Dealing with Illness

A few months ago I was unfortunate enough to contract Glandular fever and I am still suffering the effects of it now. The virus started out as what appeared to be the flu, but after I couldn’t shake the feeling of fatigue and general malaise for weeks after the flu symptoms ended I decided to go the doctor. Subsequent blood tests confirmed the glandular fever diagnosis. Normally this is a virus associated more with teenagers, so I am surprised to have contracted it at the ripe old age of 40.

The impact this illness has had on my ability to work effectively has been significant. Beyond the physical problems it has been a struggle to establish mental focus and remain concentrated on a task. I have had periods of forgetfulness and an incoherent mind. Making this worse from a working perspective is that there are not any external symptoms of the problem. This can make it hard for others to appreciate the truth that I am struggling to function. In a consulting environment, it becomes hard to step away from work when there aren’t any visible health problems.

Managing customer expectations

The client-focused consulting work that I do is not particularly conducive to long periods of leave linked to sickness. My work is a conduit for the success of other people’s goals and I need to fit in with their operational timelines. I engage with companies on the premise that our work will be done in a timely fashion. Often I am fitting my work around other projects they have on the go so any delays I create can have other knock-on effects. To suddenly need to take a lengthy break because of an illness that is not visibly apparent – but is impacting my mental state considerably – is a difficult thing.

Managing expectations in these circumstances is a challenge, because I don’t even know what I can promise in terms of timelines. The best I have found I can do is to be upfront and honest about the situation, and trust there will be a level of empathy from the client I am working with.

Managing self-imposed pressures

Even harder than managing the expectations of others are managing the expectations I place on myself. I’m self-motivated and I structure my projects and set deadlines to ensure I stay on track and maintain momentum. Having an illness that impacts my ability to meet these deadlines is a frustration that can tend to eat away at me.

I worry that I’m letting others down, and the feeling of ‘falling behind’ is not one I like. I have to take time to remind myself that I can’t always work with maximum efficiency; that I’m a living being who will have ups and downs. I need to let go, give myself time to recover and be assured that I will be able to catch up at a later point.

Ultimately, I just need to accept that stuff will just have to wait, and sometimes there is nothing that can be done about that.

Phone messages

Finally, a note on voicemail. They are the bane of my existence even in normal circumstances. When I’m sick, and a number of them bank up, it’s even worse. Seriously, voicemail is terrible, and it should be banished. With so many other options for communication, why is voicemail still a thing?

A Place for Everything

Over the past five years I’ve spent a lot of time learning the fundamental philosophies of a production system known as lean. I’ve read books and articles, I’ve taken a study tour to see lean in action in Japan. I’ve developed lean guides for business, and coached companies in the theory and implementation. Yet despite all of this, I still consider myself a beginner1.

Most of my lean work has been in relation to the manufacturing sector but the principles can also be applied to healthcare, food preparation, administration, and software development, to name a few. IT has even created further derivations such as kanban and agile.

Lean origins

Toyota is the company that can be credited for originally demonstrating the value of lean through their own Toyota Production System. Implemented with the help of Edward Deming after World War II, the company has embraced the lean philosophy of continuous improvement ever since. The company is now the gold standard with respect to lean implementation.

The theory of lean is much like an onion: there are many layers to it (and implementing it might sometimes make you cry!) Trying to emulate the Toyota Production System at the outset is an effort not worth taking, but any company can do implement some simple elements without too much trouble if they commit.

The best way to start

To get started I recommend following the exact same advice my Grandma used to give:

“a place for everything and everything in its place”

Yes, it’s as easy as that.

This concept represents one of the basic tenets of 5S. 5S is all about keeping things neat and orderly within the context of a lean workplace. Make sure if you take something, use something, or move something, that it gets put back once it has served its purpose. This approach will make it easier for your future self or somebody else to find a thing in the future. It will prevent the need to buy another thing because you couldn’t find the original thing. It will reduce stress and anger when you can’t find the thing you need at the time you need it.

Simply make sure everything has a home and that it always lives at home when not in use. Good tip, Grandma.

  1. In lean of course, maintaining a ‘beginner’s mind’ is a good thing as it keeps you open to new ideas and opportunities for improvement. 

Part 3: My Business Philosophy

This is the final of a three-part series focused on explaining my business philosophy. Parts One and Two are also available.

On my home page I call out my personal business philosophy:

Andrew’s business philosophy is built upon the value of mutual respect, the skill to leverage process for continuous improvement, and the ability to ultimately achieve self-actualisation.


My philosophical statement finishes with the rather grand sounding ambition of achieving self-actualisation. I will elucidate what self-actualisation is and why I consider it so important that I place it as the anchoring element of my philosophy.


The concept of self-actualisation was brought into broad awareness when it was presented as the pinnacle of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s rationale was based upon the understanding that only after the more immediate human needs are taken care of, is there capacity to focus effort on what brings us satisfaction and joy.

Maslow explicitly defines self-actualisation to be “the desire for self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for the individual to become actualised in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”1

Fortunately, in my country and its society there is a reasonable (but not guaranteed) chance to achieve the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy. This unlocks the potential to aim for and potentially achieve that final goal of self-actualisation.

Building a framework

I don’t see self-actualisation as an end-point; as the win achieved at the conclusion of a life-long progression up the hierarchy of needs. I believe we can reach the point of self-actualisation early and often, but what it is represented by will change over time. As we move through the stages of our life, commencing with childhood, then into the teens, marriage, career building, parenting, middle age and senior citizenship, different experiences will facilitate the goal.

The degree to which we are realising self-actualisation is likely to ebb and flow over time. Building a framework for our life that supports personal growth and improvement will help ensure a reasonable chance of reaching periods of self-actualisation even as we deal with the trials and tribulations thrown at as by life.

Without a structure and a consistent philosophical and ethical approach to life to fall back upon in challenging times it is less likely that consistent self-actualisation will be achievable.

Measuring success

Society has a tendency to measure success by outward facing and tangible measures such as wealth, fame and status. I prefer to think about success as the achievement of one’s potential and the personal joy imbued from doing what makes us happy. Precisely what the activity is that delivers said joy will vary as we grow and change. Exactly what it is matters less than the feeling it provides.

At one point of my life, playing basketball delivered a feeling of self-actualisation. Then later it was finding flow in a work assignment. Now it is linked to experiences of successful parenting. I am sure it will be other things later. None of these achievements are important to others2 but that doesn’t mean I am not being successful in my own right. If we are seeking external validation it will a frustrating and largely unrewarding experience, because that’s not delivered with any regularity.

The journey is the reward

There is no prize for ‘winning life’. External plaudits cannot be the arbiter of a life well-lived. We have been gifted a single life which even at the most optimistic is probably going to span less than 100 years. Against the timeline of humanity we are but granted a short window of opportunity. To bring meaning and purpose to our time on the planet we may as well participate with an aim of achieving joy and self-satisfaction.

It doesn’t matter how many symbols of success we collect along life’s journey. The true measure should be our own happiness and fulfilment. Recognising each day as a gift to be enjoyed and maximised is a path towards self-actualisation. Find your joy, wherever it may be.

Bringing the philosophy together

So, ultimately, I like to think that in respect of my business philosophy:

  1. Mutual respect will help avoid many worries, anger and pettiness that can derail us as we build a career and/or a business.
  2. Establishing a process for continuous improvement will free our mind to focus on truly meaningful work, rather than busy work.
  3. By adopting a respectful approach to others and having a focus on always getting better, a person can grow self-confidence, self-satisfaction and their enjoyment of life in its entirety, which will form a pathway towards achieving self-actualisation.

  2. Apart from my kids, who at this point assign no value to this. I hope the payoff will come much later. 

Part 2: My Business Philosophy

This is the second of a three-part series focused on explaining my business philosophy. Part One is also available.

On my home page I call out my personal business philosophy:

Andrew’s business philosophy is built upon the value of mutual respect, the skill to leverage process for continuous improvement, and the ability to ultimately achieve self-actualisation.

Leverage Process for Continuous Improvement

I am a big believer in the value of process. This can be the big, organisational processes that dictate how companies do things, like build a component, or undertake customer service, or issue a refund. Or process can be an individual’s personal to-do list that helps them to get things done on a daily basis. Ideally the latter should represent a subset of the former but I think we are probably some way from that ideal being standard practice.

When processes are documented they provide an anchor point as to the way things are done now. That’s not to say that it is the way things will always be done. In fact, changes to processes should be welcomed. However, a documented process enables everybody involved to have a shared understanding of how things should be done. If something goes wrong it should be evident where the process broke down. That can enable improvements to improve efficiency and simplify things for those involved.

Embrace change

A process should never be considered a finalised product. Stagnation is the enemy of improvement. No way of work should be considered beyond reproach. No process should be sacrosanct.

A current process is merely the way in which one group of people at one point in time thought would be the best way to achieve an outcome. With new information, new technology, changed inputs, or changes in customer demand, there might be a need to change the process to achieve a better — or just different — outcome. Go ahead, make the change. The only way to drive improvement is to change stuff. Otherwise, you already know what you’re going to get before even starting. Repeating this approach of making and trialling small changes, over and over again, is how to achieve better outcomes.

Trial and error and small incremental improvements are the crux of continuous improvement.

Once a process of documenting processes and updating this documentation upon each change is established a traceable (and reversible) process history is created. In software development, this is standard practice – managing versions and being able to compare code differences is a key element of development and debugging.

More generalised process management can benefit from a similar approach. Make a change and see if it works. If things get better after the change, stick with it. If things get worse, revert the changes and try something different.

Process at a personal level

At a personal level I implement process management for my own work. I rely primarily on OmniFocus to manage standard operating procedures for projects that are repetitive in nature. I use project templates that enable a framework to guide work that is similar in nature. As I learn and discover better ways of doing things I refine and improve my templates.

This makes my work more effective in the short-term because I don’t have to think about the how/when/where’s of the repetitive work elements. Instead I can focus my energy on doing great work on the value-adding elements of the project that matter to my clients.

Facilitating creativity

At first blush, the concept of defined processes can seem staid and boring. In actuality it is freeing. Defined and documented processes allows people to forget about thinking about the steps to achieve a goal and instead allows them to focus on using their skills and expertise to add value to create a better end product.

Process doesn’t restrain creativity; it unleashes it. For this reason it forms the key middle component of my personal business philosophy.

Part 1: My Business Philosophy

This is the first of a three-part series focused on explaining my business philosophy.

On my home page I call out my personal business philosophy:

Andrew’s business philosophy is built upon the value of mutual respect, the skill to leverage process for continuous improvement, and the ability to ultimately achieve self-actualisation.

Mutual Respect

To make progress in this world we need teamwork and co-operation. High performing teams are built around trust and respect for one another.

Even in a competitive environment there can be mutual respect. If you are beaten by a better performer, there is value in recognising their success and then using that as motivation to improve your own performance. Winners should stay humble and respect the competition that may not have succeeded this time, but might get the better of them next time around. Staying humble helps build respect.

Managerial respect

If a manager wants to get the most out of their employees, I believe they need to demonstrate respect and understanding for those they are asking to undertake the work. Acting with respect will build trust in leadership. Without trust it is difficult to achieve anything great. Time and and focus will be lost to people questioning what ulterior motives are in play, what forces might be working against them, and how to move into a position to win. More time is spent focused on self-preservation than on achieving team success. In such an environment it is unlikely that the team will be high-performing.

A manager who respects their employees is likely to create a team with better camaraderie, better stability and a desire to deliver great outcomes.

Employee respect

Employees need to understand that their managers may be seeing the situation from a different vantage point. After climbing the organisational tree, the view from that altitude often looks very different. Much like a general might take to an elevated vantage point to survey the field, a manager may have a perspective on things that can’t be perceived at ground level.

An employee needs to appreciate and understand that the manager is likely to be balancing multiple competing pressures, and have respect for that challenge confronting their manager. This respect through understanding will help both parties.

Respectful reciprocity

A manager and an employee; co-workers and colleagues; buyers and sellers; all of these relationships rely on mutual respect to operate effectively. Each is a participant in a process chain. Mutual respect is about working to make the life of others a little easier, and a little better. This establishes a positive reciprocal relationship. If somebody is respectful towards me it is likely I will treat them with respect in return. Everybody enjoys a better experience.

I believe that demonstrating respect for colleagues is the foundation for all other elements of business. If you don’t treat others with respect, it’s unlikely you will go far. Others aren’t likely to be willing to go out of the way to provide help and support if you haven’t been respectful on the way through. Nobody gets to wherever they are alone. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before. Acting with respect offers a chance for others to stand on ours.

The Business of Glengarry Glen Ross

I love the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. I’ve never seen the stage play, but the movie seems to be a faithful translation and its actors are all top shelf, so I’m willing to accept it as canonical1.

Despite the dated nature of the film’s setting, much continues to ring true about the circumstances in which the protagonists find themselves. Desperate times, leading to desperate measures, with each character dealing with the same adversity in their own varied ways.

This could be considered an accurate reflection of the human condition when people are put within an organisational structure that is essentially a manufactured construct with appointed ‘leaders’ and abstracted hierarchy. Each person has their own motivation and varying degrees to which they will go to get what they want. At some point, teamwork will collapse as individuals strive to assert themselves and ‘win’, putting self before team. It becomes a case of the prisoner’s dilemma.

Besides the deep conflict that propel the movie, there are some other scenes that also neatly capture smaller elements of working life. When I’m talking to somebody on the phone to schedule a meeting, I’m sometimes ever so tempted to pause and say, “Oh Grace, would you mind checking my schedule”, just to proffer the illusion that it’s more than just me and BusyCal managing the load.

Alec Baldwin’s performance as the slick sales consultant rings true, and as much as it is a comedic moment, the enjoyment is almost excruciating given the truth behind the message. It is one that sticks with me and even does help from time to time in reality. That lesson, “A. B. C. – Always Be Closing”. Sometimes this forms part of my internal monologue when I’m talking to people!

The Glengarry Leads

Ultimately, what everybody in the movie wants is possession of the Glengarry leads. The good leads. In my work, I also want the Glengarry leads. I want introductions to the firms that are going to understand what my offer is, sign up, and work in a positive way through to conclusion.

It would be great for management to dish out some of those good leads. Don’t hold them back, share them out! This is where I think reality diverges from the plot of the movie. More often than not, I think reality is that management doesn’t actually have any Glengarry leads. They might have a nice stack of cards that look like they’re going to be great leads but if you were to examine them there may be a good chance they are more Glen Ross than Glengarry. Really, the promise of the Glengarry leads is simply a motivational method to drive sales of whatever dreck does exist. “Deal with what we’ve got, and then you will get something better”, is a fairly basic motivational ploy.

The problem is that better doesn’t necessarily exist; at least not in the hands of management. If you really want the Glengarry leads, you’d best go out and find them yourself.

  1. Despite the addition of the non-theatrical Alec Baldwin scene. 

The Business Speedometer

Trying to run a business without useful and accurate performance information is like trying to drive a car without a speedometer. Sure, you will be able to guesstimate how fast you are going, and sometimes you’ll even get it right. You might even get away with a bit of speeding! Most of the time though, you will be driving at the wrong speed. You will either not be taking full advantage of the car’s performance or you’ll get a speeding ticket.

In a business sense, running a company without timely and accurate performance reporting may deliver occasional success, but it’s not a recipe for long-term sustainability. A lack of insightful reports detailing costs, sales, productivity and profitability generated through effective data capture at the source is likely to result in a lack of insight about what is critical to the company’s success.

Costs and Pricing

Production costs and pricing can be deceptive. Clearly, a firm must ensure ensure that the price they charge the customer accounts for the costs of the people and equipment directly involved in the production process. That price, however, also needs to have a sufficient margin attached to it such that it encompasses a share of all other cost overhead of the business, from rent and electricity, to paying for accounting and staff training. Furthermore, it has to incorporate a profit margin that will enable the business to retain some earnings for future investment and deliver a dividend to the investors/owners. Suddenly, the per unit price being charged needs to be much higher than may have initially been thought.

Without accurate information it can be easy to lose track of how effective this balance between price and cost is. Cross-subsidisation of profits across activities and products is another challenge. Soon enough, it can be almost impossible to understand what profit is being generated from each element of work. This can result in a situation occurring where both people and machinery are busy but the company loses money anyway. To avoid this frustrating eventuality, a business needs to ensure it is capturing and collating business information that will generate alerts at the time such a situation arises. Otherwise the problem will remain hidden and by the time it is discovered it will be too late to react with impact. Now the business is chasing its tail with the next piece of work not only having to cover all the standard costs but also make up for the losses incurred by the earlier work.

Identify Issues at the Source

If problems are only identified when complete revenue and expenditure figures are entered and aggregated within end of month financial reports, it is too late. Management needs to stay ahead of the game. A good manager needs to ensure that the business is capturing information throughout the production process, and that this information is able to deliver insights about the productivity, performance and profitability of its activities at any point in time.

Just as the job of a car’s speedometer is to provide real-time feedback, a business also needs to be able to read and react to its own (as close to) real-time performance. Without this structure the business is not being put in the best position to succeed, irrespective of any other activities underway.