Archive for March, 2011

Chinese acrobats, Italian judges, and traffic jams.

Monday, March 28th, 2011

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.

What are 3 minutes good for?

Monday, March 14th, 2011

You’re on line (not online) at Starbucks for your iced skinny half-caf semi-grande caramel macchiato with soy whip on top. You’ve got about three minutes from where you are now to picking up your drink. What do you do?

Pull out your Droid and check email, of course. After all, you’ve got three minutes. Why waste them? That’s what the mobile internet is for.

But here’s a suggestion: instead of filling your brain, why don’t you try emptying it?

Let’s face it. In the three minutes you’ve got to look at your inbox, you really can’t get much of anything done. Sure you can skim some of your new email, and you might even be able to answer a couple of the easy ones. (“Yes.” “No.” “Chicken.”) But for the most part, you’re pre-ordaining yourself to seeing a bunch of subject lines or messages that you can’t do anything about at that moment. Not when you’ve got to elbow your way from the pick-up counter to the Splenda dispenser.

That’s a recipe for stress. You know you have to respond to a customer or to your boss, but you don’t have the time right now. It’s festering in your inbox. And you know it. Enjoy the macchiato, bub.

So, a modest proposal. Next time you have three extra minutes, instead of filling up your mind with stuff you can’t do anything about, why not empty it? Take a notebook and write down stray ideas that have come to you, to-dos that you’ve forgotten about, questions you need to ask, whatever. Use the time to empty your head of the flotsam that washes up on the shores of your consciousness so that you can actually do something about them later.

Last week I wrote about why you need slack in a system. Filling every minute with work guarantees that your throughput will decrease. My modest proposal to empty your head, rather than fill it, is, I think, a related concept. Giving yourself more work (more email busy-ness) just because you have a few minutes of unbooked time in your day is utterly counter-productive.

Yes, this means that you’ll have to stop mainlining the internet for just. Three. Minutes. And you may suffer from some withdrawal symptoms. But you’re likely to become more relaxed. More focused. Less frazzled.

Now, enjoy your coffee.

It’s about throughput, not capacity.

Monday, March 7th, 2011

For a long time now, I’ve advocated “living in your calendar” in order to, among other reasons, understand your production capacity. Mapping out your work on a calendar helps prevent you from taking on more commitments than you have the time to handle.

I was wrong. (Sort of.)

I just finished reading Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria’s book, Personal Kanban, in which they point out that capacity is irrelevant. It’s about throughput. No one — not your boss, not your customers, not your family — cares about how much capacity (hours) you have each day to work. They care about how quickly that work gets done, whether it’s preparing next year’s budget or cleaning the garage.

What’s the lead time? What’s the cycle time? How long do I have to wait? These are the key questions they want answered. (Well, only engineers ask the first two questions. But everyone asks the last one.) And those are the key questions you should be asking yourself. Not, “How much time do I have to work this week?”, but “How can I get this work done most quickly?”

To shamelessly steal an analogy from Personal Kanban, no one cares what the capacity of a freeway is. In fact, it’s completely irrelevant to you how many cars can be packed into one stretch of asphalt. What’s really important is how long it takes to move down the road and whether you’ll make it home in time to watch reruns of “Webster.” And as any urban planner or operations manager will tell you, once your system exceeds 65-70% of maximum utilization, you’re guaranteed to reduce throughput and increase cycle time.

This is why living in the calendar can be dangerous. There’s a tendency to look at empty space on the calendar as something to be filled up with some ostensibly productive work. After all, if you’re not filling those minutes and hours, then clearly you’re either a lazy slacker or you’re just terribly inefficient. With unemployment at 9%, who wants to be accused of either?

But how fast would traffic move if every square foot of the freeway was occupied by cars? How fast will your work move if every moment of your day is occupied by some pre-planned task or meeting? It wouldn’t move at all. Just look at the cars around you at rush hour — or look at the crap that’s been piled up on your desk and your inbox for a few weeks. That tells you all you need to know about throughput.

So, by all means live in your calendar. Use it to assess your production capacity. But remember that 100% utilization of that capacity is ultimately self-defeating. You need slack in the system, because throughput is what counts. Not capacity.