Solving problems with the A3: Infomania

“In the information society, nobody thinks. We expected to banish paper, but we actually banished thought” – Michael Crichton

NY Times columnist Tom Friedman looks forward to it. The VP of product development at a large software company looks forward to it. My wife looks forward to it. So do a host of other businesspeople. Despite the TSA check-in hassle, the cramped seats, the lousy service, and the inevitable delays, all these folks -- and probably you, too -- look forward to business travel. And it ain't for the free pretzels.

It's for the hours of uninterrupted work time. No cell phones, no email, no pop-ins to see if you if you want to join the baby shower for Laura in the break room. It's remarkable how much work people seem to get done during this time -- and how much they treasure it.

If it's so important and so rewarding, why do we find it so difficult to make that time for ourselves (and our colleagues) during the work day? Why do we foster environments in which interruptions are the norm, while the uninterrupted blocks of quiet work time are rarer than a Coelacanth?

This kind of environment isn't especially good for your business. Nathan Zeldes, an engineer at Intel, expressed the costs most eloquently in his terrific research paper on Infomania:

Due to continual interruptions] employees are not creating new ideas to the extent they could. New, significant inventions remain un–invented. Better solutions to major problems that may be hobbling an organization’s performance toward its goals are left undiscovered. The engineer who could have the “Aha!” insight leading to the next major product innovation is trying to find 30 minutes to think about it, and failing. The supervisor who could double a fabrication line’s efficiency can’t because they are nearly brain dead from staying up until one AM working on e–mail. Across the industry, knowledge workers and managers are thinking less, inventing less, producing less, succeeding less.
If this isn't a description of muda -- in this case, the terrible waste of employees' potential --  I don't know what is.

Zeldes goes on to say that

The creative thinking process requires long stretches of uninterrupted time, to study books, articles and online resources, and to process information, sorting it mentally and generating insight. These activities take time as well as mental concentration, which builds up slowly and can easily be lost.

In the past, such thinking time was core to the work paradigm. Newton got hit by that apple because he was sitting under a tree. Sitting and contemplating the world (what we now call “doing nothing”) was an expected part of a scientist’s routine. More recently, say ten years ago, employees could still expect to do some thinking – if no other way, after 5 PM, during the weekend, or by hiding in a conference room.

I hear lots of reasons why workers "can't" unplug from their email, IM, or cell phone, or why they can't close their office doors (literally or figuratively) in order to carve out some uninterrupted work time. All the reasons sound legitimate. However, in the end, there's a real and substantial cost to the individual and the company that quite likely outweighs the proffered reasons. But because we don't calculate the cost, we don't see it.

Over the past few years, I've preached the gospel of setting aside uninterrupted work time to my clients, but with limited success. Environmental factors -- among them, the (perceived) need to seem immediately responsive, the fear of missing an urgent email, the desire to have one's direct reports jump when called -- and long-established work habits overwhelm the new ideas.

So what is to be done?

Recently, I watched two webinars on Toyota's "A3" approach to problem solving. (You can download them here at  the Lean Enterprise Institute's web site.) Without going into too many details, it's a deceptively simple tool to help employees solve knotty problems while creating internal alignment around those solutions. The A3 is one of the key tools that Toyota uses to keep improving their operations. And I think it might be the way to help people and organizations carve out uninterrupted time for thinking.

In the next few months I'll be working with the Lean Enterprise Institute on this A3 exercise. We're going to try to change their environment to allow people more time to think, invent, and succeed. I don't know where this will lead us, but the journey should be exciting.

If you're interested in joining this experiment, please email me here: dan [AT sign] I'll be happy to share our findings, and incorporate your ideas into our work.

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