Learning to say no. (Or, how to avoid muri in two easy steps.)


I see it all the time, and you probably do, too: workers complaining that they can't get everything done. They have too many projects, too many tasks, too many emergencies that need to be handled. The result? They're stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed. They miss dinner with their families. They work on weekends. They miss milestones. And inevitably, some of their work responsibilities just drop off the radar and don't get done.

In lean terms, this is called muri. Literally, muri means "impossible" or "unreasonable." In the context of lean production, muri takes on the meaning of "overburden," as in asking workers to do too much in too little time, or making them comply with onerous policies or practices, or not giving them the tools or the staff to accomplish their work. (Here are two excellent and more detailed descriptions of muri: 1, 2)

Muri is bad for the individual (clearly) and for the organization, too. Muri inevitably leads to mistakes (remember that email you didn't proofread well enough? or the glitch in the excel formula in your financial forecast?), and mistakes are nothing but waste (muda).

From my perspective, muri can be largely avoided by accepting the reality that your output each week is finite. Just because you're a knowledge worker doesn't mean that you're exempt from the laws that govern all forms of production. There's a physical limit to the throughput on a manufacturing line, there's a limit to how many jets can take off from LaGuardia airport each hour, and there's a limit to how much work you can do each week. Your boss may not like it -- hell, you may not like it -- but it's true. Recognizing this limit, and working within it, is the key to avoiding waste (and stress, and frustrated coworkers and customers).

I know it seems both obsessive-compulsive and trivial (not to mention a pain in the ass), but figuring out what you're spending your time on each day is critical. A client of mine recently did this for a week and came up with these averages:

Hours worked per day: 10
Current projects: 2 hours
Meetings: 1.5 hours
Processing email: 1.5 hours
Dealing with unexpected crises/responding to urgent requests: 1.5 hours
Coworker interruptions: .5 hours
Lunch: .5 hours
Bathroom breaks/checking ESPN/etc.: .5 hours

These are averages, of course (presumably he'll be spending more time on ESPN during the Olympics, and in the weeks preceding a product launch he generally works longer hours), but the essential point is that he only has about two hours each day available to work on longer-term projects.

If his boss asks him to take on additional work, he has to determine how much time that new piece of work will consume. If it's over ten hours per week, he's setting himself up for failure. He's overburdening himself, and something will have to give. Maybe he'll stop answering emails in a timely fashion, or maybe he'll miss deadlines for some of his current projects, or maybe he'll choose to work on weekends. But he won't be able to get it all done in his 10 hour workday.

So the first step to avoiding muri is understanding where your time goes. The second step is planning out the new work you're trying to fit into your production schedule. What are the discrete steps involved in revamping your pricing strategy? What actions are implicit in "taking over the southern California accounts"? What does it mean to redesign your website? You have to budget the time for these actions, not just the money. Only then can you avoid overburden.

I know a lot of you will read this and think, "Our company/industry moves too fast. We *can't* say no to new projects." Or, "There's no way I could tell our CEO that I can't get this done by mid-October." But here's the thing: you can say no. In fact, I'd argue that you *have to* say no. The CFO says no when the president want to renovate the offices or hire new people, and the company can't afford it -- that's part of her fiduciary responsibility. You have a responsibility, too -- you have to set expectations about what can be accomplished with the resources (time and people) available.

In the end, it's far better for the organization to execute a few things flawlessly than many things poorly. Avoiding muri is the key to that kind of success.

1 Comment