Why your meetings always suck (and what to do about it).

It’s not just your meetings that suck. I spent a week at the AME Conference in Dallas talking to continuous improvement/performance excellence/lean transformation leaders at over a dozen companies, and every one of them said their meetings suck. Mind you, these are people who are specially trained to improve quality, lower costs, and reduce waste. And yet, by their own admission, their meetings are the epitome of waste: waste of time, waste of human potential, waste of space, waste of energy.

If their meetings suck, what chance do you have?

Why are crappy meetings so pervasive? Why is it so hard to focus on value when you’re working in a group? I mean, it’s not like there’s any big secret to running a good meeting: Robert’s Rules of Order and its variants have been around practically since the Mesozoic era, and they all say the same thing. Start on time. End on time. Have an agenda. Assign a notekeeper. Etc. And yet, meetings still end up in New Yorker cartoons and Dilbert comic strips—and for good reason. They suck.

Jim Womack and Dan Jones introduced the concept of Purpose, Process, and People. I’d like to suggest that these three Ps could be applied equally well to meetings. Instead of getting bogged down in Robert’s Rules, consider:

What’s the purpose of the meeting? Can you explain it clearly, concisely, and compellingly? If not, you’re heading down the road towards a lampoon-worthy, soul-sucking time waste, because you don’t really know why you’re meeting. If all you have is a topic (“We need to talk about Project Applesauce”) without a clear goal, don’t have the meeting. I’ll go even further: if someone calls you into a meeting and it’s clear there’s no clear purpose, gracefully excuse yourself, leave, and go do something productive.

What’s the process you’ll use in the meeting to ensure that each step of the meeting is, in Womack’s and Jones’s words, valuable, capable, and adequate? Do you have the right information to fulfill the purpose of the meeting? Do you have the right format (large group free-form discussion, small-team problem solving, short stand-up meeting at the gemba, quick update around a visual management board, a series of one-on-one conversations, etc.) to accomplish the purpose? In my experience, the process is often misaligned with or inappropriate to the goal.

Who are the people you’ll have in the meeting? Who needs to be there? And the corollary: who doesn’t need to attend? These questions aren’t as simple to answer as they may seem. You’ll need to have many small discussions before the actual meting to determine who should be there. Think about all the times you’ve been halfway through a meeting and someone says, “Oh, we really need to have Susan’s input on that. She knows all about that alloy, and I’ll defer to her on the issue.” Think about all the times you’ve sat in a meeting and wondered, “Why the hell am I here? I could be drafting the marketing plan for our new line of Ibex fur mukluks.”

I’m not suggesting that making your meetings all value and no waste is any easier than making your production line of jet turbine blades, or the cardiac catheterization process at your hospital all value and no waste. But the irony of continuous improvement champions focusing all their effort on a product production line and none on their own knowledge production line is almost laughable. After all, if their days are so waste-ridden that they don’t have time to get rid of waste in the larger organization, how are they ever going to achieve their goals?

More to the point: if you're leading a company, a division, or a team, and you passively tolerate, accept, and contribute to a culture of pointless, bloated, and ineffective meetings, then you're unlikely to make the progress you desire.

Remember: the only truly non-renewable resource is time. Don’t squander it as though it’s limitless—and free.