A Better Way To Work TimeBack Management

About Dan Markovitz

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.

TIMEBACK BLOG Syndicate content

Does standard work apply to CEOs?

Posted July 14, 2008 @ 1:45 PM

"Standard Work" is one of the key principles of lean, because it helps to eliminate waste and allows problems to be identified quickly. Knowledge workers often bristle at the notion that their complex and highly variable jobs can be described by standard work. But as I've written before, much of the variability and complexity that we assume is intrinsic to our jobs isn't. With a bit of creativity (here, for example), we can begin to create standard work for many of the processes that we didn't think could be standardized.

The key tool for creating standard work for the knowledge worker is the calendar. Your most critical resources are time and attention, and the calendar is the best tool for capturing how they're spent. It's the calendar that reveals that there are always unexpected problems on Thursday afternoons, or that the marketing meetings always run long, or that your email burden is greatest on Fridays. Equally important, it's the calendar that makes all the work visible, enabling you to intelligently prioritize and act upon competing tasks and commitments.

I've been thinking about this after reading a recent(ish) article in the Wall Street Journal about CEOs whose calendars are completely packed for months at a time. They complain that their crammed agendas eliminate spontaneity in their workdays and leave The CEO of Novartis, for example, complains that he

can't spend as much time as I'd like to at hospitals, talking with doctors and patients who use our products. This is where I hear and see so much and get so many ideas.

In other words, the standard work they've logged in their calendars -- board meetings, business trips, conferences, etc. -- has made it nearly impossible to spend time on other activities of equal (or greater) value.

Does this mean that the calendar as a tool for allocating scarce resources (time & attention) doesn't work for the real big boys? I don't think so.

I believe that the title of the WSJ article is off-target: "Packed Calendars Rule Over Executives." Calendars don't rule over the execs at all. In fact, I'd argue that it's only the calendar that's enabled these CEOs to get as far as they have. Without it, they'd be in even more trouble. All that's happened is that their calendars have revealed the full extent of their responsibilities.

I'm not saying that the burdens on CEOs are trivial. But if, for example, visiting hospitals is critical to the company's long-term success, then hospital visits should be part of the CEO's standard work. Time for those visits *must* be built into the schedule. And if there's not enough time, then they need to deploy countermeasures to ensure that they get the time. Whether that means they work longer hours (probably not sustainable in the long term) or they shed some of their other responsibilities, if it's truly important then there should be standard work for it. Maybe not everyday or every week, but with some regularity that ensures the CEO is getting that critical task done.

Mark Hurd, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, has done something like this: he makes sure he has some breathing space on his calendar -- empty time each day for things that just come up.

It's not a far jump from this technique to scheduling 10 minutes per day to talk with one customer, or to go to the factory floor, or to talk to the software engineers. If it's important, it needs to become standard work.

There are only 24 hours each day, and there's only so much work that can be fit into that time. No amount of wishful thinking can change that. Standard work is a way to make that constraint visible and deal with it appropriately. Whether that means delegating more, or hiring more, or (gasp!) doing less, standard work will yield greater focus and efficiency.

Working by priorities, not urgency.

Dan, I think this is right on. The CEO version of this problem is not much different, at bottom, than the one the rest of us face: *forcing* time into the schedule for what's *most* important . . . and doing it at the outright expense of what's least important.

If hospital visits are important for the Novartis CEO, those should be sacrosanct -- just like dedicated, uninterrupted time for research and writing should be sacrosanct for a college professor. And if these important activities are losing ground to e-mail overload or incessant meetings or what-have-you, the solution isn't to throw up one's hands, or to give up on the more important activities, but to TAKE CONTROL of the calendar -- just as you say.

Steven Covey had the right idea in "First Things First": *block out* the time in your calendar for what's most important, even if (or maybe especially if) there's less urgency attached to those tasks. Otherwise, the noisy but less-important urgencies of the week will crowd out the deep work that really gets us somewhere.

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