The Cost of Disorganization

Yesterday I met a woman who worked as the head fundraiser for a state senator. Talented, skilled, driven, and sharing a political vision with the senator, she seemed to have been in the ideal job. She quit after six months.

Conflict of ideology? Sex scandal? Financial shenanigans? Nope, nope, and nope.

Disorganization. She left because the senator's chief of staff couldn't manage the workflow in the office and organize the commitments that needed to be fulfilled. It wasn't the chief of staff's messy desk that was the problem, either. It's that the chief of staff had a nasty habit of handing off work that needed to be done by the next morning around 6pm the night before — because she wasn't on top of her work. Faced with a non-stop series of "emergencies" that forced her to stay late at the office, the fundraiser quit. And she was followed by several more staffers over the next few months, because the environment had grown so toxic and stressful.

Stop for a moment to consider the real cost of your disorganization. If you're working in an office, you don't work alone. You're only one station in the value streams that flow through you (finance, accounting, HR, product development, whatever), and the downstream workers depend on you to pass information and your completed work in a timely, predictable fashion. When something languishes on your desk for two weeks without attention until you finally drop it on the next person at the last minute, you create muri and mura for that person. You do the same thing when you start meetings late and squander people's time. Or when you schedule last minute meetings and disrupt others' workflow. And if you do it egregiously enough, you end up losing good people who won't tolerate that sort of disorganization — perhaps the height of muda.

These are the questions you should be asking yourself when you process your email, your phone calls, and the ad hoc requests that come at you while you're walking to the coffee machine: what work needs to be done on this thing? What's the deadline? How long will it take to do it? If you're rigorous about asking these questions, you'll be less likely to drop a bomb on someone at 6pm.

Organization for its own sake has no value. It's only useful for its ability to help smooth the unevenness in workflow and reduce waste. If you work alone and you're willing to bear the cost of muda, then there's no problem. But if you work in a company, the deleterious effects of your lack of control spread far beyond your desk — and may be more than the organization can bear.

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