I recently gave a talk to the Bay Area chapter of the Lean Construction Institute. One of the most active discussions centered on how the lean concept of flow translates to individual work. (This was a topic in my first book, A Factory of One.) The group concluded that enabling people to have flow in their work is a demonstration of respect for humanity. 

The notion of 1x1 flow in a lean production environment is pretty easy to grasp—individuals or teams should build one product at a time, in contrast to the classic mass production approach of building and warehousing large work-in-process inventories of parts. But what does that look like when you’re a knowledge worker sitting at a desk, handling multiple types of work?

This is where lean thinking intersects with classic time management principles. The time management community understands the peril of multitasking. Research from people such as David Meyer, Clifford Nass, and Gloria Mark (among others) proves conclusively that multitasking is a myth. Humans can’t multitask between two cognitively demanding tasks. (Folding laundry while talking? Sure. Calculating square roots while writing down the lyrics to It’s The End of the World As We Know It?" No so much.) Instead, we “switch task,” going from task A to B, and back to A. The cognitive tax from this switching is severe, resulting in more errors, longer processing times, and higher levels of stress. In lean terms, we’re not working on 1x1 flow, because we never finish a task; we just start another one. 

One-by-one flow for a knowledge worker means having the opportunity to finish a task before starting the next one. Enabling people to work this way is another form of respect for humanity—it means recognizing the brain’s limitations, and allowing people to work in accordance with those limits. We’d never dream of interrupting someone who was pouring molten aluminum, transplanting a heart, or landing an F/A-18 on an aircraft carrier. Similarly, we should respect our colleagues who are closing the books at month-end, solving a customer complaint, or creating a new marketing campaign. It’s not as dramatic as what the metal workers surgeons, or pilots are doing, but it’s still important to the organization.  

But first we have to carve out time in our calendars for our own knowledge intensive work. We can’t expect others to respect our need for single-tasking focus until we make that commitment ourselves. 

Anything less, and we’re disrespecting our own humanity.