He explained that “process” meant to him the consistent, repeated sequence of thoughts and actions that he performed before every swing. Then he would pick a “spot” on the green he wanted to roll over. So, he focused not on the hole but on rolling the ball over the spot.

There is great wisdom to what he did – by thinking “process” and “spot,” Rory detached himself from the outcome of each individual shot and just focused on making good decisions and good swings. Of course Rory wanted to win the British Open. But, he knew that to over-obsess about this ultimate object would be focusing on the wrong target.

Great results follow great processes.

Process spot Rory McIlroyRory at the press conference after the tournament
Source and thanks to: News.yahoo.com

“Nobody can control the outcome. All you and I can do is stick to our process and roll our ball over the spot. That’s enough. It worked for Rory.” | Steven Pressfield


A friend passed away yesterday. I didn’t know him anywhere as well as I wish I had but I did know he was an incredibly nice person. The little bit of overlap we had was actually thanks to this blog. We met a few months back because he stopped me and spoke of a recent post. We had a few other chance meetings but nothing substantial. I knew him well enough to wish him a happy birthday a few weeks back. He responded with a note that said – “When I grow up, I want to be like the editor of ALearningaDay.” I laughed.

I think we might have passed each other a couple of times after that and I remember thinking I should sit down with him for a conversation sometime. That didn’t quite happen..

I looked back at that note from him yesterday.

I’ve learnt that there are broadly 3 kinds of reactions after we hear of an untimely loss that happens in close proximity. When you take away those who don’t know the person at all, you are left with those who were close and those who were acquaintances. When you are really close, the loss leaves an indelible mark on your life forever. Things are never the same again. If you’ve got a strong culture within the family, there is a chance you might experience normalcy. But, given we spend most of our lives running away from the idea, most near and dear ones find it incredibly hard. And, when you know of the person as an acquaintance (me in this case), it serves as a strong reminder that we’re not here forever.

I felt myself walking about in a bit of a daze all of yesterday. It made me think of nothing and then many things all at once. Having experienced untimely loss close twice, I feel I understand the pain of near and dear ones and it always seems to make me stop, reflect and take stock.

And, yesterday, I felt the following thoughts repeatedly pass my mind –

1. We must be excellent to ourselves. If we are fortunate to be blessed with good health, we must do everything in our power to keep it that way. It is a privilege to be healthy. It is up to us to use it well.

2. We must be excellent to others – especially those who are dearest to us. For there are few other things that matter. We’re here for a short time and it is all about who we touch. And, for those close to us, let’s not wait till tomorrow to share a hug.

3. We must work to make this world a bit better. When we think about it, the time we spend with our near and dear ones is actually a minor proportion when compared to the time we spend at work. Yes, this is not always possible. Yes, we need money. But, where possible, when possible, let’s seek out opportunities to touch others and make this world a bit better. A lot of what makes the world today is unfair. This is about not letting the unfairness getting us down but working towards building a better future.

I don’t think such moments are about deciding to live every day as if it were your last. Life isn’t about absolutes and I find such thinking naive. I do think it is a constant balancing act. And, there definitely exists a balance between working towards a better future while doling out hugs, kisses and love generously.

Be nice. Be kind. The world will roll on without you. All we have is a limited amount of time to make a small difference where we can and when we can. Let’s make it meaningful, make it count.

We lost a wonderful member of our ALearningaDay community yesterday. He will be missed.

The Good Life Sessions – MBA Learnings

I wrote about the idea of searching for the good life 3 weeks ago. That was the day we conducted the first of three “Good Life Sessions” in school. It was a fascinating process and experience for a few reasons.

First, I have never seen this topic tackled. Books have come at it from various angles but there was no ready made content or structure we could use. So, both the roots as well as the structure came from personal experiences. That always makes it interesting because personal journeys are rarely similar. That said, there are underlying principles that we can extract.

So, in some ways, we never set out for this to be perfect solution to anyone seeking the good life (that would either be a result of extreme vanity or foolishness – depending on your point of view). Instead, we framed this as a way to get exposed to tools and frameworks that would hopefully get our attendees thinking about these things and help them on their journeys. At the end of the day, designing a life you consider “good” is a personal endeavor. There’s no tool or template that will solve it for you. However, there are principles that you can apply. And, we tried aggregating these principles in these sessions.

We broke the idea of “the good life” down by asking 3 questions. As a special gift to you, we’d like to share the worksheets we worked through during the sessions. Each of the links lead to the worksheets –
1. What do I value?
2. How do I find my personal mission? (Mission statements examples sheet)
3. How do I create an action plan to live a life consistent with this mission?

We worked hard to keep it simple. Hopefully you’ll find it easy to understand and follow as well. If you have any trouble, please just leave a comment or email me on the email address in worksheet III.

As I wrote in that original post, there are many false assumptions around ideas of happiness and purpose. Many assume that you only pursue these once you become wildly successful. That’s missing the point. It is only when we live a life we consider “good” do we feel successful in the first place. This isn’t about getting things “right” or being “balanced.” I keep going back to the ‘life as an ECG’ analogy – good lives work like good ECG readings. There’s a lot of fluctuation around the line. Too much fluctuation is a problem. A flat line is a massive problem.

It works the same way with attempting to lead a good life. First, you define what is good and, in that process, create that anchor line. And, then, you spend every day balancing around that line.It’ll never be perfect. But, it’ll be good. And, most importantly, it’ll be good as you define it. And, I’d argue that there are few things that matter more..

(Hat tip to the Good Life Team for making this happen. And, to the one and only Clayton Christensen, whose fantastic book “How will you measure your life?” has inspired me more than any other)

The view

We spend most of our time climbing ladders – a career ladder, a fitness ladder, a finance ladder, etc. There is no end to these ladders. There is always hard and gritty work to be done for long term good. And, that involves diligent work. There are 3 truths about ladder climbing that I’ve found helpful –

1. There is no happiness ladder. While it is true that postponing short term gratification results in long term joy, viewing life as an exercise in postponing short term gratification is a drag. The challenge with happiness is that we have to live it through the journey.

2. There were likely times when you almost slipped but were held tightly by people who stopped climbing their ladders to help you. These folk are precious. Treasure them and try to climb alongside them for as long as possible. And, even when you aren’t alongside, stay in touch. The art of ladder climbing hasn’t changed much with time and there’s a lot you can learn from experience.

3. Wherever you are, you can always stop, take a few seconds, and enjoy the view. Sure, the view gets better at the top. But, the place you are in now is the place you are at after putting all of your life experience at work. It is likely the highest you’ve ever been and is likely the efforts of you having come a long way. Take the time to enjoy the view and be grateful for having made it so far – you definitely didn’t do it alone.

That takes us right back to point 1. It isn’t happy people who are thankful, but thankful people who are happy.

The success measure

Ever since my frustration with a day of 100% activity, 0% productivity 2 weeks ago, I’ve been starting the day with a small addition to my day’s to do list. I call it the “success measure” box and add 2-3 items whose completion would mark a successful day.

Success measure

This little box has changed everything. It helps that I do this first thing in the morning as I start the day with a clear understanding of what success looks like. I have just one rule – there can’t be more than 3 items in the box. As a result of this –

1. I can almost feel a bit of stress when I find myself mucking around with items outside the success measure box. That’s great as it clearly distinguishes activity from productivity.
2. I do everything possible to be efficient through the rest of my meetings and non-essential tasks so I can carve out blocks to complete these.
3. It helps with the idea of “focus as a verb.” Focus as a noun is being able to buckle down and get work done. Focus as a verb is a trait I consider more essential. It means being able to go through life with a clear idea of what is important at a given point of time.

Finally, it is my belief that we are happiest when we’re making progress towards our goals. And, the joy from ticking off the success measure items at the end of the day is one that makes the challenge worth it.

PS: And, of course I fail from time to time. But, the big difference is that the reasons and learnings are very clear, e.g, I typically realize I just have to do a better job scheduling everything else / building in enough slack time the next day.

Your dark side

The Hogan assessment company has an interesting video up on “The Science of Personality.” In this 37 minute film, they take us through the evolution in the study of personality with a focus on the developments in the last 100 years. While I was hoping for a bit more explanation around some of the modern developments, the movie has a few interesting nuggets.

It explains that there are 3 forces that guide human behavior –
1. The need to get along
2. The need to achieve within the group
3. The need for a purpose or frame with which to make sense of the world.

And, most of human life is a tension between the need to get along and the need to achieve. It also spoke about how effective leadership is the key resource that makes teams perform. And, how ineffective leadership, on the other hand, can destroy all sorts of progress. But, of course, personality drives leadership, which, in turn, drives organizations. And, that means personality is really powerful.

If I had to sum up the video’s takeaway it would be – “Learn more about your personality and be self aware.” I think that’s great advice. They touched on the idea of understanding both our bright and dark sides – our dark side comprises of behaviors we are either prone to during times of stress or when we tend to over use our strengths.

I think of the dark side as a manifestation of our insecurities. For instance, when I feel especially insecure, I seem to either respond with an ego that tries to act as a shield or find myself prone to envy. And, when I overuse my strengths, it often means coming across too forceful.

I’ve learnt to accept that my dark side will never go away. There are certain psychological triggers that bring them to the fore. I’ve attempted to design my life in ways to avoid these unnecessary triggers. For instance, given I am fairly attention deficit, I take many breaks during the day. But, I’ve avoided the Facebook feed for 2 years now. I use Facebook to share links, stay in touch and also participate in groups. But, the feed is a rabbit hole I’ve learnt to avoid. During a bad day, it is a perfect example of an envy generator. And, I’m better off focusing on everything I need to do. Similarly, when I feel insecure, I’ve learnt to recognize the sudden feelings of arrogance that it brings or a certain unnecessary forcefulness. I don’t think I succeed in avoiding them all the time (it results in a follow up apology or note to whoever was on the other side sometimes) but I realize that awareness is the first step towards acceptance and action.

Our dark sides are a part of who we are. Understanding and accepting that is the first step to being genuine.