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by • February 7, 2012 • FoundersComments (5)136

Stress

Startups are made out of people. When the people wear down, progress halts.

Recently, I’ve been stressed. I was just shy of the breaking point, in that my output was still good but the internal process was a mess. I was burning increasing amounts of energy just to meet the next short-term deadline.

Toyota has shown that the correct maneuver in this scenario is to completely halt production and divert all resources toward fixing the broken process. They do this by pulling the andon (signal) cord.

I knew this was the correct play and still couldn’t bring myself to pull the cord – I didn’t want to stop production[1].

And then a blizzard saved the day

London is bad at handling snow. Every year it snows, we act as if we’ve never seen the stuff before. Transit stops, work is cancelled, and flights are grounded. Nobody goes anywhere.

This weekend, it snowed. Flights were cancelled. Meetings were postponed. The universe had pulled the andon cord for me.

I was briefly outraged: “My productivity! My deliverables!” And then: so relieved. By writing off my activities for just 2 days, I was able to focus enough energy on my process to address the root cause[2] and fix some big bottlenecks.

I should have dealt with these problems weeks ago, but I wanted to go faster, faster, faster. Every time I got a break, instead of turning inward to the process problems, I queued up more work.

It was stressful, unproductive, and nearly catastrophic. All because I didn’t want to halt production and take the time to fix the problem properly[3].

If a factory’s process was unnecessarily wearing down their most critical machines, you can bet that process would be fixed.

 

[1] I realise now that I also extended this misery by dropping just enough for me to keep going. Instead of making deep cuts upfront (e.g. cancelling a week’s worth of speculative meetings), I would shift a meeting here and a deliverable there to stay at “full speed” for one more day.

[2] Ongoing stress is a terrific trigger for doing a 5 why’s root cause analysis. I’ll be doing it from here on out and will prioritise fixing the problems causing that stress over almost anything else — it’s a sign of something lurking which will bite you if you let it.

[3] This admittedly gets more difficult when you’ve got scheduled promises on the calendar. While I certainly have those, and they’ve got to get done, there also is, for me at least, a lot of self-imposed urgency which looks the same as the truly important stuff once it’s on the calendar.

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5 Responses to Stress

  1. Kalina says:

    I am completely with you on this one. Stress is not an external phenomenon, but rather much more generated by ourselves. This means, that you have it under control and you decide, whether to be or not to be stressed.

  2. Joe Hill says:

    I understand as well. Glad you had a chance to decompress. :) Thanks for being open and sharing.

  3. Chris Arnold says:

    Great post, Rob. Lean keeps telling us to move faster and faster, but we can’t do it blindly.

  4. J says:

    So unbelievably true. This has been my life for a little while now. I’ve always known stress, but the combined load of a startup, huge life changes, and sickness has taken things to a new level. I was incapable of functioning a few nights ago. I guess I never realized how absolutely crippling stress can be. Thankfully my partners have been incredibly patient with me and are helping me work through everything. We had a bit of a blizzard moment ourselves a few days ago, and are still working it all out.

  5. cathy says:

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