The calendar as kanban


Are you one of those people whose day is driven by the latest email someone has lobbed into your inbox? Do you feel like you're chronically a half-step slow in managing your work? If so, try using your calendar as a kanban. (For the lean novices, a kanban is a signaling system to trigger the right amount of production at the right time.) In an earlier post I wrote about the need to "live in your calendar" rather than your inbox. By designating dates and times for specific tasks and projects, you’ve essentially created a production schedule for your work, with the calendar (and the calendar alerts) acting as a kanban that pulls work forward.

Now, I can hear your objection: “a real pull-based system of work would have me responding to the incoming messages as they arrive. Living in the calendar leads to batching and inventory creation rather than flow.”

That’s true. This pull system that I’m advocating does create inventory. And if your job entailed working in only one value stream – as it would if you were on an assembly line – then it wouldn’t be a good idea.

But you don’t work in just one value stream. As a knowledge worker, you work in many value streams at once, with multiple tasks and projects coming at you at the same time, performing very different types of operations (e.g., selling, writing, presenting, analyzing) for many different customers (your boss, the marketing team, the medical journal editor), very often with differing delivery dates. It’s an extraordinarily complex situation.

Consequently, if you were to work on each item as it arrived – just-in-time production, true one-piece flow – you’d inevitably end up creating inventory anyway, and you’d almost certainly miss key delivery dates. And since your incoming work doesn’t flow smoothly and predictably, you’re guaranteed to have conflicting delivery schedules. So, just as a machine job shop must schedule production based on complexity, delivery date, and duration of production, and just as hospital emergency departments must schedule medical procedures based on severity of injury and treatment duration, so too do you have to schedule your workflow. And that necessarily means creating work-in-process inventory.

But – and here’s the key – you want the calendar to drive the work that you do, not the order in which the job arrives (viz, the time it arrives in your inbox). The calendar pulls work forward at the right time, allowing you to properly allocate your resources (time and energy). It enables you to level the load where necessary – for example, shunting aside work when you’re in the middle of a crisis with a customer or a product. It allows you to calculate takt time and create fast tracks for predictable and repetitive work, such as expense reports or personnel evaluations. It helps you carve out sufficient time for complex, resource-intensive jobs like writing a chapter for a textbook, or creating a new compensation plan for hourly workers.

You just can’t manage your work this way when you live in your inbox.

Of course, life never goes according to plan

This all sounds good in theory -- but of course, life never goes according to plan. You may have designated time Tuesday morning from 9am-11am to calculate your monthly closeout pricing, but inevitably, an emergency will erupt and take precedence over the scheduled work. That’s okay. In fact, I’d argue that it’s precisely because something urgent inevitably arises that you need to live in your calendar.

Without a calendar to pull your work at the right time, you run the risk of losing track of that other, less urgent task.  If your team has just discovered a major software bug and it takes you seven hours to deal with it, the odds are excellent that you’ll forget whatever it is you were supposed to do that day.

The calendar prevents you from forgetting. Simply figure out when you can finish that scheduled task and reschedule it. Acting as a kanban, the calendar will then pull the rescheduled work into the job queue at the (new) right time.

But, what if you can’t reschedule it? What if your calendar is so full of work that there’s simply no time to take care of it? That situation is often a reality for some people. In that case, the calendar has done you the invaluable service of making that problem visible: you can actually see that you don’t have the two hours to calculate the closeout pricing before the sales meeting, rather than being surprised by that realization a few days (or weeks) later.  So you can either delegate responsibility for closeout pricing to someone else, or you can choose to create more production capacity for yourself by working on Sunday, or you can determine that it’s not that important after all and ignore it.

Regardless of what option you choose, you’ve at least made the options visible, and the choice conscious, rather than invisible and inadvertent. And if it’s a recurring problem – which you can now see – you have the opportunity to engage in root cause analysis and problem solving so that it doesn’t keep happening.

A kanban isn't just for material flow. It's for information flow, too. If you treat the calendar as a kanban, you can ensure that you're spending your time and energy on the activity that creates the most value and smoothing the flow of the value streams in which you work. Try it. You'll see.

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