Visual Management, Production Schedules, and the Tyranny of the Urgent

“Value added work takes a lot of time, is unglamorous and is often not as important to my boss as the crisis of the day.”
You hear it constantly: spend time on improvement work, not just the daily grind. Yet in your world you face a nearly unending stream of crises that demand your attention, from trivial ("Hey, anyone know how to fix a copier jam?") to major ("The jig's up on the Death Star strategy. We're about to be indicted."). Which begs the question: how do you make the time for the value-added, improvement work that's necessary for the lean journey?

Lee Fried's Daily Kaizen blog, which chronicles the lean efforts at Group Healthcare, addressed this problem last month. One of the managers talked about her struggle to escape the "tyranny of the urgent" so that she could spend time on improvement work:

Urgent work is easy work. I know how to do it. I am more comfortable doing it. This new work is uncomfortable and foreign. If it’s going to take me 3 hours to pull the data together, 15 people are going to show up at my door and I am going to get frustrated and quit.

This is a pretty common sentiment, isn't it? You've probably felt the same way: locked into firefighting mode, and unable to address any of the big picture stuff. And even in a company like Group Healthcare, which is firmly committed to lean, this person's boss isn't helping:

When our boss comes, our culture is to drop everything and help them with their crisis. Even if they’ve asked you to do the value-added work, they’ll expect you to drop it. This is probably the same experience they have with their boss and for the people that report to me as well.
So how does she improve the odds that she'll get to the improvement work?

First of all, I have learned that I have to schedule time for all improvement work. It won’t happen if I don’t plan the time into my day. Second, I have to break the improvement work up into short term deadlines. If I don’t, this far off task will seem too abstract and I’ll never get started.
She also explains how visual management helps:

I am also currently working to make my own work visible so that my staff, my boss and I can see my whole day, and what various items are scheduled for the day. Specifically, I am trying to carve out time for e-mail, and other things that can often spur crises. Over time, I am hoping to have control over my day to the point that I can sit down and focus on what I ever I have “loaded” for that time, knowing I have allotted time for all other critical items at some other point in the day.

I've written before about the value of visual management for knowledge workers as embodied by Jim Collins. I believe that having a "production schedule" increases the likelihood that you'll actually get it done because it enables you to focus on what you're supposed to be doing -- the improvement work -- rather than getting reflexively sucked into the crisis work.

To be sure, sometimes it's appropriate to go into firefighting mode -- when the SEC is in your office asking about the Death Star strategy, writing an A3 seems somewhat less important -- but it should be a mindful, conscious decision, and not just a knee-jerk reaction. There's an opportunity cost for everything you do, and visual management helps you measure that cost, and spend your limited time on the important things.