There's a scene in Ernest Hemingway's novel, The Sun Also Rises, in which two characters are talking in a bar. One of them describes how his business went bankrupt. He explains, "Gradually, then suddenly." This is precisely how your office went from a paragon of organization following your last cleaning binge to its current state of post-tornado trailer park.

It started gradually. You ran from the 9:00am meeting to the 10:00am conference call, while dropping your notes and a few handouts from the first meeting onto your desk. You did it again after the next one. And the next. Rinse and repeat. You told yourself that you'd get to all that stuff later. . . but, of course, you never did: when you finally got back to your office, you just shoved it to the back corner of your desk and dove into your email. And then suddenly you looked up, and you had piles of papers, post-it notes, Powerpoint decks, scribbled cocktail napkins and soy sauce packets lying everywhere. Like Hemingway said: gradually, then suddenly.

The truth is, you really can't have all your meetings stacked up on top of each other like 747s coming into O'Hare. Aside from the obvious problems with this kind of schedule -- not least of which is that all the meetings start late because it takes a minimum of five minutes to get a glass of water and go to the bathroom (one of the classic types of muda (waste), for those of you scoring at home) -- you're sowing the seeds of your own organizational demise.

As Jim Womack of the Lean Enterprise Institute has pointed out, muda usually grows out of muri (overburdening). He was talking about manufacturing processes, but it's just as true for administrative offices: the waste of people's time waiting for meetings to start, the waste of your time looking for information in your chaotic office, starts with the muri of your meeting schedule. You just can't schedule your meetings back to back to back without creating waste.

Toyota addressed this problem by making all hour-long meetings only 50 minutes. The last 10 minutes of the hour was given to the participants to get a cup of coffee, put the notes from the meeting in an appropriate folder, check the baseball scores, get to the next meeting, whatever. This way the next meeting can start on time, and people wouldn't be quite so overburdened by an unrealistic schedule.

Nowhere is it chiseled in stone that a meeting needs to be 60 minutes. Why not 50? Psychiatrists have been charging for 50 minute hours forever, so that they can have time to file their notes and prep for the next patient. Your needs are no different from theirs. (And, in fact, they're much greater, at least compared to the strict Freudians -- you at least have to talk to people.)

With the extra 10 minutes of breathing room between meetings, you'll have a fighting chance of staying on top of the blizzard of paper and to-dos that meetings generate. You'll be better able to maintain 5S in your office. And that means less waste all around.

If it's good enough for Dr. Ben Sobel, it's worth a try, no?

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