Does standard work apply to CEOs?

"Standard Work" is one of the key principles of lean, because it helps to eliminate waste and allows problems to be identified quickly. Knowledge workers often bristle at the notion that their complex and highly variable jobs can be described by standard work. But as I've written before, much of the variability and complexity that we assume is intrinsic to our jobs isn't. With a bit of creativity (here, for example), we can begin to create standard work for many of the processes that we didn't think could be standardized.

The key tool for creating standard work for the knowledge worker is the calendar. Your most critical resources are time and attention, and the calendar is the best tool for capturing how they're spent. It's the calendar that reveals that there are always unexpected problems on Thursday afternoons, or that the marketing meetings always run long, or that your email burden is greatest on Fridays. Equally important, it's the calendar that makes all the work visible, enabling you to intelligently prioritize and act upon competing tasks and commitments.

I've been thinking about this after reading a recent(ish) article in the Wall Street Journal about CEOs whose calendars are completely packed for months at a time. They complain that their crammed agendas eliminate spontaneity in their workdays and leave The CEO of Novartis, for example, complains that he

can't spend as much time as I'd like to at hospitals, talking with doctors and patients who use our products. This is where I hear and see so much and get so many ideas.

In other words, the standard work they've logged in their calendars -- board meetings, business trips, conferences, etc. -- has made it nearly impossible to spend time on other activities of equal (or greater) value.

Does this mean that the calendar as a tool for allocating scarce resources (time & attention) doesn't work for the real big boys? I don't think so.

I believe that the title of the WSJ article is off-target: "Packed Calendars Rule Over Executives." Calendars don't rule over the execs at all. In fact, I'd argue that it's only the calendar that's enabled these CEOs to get as far as they have. Without it, they'd be in even more trouble. All that's happened is that their calendars have revealed the full extent of their responsibilities.

I'm not saying that the burdens on CEOs are trivial. But if, for example, visiting hospitals is critical to the company's long-term success, then hospital visits should be part of the CEO's standard work. Time for those visits *must* be built into the schedule. And if there's not enough time, then they need to deploy countermeasures to ensure that they get the time. Whether that means they work longer hours (probably not sustainable in the long term) or they shed some of their other responsibilities, if it's truly important then there should be standard work for it. Maybe not everyday or every week, but with some regularity that ensures the CEO is getting that critical task done.

Mark Hurd, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, has done something like this: he makes sure he has some breathing space on his calendar -- empty time each day for things that just come up.

It's not a far jump from this technique to scheduling 10 minutes per day to talk with one customer, or to go to the factory floor, or to talk to the software engineers. If it's important, it needs to become standard work.

There are only 24 hours each day, and there's only so much work that can be fit into that time. No amount of wishful thinking can change that. Standard work is a way to make that constraint visible and deal with it appropriately. Whether that means delegating more, or hiring more, or (gasp!) doing less, standard work will yield greater focus and efficiency.

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