The Conference Call Quotient- A Lean Litmus Test?

Applying lean principals involves more doing vs. discussion than the habits and systems it replaces. Projects are organized as experiments whose output is validated learning, driving to a ‘pivot or persevere’ moment. One practical corollary of all this is that the individual participants be empowered and able to carry out these experiments, provided they’re given clear, visible direction.

Back to business as usual for a minute- Most people I know that work in companies of over 50 people, and many that work in smaller companies, would like to be in fewer conference calls and meetings. There are a number of reasons. Most of us have been in a meeting and thought ‘I wish we could just try something. Just a couple of us here could have already done the work in the time this call will consume.’ Meetings to ‘get on the same page’ can end up serving as an excuse for delay, inaction and grandstanding. Brainstorming sessions, while having the potential to be highly productive, can easily devolve into a question of who talks loudest. People who don’t have the spending authority to buy a mouse pad can schedule an hour conference call with ten people costing, say, $600 (220 working days/year; 8 hours/day; $100,000 loaded cost for employee).

In the balance of this post, I’m proposing a metric I call ‘the conference call quotient’ as one way to measure the leanness of a company or project. I hope that it’s useful as a baselining tool or at least notionally useful in the practical application of lean thinking.

The Proposition

In line with the lean approach and its application of the scientific method, here’s specifically what I’m proposing-

Idea: Being relatively more inclined to try things vs. talk about them is a lean trait.

Hypothesis: In an organization that’s successfully applying lean principals, relatively more people will opt out of a conference call in favor of experimenting with an approach to a problem (vs. having a discussion about what to do).

Experimentation: Send out email about a tractable problem to individuals who you think should be empowered and able to work out a solution on their own. Offer that the group can choose to have you schedule a call, or an individual or individuals can propose a solution they’d like to try instead of having the call. Ideally you have a couple of items and you can space out over time.

Conclusions: The quotient itself would be measured like this-
d = The count of meeting invitees who proposed to just go do/try something.
c = The count of meeting invitees who accepted the invite.

Your ‘conference call quotient’ then is:

In my opinion, any quotient above zero is a good result.

What about people who don’t propose to do/try something or accept, but just show up? You’ll need to use your judgment. The intent on c is to ascertain the number of people who are inclined to have a meeting vs. do/try something. If it’s the norm in your company or project that people accept meeting invites if they plan to attend, you can probably go with the measurements as they’re described above. If it’s not the norm to accept invites, you could just count everyone who showed up to the call as a ‘c’, excluding anyone who got counted in ‘d’. The tricky part here is, of course, how to count people who are on the fence- attending the call if it happens but also willing to participate in the try/do program if someone else takes the initiative. Another approach is just to estimate these parties and exclude them from the measurement. It’s not an exact science.

Once you get your results, and you may want to try the exercise a couple of times, questions you may want to ask are:

  • How do the actual measurements compare with where you thought you were?
  • How does it compare with where you’d like to be?
  • How does it compare to your peers?

Relevance and Practicality

Baselining is useful for getting a sense of where you are and how you’re doing over time. But, assuming you and your team are bought into the ideas around lean, the most important question is how you move in the desired direction. Regardless of where a particular company or project finds themselves on the range of conference call quotients, I think most people are heavily influenced by their environment. While you have some people that have a deep-seated inclination to call a meeting or do/try something, a lot of people will go with the flow: 

Lean Participants

So the big question for managers and startup entrepreneurs is how you create an environment that encourages the do/try inclination and discourages the conference call inclination. This is all relative to what makes sense for a given situation- meetings and calls do have their place even in the leanest organization.

If you want to understand the ideas around lean, Eric Ries’ ‘The Lean Startup’ is the seminal work for high tech. If you’re looking for a primer on how to apply these ideas to a high tech business, well, gosh, I can’t help but recommend ‘Starting a Tech Business’.

If you’re struggling with how to encourage risk-taking and initiative, here are a few things you may find useful:

Here are three quick tips on the topic from my end:

  1. Put a Huge Premium on Action vs. Inaction
    No one likes bad outcomes, but if you’re in it for the long haul positively recognize initiative if someone tried a reasonable approach but got a bad outcome.
  2. Set an Example
    When something just needs to get done vs. discussed and no one is picking up the ground ball, set an example and pick up the ball yourself. That’s not a sustainable model for a manager on a large scale, but a few examples will help encourage a culture of doing.
  3. Require Agendas for Meetings
    And be specific about what that means. Here’s a quick checklist:
    • Purpose: Why are we having this meeting?
    • Preparation: What is the minimum set of information participants will need to be familiar with and how do they get it? Make sure this is reasonable and you give everyone reasonable time to prepare.
    • Output: What is the intended output of the meeting? A plan of action? A decision?
    • Participants: Who needs to be at the meeting and why? The reasons must be specific and tie back to the purpose of the meeting. It’s OK to reuse the same reason for more than one person but it should still be uniquely relevant to them.

Talk Back

What do you think? I’d love to hear thoughts from the community, and, even better, experimental results!

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