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Standard work, creativity, and Apple

I've written before how checklists are a valuable element of standard work, and certainly the use of checklists in the military, aviation, and healthcare has reduced errors and improved outcomes. But did you know that checklists lie at the heart of Apple's new product development process? When we look at an iPhone, it's easy to get seduced into thinking that its creation was a magical piece of genius, that it sprang full-grown from Steve Jobs' forehead like Athena from Zeus. However, according to a recent post on Quartz (and Leander Kahney's book about Jony Ive) the iPhone -- and all other Apple devices -- are the result of a rigorously detailed product development process.

Embodied in a program that runs on the company’s internal network, the ANPP [Apple new product process] resembled a giant checklistIt detailed exactly what everyone was to do at every stage for every product, with instructions for every department ranging from hardware to software, and on to operations, finance, marketing, even the support teams that troubleshoot and repair the product after it goes to market. "It’s everything from the supply chain to the stores," said one former executive. "It’s hooked into all the suppliers and the suppliers’ suppliers.Hundreds of companiesEverything from the paint and the screws to the chips.”

Now obviously, the ANPP is much more than a simple checklist. At the same time, however, it's also much more useful than one of those coma-inducing, 500-line Gantt charts that many companies use to drive and monitor projects. The ANPP ensures that standards are followed, that silly mistakes are avoided, and most of all, that knowledge becomes explicit and reusable, rather than tacit and tribal.

When you have an ANPP, you eliminate the non-value-adding drag on people's time and attention caused by rework, loopbacks, and superfluous confirmations and approvals. You give people the time and space they need to create something genuinely wonderful.



Information 5S -- Apple Edition

In his book Inside Apple, Adam Lashinsky writes about Apple's extreme secrecy -- both external (not letting the media know what it's working on), and internal -- not letting people inside the company know what other people and other teams are working on. As Lashinsky explains it in an interview,

Apple people below a certain level -- and that level is a very high level -- do not multitask. You have a project, you work on that project, you know what your function is.... Apple operates on a need-to-know basis. So if you're not involved in a project, you're not involved, it's not of your business, and you're encouraged to mind your own business... You work on the discrete task that you've been assigned to work on. They don't get distracted by what other people are working on.

It strikes me that Apple is engaging in a form of information 5S -- except that in this case, the "sorting" of information is externally imposed and enforced by the company. And there are real benefits to it: you're better able to focus on your work because you're not getting buried by a bunch of needless "reply all" emails, or getting roped into meetings that are only tangentially -- at best -- related to your work. By identifying the important and relevant information for each person, and by defining clearly focused responsibilities, Apple eliminates the needless  cognitive load on people.

That's certainly a contributing factor that  enables them to do their best work. I'm certainly not advocating that all companies follow this route. (Neither is Lashinksy, for that matter.) But it's worth considering how much unnecessary cognitive load you impose upon your people in an attempt to "keep them in the loop."