Root-cause analysis: Myth #1

One of the key tools of lean methodology is root-cause analysis. In contrast to workplace solutions that simply treat the symptoms of a problem, root-cause analysis is used to identify the true problem that lies beneath the symptoms.

There are three myths that underlie much of the inefficiency, chaos, and waste in most workplaces. Over the next three weeks, I'll address each of these. My guess is that when you see deadlines being missed, people working overtime, things falling between the cracks, and excessive FedEx bills, you can be sure that one or more of these myths are at the root. Here's the first.

Myth #1: I'll get to it later.

Um, how should I say this clearly? No, you won't. Later never comes. Between now and "later," you'll have 6 brain-deadening meetings, 114 urgent emails, 15 interruptions from coworkers needing your help for "just a second," and two birthday celebrations in the break room.

So when you go through the piles of paper in your inbox, or the 75 new emails since lunch, you need to make a commitment to dealing with those items now. Not later.

Of course, that doesn't mean answering every one of those messages right now. You probably won't have time for that. But you do need to process each and every item -- and marking them as "unread" so that you can go back to them later (and do it all over again) doesn't count as processing.

I've written about the "4Ds" before -- Doing it, for something that takes less than two minutes; Delegating it, to someone better able to handle the task; Designating a specific time for it on your calendar (not "later," but "10:30am on Tues"); or Deleting it, for all the stuff that deep down, you know isn't going to make the cut.

"Designating" is always the hardest D for people. Schedules are often unpredictable, due to the multiple value streams that flow through us, the inevitable crises that crop up, and the poor planning of our coworkers. ("Sorry about the last minute notice, Bob, but can you design a new ESOP in time for my board meeting this afternoon?") However, if you don't at least put a stake in the ground for when you're going to do that task, you'll probably never get to it. It'll get lost in the never-ending stream of demands upon your time. And so your car registration will expire, you'll get nailed with an overdue fee on your credit card, and you won't get that proposal for the client finished in time.

If you're going to have a prayer of staying on top of your work, you've got to master this discipline. Do it right now, or pick a more appropriate time for doing it. But don't do it later. Later never comes.