Friday, November 23, 2007

Lessons from Honda #1:Know Thy Time

ed note, there is a lot of interesting waffle in this post but if you want the meat of it go to the bottom where 'meat of this post' is in bold.

I recieved a comment the other day, huzzah.

Tohm, I love your blog.
I just wanted to say that.
It inspires me to stop wasting so much time thinking about petty things and think about the important stuff instead.

Recieving comments on my blog is a rare thing, and how better to reward an individual taking the initiative to single them out. Which I don't mean to it's just that increasingly I am finding meditation the hardest thing to do because almost everything I come across or my eyes rest on briefly stirs up a frenzy of cognition.
And this comment was no exception, the people whom I know read my blog tend to give me feedback face to face, not in this forum, and I admit a blog is not a very good forum for communication. It's a log in which I try to disclose stuff.
And funny enough there I go having spent a whole bunch of time talking about the nature of blogs and my meditative practices and wasted a bunch of my time.
What all that was meant to some how lead to was that this comment got me to thinking about one of the million things I've already backlogged wanting to talk about.
The above comment was a little perplexing, it sounds sincere to me, and I choose to treat it as such but the '[inspires]... to think about the important stuff instead' could have been sarcastic as it was a comment left on my lengthy post of whether I thought poligamy was feasable or not. Arguably a petty waste of my time.
If however as I believe it was intended was as a genuine complement then I have to say it fills me with furbies inside and also provoked me into further thought.
I allude to Drucker's school of management that I have been studying of late and find highly impressive, its one of those schools of thought that is simultaneously intuitive but new and fresh, and whilst one could almost describe it as conservative it doesn't necessarily controvene other business guru's like Ricardo Semler's system of democracy in business.
And that gives me the giddy feeling that I have discovered another piece of the puzzle as I gradually move towards enlightenment. Another friend recently sent me an article on Lifestyle Design which I believe was erroneously titled 'the 4 hour week' I am a big believer in the four hour day, but more leaning in the direction of Clive Hamilton's criticism of classic economic rationalisation that people don't work because they have to but work because they enjoy it. (they both play a part but the top priority is enjoyment of work).
All focus around management of time, and the commentor Jess whose true identity I can guess at but not know for sure, hit the nail on the head of Drucker's starting point for effective executives (for more info read his book 'effective executive'), a starting point though I should sure up is no good without a goal or at the very least objective, Drucker says that the goal of the executive is effectiveness. The three primary responsibilities of an executive are Thinking, Communicating and Deciding and for each of these they take responsibility.
But the first step down the path of doing so effectively is to know thy time. That is to see where all your time (and presumably energy/effort goes) and then check that against your actual priorities.
For me this struck a cord, Drucker talks about effectiveness as learned behaviour and I certainly I feel have a lot of effective behaviours, my career management at Honda I think was peerless and I don't say so arrogantly but as the result of conscious efforts I've made. As for the future how effective I am remains to be seen, success in one sphere of experience doesn't necessitate success in the future by any means.
So enough eating of pies unhumble, and back on task, for me personally I have described myself primarily in self depreciating terms, I often even here in japan describe what I do or how I work as 'lazy','childish','easy' and so fourth. Probably to my detriment I sell myself as someone who puts in very little effort and cruises by on natural talent.
And largely this is how I see myself and would describe myself. Infact the only word out there... I might actually highlight that in red because I'm disclosing my own key weakness/strength...Infact the only word out there I can't abide being labelled is 'selfish' people with a lisp however I find hilarious when they label me 'shellfish' I remember a Jerry Springer episode fondly when just such a person hurling abuse at their sister got the audiance chanting 'shellfish, shellfish, shellfish...'
When I talked about my laziness in my exit interview though Rod pointed out that whilst I described myself as one of the laziest workers at Honda I was the only person who rode 15km a day on a pushbike to and from work. Rod is a thoroughly annoying man who spots tells all the time, and whilst laziness I will always consider one of my enduring core values I will concede that again he alludes to the principle of knowing thy time.
To sight another book, this one is good because you don't actually have to read it just pick it up and look at the back cover, called 'Nice Girls Don't get the Corner Office' a book that is a shopping list of all the ways women tend to sabotage their own careers subconsciously the authoer lists as '
Mistake #blah blah Hard Work' that 'mistake' underpins the basis of my self proclaimed effective behaviour. To come back to Drucker as my heavy weight opinion on the matter, hard work is of no value if spent on things that aren't effective.
Hard work is the misguided Moral of 'The Hare and the Tortoise' which for those who don't remember is the thrilling story of how a speedy animal like the Hare loses a Footrace to the Tortoise who slowly plods along. The morale is most commonly iterated as slow and steady wins the race, and in many cases particularly when it comes to something new slow is actually the quickest way to learn.
But from the point of view of 'work' as the exertion of effort or the spending of time it is the opposite. How the story goes from the work perspective is this:
The Hare and the Tortoise have a footrace, neither has any real experience. The Hare bolts at the starting line the Tortoise hangs back. The Hare seeing its lead grow gets comfortable in its method and adopts a regular stride. The tortoise realising its own strength and weaknesses devises a method by which to make travel more effecient, namely by employing the use of a fast flowing stream which being aquating the tortoise can achieve speeds above and beyond that of the current with little energy exerted. Having entered the stream the tortoise applies a little effort and arrives at the bridge that is the finish line well ahead of the Hare who arrives exhausted and having through its efforts done permanent damage to it's legiments. Morale of the story: work smart not hard.
That I describe most commonly as being lazy, for me lazy doesn't have the normal connotations of being unvirtuous or a negative character trait, it simply means, avoiding at all costs the unnecessary expenditure of effort.
As such (and I'm sure if I have readers now from Honda will be horrified (some may not be surprised)) I can describe every single one of the playoff matches of the NBA eastern conference as I watched them all at work via the internet with the abundancy of spare time I had.
Admittedly I lost this spare time due to training new staff and handing over my duties but for the most part of my career I easily had 2-3 hours a day to idle away on personal interests on the internet (descretely of course). And I call this lazy, I would also probably call it bored and let me tell you of all the challenges I ever faced at work, boredom was the one that terrified me most when I woke up on a monday morning. Nobody I presume would argue that I wasn't into setting new challanges for myself nor for creating lofty ambitions for the department, or that in any way I didn't have a full plate of sizeable projects to work on.
The major reason my 2-3 hours a day got spent on NBA games was that my boredom arose from being almost entirely alone in having time to work on important stuff.
The executives were in meetings constantly or overseas reporting on the past and projecting financials into the future.
My young colleagues were pulling their hair out with the stress of their respective workloads, yet I believe if they look at the mindmap and process maps I tried to create as accurately for my successor as possible I would bet my left nut they'd be surprised at how much I managed.
Thus far I realise this lengthy monologue is becoming increasingly a self congratualatory speech by me for me and I should clarify to anyone getting turned off at my shamelessness that the crux of the matter is/was: it broke my heart.
I really felt betrayed by how time was squandered in the working culture, and I don't in anyway imply that Honda is a dog and pony show company, I think it is probably in the upper percentile of Australian managed companies for avoiding petty politics, planning for the future and behaving as a responsible corporate citizen (apart from an unhealthy dependance on selling Dirt Bikes which are responsible for destroying vast tracks of National Parks in Australia) but even so business was moving away from dirtbikes into road friendly/baby boomer friendly scooters and cruisers.
But the fact of the matter was, I don't think many people ever sat down and analysed their time, the easiest temptation for me was to jump on the phones and whittle away the hours of the day chasing meaningless erands for customers, sales reps and dealers. But doing so is what Drucker would refer to as fire fighting. What I needed to spend time on was training up staff to better handle customer calls and discussing call handling procedure (communicating) so as to make sure once a 'fire' was put out it stayed out and we had the upper hand. The other best use of my time was to crawl through our procedures and see what was causing dissatisfaction and conflict amongst our customers internal/external and not so much end users unless it related to cashbacks or something. Thus trying to prevent fires from occuring and eating up all our effort. (that you would call thinking) and sometimes if my manager was away I could handle 4 calls simultaneously by taking costumer complaints to a generic level and deciding on the best response which I then communicating to the team (deciding) and all this at a very juniour level of the company.
All activities that reduced my workload, made operation more efficient and got me internal recognition.
So really, being lazy is taking the abundant work that is there to occupy yourself until 5 o'clock, and hardwork is infact acting today to reduce the demands on you tomorrow.
But 'hard work' as it most commonly manifests itself is precisely the opposite project, it is throwing yourself headfirst trying to take more calls in a day than the other team members, trying to be indispensible in the crisis that arise.
Put simply, instead of inventing a car with 400 bhp, you buy 400 hundred horses. Or instead of fixing a leak permanantly you stay up all night changing wads of paper towell.
This is hardwork that breaks my heart. It is more appropriately called stupidity. And I don't infer that people that work hard are intrinsicly stupid, I mean the process itself is not a learning one, it is not growth, it is the process by which one dedicates more and more resources to something 'petty' never freeing up resources to devote to important things.
Drucker prescribes executives to get their personal assistents (the 70's was long ago enough to call them secretaries still) to follow them around and write down what they were doing every 10 minutes for a week. Then to analyse the data after a week to see what time was being spent on.
This process assumes that one has already determined what is 'petty' and what is 'important' to use the terminology of my blog commenter which is 100% accurate.
Most people will be contributing little time to 'important' things usually because for the executive they are important at a company level that they themselves hold primary motivation for achieving whereas petty things are the concerns of the people making the constant demands of their time. Resolving disputes over issues of little to no consequence, talking to a customer who refuses to accept the proposal of a lower level staff member, talking to customers for no greater purpose than making them feel important, or in Honda's case from my sphere of experience/influence, preparing reports to feed ever onwards up the chain with little to no impact on buiness as usual (I don't recommend discounting the value of keeping an eye on things though).
What I do discount is bothering to read reports if you have dedicated no time to ever really act on them.
Hence the outcome of the drucker analysis. You see how you spend your time, eliminate as much as humanly possible that doesn't contribute to achieving your key priorities and then schedule in time specifically for your key priorities.
I suspect the head honchos at Honda did just this because I could almost never book time with them in the same two week period I was trying to book time in, but for the most part all I saw was people needlessly stressing and working the same systems and no time dedicated to improving their own working methods.

So that was the lesson for me, not so much know thy time, I wasn't very good at scheduling time, but did have an abundant supply of time to pursue special projects, and when blocked by lack of access to the people I needed to achieve the result with I either watched NBA or talked to Rod about learning and shit.
But it really all started with me in highschool, with the discipline of homework.
Namely, I almost never did it, this has been for me the key competitive advantage I possess (albeit indirectly) for a lot of people it is a fast track to failure, but for me not doing homework was a huge timesaver and I'll tell you why and then give you a contrary example as well that isn't mine but is instructive anyway.
It started philosophically as a process of drumming up righteous indignation, namely that teachers assigned homework to be done in time I considered my own. Most parents get behind the teachers fearful their kid will end up poor, or generally if they don't value education will discourage their kid actively or through apathy from trying across the board. My older brother though had aspergers, making him increadibly willfull and one could even describe as selfish, it wasn't diagnosed until after he finished uni so we all just thought he was an arsehole, but he set a precedent for my parents being pretty laze-faire or however the fuck it is spelt about getting involved in our school work because for Sam it was simply too exhausting and then putting pressure on me and my sister wouldn't be fair.
So I was left to determine my own policy and I did so through rationalization, that is I blamed the teachers for being inefficient and thus having to asign me work to conduct on my own to achieve the learning level they were supposed to deliver.
Now that in itself is highly debatable and people could take it all over the place but at the end of the day, the most obvious gaping hole in the logic was that for the teacher whether I pass or fail has some consequence, personal pride and let's not forget private schools are a business and a blemish on the stat sheet could hurt future enrolments. Private schools are supposed to deliver success, but overall I was a blip of a statistic to my teacher (I know emotionally I was more than that but using consequentialism thats the way it was) failure for me however meant limitations on my choices in life (though to wax philosophical limits imposed on the infinite number of choices are of little significance anyway) I in short had to live with the consequences.
My 'enlightenment' apeared by looking at the equation, it was the schools role to teach, therefore what it taught had to be measured in order to be delivered. The measurement was the key. Measurement was also obvious, the measurement was in assesible criteria. For the system to work, and be efficient the only thing that could be measured is what was taught, their was no extra advantage of significance to study indipendantly from what was assesable.
In short all these thoughts cascaded through as one crystal clear message 'I can only be assessed by what the teacher teaches me in class' and from then on homework was ajoke.
My minimum required effort was simply to ensure that I understood what was told to me in class. Private schools understand this well because they give you past exams to use, teachers can't catch you out because highschools have to be standard across the state, they all sit the same exams per subject because they have to standardise, teaching anything extra that what is on the exams is a waste of time because it isn't dedicated to acheiving the deliverable an ENTER score.
So my system was water tight, furthermore the Board of Education backed me up by removing Cats or take home draft based assesment, meaning in VCE hard work really didn't pay off, knowing shit did.
So all year 12 I simply read a bit, reflected on my classes and for the most part was in bed by 9pm pursued my own interests and ran. I had genetic advantages too, I retain most of what I hear as an Audio learner which teacher class delivery is favorable and I picked my subjects fairly effectively too and have a high IQ but here I learned indirectly that hard work didn't pay.
Anyone who has been through VCE and emerged on the otherside knows that holy grail of the ENTER score only lasts in real terms for 1-2 months, between being released and when you enrole in UNI.
So I got 95.5 which let me into anything bar double degrees and law at melbourne uni. I probably could have got 99 something if I worked really really hard, but the payload is small and would have set a bad precedent for later in life.
In short I analysed my time, albeit to justify spending more of my time on personal preference, but the act of looking saved me hours possibly months of my youth spent enjoying myself.
Uni was even easier because I knew that nothing that wasn't delivered in a lecture was examinable, therefore lecture slides/notes as provided by the lecturer were all that was necessary, and if it deviated from this you could rely on the bell curve to put you at no real disadvantage anyway.

Thus I entered Honda with one last trick up my sleave, the challange with workplace versus school is that in school the deliverables are obvious standardised pieces of assesment with clear and apparant criteria. Work it's different, whilst largely still school yard politics, perceptions of value are more subjective, hence the existence of a wide disparity between good companies and great companies, and the shortlived bad companies (unless the bad company is a government agency inwhich case it hangs around forever leaching off taxpayers from good companies).
I knew in my head that overtime was bullshit, because my brother had befriended the guy who first introduced me to the concept of the 3 hour day, said fellow was a software programmer and had an advantage most people don't he was an expert and his level of productivity was inscrutible until complete, as most employers couldn't read code. He observed that the most effort anyone really exudes in agiven day is 3 hours, so that if he dedicated three hours solely into uninterupted productive effort he had no qualms about packing up and heading for home.
As my teacher Terry commented the truth is most people achieve far less than 3 hours a day, and the proof of the pudding is in the eating, said programmer was loved for his efficiency overall.
He had his employer over a barrell, I on the other hand was going into sales support one of the most generic entry level jobs someone can do. I was also under contract to deliver 37.5 hours a week of my time to Honda, I had sold it. Interestingly enough the contract had a catch which was 'or until the efficient completion of your duties' which was the contracts way of saying, you work overtime pro-bono if you haven't achieved what we expect of you.
I never really challanged on that point in that I achieved most duties I could gather for myself (even after becoming the marketing girls part time PA) well ahead of time by heading home after three hours. This was only because we were expectred to keep our phone lines open to customers between 9 and 5 and I was expected to be available to take a call.
So I was easily replacable in terms of duties, and despite being able to easily achieve my duties in under 3 hours a day, it is one thing to work effectively and be percieved as lazy and another to work hard an be percieved as effective (or more commonly at Honda 'valuable').
The issue has the extra dimension of being subject to perception. If my boss saw me watching NBA games (something I started doing once I was no longer in my boss' line of sight) he most likely would think me lazy, redundant and dispensable. Yet my dilemma was that in the early days I simply couldn't find enough work to do. I just about quit because of boredom in my first year. Drucker too talks about the mistake of giving new people 'small' jobs when they should be given big jobs that challange them and hence the employer a better idea of what they are capable of.
The obvious thing to do was manage perceptions.
I guess here finally I get to the meat of this post. The perception of hard work as a virtue I think is the biggest challange facing companies in Australia. Culturally it is what most people are raised on, how hard the depression was, how hard the diggers did it, how hard Cathy Freemen worked for Olympic glory, how hard the journey is to the MCG Grand Final, how hard are stupid farmers are doing it in the nauseum.
But hard work is precisely the opposite of progress, progress is making things that make life easier. I battled the perception of hard work as a virtue by discussing at every opportunity in my early days, the issue of perception itself.
One such manager called the Motorcycle department slackers because at 5pm their department was gone, this comment wasn't for my benifit but for his own subordinate but I took note that it was at least in his books a virtue to work overtime.
My policy was to be gone also at 5 on the dot which infact meant I spent the last 15-5 minutes tidying up my desk in my own haphazard way. Something I never stopped doing.
Which was fine as a junior staff member my work wasn't very important but how to set the precedent that no further overtime would be forthcoming should I recieve a promotion. Making it clear down the track was an obvious option but even better was to add a competing perception, one I believe is if such a thing exists the correct perception, I could at least I'm sure call it the effective perception.
A boss walks through the office at 5:30pm and sees a worker sitting at his desk he thinks 1 of 2 things.
1. (ineffective perception) that worker is dedicated.
2. (effective perception) I thought they where supposed to complete their work before 5, that worker is inefficient.

In various forms I reiterated this again and again. My boss once said the same thing about one of our suppliers which was: 'we told them they have to get our product out before cutoff every day, you don't acheive that by starting earlier than agreed' I've paraphrased heavily to try and keep the business as ambiguous as possible but he hit the nail on the head when it came to overtime. Overtime is moving the goal posts, a job that depends on overtime is one occupied by someone who has not achieved competency in at least one thing = time management.
I for one feal pity, and if close to someone yes, heartbreak when I see them working hard and working overtime. My perception is definitely that the person is inefficient.
Whilst it is without question I would gladly dedicate my time in an actual crises, most day to day work is not a crises, and most crises can be prevented by utilising the time saving of being efficient at what we do.
If I were a manager at any Company I would reduce the time available to my employees to complete their duties not extend it. Because overtime in most manifestations I've seen results in a lot of empty posturing, unbalanced lifestyles and little effective output.
And there's a whole other side unexplored yet, what I did with my free time after work, this is where Rod is phenomanlly good, better than I at spotting the tells. I was self proclaimed 'laziest man at Honda' yet as Rod pointed out I rode 15k each way to work every day, rain hale or shine, and most annoyingly headwinds despite being lazy. I told him this is because in the long run cycling would prove to be the laziest thing.
But above and beyond that, I read, I read and read and read in my time, learning how to be better. Internal changes are the hardest to notice in someone so the amount of learning I did that manifested itself at work would just be the tip of the iceburg, especially considering when politics, power heirarchies and company priorities come into play.
Then I was a 3 time volunteer, playing basketball with ESL students at RMIT, Helping Earthsharing wherever I could spare the time, and Teaching Zamin english through FLN I believe all are still linked to my blog.
The big joke here was, that whilst others stayed back a couple of hours, mentally exhausted beating their heads against the wall over the same old problems, I was sitting in a room with a professional strategic advisor learning how to devise strategic plans for the Fitzroy Learning Network, I was also often in a pub talking over the risky decisions involved in marketing and promotions for the Fitzroy Learning Network. On other nights I was engaged in numerous debates with the Earthsharing crew making decisions together I would never get a say in at Honda and being the marketing and communications expert. Whilst people work hard at low level jobs I was paving my career path by learning high level strategy, getting to make decisions and see their results, often dealing with the best products society offers when it comes to the volunteer economy.
The primary benificiary of course is me, but followed closely by Honda that had bought up most of my time, and it was really flexible letting me leave early to teach Zamin. Sadly not one of my peers followed my example, those capable of doing so, so that the next most impressive employ after myself was the single mother whose resultant latent leadership abilities need some coaxing out.
The great Irony for me though was that, in knowing my time I knew it was in Honda's best interest really to have their employees spend less time at work and more others. Even getting healthy sleep and spending quality time with the family is probably more productive than the sloppy work that gets tapped out after 5. Even claims that its necessary to do so because during the day their are too many distractions. Well handling those distractions is what time management is, not shifting the goal posts, its about setting precedents and prioritising and knowing thy time.
Sadly I fear there is a less talked about and far scarier reason its such an issue in most peoples lives though beyond lacking the know how of time management and that is, fear of boredome.
More commonly examined as a larger issue of 'Empire Building' I think often efficiency is not a career strategy for most people (even though it may be the overall corporate strategy) because they fear that the outcome is boredom. I for one already said boredom was my biggest obstacle at Honda, but I was also the go to guy for any new challanging projects on my level, especially ones I made for myself.
It is a perceptual problem that one improves oneself out of a job.
When really, and I know at least one specific example, my old boss said that 'we owe them an opportunity' again paraphrasing for me though I would never leave my career to the waiting game, the opposite is true until you are no longer needed to do the work you did, you can't be given any new opportunities.
terry my teacher told me about an incident in an office where they got a new printer that would do the copying for him from his desk. Pretty old technology now but the guys response was 'but what will I do now that I don't have to stand by the printer' he was concerned about the 40 minutes he used to spend a day walking and manually copying shit.
I have seen it again and again in a resistence to change that ultimately is a resitence of efficiency and professionalism. So pervasive is the virtue of hard work that we try to protect it at the expense of progress.
Telling someone to go home at 5 instead of 8 is NOT saying 'do half the work you normally do' it is saying 'find a way to do your work in half the time' this shouldn't (fuck I hate the word should) be the case in the first time because the effective perception is from the perspective of when you discover an employee working at 8pm 'hey we agreed you'd have this done by 5pm I see you here at 8pm everyday working, this results in me feeling like the work you do for me is undervalued or you aren't really up to handling it, what could you do differently?'

In its worst manifestation the fear of boredom results in factories that produce products the company can't afford. But they don't go bankrupt, instead the government bales the company out with subsidies, because so many 'hard workers' are employed by the company, the unskilled labourers have been encouraged to never develope efficiencies or new skills and thus never move up the line, they then are of no use to anybody else and become a liability the government has to keep on. A car manufacturing plant in Australia is effectively nothing more than a government agency, and a poorly disguised welfare system masquarading as business. Structurial unemployment results from rewarding hardwork over lazy efficiency.
I hope I had an impact on the new recruits in my department whom I made it my business to remind to go home at the end of the day, even going so far as to say 'you're not impressing anybody' which may or may not have been true. I also reiterated my philosophy of time management to Ashley an occupent of the marketing department that was new, I moved to the department despite remaining a member of the sales team for the peace and quiet it afforded, when I walked out at 5pm as per usual Ash said to me 'hey man you're in marketing now' but this time my articulation was nothing more than a laugh.

Time management in Australia is a matter of doing the Drucker Analysis, setting and scheduling priorities, ridding yourself of time wasters, leveraging lower wage employees through succession planning, and using the good old round file. But before that it is a perceptual battle. Australia has a precedent for this in the form of TACs long tested 'If you drink then drive your a bloody idiot campaign' and more recently the NSW add to combat street hoons, by demonstrating petrol head kids doing burnouts at traffic lights whilst attractive women waggle their little fingers at them to imply they have small penis's or more articulatly 'they are not impressing anyone'
In my dad's day drinking and driving home was a badge of honour of manliness, in my day it is just about as socially unnecceptable as you can get, probably beyond party drugs.
Time is the most precious resource an Executive has, any employee for that matter. Just as Cost Accountants make companies more efficient by cutting out uneccessary monetary expenditure, so too will any company that actively discourages overtime, enforces taking breaks, and thus creates efficiencies in time budgets too realise a competitive advantage. I gauruntee especially when weighing in the double whammy of how much benifit a company recieves out of an employees balanced lifestyle.
An employee that go's home on time is that much more likely to make it to the gym, that much more likely to prepare their own meal instead of ordering takeaway, that much more likely to see their kids awake.
Its not a recommondation this lesson, but an imperative.


sid said...

hi Tohm... your blog just changed the entire perseption of work and efficiency of mine. somehow i too am lazy, last minute person but your blog showed me that i still can be a efficient person. thanks!

ohminous_t said...

thanks sid, glad to know I made a difference. If you want a good book that backs up my virtues of 'laziness' get 'getting things done' by David Allen then leave it conspicuously on your desk.