Lean Business: Unleashing the (task) Force Mike | January 26th, 2015

When I think about the word “taskforce,” what comes to mind is a small group of people charged with accomplishing a specific duty or chore. However, it’s when I looked more closely at the word, in its component parts, that an insight began to take form. A task is an activity that is to be accomplished within a defined period of time or by a deadline to work towards work-related goals. Force is typically defined as a measure of strength or energy, but it’s the root of the word that caught my attention; it derives from old Norse and its original meaning was a waterfall. What a wonderful image: a cascade of energy, but with a specific purpose.

A key aspect of Lean Management is to work effectively with limited resources and small teams. And for most small companies, working with small teams, capacity management is one of the great challenges; the to-do list is always too long, and the dev queue is ever in need of prioritization. The best small businesses become adept at distinguishing between the truly important work needed to improve the product, serve the customers, and increase profitability, while learning how to identify the less-critical tasks that are “nice-to-haves,” but are by no means necessary for success.

Over the last couple of years at crowdSPRING, we have learned to leverage the power and energy of the Task Force, a wonderful tool that has helped us greatly with capacity management challenges. Periodically we convene small teams tasked with very specific goals: “improve customer satisfaction,” “increase site-wide conversion,” “develop a fair  and meaningful reputation system,” “identify new back-end admin tools,” and so forth. The teams that are assigned these duties follow our own best practices and follow a templatized approach to the work. Typically, theTask Force has 2-3 weeks (usually requiring 3-4 meetings) to develop a report to be presented to management, as well as the team as a whole, with the results of their study and their recommendations. Obviously, the assignment theTask Force is tackling will define their approach, but their goal is always the same: present their research, data, and conclusions along with the recommended action items and a timeline for accomplishing these. Sometimes it can take months to accomplish the work of implementing the recommendations, but more often the time from first meeting to launch is a matter of weeks.

Here are a few of the best practices we have developed for our own teams; of course your own needs will be different, your own problem/solution sets unique to your business, but in general these tips should serve you well as you launch your own versions of the Tsk Force!

  • Keep it small. A committee of 4 people is probably the largest you want your Task Force to be; a smaller group works faster and communicates better. 4 is also a good number when it comes to dividing up the work the force is tasked with performing, just be sure that your group includes at least one strong number-cruncher, one good writer, as well as one person with solid skills at presentation. In general the work will fall into XXX key areas: research, number-crunching or analysis, development of recommendations, and the fashioning of a report and/or presentation.
  • Make your Task Force diverse. Whenever possible, Task Force members should be drawn from across your organization. This is not to say that some task forces should be from within one department or functional area (clearly some should), but these small committees tend to be stronger when they are made up of people with varying perspectives, backgrounds, and skill-sets. The recommendations the Task Force produces will be stronger if they are drawn from a variety of outlooks and will tend to be less biased if individuals from different verticals contribute.
  • Set specific goals. The very first job is to define and clarify the goal of the Task Force. Sometimes this will be clear from the inception, other times it will take the entire first meeting just to define. Try to keep the assignment and goals as simple as possible; some examples might be, “Increase margins” or “Reduce refund rates” or “Develop a tool for ____.” If the Task Force can simplify it’s objective, it will greatly simplify the work, speed the entire process, and increase the probability that the effort will be a success.
  • Start immediately. Once the goal is defined, schedule the first meeting of theTask Force for tomorrow. Better yet today. When a problem is identified and determined to be important enough to devote a small group’s capacity there is no reason to keep things waiting. While the iron is hot, the Task Force should get to work and focus in as quickly and efficiently as they can.
  • Have a leader. A leader for the task Force has to be selected by the team itself and usually the choice is obvious. It might be the most senior manager on the Task Force who takes on the role or it might be the person will has already undertaken key work involved, or it might be the person with the greatest expertise or passion for the subject matter. In any case, someone has to take on the job of chairing the committee, supervising the work, overseeing the report, and making the presentation. The leader has the responsibility to keep things moving, to schedule the meetings, and to push the agenda.
  • Do it quickly. Among the aims of the Task Force strategy is to streamline processes, push changes briskly, and implement recommendations straightaway. The first step in achieving these intentions is to make the work of the Task Force itself  as efficient and fast as possible. Try to keep the number of meetings to a minimum, limit the length of each meeting, require the members to turn their work around swiftly. The hope is that the entire process take 1-2 weeks from inception to final  presentation. Set a fast pace with the Task Force and try to follow up on their recommendations even faster!

 

Illustration, Wikimedia Commons: Yoshitsune Falls, from the series Famous Waterfalls in Various Provinces – Google Art Project.jpg

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