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Continuous Improvement -- When BlackBerrys Become Poisonous

Used improperly, they introduce chaos and quash good ideas.

A friend and I were reminiscing about what fun places airports used to be. We realized that we are probably the last generation to have had the experience of hanging out at airports for kicks as teenagers. Of course, all of this is gone. Airports are just plain horrible places to be these days: There are too many inconvenienced and angry people, too much overpriced and repulsive food, too few comfortable places, and everyone is staring into the BlackBerry abyss, waiting for the arrival of some piece of information that apparently will lead to either a $1 million bonus at the end of the week or instantly losing 20 pounds.

Which brings me to the point of this column -- When does delivery of information become counter productive and indeed harmful to business processes that otherwise are controlled, efficient and conducive to new ideas? Bringing this home to the factory floor, I have never seen a production employee using a BlackBerry while working. But I have had production managers interrupt their conversations with me and others on the floor to check incoming messages -- that would be while they were giving me a tour of the plant and making an effort to impress upon me how efficient and under control things are. I assume the information they received was not an emergency because following an, "Excuse me for a minute, please," and a few thumb scrolls, the thing went back into the pocket until the next time it began demanding immediate attention like a hungry baby.

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I realize that BlackBerrys do have an upside, especially in sales and customer service. But when I see them used by managers in manufacturing, their usage generally contradicts other manufacturing information-delivery systems that are customer-centric, streamlined and efficient, and prompting of definitive action that immediately adds value or protects value (in the case of event management).

My two major objections to the misuse of BlackBerrys by managers in an environment of otherwise efficient IT systems are: a) They introduce chaos and waste. b) They discourage the unique contributions each individual has the potential to make.

Let's start with the first concern. In his new book, Lean Enterprise Systems: Using IT for Continuous Improvement, (Wiley, 2005), continuous improvement expert Steve Bell spells out his goals in the preface, one being to instruct the reader on how to "capture, manage and deliver structured and unstructured information to the right people, at the right place, at the right time, and in the right format, enabling lean performance through effective knowledge management."

Think about the mechanics of a BlackBerry. Is this happening? Usually not, and I would argue that the goal of most BlackBerry users checking messages is to read and perhaps respond as quickly as possible and move on. This is fast but not necessarily effective and efficient. The process is focused on speed, not adding value or taking an immediate next step in a streamlined process. E-mails that will take too long to respond to are left for later. That's inefficient. For e-mails that get an immediate response, it is rarely appropriate, well-thought out and prompting of action. Usually when I receive a message from someone using a BlackBerry, it is something like this: "Be bacl in offic Thurs. Will discus then."

We have a system to check on each other's schedules, so I already know co-workers' comings and goings. So, time was wasted sending and receiving a response because nothing was advanced to the next step.

Bell does think BlackBerrys could be valuable devices in some settings -- for exceptional event management, for instance, and I agree with him. But, he, like me, sees a problem when they are used unnecessarily and are accepted without question simply because they are ubiquitous to the business world at large. Essentially, a device that should be used for managing exceptions has become the method by which some manage all events.

"We need to focus on what matters, and filter the rest out," Bell wrote to me about this. "Exception-based management is not a new idea, but we need to remind ourselves of this when we feel sucked into compulsive surfing and data analysis that distracts us from what matters.

"It's easy and ego-building to run around all day looking and feeling busy, but it's not very effective. We've become an overstimulated culture in general, and I think I see the pendulum starting to swing the other way with all this talk of 'crack-berries.' "

My second complaint is more obvious -- the constant interruptions. It's simply not healthy. Ideas for new products, new processes, improved products and improved processes come from one place: the human mind. These ideas can come from clear-thinking managers as easily as plant-floor employees; or they can come from the plant-floor employees but die because a manager was distracted by that hungry baby in his pocket. These ideas don't just happen. There's a thought process with a beginning, middle and end that must be allowed to run its course.

In every IndustryWeek Best Plant winner I have visited during the past nine years, I've at some point heard the managers say something like this: "It's really our people that make the difference. Without our team members, we wouldn't have been able to improve."

True enough. And I add that the improvements of which these managers speak could not have been accomplished without focused people. So why are managers tolerating this unfocused method of dealing with incoming information on a regular basis? What they are saying each time that they unnecessarily use a BlackBerry is this: "I have no idea what this incoming message says, but because it is coming at me at this very second, it is more important than anything else happening around me or any thought I am currently having."

To that, I say, Gemba! Focus!

Bell has lots of good information in his book, but most impressive to me is how he sets the stage for it with this opening quote from Eiji Toyoda from 1983: "Society has reached the point where one can push a button and be immediately deluged with technical and managerial information. This is all very convenient, of course, but if one is not careful there is a danger of losing the ability to think. We must remember that in the end it is the individual human being who must solve the problems."

Tonya Vinas is managing editor of IndustryWeek. She is based in Cleveland.

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