Archive for June, 2010

Delegating with a Kanban

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

A partner in the tax practice of a law firm asked me, “How can I keep better track of the work the associates are doing? And how can I stay on top of the work I’ve delegated to them?”

Tracking work that others are doing is a common problem, particularly in a high-priced law firm, where the clients want answers to their questions at the most inopportune times — like the middle of dinner, or just after you’ve settled into watching Toy Story 1 & 2 with your kids. To be fair, if you’re charging them $800 per hour, you should be ready to answer those questions. However, hounding your team to get you that information — especially when they’re watching Toy Story with their kids — is a sure way to get your firm de-listed from the “100 Best Places To Work.”

So what can you do?

Inspired by Lee Fried at Group Health Cooperative, and by Jim Benson over at Personal Kanban, I realized that the kanban is an ideal answer. (For those readers who don’t know what a kanban is, for the purposes of this post, just think of it as a white board or bulletin board that’s visible in the work area.)

Put each person’s name down the left side of the kanban and create a row for each of them. Put the task they’re assigned in the next column, and the expected completion date next to that. If you want to be fancy, you can even include some symbol that indicates about how far along they are in completing the work. Have another column that holds a simple red/green signal that indicates they’re on track or they’ve fallen behind. And that’s it.

What you’ve created is a simple visual management tool that allows you to quickly see how each person is doing. Here’s an example of what it might look like:

Sample delegation kanban

In this screenshot, I’ve adopted Jim’s approach (and terminology) by breaking work into three buckets: “To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done.” This added information helps provide context for where you are in a larger project.

There’s nothing earth-shaking about this approach, but I think it falls into the sweet spot between something that’s too small for full-blown project management software, and something that’s to big for a one-person task list. Having it prominently posted ensures that the work doesn’t disappear into a computer file. And the red/green status bar enables someone to signal for help without having to schedule a formal meeting.

One very easy way to work faster.

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

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.

Lean and the power of communication.

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

I attended the LEI’s Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit last week in Orlando and was impressed by all the attendees’ dedication to improvement. The problems with our healthcare system — and the healthcare insurance system — are legion, but seeing the accomplishments of this group gives me some measure of hope that things might actually get better.

Amidst all the value stream maps and photos of 5S initiatives, one thing that really hit me was how communication lies at the heart of so much of lean. From kanbans to value stream maps, from daily huddles to managerial standard work from 5S to A3s, I kept seeing how clear, concise, and consistent communication eliminates waste, creates value, and focuses activity and attention on what’s important. When you think about it, a kanban is a form of communication that tells someone that something needs to be done at a certain time. Value stream maps are a kind of visual communication that helps reduce misunderstandings. Daily huddles are clearly about communication of problems (and solutions), while manager standard work is a way to routinize and clarify communication up, down, and across an organization. 5S is a way to help communicate abnormalities in a process or place. A3s are an elegant and concise method of communicating just about anything. And you can’t go to any lean plant or office without seeing visual management boards that essentially are just forms of communication.

So this got me thinking about the waste of time, effort, and energy that goes into what passes for communication in most organizations. You know — confusing emails with no clear purpose. Voice mails that don’t answer questions, but instead just ask you to “call me back” (and race through the telephone number at the end). Soul-sucking meetings that serve no point except the aggrandizement of the organizer’s ego. Proposals and reports that deforest half of Brazil without telling a coherent story. That’s a colossal amount of waste.

By no means am I diminishing the importance of the lean tools that are so often discussed. But it does make you wonder: what would happen if we spent even just a little time on improving the quality of the communication within and between organizational silos?

Does the internet make you smarter or dumber? Yes.

Monday, June 7th, 2010

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.