Thursday, February 28, 2008

Following Directions

Somewhere in grade school, I remember an exercise. We were handed a sheet of paper and told to place it face down on our desks. We were told that this was a very important test and that we shouldn't look at the paper until instructed. We were told that we had five minutes to follow all of the instructions on the page. The teacher then told us to begin. Papers turned over and everyone looked at a very long list of instructions. The directions at the top of the page told us to read all of the instructions before doing anything else. I recall immediately setting about completing the instructions as I read them. There was furious writing and dead silence as we all struggled to get through all the directions. You could hear the seconds ticking away. About four minutes into the exercise, there was nervous laughter, which seemed to build. I recall being heads down and thinking that it was crazy that anyone would want to be joking around. I had a lot of directions to follow yet!. How could anyone be finished?

The teacher told us, "Pencils down!" and the laughter was suddenly very loud in the classroom. Half of us were looking around trying to get the joke. The teacher said, "Read question 50." This was the last item on the page. Question 50 said, "Write your name on the paper and do nothing else." Ever stood in front of the stove with the gas flowing and the igniter clicking -- but no flame? There was a spark deep inside my brain, but I still didn't get it. "Read the directions at the top of the page." Ooooooooo..... We have ignition!!!!!

That was a very vivid lesson. But it is sometimes clear that other folks never performed that little exercise. At the Day Job, we're in the midst of our annual certification exercise. We ask every employee to certify that they have complied with our records policy for their records from the previous year. They are supposed to do a number of things like filing their records, checking for legal holds, reviewing retention schedules and then follow an intranet link to certify that they have performed these tasks. It all seems very simple. Everyone gets an email with those instructions, the website has the same instructions, and the reminders repeat them again. They get a two month period at the beginning of the year to do all this, although we'd really like this to get to be an everyday thing.

Well, this week my ghostwriters sent out about 30,000 emails from me, reminding folks who had not certified that they had a week left to do so. The replies began immediately. It was pretty clear that many people had just skimmed through the instructions, if they read them at all. We offer a mandatory training class on records management. We like people to take it every couple of years, but we haven't pushed it much. Well, the folks who got my email seem to think that the certification process somehow involved their taking the training course -- even though the instructions had a highlighted line that stated that taking the class did not fulfill the requirements for certification. I guess that was my mistake. I highlighted the negative. So I had to make several hundred replies on Tuesday to people explaining that they needed to certify, not take the class. A few then replied, sending me the completion certificate from the class, because my records were clearly not correct. *Sigh* It was a long couple of days.

This morning I was standing in the shower wondering how many people I would have to correspond with today about this misunderstanding. I stood and pondered how I could write the email differently next time and how I could modify the website to be crystal clear. It then dawned on me that of the 30,000 or so emails I had sent out on Tuesday, I had to clarify the requirements to 300 or so people. My sleepy brain crunched the numbers and I realized that only 1% of the reminded population was having trouble following directions (and actually .5% of the whole company!). I got frustrated worrying about my directions when 99%+ of the people who got them had no problem following them!!!!

I related this to one of my ghostwriters (who was helping me manage the reply mailbox and was also very bemused the day before). Her reply was, "Well, aren't you the glass half full guy today!" She grinned and acknowledged that perhaps it wasn't all that bad after all -- although we wouldn't be measuring the result as a Six Sigma Quality process, seeing as how Six Sigma means 3.4 defects per million items. Oh well. At least now I know why I was feeling like the wheels had come off. In Six Sigma terms, a 1% (or even .5%) defect rate is an abject failure.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Into the Lions' Dens

It's been an interesting week. This past Tuesday through Thursday at work we had the IT Leadership meetings. Yep, I'm now an IT "leader". Those geek numbers must be coming back to haunt me. The company has all of the direct reports to the CIO, plus the next level down and select others come to a series of meetings at the home office. Thankfully, it isn't "death by Powerpoint". There is an attempt made by all of the featured groups to be creative in delivering their messages. It was interesting, although I'm not sure all the messages were effectively delivered.

We also did a bit of team building and had a fair amount of time for socializing, so I was able to put a few faces to names.

(I also found out that a high school classmate -- actually, a guy who was usually in my homeroom -- is a peer of mine. There are a couple other guys that I knew in high school who work for our company as well -- effectively one percent of our graduating class works here.)

I sat through more than one presentation where I was lost in a sea of acronyms and IT-speak (actually a peculiar dialect specific to my employer, I guess). But I followed most of it and had some of it interpreted for me.

My little corner of the world sometimes feels like a stretch in the IT world, but at least I am making connections.

Today, I was on a panel discussion for the Chicago Bar Association and Chicago-Kent College of Law. The audience was a room full of lawyers looking for CLE credit. We had what seemed like several hundred slides for seven panel members. I managed to elicit some laughs and still deliver a clear message without being beat up by the lawyers. I guess that is a good day.

The whole week was really long. Several 12 hour days and lots of intensive listening and focused concentration. The week went by very quickly and I have a lot of work piled up. So no real gems of wisdom beyond a sense that I can hold my own with IT and lawyers. I guess that's a pretty good week.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Laptop-free Mondays

You would think, that after a dozen or so years of lugging a laptop with me everywhere that I go, that I would remember the darn thing in the morning. Well, not today. Herein will be one of the problems that accompany transitioning to my upcoming "workplace mobility".

In years past, I would typically bring my laptop with me as a security measure (i.e. I didn't want to worry about having it stolen off my desk) or "just in case" (something came up where I needed to get to an internal system). Most of the time, it would never leave my computer bag. In general, if I needed to do some work, I would usually be able to get to email from my home computer using a VPN connection. Well, the new employer doesn't work that way -- you pretty much need to be connected to the network using only your work-issued computer. So when I work from home, I have to plug the thing in using my docking station and my KVM (keyboard, video, mouse) switch. So the laptop sits under my monitor and tends to be out of sight...

Anyway, that's where it was when I walked into work this morning.

This is the second time in six months that I have found myself away from home and reached into an empty backpack. The first time, I was at O'Hare Airport and had a very sickening feeling when I reached back and found the side zipper wide open as I walked from my car to the terminal. (First thought, "Did it fall out?!!!" Second thought, "Oh @%#&%#@!! It's on my desk!") That one had a happy ending in that my family literally rode to the rescue (and I am always at the airport very early). That little mistake cost me a Nintendo Wii and months of merciless ribbing from the family.

So this morning, after the expletive, it quickly dawned on me that I had left the darn thing sitting happily at home in its docking station. Today was a fairly light day at work, meeting-wise, but I needed to snail mail some stuff to co-workers and deal with some stuff that had piled up on my desk. We're having IT leadership meetings the rest of the week and I won't be at my desk very much.

So what to do? Fortunately, I have my handy Motorola Q9h. Email was merrily arriving in that, so I wasn't completely cut off from the world. If something blew up, I could at least get hold of people and see what was going on.

I also had a backpack full of stuff (which is why I didn't notice any lightness from not having the laptop in there). I've been trying to get through my backlog of reading and I had picked up a bunch of stuff at a seminar on Friday. There were also quite a number of things to file.

So I decided to tackle those tasks. It was very disconcerting sitting there with with a dead computer screen behind me. My Q would buzz every now and then and I retained a sense of connectedness, but I avoided spending time responding to emails. I looked, decided if it needed an immediate answer, and generally went back to my desk. Things got filed and things got read. My morning meeting came round and I spent a few minutes touching base in person and by phone with some folks. It was actually lunch time before I knew it.

After lunch, I tidied up a bit more and decided that there were a few emails that I needed to respond to as well as some that needed to be sent. But the morning was remarkably productive, all things considered. I left the office in the early afternoon and dealt with email once I got to the home office.

I'm thinking maybe this should be my normal approach to Monday morning... One of the things that I tend not to do very much is really sit down and be planful about my week. I could have done that this morning for this week, absent the all day meetings that will kill the balance of the week. I tend to walk in and boot my laptop before my coat is off. I'm reading email and responding before my "Grabber" breakfast sandwich has cooled off. I guess sometimes, you simply need to turn off the connectedness for a while and think. New lesson learned for the day...