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.”

That’s true. This pull system that I’m advocating does create inventory. And if your job entailed working in only one value stream – as it would if you were on an assembly line – then it wouldn’t be a good idea.

But you don’t work in just one value stream. As a knowledge worker, you work in many value streams at once, with multiple tasks and projects coming at you at the same time, performing very different types of operations (e.g., selling, writing, presenting, analyzing) for many different customers (your boss, the marketing team, the medical journal editor), very often with differing delivery dates. It’s an extraordinarily complex situation.

Consequently, if you were to work on each item as it arrived – just-in-time production, true one-piece flow – you’d inevitably end up creating inventory anyway, and you’d almost certainly miss key delivery dates. And since your incoming work doesn’t flow smoothly and predictably, you’re guaranteed to have conflicting delivery schedules. So, just as a machine job shop must schedule production based on complexity, delivery date, and duration of production, and just as hospital emergency departments must schedule medical procedures based on severity of injury and treatment duration, so too do you have to schedule your workflow. And that necessarily means creating work-in-process inventory.

But – and here’s the key – you want the calendar to drive the work that you do, not the order in which the job arrives (viz, the time it arrives in your inbox). The calendar pulls work forward at the right time, allowing you to properly allocate your resources (time and energy). It enables you to level the load where necessary – for example, shunting aside work when you’re in the middle of a crisis with a customer or a product. It allows you to calculate takt time and create fast tracks for predictable and repetitive work, such as expense reports or personnel evaluations. It helps you carve out sufficient time for complex, resource-intensive jobs like writing a chapter for a textbook, or creating a new compensation plan for hourly workers.

You just can’t manage your work this way when you live in your inbox.

Of course, life never goes according to plan

This all sounds good in theory — but of course, life never goes according to plan. You may have designated time Tuesday morning from 9am-11am to calculate your monthly closeout pricing, but inevitably, an emergency will erupt and take precedence over the scheduled work. That’s okay. In fact, I’d argue that it’s precisely because something urgent inevitably arises that you need to live in your calendar.

Without a calendar to pull your work at the right time, you run the risk of losing track of that other, less urgent task.  If your team has just discovered a major software bug and it takes you seven hours to deal with it, the odds are excellent that you’ll forget whatever it is you were supposed to do that day.

The calendar prevents you from forgetting. Simply figure out when you can finish that scheduled task and reschedule it. Acting as a kanban, the calendar will then pull the rescheduled work into the job queue at the (new) right time.

But, what if you can’t reschedule it? What if your calendar is so full of work that there’s simply no time to take care of it? That situation is often a reality for some people. In that case, the calendar has done you the invaluable service of making that problem visible: you can actually see that you don’t have the two hours to calculate the closeout pricing before the sales meeting, rather than being surprised by that realization a few days (or weeks) later.  So you can either delegate responsibility for closeout pricing to someone else, or you can choose to create more production capacity for yourself by working on Sunday, or you can determine that it’s not that important after all and ignore it.

Regardless of what option you choose, you’ve at least made the options visible, and the choice conscious, rather than invisible and inadvertent. And if it’s a recurring problem – which you can now see – you have the opportunity to engage in root cause analysis and problem solving so that it doesn’t keep happening.

A kanban isn’t just for material flow. It’s for information flow, too. If you treat the calendar as a kanban, you can ensure that you’re spending your time and energy on the activity that creates the most value and smoothing the flow of the value streams in which you work. Try it. You’ll see.

5 thoughts on “The calendar as kanban

  1. Matt,

    Agreed: it does become a monster. And you do spend a lot of time managing it. I’m trying to figure out that problem as well, but haven’t yet come up with a good answer. Perhaps it’s just the cost of doing business, just like time spent doing 5S is necessary but not necessarily “productive”?

    Please tell me more about QV Systems and Oobeya.

  2. Dan,
    I agree with you about living in your calendar instead of your inbox. I’ve been working with this concept for about 4 years now. There are elements I like about it, and elements that I don’t like about it. One thing I like about it is that it makes it easier to see your available capacity and it makes it easier to say yes or no. What I don’t like about it is when I get extremely busy, I find that I am spending too much time just trying to manage my calendar or sometimes I don’t have time to manage my calendar. The calendar can become a monster. I’ve been experimenting with other ways to accomplish the same thing but make it easier to manage. I haven’t quite figured that out yet but I am getting close. I think one of the keys to the success is to make it visible where you can literally move things with your hands instead of behind a computer screen. I’ve been experimenting with this using portions of the methodology behind Oobeya that I learned from Takashi Tanaka of QV Systems. It is all about managing a pull system of knowledge work.

  3. For years I’ve asked successful people how they manage time. It has to be the ultimate constraint, I guessed if you’re successful you must manage demands on your time well.

    What I hear is “be economic, and know your limits” – understand the difference between importance and urgency (and prioritise) and to stick doggedly to one task.

    Like you say, the visual aspect of calendar management is good, but plan too rigidly and you have an inflexible monster. I don’t want to spend all my time scheduling, because it reduces my productivity (and goodness knows I tend to procrastinate anyway!). I’ve tried being flexible & reactive, and all I end up doing is fighting fires!

    Conflict exists in either option, I’m sure, as in manufacturing. Somewhere there must be a trade-off. Even flow requires a little stock to ensure it keeps moving, and like you said – flow systems need smoothed demand. Maybe there’s a happy medium which allows (using the model that you propose) for the reactivity of Inbox time management, but the visual focus of the Calendar time management?

    I think the pertinent question is: how do you move tasks from your inbox to your calendar?

    Thinking of constraints made me think of Goldratt, & TOC. I imagine, not having met him, that he would say: find the constraint and manage that using Drum, Buffer Rope. I guess though if time is the ultimate constraint, to say “manage it” is unhelpful – I’ll need to dig further.

    How about I put this idea bang in the middle of your flowline/inbox and your WIP/calendar by moving the ‘stock’ upstream to the inbox to help manage the ‘constraint’:

    • Your inbox is a buffer whether you like it or not – there’s always more than you can do, else time management wouldn’t be an issue. Flow is an illusion here – the inbox doesn’t create demand, it stores it. Instead of allowing it to control you, use it as a buffer to protect your constraint (the here and now), enabling you to manage it effectively.

    • Use Little’s Law to your advantage by reducing the rate of entry: I find an importance/urgency 2×2 matrix helps identify what you must do now, what you should make time for to prevent problems, what you don’t need to do, and what you should delegate. Keeping on top of Vital and Stragetic tasks should help keep demand smooth (reduced firefighting).

    • This bit is tricky – you find the balance between flexibility/chaos of the Inbox and rigidity/organisation/WIP of the Calendar in your work environment, this is how you move work from your filtered buffer to your workstream:

    o You decide how many days ahead you plan, and doggedly stick to it – this governs your flexibility (in TOC terms this is the Rope, letting work in upstream at the rate you can work at) and you’re consistently responsive so people know how much notice you will need,
    o You decide how often you plan (too often is probably wasteful, too little makes you inflexible) moving work from your inbox buffer to your workstream calendar. This is your Drum, giving you takt. (I’m starting to wish I could draw a picture here).

    (I guess this bit is like your manufacturing batch, and your transfer batch).
    • I suppose you may need to schedule in an hour each day to be available for quick queries – I think your analogy of a GP/doctor is apt.

    It’s just a thought, but maybe I’ll try it for a while to see if it works in practice – who knows, maybe it’s just another monster…

    Anyone fancy working on a google calendar app?

  4. Jon,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’m particularly intrigued by the notion of the inbox as a buffer, rather than as a demand creator.

    I think you’re also spot on the need to find the balance between flexibility/chaos of the inbox and rigidity/organization of the calendar. I suspect that there’s no simple answer to this….

  5. Pingback: You are your calendar. « TimeBack Management

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