Ben Asks: Is your life organised?

If life feels a bit too chaotic and it’s threatening to overwhelm you, perhaps the PDCA Cycle can help.


It’s so easy to look at our lives and think of something to improve. I looked at my muffin tops this morning and thought, “jeez, I need to sort that out”, because nobody is perfect.

The difficulty is transforming the thought into an action. We need to move the static thought, one trapped in our mind that serves no purpose than to keep us up at night, into a moving project. As we know from Newton’s first Law – ‘An object will remain at rest or in uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force’.

Engineers in a production plant must move these static thoughts into movable projects all the time. But even the pros find it hard every once in a while. This is why we invented techniques to make it easy for ourselves. 

Take the iterative system called ‘Plan, Do, Check, Action’, or the ‘PDCA cycle’ for short. All credits fall, once  again, to Toyota. 

The PDCA Cycle is a technique that anyone can use right away. Whether it’s looking at your daily routine, analyzing your bank finances or looking at your retirement plans with your partner. It’s a method that sets up structure around tasks that could cause chaos, or end up neglected if not properly maintained – both of which, waste energy.


PLAN

For most things we do in life, whether it’s consciously or subconsciously, we plan. To get to work, to wash your hair or to make a cup of tea. A plan is just a series of individual events laid out and linked together. 

Put the water in the kettle, turn the kettle on, get a cup, get a tea bag, get some milk. . . You get the jist right. 

Alex Honholt, a professional American climber, climbs “Free Solo”. This is a way of climbing without safety ropes. With climbing ‘free solo’, one false move, or one misjudged step and that is most likely the end. 

He climbed up an impressive rock face called El Capitan in Yosemite, USA, in 2017. Seen as a major feat of accomplishment in the adventure sports world and in the documentary that followed his progress, you could certainly see why.

The rock face is shear granite with sections that look simply impossible to hold onto. Yet this man climbed up without any ropes, thousands of feet in a matter of hours. 

To complete his mission he did not just start one day, climbing without a rope. First, he completed many ‘roped climbs’ to create the perfect plan to make the ascent successfully. He split the whole climb into smaller and smaller sections and constantly practiced each of these sections until they were perfect. On those climbs he would often fall, but with falling, he would learn how to not fall again. 

When he was confident his plan would work, then and only then, he removed the ropes and climbed successfully to the top.

Therefore to look at a plan for a major event in your life, all we need to do is think of a series of singular events, write them down and see how we can link them all together. Imagine your dream is to sail around the world one day, a very high level plan could be . . .

Create a budget to release £500 per month for savings, keep a job, work for ten years whilst saving £500 per month, at the end of year ten, buy a boat and sail around the world. 

A big major life-changing plan, but one which still comprises ‘simple’ singular events. 

DO

Doing is so hard, there is an entire section of the self-improvement book market dedicated to helping people to start ‘doing’. There’s Mel Robbins with her ‘5-Second Rule’ and ‘Think Less, Do More’ by Shaa Wasmund amongst some of the world’s best-sellers. 

We know from the ‘Water Principle’ that to move from one path to another, we need to input energy. Then we need to continue inputting energy until the change is complete.

As Newton said, an object will remain at rest or constant motion unless we apply an external force to it. Again, nothing will change, everything stays the same, unless we do something about it.

CHECK

Checking how your plan is actually performing is the most vital part in any Continuous Improvement Process. It starts the feedback loop, which is so often missing in our personal lives. Without feedback; without stopping and analysing what we are doing and seeing if this matches what we set out to do. We simply do not know if what we are executing is going the way we want it to, or not. 

Everywhere in business and engineering, there are checks. Financial results each quarter, sales targets each month or production targets  each week.  We are always checking on what is happening to provide information to those in control. 

This is no different to ‘You.com’, the business of your life. You are in control – regardless of how much chaos there is, you’re the CEO, the chief engineer, the fat cat, the top dog.. 

How is your budget this month? How is your resting heart rate tracking for your exercise routine? How much milk have you put in that cup of tea? 

ACTION

Once you have ‘checked’ on the situation you have, then you can act. Action can be in the form of  giving yourself a massive high five as you are on track and killing your targets. Otherwise, it can be simply carrying on working on the plan, or doing something to change it, some kind of course correction—just as you might behind the wheel of a car if you’re veering into another lane.

As life is so full of changes, your goals may adjust with the changes in your life. It’s your life, you can change the destination if you want to. Making a new plan, based on new information, is just as important as acting upon an existing one.

Maybe you had a vacation this week, had a few too many mojitos and you’re not really on plan anymore. OK, no problem, that’s why we take vacations. The action will be to either adjust your targets or to put some more effort in down the gym and have a week of cleansing eating to get back on track—perhaps you need to reassess how realistic your goals are. There’s nothing more demotivating than setting yourself superhuman objectives. You’re amazing, but you’re not superhuman. It’s important to recognise your limitations and expect realistic outcomes. Pushing yourself is different to overwhelming yourself; the former should bring about a feeling of excitement, the latter only brings stress. 

The important point is that you start to change your way of working from a random way, into a structured way. Plan, Do, Check and Action.


I lived in a life full of chaos. I had no idea what was happening with my money, my dreams, my goals, I was lost. At work though, I was the complete opposite. I planned and I executed; I checked and I acted. 

When I broke down (more on that here), I was forced to review my own life and to figure out the solutions, it was only natural to start planning. 

I knew it was the most efficient way to work. Therefore, I took a spreadsheet and created pages for everything. I made a finance page, a fitness page, one for my dreams and goals and one for my career. 

For each section I tried to get a clear overview of where I was. I inputted all my finances and set budgets for the future. I looked long and hard at where I was in ‘life’ and where I really wanted to go. 

I needed to get fit, so I asked ‘What is a measure of fitness?’ I decided resting heart rate suited me. But it could be different for you; your weight, your waistline measurement, how well you sleep. I set a target for where I wanted it to be.

Each morning I would wake up and check my resting heart rate. Each day I was ‘checking in’ on my plan.

My resting heart rate would go down with regular exercise, but if I trained too much, was too stressed at work, or was starting to get sick it would go up, well-recognised in sports science. My Check would find a problem and my Action was to rest until it returned to a stable level again. 

The spreadsheet I created, named ‘Plan of Attack’ is still something I use today. I open it almost every morning and check in on where I am and where I am going. I change bits, I modify goals, I make new plans and set new budgets. It’s an ever evolving document and with this, I created a life of structure. I increased my negentropy, by simply stopping, planning, doing, checking and acting on almost everything. 

Now for me, it doesn’t matter how chaotic life can get. I have all the fundamental things written down and planned on a sheet. I can manage in whatever the weather and in all storms that come to shore. It’s an anchor point to keep me focused.

And it’s efficient. It takes energy to set up the process, but once it’s running, it takes little adjustments here and there to keep everything on track. Like spinning the plates which could fall to the floor. By planning how to keep them all a float and learning from the mistakes, soon you become the master.


If you need to gain some control of your life, why not try being like the engineers in Toyota?

If your life is a production facility with hundreds of components and processes running around inside your head. Sitting down and planning them out on paper or a spreadsheet could have some wonderful effects. 

Take some control of your life. Plan, Do, Check, Action.
Don’t believe me, check out this speech by Matthew McConaughey and see how he continually checks on his life as a continual improvement process. The video starts at 11:25 for this, but the whole thing is worth a watch one day.


Ben Stalsberg

New posts out fortnightly on Fridays!


Try and start with a super easy project and practice the PDCA cycle. See if you find it easy or not.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDCA

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton%27s_laws_of_motion

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/expert-answers/heart-rate/


Copyright © 2020 – Ben Stalsberg – All Rights Reserved


Ben Explains: Root Cause Analysis

All too often we get distracted dealing with the symptoms of our issues, rather than the root causes. Today we’ll discuss Root Cause Analysis and learn how to channel precious energy and time into making more progress. More progress equals more productivity.


Engineering can be defined as ‘The action of artfully bringing something about’. 

Maybe you’ve read a couple of posts, sat down at the table and thought, ‘right, time to get this **** sorted’. Then stalled, just as I did. Trying to solve the problem of ‘life’ is like trying to eat an adult elephant with a baby spoon, it’s hard! (Not that I would ever condone eating an elephant, but you get the visual: Big Thing, Tiny Tool).

Over the years, engineers have developed a number of  tips, tricks and techniques to ‘standardise’ the way we work to ensure we are the most efficient in our jobs. It’s ‘evolution over revolution’ because if someone has already done the hard work, then why reinvent the wheel?

As engineering covers such a wide range of topics, even our own personal, chaotic, lives can benefit from these  methods. Last week I discussed how engineering is about solving problems, so here is a tool to help you firstly define the problem, then for you to go about artfully solving it.


So what is the root cause of the problem? (This is a phrase I constantly come back to, as it’s vitally important in engineering.) 

We are all capable of solving problems. In fact, there is no better person to solve your problems but you. It is you who understands your life better than anyone else ever could. As intelligent beings, we have the power of the internet to ‘search and solve’ even the most problematic of everyday scenarios. Or at least find a crevice in some far-flung corner of the internet, where one or two others are experiencing the same problem as we are—solidarity is a great first step. A little self-belief doesn’t hurt either.

However, all too often, we recognise there’s a problem, then we panic. Distressed at the difficulty in which we find ourselves, we fog our brains, failing to clearly define what we need to focus upon, failing to convince ourselves we can handle it. 

We would never go to the mechanics workshop and say “it’s broken” without giving some hint as to where it was broken first. The bill for the mechanic to find the fault, in the myriad of components on an automobile, if not completely obvious, would be astronomical.  Sometimes then, we need to sit down, look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, what exactly has gone wrong?  

I’m struggling with my money. OK, but what exactly are you struggling with? Are you being paid too little, do you run out of money before the next pay cheque? Are your bills greater than your income? 

My side hustle is struggling. OK, but what exactly is the problem? Are your products selling? Is your advertising working? What feedback are you getting from the customers?

My relationship is on the rocks. OK, have you sat down and talked about it? Have you been to see an expert? Do you need to get away, together, for a weekend?

We need to first find the ‘Root Cause’ of the problem, or the fundamental underlying issue, that sprouts all the chaos above ground before we can try and solve it. This is known in the trade as ‘Root Cause Analysis’ (RCA).


When engineers come across a machine that is broken, or one that is just not running quite right, they might ask ‘why’, and then ask ‘why’ four more times again. 

This is a technique in engineering, called the ‘5-Why’ method. Developed by Sakichi Toyoda with the Toyota Motor Corporation, it is a system that aids you to find that fundamental problem. 

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There is a dent in the wall – why?

Because the door has been hitting it – why?

Because the stopper has come loose – why?

Because the stopper only has one screw in it – why?

Because the other has broken – why?

Because it was the wrong size screw. ROOT CAUSE

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To fix the problem of the dent in the wall, we need to find the right size screw to fix the stopper in the floor.

As you expand into environments with thousands of components, machines and processes, accurately finding and defining the ‘Root Cause’ of the problem is the key to success.

The better you can make your ‘problem definition’ the more clarity and focus you have to fix it.  

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I’m struggling with money – why?

Because the money runs out before the end of the month – why?

Because I’m spending more than I’m earning – why?

Because I don’t know how much I spend each month – why?

Because I don’t have a budget – why?

Because I never thought it was needed. ROOT CAUSE.

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When completing this exercise its vitally important to stay focussed on the problem at hand and not to deviate off onto problems in other areas. Take these two examples for instance.

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I’m always late for work – why?

I always hit rush hour traffic – why?

There is a junction where all the workers in the neighbourhood must pass and the queues are a nightmare! – why?

Because the road system is not good enough to cope with the traffic levels – why?

The designers of the roads didn’t know what they were doing?? 

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This is not finding the root cause of the problem. The process is an iterative cycle and as we know, anything that rotates tends to move things outwards, due to the centrifugal force. Therefore it is vitally important to keep the focus inwards, on factors you yourself can control. 

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I’m always late for work – why?

I always hit rush hour traffic – why?

Because I start work at 8 and therefore I leave at 7:30, just like everyone else – why?

Because that’s the routine I have had for many years – why?

Because in the past, setting off at 7:30 was fine, until they built that new factory last year, now the traffic has increased – why? (stay inward focussed here!)

Because when the situation changed, I didn’t continually analyse my day, and figure out a new, more efficient process. ROOT CAUSE.

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A word of caution though. If you complete the ‘5 whys’ correctly, it’s going to take you to some places that may really challenge you emotionally. This can be disruptive, but the reward is worth the work. Below are examples I recently completed for my normal day-to-day job situation. I could sit down and blame the company but the root cause of my problem lay directly at my feet. 

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I’m unhappy at work – why?

Because I don’t feel motivated to do it anymore- why?

Because I expect more from the company with regards to the effort I’m putting in – why?

Because they don’t pay the employees any bonuses for the additional hard work we complete, leaving us feeling like ‘why should we bother?’  – why?

Because they don’t see the value in treating employees fairly and we are the ones they should be encouraging to be more of a successful company – why?

Because they haven’t been trained on how to run a successful company? NOT A ROOT CAUSE for my problem. 

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As you can see this is not solving the problem of why I am unhappy at work. It’s just moaning about the situation and my focus has been cast external, not internal. The inward ‘5-why’ method for my job situation actually looks like this.

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I’m unhappy at work – why?

Because I don’t feel motivated to do it anymore- why?

Because I expect more from the company with regards to the effort I’m putting in – why?

Because my research on how the company runs, before I took the job wasn’t good enough – why?

Because I never thought I needed to check on a company, the vision and strategy, reward systems and ask current employees what they think – why?

Because I assumed it would all be OK as it has in the past. But my assumption led me to not checking all the relevant facts and information that was important to me first; and I only found out it was like this after I accepted the job.  ROOT CAUSE

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So now I have two options. I stick it out in the company and accept it for what it is. Or I search for a new job and in that process, I complete the proper research before accepting it. It was a tough lesson for me to learn, not least because it brought me face-to-face with my ego. Such reckoning can be really uncomfortable, and that’s ok. If you’re really struggling with a decision though, I want to encourage you to seek professional support. I assure you, there’s no shame in it. 

But what about the company, some might say? Well imagine in an ideal world, everyone completed really deep research on a company before they took the job. Soon, companies that treated employees poorly would be forced to change their ways as no one would work for them…..food for thought, no?!


Using the ‘5-why’ method is a powerful technique  in directing your vision towards the one thing that needs to be fixed, solved or improved.

It can be used for simple obstacles around the house, or for large challenges like your work, home life or financial situation. 

Sometimes they are quick to complete, sometimes they take days. But when you master the 5-Why method, the results can be extremely rewarding.

And don’t worry, I’ll give you tips on how to solve problems as you find them.  So enjoy! 

Ben Stalsberg

New posts out fortnightly on Fridays!


What would you define your major problems are and what do you think the root cause of them is? Why don’t you take some time out this weekend and try a couple of examples?


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_whys

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Root_cause_analysis

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centrifugal_force


Copyright © 2020 – Ben Stalsberg – All Rights Reserved