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Itchy fingers.

Bison Gear & Engineering, a designer and manufacturer of custom motors, reduced their new product development lead time from several weeks to three days by implementing lean concepts. One of their techniques is the "project blitz." They put a team of engineers together (literally -- they move their desks right next to each other), protect them from interruptions (they stretch police riot tape across the engineers' area so that no one can enter), and work exclusively on a single project until it's completed. Work flows from one engineer to another with no waiting and no distractions. They've realized, as I've written about before, that task switching is toxic to productivity.

Interestingly, Bison goes further than just protecting the team from external interruptions. The engineers also avoid self-generated distractions. Even when one of the team isn't actively working on the project at a given moment, she won't check email or surf the web while waiting for her next task. Experience has taught them that recovering from that type of distraction and getting back into the project flow slows down the blitz -- even though she's just waiting. Instead, she stays attentive to the work that the others are doing, remains more involved in the process, and is able to jump back in and contribute more quickly.

I asked their VP of Engineering about this prohibition on email. He said the emotional cost of this self-imposed disconnect was surprisingly high. People have an ingrained feeling that if they're not working, they're wasting time. Sitting idly at their desks and not -- at the very least -- clearing out their inboxes, felt profoundly unproductive. Even when it was clear that the project progressed faster when they worked this way, they still had itchy fingers.

To me, this is a beautiful example on a small scale of "going slow to go fast." If you can ignore the itchy fingers and the need to be busy every second of the day, you might find that your projects move faster, too.

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Little's Law, redux

In reference to my April newsletter, about the perils of a multi-tasking environment that forces teams to constantly switch activities among multiple projects, a client wrote:

I am a little surprised you didn’t refer to Pull and WIP control more overtly as part of the solution. I know it is production language, but it should work in admin and is a great way to match input/output rates and to keep resources dedicated until a job is done. Also the queues can then be used as indicators of true capacity (vs coordination) opportunities.

I anchored my argument against this kind of multitasking in Little's Law, which demonstrates that the more items in a queue of work (particularly manufacturing or service), the longer the cycle time for that work becomes.

My client is exactly right, however. A push system, where work is foisted upon a department from the outside, by its very nature will lead to overloading a system and exploding lead times. A pull system, where work is taken from a pile of projects by the people doing the work when they're ready for it, ensures that the department matches inputs and outputs for maximum efficiency.

Interestingly, this approach is rare. There's a tendency in the office environment to treat "production" capacity as infinite. Partly this tendency is due to people's willingness to work late into the night or on weekends. Partly this tendency is due to the difficulty of calculating how much time a particular project will take. Inherent in knowledge work is the inability to take a project to completion in a smooth, uninterrupted flow.

Because there are so many interruptions, and because these projects tend to be multi-stage affairs, there's a powerful argument to use more visual management tools and lean/agile development methods. Both will help clarify and make workloads visible, and help to better match capacity to business opportunities. And that results in shorter lead times, happier customers, and less-stressed employees.




"That's just our culture, and we can't change it."

"That's just our culture, and you can't change it." Last week, while presenting a workshop based on my book, A Factory of One, at the AME Conference, I was struck by the fatalism that infected so many participants. We were talking about the impediments to individual effectiveness -- the things that create waste instead of value -- and so many people said with a resigned air, "That's just our culture, and we can't change it."

The disrespect for closed doors and interruptions by coworkers that force people to multitask? That's just our culture. The expectation that we'll respond to all emails within 10 minutes? That's just our culture. The sense of entitlement (or the ignorance) that permits executives to pile multiple projects on you, despite the inevitable explosion in lead time? That's just our culture. And there's no point in fighting it.

This passive acceptance of the status quo is shocking because it's so different from the attitude that these same people take when confronting other waste-ridden systems. I don't know any hospitals that attended AME that shrug their organizational shoulders and simply accept their ventilator-associated pneumonia rate as an unavoidable outgrowth of their "nursing culture" or systems. I didn't meet any manufacturers at AME who say, "Sure we've got a 22% defect rate on our products, but that's just the culture of our machinists." I don't know of any distribution companies in attendance that think, "It's too bad that our drivers mis-deliver packages all the time, but that's just the culture of the drivers and our lousy systems."

Ridiculous. In all of those examples, the leadership teams drive relentlessly to improve the quality, cost, and reliability of their systems and processes. Accepting the status quo is unacceptable.

So why do we have such a difficult time acknowledging both the necessity and the possibility of improvement in the way our people work? Why do we view the processes by which individuals get their jobs done as something fixed, immutable, or unworthy of improving?

The evidence is clear that, to quote Tony Schwartz, the way we're working isn't working. Whether it's the expectation that people are on call 24/7, or the design of workspaces that don't allow people to focus and concentrate on their work, or the overloaded project schedule that results in frustratingly long project lead times, we're just not being smart about how to get the best results from our people.

Why do we accept the fatalistic complaint that "it's just our culture," and there's nothing we can do about it? Just because the inefficiency and waste of our current way of working doesn't directly show up on the income statement doesn't mean that we should tolerate it any more than we should accept that patients coming to our hospital get sicker when they're with us.

It's time to view individual productivity as a non-negotiable area of improvement. That's nothing more than respect for people.



November 2011 Newsletter: You Are a Monument Machine

"Single minute exchange of die" (SMED) isn't just for machines. Your brain is as much an expensive, complex piece of equipment as a traditional factory "monument machine." Take all possible steps to reduce the downtime due to changeovers. Download PDF



Cardboard boxes and common sense.

“Sorry about the mess. These are just the cases that came in the last couple of days. The big pile over there? That’s the research project that I’m supposed to be working on.” Megan sighed despairingly and waved her arm, indicating piles of unread slides stacked like ziggurats on every flat surface in her office. Megan is an experienced, talented, and very hard working pathologist at a major cancer hospital. Her days are spent with her face pressed up against the viewer of her microscope, examining tissue samples for evidence of malignant tumors. I was visiting her because she seemed to have lost her ability to read cases and turn them around rapidly for the referring physicians. Megan was caught in a bind: she was feeling pressure from her boss to work faster, but she was worried that reading the slides more quickly would increase the risk that she’d incorrectly diagnose a case.

Megan went on: “I used to be able to read more cases during regular business hours, but now I have to come in earlier and stay later just to keep up—and obviously, I’m not doing a particularly good job of that. Although to be fair, no one else in the department is either. We’re all feeling swamped.”

Frankly, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to help her. I’m neither a pathologist nor a doctor. (Which, since I’m Jewish, always made my parents very sad. They weren’t exactly cheering when I took a class in the Semiotics & Hermeneutics of the Mystery Story.) I know as much about interpreting tissue samples as I do about designing sub-atomic experiments for the Large Hadron Collider.

So I spent a couple of days watching Megan work. And what I saw reminded me of what Keith Poirier wrote on Jamie Flinchbaugh’s blog recently:

Lean is nothing more than the re-introduction of ‘common sense’ into our daily work lives.

I don’t know anything about interpreting biopsies. But it turns out I didn’t need to. What I saw was a doctor who seldom got more than eight uninterrupted minutes to analyze a slide. Practically every time she nestled up against her microscope, someone came into her office and interrupted her. Following each interruption, she’d turn back to the slide, and start re-reading it from the beginning to ensure that she didn’t miss anything. As a result, reading each case took three, four, five times as long as it needed to.

What’s worse, in the two days I watched her, none of the interruptions were urgent. In fact, the most common interruption was from technicians bringing her new slides to read. They’d walk in, say hello, tell her that they have new cases, and she’d tell them to just put them on the corner of her desk.

My solution? Put a cardboard box outside of her door with a sign telling the technicians to put all new cases inside it. Megan created a fixed schedule to pick up any cases every 90 minutes. Fancy, right? She cut interruptions by two-thirds, and cut the time it took her to process her cases by 40%.

We didn’t talk about takt time, pull systems, or kanbans. As Keith Poirier wrote, it’s just common sense. You’re not going to be able to do your work—whether that’s reading pathology slides, writing ad copy, calculating force vectors on bridges, or writing a patent application—quickly or efficiently if you’re always being interrupted. So we cut down the interruptions to help her do her work a bit better.

There’s still plenty of work to be done in that hospital’s pathology department. There’s waste all over the place. But by focusing on simple, small, and rapid improvements, we made a big difference in Megan’s performance—and her happiness.



Chinese acrobats, Italian judges, and traffic jams.

You might want to reconsider saying yes to the latest project that your boss drops on your desk like a side of beef. Saying no might help you do a better -- or at least a faster -- job. Turns out that managing so many concurrent projects that you're the white-collar equivalent of a Chinese acrobat spinning dishes doesn't work so well.

A study of Italian judges who were randomly assigned cases and who had similar workloads found that those who worked on fewer cases at a time tended to complete more cases per quarter and took less time, on average, to complete a case. The authors concluded that

Individual speed of job completion cannot be explained only in terms of effort, ability and experience: work scheduling is a crucial “input” that cannot be omitted from the production function of individual workers.

The problem is that too much work-in-process causes a system -- whether machine or human -- to bog down.  In a phrase that will likely make Jim Benson and Tonianne deMaria Barry smile (or call their lawyers), the MIT Sloan Management Review draws the analogy that

excessive multitasking may result in the workflow equivalent of a traffic jam, where projects get backed up behind other projects much the way cars get stuck in traffic when there are too many on a highway at once.

If this phrasing rings a bell, it should: here's how Jim and Tonianne made this point visually (check out slide #7):

Personal Kanban rationale

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the need to use your calendar as a tool to assess your daily production capacity, but not with the goal of filling up every minute of each day. Overloading the system writ small -- stacking up tasks during the day like 747s over LaGuardia -- is a bad idea. But overloading the system writ large -- scheduling too many legal cases or too many projects at one time -- is also a recipe for slow turnaround, frustrated customers, sub-optimal performance, and probably premature hair loss.

Remember, you're not a circus performer. Neither your boss nor your customers "ooh" and "ahh" because you're juggling 26 projects at once. They ooh and ahh when you deliver the goods quickly and with perfect quality.



24/7 availability does not create peak performance.

Mark Graban's latest post on Chrysler's CEO, Sergio Marchionne, reminded me of a recent visit to a client's R&D facility. Two of the managers bemoaned the incessant demands on their teams. Even as recently as a few years ago they would have downtime after the completion of a project when staff could go on vacation, work shorter hours, and generally refresh themselves. But no more. Layoffs and increasing pressures from the executive team means no more breathers. It’s constant pressure year-round now. Unfortunately, as psychiatrist Edward Hallowell says,

Making yourself available 24/7 does not create peak performance. Recreating the boundaries that technology has eroded does.

In an interview with CNET earlier this year, Hallowell explainted that “attention deficit trait” is

sort of like the normal version of attention deficit disorder. But it’s a condition induced by modern life, in which you’ve become so busy attending to so many inputs and outputs that you become increasingly distracted, irritable, impulsive, restless and, over the long term, underachieving. In other words, it costs you efficiency because you’re doing so much or trying to do so much, it’s as if you’re juggling one more ball than you possibly can.

Organizations are sacrificing their most valuable asset, namely the imagination and creativity of the brains they employ, by allowing ADT to infest the organization.

Pick up any business journal this year and at least once a week you’ll read about the need for innovation. Companies hire consultants, conduct off-site retreats, install “chief innovation officers” (whatever that means — probably a sign of a non-innovative company), and give employees toys from the Fisher Price catalog in an effort to spur innovative thinking.

But maybe they’re missing the mark. (In the case of the “chief innovation officer,” there’s no maybe about it.) Maybe what the staff needs is some time away from the office, away from the Blackberries, away from meetings. Maybe they need to go hiking and rafting away from their electronic tethers.

Of course, you don’t have to go that far. As Hallowell says,

It’s not that hard to deal with, once you identify it. You need to set limits and preserve time to think. Warren Buffett sits in a little office in the middle of nowhere and spends a lot of his time just thinking.

Back to Sergio Marchionne: you could make a powerful argument that his job above all requires innovation, creativity, and imagination. Does answering his six Blackberries within minutes or seconds, 24/7, have a negative effect on his own performance? (And for that matter, the fact that so many decisions are funneled through him surely has negative consequences. The always-available executive subtly undermines the people around him by telegraphing that his team is incapable of running things on their own. A good question might be why Marchionne has to make all of these decisions at all times.)

Think about it: getting more with less — less energy, less time, less effort. If we can apply lean thinking (creating more value with fewer resources) at the macro-level to manufacturing and services, why can’t we apply it at the micro-level to individual output?



One very easy way to work faster.

Personal Kanban Traffic JamIt's a little disappointing, really. I really thought I was being so smart and creative. I read Pete Abilla's recent post about Little's Law, software development, and queue management, and I thought -- "Hey! I bet you could apply this concept to argue against multitasking and overloading one's calendar! Little's Law proves that if you do that, it will actually take longer to get your work done!"

And then I realized that Pete had beaten me to this flash of insight by, oh, about three years. There it is, in semi-permanent electrons, back in April of 2007:

A common result for multi-taskers is that simultaneous projects or items are spawned.  Multi-threaded is sometimes the analogy here.  But, unlike machines, people have a difficult time completing multi-threaded processes.  The end result is that projects and efforts are not complete, time runs shorter and shorter, and demands continue to pile up.  Think of everything I’ve just described as Work-in-Process (WIP).  So, using Little’s Law above, as WIP grows, then Throughput decreases. Translation: As we multi-task, we start several projects, complete only a few, WIP grows, Cycle Time eventually lengthens, and we are less productive.

(By the way, although this is the money quote, the whole post is worth reading. He's far more eloquent on Little's Law than I ever could be. Plus, I can't figure out how to insert the Greek letter Lambda in a blog post.)

I think that Pete's point makes a good case for using a tool like a kanban or your calendar to manage the amount of work you take on. If you don't match your production capacity (which is to say, the limits on your time and attention) with the amount of work you take on, you've got a recipe for stress and slower work.

Jim Benson, over at Personal Kanban (where "It's hip to limit your WIP."), tells this story beautifully in his "Personal Kanban 101" Slideshare presentation. The picture above (from that presentation) makes Pete Abilla's point about Little's Law visual.

Jim's point is that the motorcyclist is the last, little, five minute task that you agreed to do. . . but of course, in a completely clogged day, it can't get done quickly at all. And a kanban (his solution), or rigorous use of the calendar (my solution, so far) is a way to ensure that you don't get yourself into this situation -- where five minute tasks can't get done, where the cycle time for your work lengthens, where frustration and unfulfilled promises mount.

Okay, so my idea about Little's Law and multitasking wasn't original. I stand on the shoulders of giants, and all that. But if it brings a bit more attention to Pete Abilla's orginal post, so much the better.



Does the internet make you smarter or dumber? Yes.

Friday's Wall Street Journal ran an interesting feature: side-by-side articles on whether the internet makes you smarter or dumber. Clay Shirky advocated smarter, while Nicholas Carr (who's in the news for the release of his latest book) argued for dumber. My answer to the question? Yes, it does. Both authors make compelling arguments for their point, and I think that both arguments are valid. What's not in question, from my perspective, is that the way we use the internet -- as an always on, constant companion for communication, entertainment, and information -- can be terribly destructive to our ability to get on with our jobs. And our lives.

I'm not a Luddite by any means. I don't propose that we go back to the pre-internet world, or even the 56K dial-up modem. The internet is much too valuable an invention for that. (And having just laboriously completed some rudimentary carpentry work without power tools, I'm all in favor of technology.) But it's important to recognize that there must be a time and place to use the off button. To be unplugged. To be fully present, without distractions. The fact is, as I've (and many others have) written about ad nauseum, we're incapable of multitasking:

When we're constantly distracted and interrupted, as we tend to be online, our brains are unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking. We become mere signal-processing units, quickly shepherding disjointed bits of information into and then out of short-term memory.

And yet I see legions of businesspeople and healthcare workers trying to process complex information (spreadsheets, budgets, medical records, etc.) while allowing themselves to be interrupted by the phone or email, or just as damagingly, by self-inflicted interruptions (Hey, I wonder what the score of the Mets game is...). This can't be a good thing. I'm not the only one who thinks so, either: one of the most popular features of the word processing program Scrivener is "full screen mode," which blacks out everything on your computer screen except the document you're working on. And WriteRoom is a word processing program which has as its only selling point, "distraction-free writing."

(I'm not dissing these products, by the way. But I do wonder why we need a product to mimic the appearance of being disconnected when we could just, you know, actually disconnect ourselves. Is it so hard to turn off Outlook and Firefox?)

A few years ago I made a vow that when my wife comes home from work, I close my computer. For the most part, I've lived up to that promise -- and that's something I'm really, really proud of. I don't write that to sound holier-than-thou. (You know, "Look how great I am! I can turn off my email!") I write it because I know how tough it is to unplug the ethernet cable. I also know that as a result, I talk to my wife a lot more than I used to -- and that's a really good thing.

All this is to say that the question isn't whether the internet makes you dumber or smarter. It's whether you can unplug and provide yourself with the time and quiet to focus on whatever it is that's really important.