“High Output Management” by the late Andrew Grove, ex Chairman and CEO of Intel, is a must read management book in my opinion. It’s easy to be quite cynical about most management and business books as a lot of them seem to introduce one central theme (or buzzword) right at the beginning of the book, followed by endless repetition throughout the remainder of the book …
In contrast, “High Output Management” contains valuable advice and tips from the beginning right to the end of the book. First published back in 1983, the book applies production principles to management. Some of these principles really resonated with me and I feel strongly about all (product) managers benefiting from these principles as part of their day-to-day working practices:
Identifying the “limiting step” – Grove defines the “limiting step” as the step in the overall shape of the production flow that will determine the overall shape of a company’s operations. In the book, Grove uses the simple example of a breakfast company, and highlights the time required to boil an egg is the critical component or the ‘limiting step’ in the production flow (see Fig. 1 below). The key idea here is to construct your production flow by starting with the longest (or most difficult, or most sensitive, or most expensive) step and work our way back. As a (product) manager you’ll thus focus on the limiting step within your context, e.g. in the workflow of your team, the customer funnel or the decision-making process.
Fig. 1 – Example of a limiting step when creating a breakfast – Taken from: http://clarkeching.com/ccblog/2018/1/21/what-are-bottlenecks-andy-grove
Detect and fix issues at the “lowest-value stage” possible – If there’s a problem with your product, you want to find out about it as early on in the production process as possible so that you can minimise risk. In the production world, I witnessed lowest-value stage thinking first hand at the assembly line of a Toyota factory. Here, employees can pull the “Andon” cord to (temporarily) bring things to a halt as soon as they come across an issue. It’s an easy way of escalating things, making sure that a problem or bottleneck is dealt with before proceeding with the rest of the assembly process. Think about when you last pulled an imaginary Andon cord to flag a product or team issue early?!
Fig. 2 Using the Andon cord to raise an issue and stop production – Taken from: Atlas Network
Using (leading) indicators to measure and predict – In order to run a production process well you’ll need a set of indicators which help you monitor and improve the efficiency of the production line. Grove stresses that for these indicators to be useful, “you have to focus each indicator on a specific operational goal.” He goes on to list a number of relevant production indicators (see Fig. 3 below). Leading indicators give you one way to look inside the production process by showing you in advance what the future might look like.
Fig. 3 – Indicators related to the production process – Taken from: “High Output Management”, p. 16:
- Sales forecast
- Raw material inventory
Leverage – Grove introduces the concept of “leverage”. This is the output generated by a specific type of work activity. An activity with high leverage will generate a high level of output; an activity with low leverage, a low level of output. This raises the question about what qualifies as managerial leverage and output. Grove’s distinction between activities and output really helps to bring the concept of leverage to life (see Fig. 4 below). The overarching idea is that with each activity that the manager performs, the organisational output should increase.
Fig. 4 – Managerial activities vs output – Taken from: “High Output Management”, pp. 39 – 54:
- Judgments and opinions
- Allocation of resources
- Mistakes detected
- Personnel trained and subordinates developed
- Courses taught
- Products planned
- Commitments negotiated
A manager’s output is the output of all of the people and the teams that report into her. For example, if someone manages a design team, then his output consists of completed designs that are ready to be implemented. That output can take many different forms depending on the type of role and industry. Regardless of the form of output, managers must measure its quantity and quality:
A manager’s output = The output of his organisation + The output of the neighbouring organisations under his influence
High leverage activities – We’ve already touched on the impact of highly leveraged activities on an organisation’s output, and Grove explains how these activities can be achieved (see Fig. 5 below). For example, to maximise the leverage of his or her activities, a manager must keep timeliness firmly in mind. Equally, managers micro-managing or ‘meddling’ are examples of negative leverage activities. A big part of a manager’s work is to supply information and know-how, and to share a sense of the preferred method of handling things to the teams under his control or influence. A manager also makes and helps to make decisions.
Fig. 5 – Three ways in which to achieve high leverage activities – Taken from: “High Output Management”, pp. 54 – 55:
- When many people are affected by one manager.
- When a person’s activity or behaviour over a long period of time is affected by a manager’s, well focused-set of words or actions.
- When a large group’s work is affected by an individual supplying a unique, key piece of knowledge or information.
Applying production principles to management – In the book, Grove rightly points out how time management techniques are commonly used to improve managerial output. He then uses production principles to improve on some of these time management techniques (see Fig. 6 below).
Fig. 6 – Ways to improve on time management techniques – Taken from: “High Output Management”, pp. 62 – 63:
- Identify our limiting step: determine which things that have to happen on a schedule that’s absolute, and which can’t be moved. You can then plan more flexible activities around it and thus work more efficiently.
- Batching similar tasks: group similar activities, e.g. performance reviews, as these activities tend to require (mental) set-up time. You can thus maximise the set-up time needed for the task and reduce duplication of effort.
- Forecasting your activities: Your calendar can be a valuable production-planning tool (and not a dumping ground for random meetings or “orders” by others). If you want to use your calendar as better forecasting and planning tools, Grove suggest that two conditions should be met. Firstly, you should move toward the active use of your calendar, taking the initiative to fill the holes between the time-critical events with non-time critical though necessary activities. Secondly, you should say “no” at the outset to work beyond your capacity to handle.
Meetings, the output of managerial work – A lot of managerial tasks (see “High leverage activities” above) are best suited for face-to-face interactions, and more often than not, for meetings. Grove provides a useful distinction between two basic kinds of meetings: process-oriented and mission-oriented meetings (see Fig. 7 below). I love how at the end of the book’s chapter about meetings, Grove reminds us of a quote by the late management guru Peter Drucker who said that “If people spend more than 25 percent of their time in meetings, it’s a sign of malorganisation.”
Fig. 7 – Process-oriented and mission-oriented meetings – Taken from: “High Output Management”, pp. 72 – 87:
- Process-oriented meetings: Knowledge is shared and information is exchanged during process-oriented meetings, which take place on a regular, scheduled basis. One-on-ones and team meetings are good examples of process-oriented meetings.
- Mission-oriented meetings: The purpose of mission-oriented meetings is to solve a specific problem and often produce a decision. These meetings are ad hoc affairs, not scheduled long in advance, because they usually can’t be. The key to the success of a mission-oriented meeting is what the chair of the meeting does. The person leading the meeting needs to have a clear understanding of the meeting’s objective – what needs to happen and what decision needs to be made.
Planning: today’s actions for tomorrow’s output – In High Output Management, Grove offers three simple steps of a planning process (see Fig. 8 below). He describes planning as an ordinary everyday activity, something we all do – both in our professional and personal lives. The planning process enables you to reflect on what’s needed, the gap with the current situation and the specific actions necessary to close the gap.
Fig. 8 – Three steps your planning process should consist of – Taken from: “High Output Management”, pp. 103 – 120:
Step 1 – Establish projected need or demand: What will the environment demand from you, your business, or your organisation?
Step 2 – Established your present status: What are you producing now? What will you be producing as your projects in the pipeline are completed?
Step 3 – Compare and reconcile steps 1 and 2: What more (or less) do you need to do to produce what your environment will demand?
Main learning point: “High Output Management” is probably one of the most valuable management books I’ve read in the last couple of years. If you’re looking for an inspiring but practical book about management, I suggest you look no further: High Output Management is the book for you!