Why a to-do list just doesn’t work.

Jim Womack, founder of the Lean Enterprise Institute and the man responsible for putting Lean on the map (at least in this country), recently wrote an article about what he calls “cadence.” This concept ties in nicely to what I preach about how to “live in your calendar” rather than your inbox, and why a to-do list just isn’t a powerful enough tool to enable you to manage your work. Please be patient with the lengthy quote that follows. I think it’s acutely relevant in a world in which your boss or colleague often drops stuff on your desk at 4pm and expects you to finish it by 9am the next morning – even though it’s been sitting on her desk for a week and a half.

I hope that every Lean Thinker by now understands takt time. This is the available production time per day divided by the number of items the customer is demanding each day. For example, if the single-shift production process operates eight hours a day (480 minutes) and customers demand 240 widgets a day, the takt time is two minutes. . . .

But takt time is difficult to apply in a product development activity like e-letters [or any knowledge work, for that matter]. What is the rate of customer "demand" for a new product no one has ordered? And what is the available production time, particularly when developers are working on several products at once?

Although Jim doesn’t mention it, the difficulty of calculating available production time also stems from the need to respond to crises and the daily snafus that can suck up much of your day. It’s often hard to tell in advance how many hours per day you actually have to work on your key projects.

Which brings me to the concept of cadence. Think of cadence as takt time adapted to activities beyond routine production. . . .When there is no steady cadence for starting and completing projects, work starts to bunch up and the resources of the highly trained and integrated development team can't keep up. As a result, projects are delayed or delivered with some functionality missing. Or they are completed with less than the full attention they require for consistently high quality. And in either case development costs are often much higher.

Another way to think of cadence is heijunka (production leveling) for product development, in which the needs of the customer for new products . . . are set against the capabilities of the development organization. While it might be nice to continually vary the output of the development organization to meet changing customer desires, this is usually impossible if many of the resources are specialized and scarce.

The practical alternatives are (a) unrealistic goals and continuous gyrations in scheduling, causing muda, mura, and muri, or (b) an acknowledgment that a development organization can only do so much in a given period of time and that it can actually get more useful work done if everyone is working at a steady pace. In my experience, the organization and the customer are better off with the latter approach, when a clear cadence is established for project completions and the cadence is maintained.

So how does this tie into my notion of “living in your calendar”?

Living in your calendar means keeping it – and not your email – front and center. It means assigning all your tasks and projects to your calendar, rather than putting them on a to-do list, keeping them in your head, or letting them fester in an email in your inbox.

The calendar enables you to “level the production” of your key projects at work. It helps you to allocate time each day or each week to those projects, so that you can work at a steady (and sustainable) pace on those projects. And it’s the very specific allocation of time that makes the calendar better than a simple to-do list. The to-do list doesn’t capture or display the vital bit of information you need: how long will the next step in the project take? And the corollary: how much production time do you have available?

Most people, of course, don’t live in their calendars. They live in their inboxes and treat the pile of messages as an ancillary to-do list. They spend a huge chunk (most?) of their day reading and responding to email, and they only use the calendar function of Outlook (or Lotus Notes, or whatever) to capture meetings and appointments. But without using the calendar, it’s impossible to establish a steady cadence for critical projects. And without a steady cadence, you end up missing Saturday morning cartoons in last minute scrambles to meet deadlines.

Look, I know that your company expects you to pull a lot of freight without giving you a lot of support. You’ve got internal and external customers screaming for attention and help. Your computer dings like a pinball machine from the overdue calendar alerts. Allocating time to your work isn’t easy, when you can’t even find 15 minutes for lunch.

But if you want to get control over your work, and if you want to avoid unrealistic goals and continuous gyrations in scheduling, you don’t have much of a choice. Live in the calendar. Establish cadence. And see how much you can really get done.