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How do you create value?

What value do you create in your company? How do you create it? These questions are at the start of my book, A Factory of One, and they're at the core of my workshop based on the book. In my experience, most people haven't taken the time to answer these questions, and as a result their days are filled with a whole lot of "busyness," but not as much value as they -- or their customers -- would like.

In a recent New York Times interview, Paul Bennett, the Chief Creative Officer at Ideo, said that

Until a year ago, I felt that I wasn’t fully able to perform my job as a kind of project leader for inspiration, because my time was not really my own. Like many people, I was hyper-scheduled, often in depressingly small chunks of time, at one meeting after another, with very little time in between. I remember one particular day when I had a different appointment or task every 10 minutes. My brain almost exploded.... [So] I started a ritual that I still use today: I sit down and look at my calendar every Sunday night, pore through my coming week’s meetings and cancel a bunch of them — redundant ones where I don’t need to be “in the loop,” ones where there is an opportunity for someone else to make a decision, ones that don’t particularly inspire me, or ones where I can’t really add value.

To stretch the meaning of 5S a bit, this sounds to me like "executive 5S." Bennett is sorting his commitments and setting his calendar in order. He's separating the wheat from the chaff, the value from the waste.

But doing this requires that you know what value you create and how you create it. In Bennett's case, he's realized that it's not by running from meeting to meeting, and being away from the flow of work in the office. Now, he says,

I try to spend about half my day at the help desk and the other half doing what I call “doctor’s rounds,” when I walk through the office and talk to people if they request it or if I feel that they are receptive to it. I now allow myself to be pulled, to drift in and out, and to be available for five-minute or two-hour interactions depending on what’s needed. Because of that, I feel as if I am part of a living, breathing organism, and responding to its needs rather than simply running from place to place with a calendar in my hand.

I'm probably the biggest advocate of "living in the calendar" in this community. I believe deeply that the calendar is a vital tool for allocating the scarce resource of time to the truly valuable commitments and demands on your time. But the calendar is a useful tool only insofar as you're able to identify how you create value.

Step back for a moment and think about it. How are you scheduling your days? What are you allocating your time to? How do you create value?

Special Note: Learn about Training Within Industry (TWI) and its role in the lean enterprise at the annual TWI Summit. The Summit is being held in Nashville, TN May 8-9, 2014 and is the annual gathering of world’s top TWI thought leaders and practitioners. Learn more at

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What does your calendar say about you?

In contrast to instant messaging, text messaging, or email, communication time through traditional (snail) mail is measured in days and weeks. You'd think that too much time spent in that world would lead to a lack of sensitivity to how long things take and where time goes. (It flies, of course.) And yet Moya Green, the CEO of Britain's state-owned Royal Mail, can track the way she spends her time with a degree of precision that most businesspeople can't match.

In a McKinsey interview last month, Green demonstrates that she's cognizant of exactly where she invests her time and attention:

McKinsey: How do you strike a balance between the many demands on your time, particularly when driving change?

Moya Greene: I try to think about my agenda as divided into big blocks of time that I actively monitor. I recently did a diary analysis, which showed I spend roughly 15 percent of my time managing and understanding our employees. Another 25 percent of my time last year was devoted to changing the fundamentals of the company. . . . Next, I spent 15 percent of my time seeking to change the conversation inside Royal Mail so that we put the customer much closer to the heart of what we talk about and do. . . . A further 10 percent was taken up with what I call strategic realignment, helping people understand that we're going to make our money in future in parcels and packets, in media, and by selling our data assets in a more commercial way. That left 35 percent for everything else: organization, recruitment, managing the board, and crisis management.

I've worked with many senior leaders, and I seldom see this kind of clarity about how they spend their time. They always have a clear idea of where they want to focus their attention, but they rarely take the time to actually do a diary analysis to see whether they're acting on their intentions. In lean terms, they're excellent at the Plan-Do phases of the PDCA cycle, but not so good on the Check-Adjust phases. As a result, they have a very difficult time assessing their role in the organization's successes and failures -- did they spend too much time on a strategic initiative? Not enough time? Were there other issues? Who knows?

I've written about this topic before, of course, but I think Tom Peters says it best: you are your calendar:

"There is only one asset that you have and that asset is your time.

[Imagine you're a boss of a distribution center and] you say that this is the year of extraordinary attention to quality. Then at the end of the first month, I sit down with you and we go through your monthly calendar day-by-day and hour-by-hour. And we discover that with all the meetings that occur and all the surprises that come up in the course of that month you spent 6 hours directly on the quality issue.

Well, guess what: quality is not your top priority.

The calendar never, ever, ever lies.

If you say something is a priority, then it must be quantitatively reflected in the calendar.”

Can you analyze your calendar? What does it say about you?

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The use -- and abuse -- of parking lots

A reader writes in:

I've been in organizations that use parking lots in their meetings. But too often, those ideas never go anywhere - the company just ends up with a bunch of flip chart sheets that contain good ideas that never get fleshed out in subsequent meetings, because they're just not "big enough to hold a meeting on" or because "we don't have enough time/resources to investigate this right now" so they're constantly de-prioritized or put on a back burner.

It's a good question. Lord knows you've probably seen more than your fair share of those flip chart sheets rolled up and lying in an unused closet like Dead Sea Scrolls. So what to do?

Given my (ahem) rather strong opinions on the need to live in your calendar (or to set up a personal kanban), it's not surprising that I advocate carving out a specific time to revisit the ideas that have been relegated to the parking lot. You can choose the first or last 10 minutes of the next meeting, or you can schedule a new meeting specifically to clear out the parking lot. It doesn't matter.

Specificity is the key to making this work. You won't just "get around" to talking about those ideas any more than you just "get around" to tackling tasks that aren't on your calendar or your task list. This doesn't mean you have to do it every week: there's nothing wrong with deciding only to review the list monthly, quarterly, or semi-annually. Just be sure to block out sufficient time for the review on your team's calendar.

It's important to bring evaluation criteria to the parking lot review. You'll undoubtedly have way too many potential projects to take them all on, so you'll need some way of selecting the winners from the losers. Some possible criteria are:

  • Ease, benefit, and urgency
  • Revenue vs. risk
  • Alignment with organizational goals vs. departmental goals

It doesn't really matter what criteria you use, just that you have some consistent way of determining whether or not the item is worthy of your organizational time and attention.

Now, the hardest part: throw out the losers. Get rid of the flip chart sheets and move on.

The parking lot is exactly like your personal to-do list: there's an infinite amount of stuff clambering for your attention, but only a finite amount of stuff that you can actually do. With an organization, there's an infinite number of potential projects, but a finite amount of people and money to take on those projects. So you have to cull the list. You have to divest yourself of the fantasy that you might actually take advantage of the opportunities that have been previously languishing in the parking lot. After all, the company has survived this long without implementing these ideas, so clearly they aren't all that vital to its success.

If you don't cull the list, you're sowing the seeds of the parking lot's demise. The list will be 83 items long, and no one wants to attend a meeting with 83 items on the agenda. Eventually, your colleagues will all find themselves too busy visiting their customers or washing their hair, and you won't have any more parking lot reviews.

But at least you'll have a nice collection of Dead Sea Scrolls in the closet.

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You are your calendar.

Andy Robinson over at Career Success Partners put up a great video by Tom Peters called "You Are Your Calendar." Peters is legendary (infamous?) for his long and winding Powerpoint presentations, but this is a wonderfully succinct video (2:28), that's as direct as could be. Peters says that

"There is only one asset that you have and that asset is your time.

[Imagine you're a boss of a distribution center and] you say that this is the year of extraordinary attention to quality. Then at the end of the first month, I sit down with you and we go through your monthly calendar day-by-day and hour-by-hour. And we discover that with all the meetings that occur and all the surprises that come up in the course of that month you spent 6 hours directly on the quality issue.

Well, guess what: quality is not your top priority.

The calendar never, ever, ever lies.

If you say something is a priority, then it must be quantitatively reflected in the calendar."

I've harped on this point many times before on this blog (here, here, and here, for starters): the calendar is the best tool you have to allocate your scarcest and most valuable resource: your time and attention. From a lean perspective, the calendar also enables you to level the load of work. And finally, diligent use of the calendar makes it possible to engage in PDCA -- without the calendar, you can't "Check," and therefore you have no way to Adjust.

I've been working recently with an administrative group at a major medical center. They complain that there's not enough time in the day to handle all their incoming work, and yet they have no idea where their day goes. (Which is to say, they have no idea where they spend their time and attention.) They get steamrolled by the tyranny of the urgent, and they neglect to spend time on what (is ostensibly) their real value-creating activities.

"The calendar never, ever, ever, lies." All you need to do is give it a voice by using your calendar diligently for all your work. You may be surprised at what it tells you.



Closed Lists, Kanbans, and the Key to Prioritization.

I was recently revisiting Mark Forster's concept of the "closed list." (Mark is the author of Do It Tomorrow, and a leading productivity consultant and thinker based in the UK who's well-worth reading.) The closed list is essentially a to-do list that's limited by the amount of work time you have available during the day. Mark's argument is that making a daily to-do list containing 14 hours of work is pointless, not to mention frustrating and self-defeating. If you're only working 10 hours a day, you'll never finish all the items on your list no matter how efficient and motivated you are. So why bother putting all those items on your list for the day? You'll have to move it to another day.

Instead he advocates a to-do list that can be completed within your workday -- and that includes accounting for the unexpected problems that inevitably derail your schedule. It's a reality-based to-do list.

The closed list reminds me of the brilliant simplicity of the kanban in a lean production line. For those who don't know, a kanban is a signaling device (usually a simple card) that controls the amount of work-in-process inventory. When a person on a production line finishes his operation (grinding a piece of metal, say, or checking the credit scores on a mortgage application), he sends a kanban to the previous station. This signals that he's ready for the next piece of metal or the next mortgage application, and the upstream person then sends the next item down the line. For the purpose of this blog post, what's important is that the kanban controls the amount of work-in-process inventory: there can never be more inventory than there are kanban cards, so you never run into Lucy's famous problem of too many chocolates coming too fast down the assembly line.

Mark's closed list -- which is really the father of my principle of "living in the calendar" -- has the same benefit of the kanban in controlling the amount of work-in-process inventory. It prevents you from taking on more than you can handle in any one day, and thereby forces you to prioritize. You can't do more than 8, or 10, or 14 hours worth of work -- you have to decide what's most important, and ruthlessly weed out the rest (a la Jim Collins' stop doing list). It also creates a basis for a conversation with your boss when yet another "critical project" with an impossible deadline is added to your load.

The closed list doesn't reduce the amount of work you have to do. The truth is, that work is pretty much infinite. But it does force you to assess your work more closely, and helps you prioritize and keep you focused on what's really important to you.



The calendar as kanban

Are you one of those people whose day is driven by the latest email someone has lobbed into your inbox? Do you feel like you're chronically a half-step slow in managing your work? If so, try using your calendar as a kanban. (For the lean novices, a kanban is a signaling system to trigger the right amount of production at the right time.)

In an earlier post I wrote about the need to "live in your calendar" rather than your inbox. By designating dates and times for specific tasks and projects, you’ve essentially created a production schedule for your work, with the calendar (and the calendar alerts) acting as a kanban that pulls work forward.

Now, I can hear your objection: “a real pull-based system of work would have me responding to the incoming messages as they arrive. Living in the calendar leads to batching and inventory creation rather than flow.”