Lowering the Water Level, Redux: You Really Do Have Too Much Time On Your Hands


The past few weeks I've been obsessed with the relationship between time and efficiency. (Okay, maybe not obsessed. The subject isn't Joan's crappy fate on Mad Men, or Devin Banks on 30 Rock. But I have been writing about it a whole bunch.) Now comes Sue Schellenberger of the Wall Street Journal -- no lean acolyte, she -- who has realized that imposing constraints on her work time forces her to figure out how to work with less waste. After years of working on and off throughout most weekends, I was trying a new approach by taking off at least one entire day every weekend this month, away from reporting, writing and all other work. Early on, I hated it. As simple as it seemed, sticking to a time-off plan stressed me out at first. What I didn't see right away was that my little test was forcing me to improve the way I work. . . . [It] forced me to put proven time-management principles into practice: Plan blocks of work time and stick to the plan; set short-term deadlines to keep work from spiraling out of control; and keep up with email daily, to avoid backlogs. As a journalist, her work life is quite likely less complicated than yours. But the benefits accrue to people in more complex corporate positions where they're involved in multiple value streams -- and they go far beyond just getting to happy hour a little bit earlier. In the experiment at the Boston Consulting Group that I wrote about last week, requiring time off among the consultants forced them

to communicate better, share more personal information and forge closer relationships. They also had to do a better job at planning ahead and streamlining work, which in some cases resulted in improved client service, based on interviews with clients. Boston Consulting is so pleased with the outcome that the firm is rolling out a similar teaming strategy over the coming year on many new U.S. and some overseas projects, says Grant Freeland, senior partner and managing director of the firm's Boston office. "We have found real value in this," he says. "It really changes how we do our work." The concept of constraining resources in order to stimulate growth, innovation, and improvement is tightly wound up in the Toyota way of thinking. That's what "lowering the water level" is all about: reducing inventory in order to make problems visible and to force people to develop creative solutions. You just can't do things the same way when you have fewer resources. Matt May, author of In Pursuit of Elegance, explains it this way:

You see, the problem is an addiction to abundant resources. And that addiction to resources is blocking innovation. The cry is for more money, people, and space to innovate. But wait a minute! That’s probably not how the company started. Somewhere in the company tree is a story of humble beginnings. Maybe it didn’t start in the proverbial garage, but it started with little of everything: money, space, labor. But it was those limits that made people more creative and resourceful than they are today.

In a similar vein, he describes how Toyota's North American Parts Organization set a series of deliberately opposing goals to help spur the company to create new ways of working:

They arrived at ten key objectives that needed to be met in order to accomplish the mission: Reduce inventory 50%, decrease backorders 50%, reduce packaging expense 50%, reduce damage 50%, increase throughput 25%, improve safety/decrease errors 50%, increase space utilization 25%, decrease landfill usage 25%, reduce freight costs 25%, and decrease lead time 40%. To the casual observer, the list of ten targets seems like a simple master wish list. But look closer. See if you can spot the tension points. Here’s a hint. Take a look at the first two targets, inventory and backorders. In most supply chains, they’re opposite sides of the same coin. Increase inventory, and backorders drop. Decrease it, and backorders generally rise. So management brilliantly and counterintuitively paired the two, pitting one against the other in order to generate creative tension.

The ten goals are actually five pairs of conflicting goals. In essence, the company is removing resources from different aspects of operations in order to stimulate new approaches to business. Which, of course, is exactly what BCG did by reducing the amount of time their consultants spent working on a project. And what Sue Schellenbarger did by eliminating one weekend work day.

To me, this approach is so very necessary now. Your company has probably laid off staff (or lost them through attrition). You're being asked to do more with fewer resources. You've probably responded by working a bit later in the evening, or doing more work on the weekends.

But what if you took the Toyota approach? What if you deliberately reduced the amount of time you spent on certain tasks (or the total amount of time you spent at the office) and actually thought about how to change the way you work? Remember, the way you work is not cast in stone. BCG has found a different way. Best Buy, with their "Results Only Work Environment" has, too.

What innovations could you come up with? How can you do your job differently so that you spend less time and get better results? Why not try a few PDCA cycles to see what you can accomplish?

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