THE WASTE OF MEETINGS: A MODEST PROPOSAL


American workers spend somewhere between five and 15 hours per week (depending on what source you believe) in meetings. Whatever the actual number is, it's big. And as near as I can tell, much of that time is largely waste. So with due respect to Jonathan Swift, I have a modest proposal to end the pain of ineffective, bloated, and often pointless get-togethers that masquerade as work. Try visual management for knowledge work.

A few weeks ago, Jon Miller coined the "Non-Invisibility Law." He wrote,

If need to ask > 0, then visual management = 0.

This is simply an if-then statement to the effect that formalizes the gemba kanri [workplace management] truism "If you have to ask, you don't have visual management of your operations." Visual management must leave no doubt. Nothing that is important should be invisible if true management by fact is to be practiced on the gemba.

This got me to thinking: why can't we use the same principle in the conference room (viz., the "meeting gemba")? Why can't we use visual management to improve the effectiveness of meetings -- to keep them on track, to keep them on time, to keep them from degenerating into a colossal waste of resources and energy?

What if. . . there was a posted agenda on a flip chart (or projected on the wall), so that anyone walking past could see not only the purpose and desired outcome of the meeting, but also what stage of the meeting the discussion was at? Wouldn't that drive behavior that would avoid many of the problems besetting meetings today? People would have to have an agenda and a goal, and they'd have to appoint a moderator to keep it on track. Not quite poka-yoke, but close.

What if. . . there was a timer to help keep people focused on the critical resource -- i.e., time -- being consumed? Many meetings at Google feature a four-foot tall timer projected on the wall, counting down the minutes left for a particular meeting or topic.

What if. . . meeting notes and action items were transcribed in one-piece flow during the meeting (rather than batch & queue afterwards), and projected on the wall, so that errors and inconsistencies could be spotted right then and there by the participants? This is another technique that Google uses to ensure that meetings are effective.

If you think about it, the agenda, combined with the timer and real-time meeting notes, is exactly like the visual management boards in a factory. They're tools to drive the right behavior by participants, and they make the work (production) visible to outsiders.

Jon Miller says that "Visual management must leave no doubt. Nothing that is important should be invisible." I'd argue that as long as the time spent by employees in meetings consumes company resources -- and it most assuredly does -- then it's important, and therefore it damn well better be visible.

After all, your customers aren't paying you to sit in stupid meetings.

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