Barack Obama and knowledge work kaizen


The October issue of Vanity Fair features a long article by Michael Lewis on Barack Obama -- what it's like to be him and how he deals with the burden of the presidency. One tidbit that struck me was the way that Obama has tried to improve his ability to make decisions. In keeping with recent research that shows that people have finite mental resources for decision-making, Obama has tried to eliminate the trivial decisions that most of us face on a daily basis. In an NPR interview, Lewis explains that

The president started talking about research that showed the mere act of making a decision, however trivial it was, degraded your ability to make a subsequent decision. A lot of ... the trivial decisions in life — what he wears, what he eats — [are] essentially made for him. He's actually aware of research that shows that the more decisions you have to make, the worse you get at making decisions. he analogizes to going shopping at Costco. If you go to Costco and you don't know what you want, you come out exhausted, because you're making all these decisions, and he wants to take those decisions out of his life. So he chucked out all his suits except his blue and grey suits so he doesn't have to think about what he's going to put on in the morning. Food is just arranged for him and he's not making any decisions about what he's eating. What most people spend most of their life deciding about, he's had those decisions are removed from his life. He does this so he creates an environment, a mental environment, where he's got full energy for the decisions that are really important decisions.

As I've described before, Bob Pozen (chairman emeritus of MFS Investment Management, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, and board member of Medtronics and Nielsen) does much the same thing as Obama. When you have to make many decisions -- and what's the presidency but an unending series of very, very difficult decisions? -- you inevitably become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your mental energy. That hoarding typically leads to one-dimensional analysis, illogical shortcuts, and decisions that tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs.

Toyota -- the high temple of lean -- gets it, too. Over at LeanBlog, our friend Mark Graban once wrote,

I’ve heard Toyota people say you want to eliminate the hundreds of LITTLE repetitive decisions so that the person involved can focus on the FEW major decisions with a fresh mind that’s not fatigued from constant decision making.

The premium that Obama, Pozen, and others -- not to mention Toyota -- place on simplification is really is another aspect of lean thinking (and probably brings a smile to Matt May's face). I'm not arguing that you have to toss out most of the clothes in your closet, or give up your cereal bar (after all, it works for Pixar). But I am suggesting that you take a hard look at the decisions you make in your daily work and eliminate as many as possible. Spreadsheet, memo, or presentation design; sales call frequency; meeting format -- all these things can be standardized so that you don't have to make decisions. And that will result in better work and better thinking for the stuff that's really important.

 

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