A Better Way To Work TimeBack Management

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Dan Markovitz is the founder and president of TimeBack Management. Prior to founding his own firm, Mr. Markovitz held management positions at Sierra Designs, Adidas, CNET and Asics Tiger. Learn More...

Leveling; smoothing out the flow; e.g., doing two performance evaluations a day for 3 weeks, rather than ten a day for three days -- and then needing to take a vacation because you're so burned out.
Overburdening people, process, or equipment; e.g., people working 100 hour weeks for months on end -- come to think of it, like most lawyers and accountants.
Uneveness or variability; e.g., leaving work at the normal time on Thursday, but having to stay at the office till midnight on Friday because the boss finally got around to giving you that project...at 4:30pm.
Waste; activities that your customer doesn't value and doesn't want to pay for; e.g., billing your customer for the really expensive 10am FedEx delivery because you didn't finish the document on time.

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Creating flow in your work (Part I)

Posted January 10, 2010 @ 8:27 PM

Jon Miller's latest post on his agile kanban experiment got me thinking about how to create flow in managerial, white-collar work. There's so much variation in your daily job that it probably seems impossible to create a smooth flow of customer value.

That's true to a certain extent.  But no matter what kind of work you do, it comprises both creative, unpredictable elements, and mundanely repetitive tasks. And while it may be hard (or impossible) to bring flow to the creative areas of your job, it’s certainly possible to bring flow to the more repetitive areas.  After all, managers have to do performance reviews.  Medical technicians need to do preventative maintenance on hospital equipment.  Artists have to buy paints (and pay the rent on time).  Actors have to go to the gym and get regular Botox treatments.  This work isn’t particularly exciting, but it’s eminently predictable, and it needs to get done.

What’s surprising, though, is how often these tasks are left to languish.  Rather than being processed systematically so that they can be taken care of in the normal course of business, this "transactional" work lies about people’s offices like beached whales, consuming mental space and stinking up the joint. They’re not sexy, they’re generally not much fun, and they’re not urgent (until, of course, they are).  But when they finally come due, everything stops – colleagues, customers, and family all take a back seat to the completion of these relatively unimportant tasks.

This is the antithesis of flow.  It needlessly creates waste and stress.

A woman I know is the CFO of a large law firm in San Francisco.  She knows that every month she has to present key financials to the executive committee.  In fact, she knows the exact date of every monthly meeting for the whole year.  Yet somehow, preparations for the meeting fall to the last minute and end up consuming a full day and a half right before the deadline.  This frustrates her boss, who would like the opportunity to review the presentation a few days before the meeting – and it frustrates her direct reports, who can’t get any help from her for a day and a half each month.  With better flow, she’d be able to delegate some of the work to her staff, deliver the report to her boss on time, and increase her accessibility to customers within the firm.

If you look closely at your own work, you’ll undoubtedly spot areas of predictability amidst the variability of your own job.  These areas hold the potential for improved flow.  For example, the law firm CFO could improve the flow of her monthly presentation by carving out small blocks of time in a regular pattern to prepare the report.  In fact, breaking the work into smaller pieces with a predictable cycle might even enable her to delegate pieces of the job to her staff. 

Obviously, there's still going to be unpredictability and uncontrollable variability in your work.  Who knows - most of your work might fit into that category.  But recognizing that some portion of your work is predictable, and taking advantage of it, would result in a greater ability to deploy your skills and creativity in solving unforeseen problems.

Bruce: changing batch size

Bruce: changing batch size in the creative/cognitive work realm must be tough, because by definition it's so highly variable. Plus, people work in different ways -- some people can't really dig into a problem unless they have 3 hours to commit to it. I'm reminded of the concept of "flow" here.

Andrew -- your changes are precisely the kind of thing I'm talking about. I'm glad to hear that it's working out. Now the next step: is there anything you can do to routinize and standardize the work that's currently variable? 

Creating flow in white-collar work

Several weeks ago I started using a low priority, simple, repetitive task as an opportunity to establish Standard Work for myself. After neglecting the task for almost 9-months, I've done it, or rather a small portion, every day for the last month or so. Tomorrow, I'll be caught up for the whole of last year and only have to deal with new items, not the backlog.
It's been quite liberating, even though it's not a very important task.
Around this concept, I build a daily checklist of small things that have to be addressed each day. I do them *first*, then move on to the variable work.
I'm catching up on long neglected tasks, ensuring that other routine tasks are dong properly and preventing some of the timing-sucking consequences of falling behind on these tasks.
Auditing this standard work and the related problem solving has become my "New Years" Resolution.

Creating flow in white-collar work.

Good post. Definitely a lot of opportunity to create flow in the administrative work. In the cognitive / creative work that is higher in variability and less predictable, has anybody tried reducing batch sizes and moving smaller chunks more frequently?
Bruce Baker

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