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

Avoiding the priority trap.

Posted March 17, 2008 @ 4:48 AM

The magnetic pull to check your email every 10, or 5, or 2 minutes will kill you. Not literally, of course. As far as I know, your personal health won't suffer from peering into your inbox like a cat into a fish tank. But the relentless pull of the inbox on your attention will almost certainly prevent you from attending to what's really important to your customers and your company.

It's important to realize that processing email is a piece of work in and of itself. As Merlin Mann elegantly expressed it, processing is more than just checking, but less than responding, to every email. You have to read and assess each email, and then determine what you're going to do with it. That may mean replying, but also may mean deleting, or filing, or designating time at a later date to deal with it. "Processing" takes time.

All too often, though, we'll check our email on our way out the door when we only have two minutes to process our inbox. Or when we're in the middle of some other task with a pressing deadline, and we really can't spend much time. We're looking for something important or urgent -- a priority item that we can take care of right now in the two minutes we have available. We ignore everything else in the inbox as we get sucked into the priority trap.

And this is the road to the inbox with 19,327 items in it, 1,738 of which are unread. Because when you fall into the priority trap, you don't make the time to fully process all those messages. And each time you look just for the high priority email, the messages that arrived earlier cross the river Styx of your monitor's bottom edge and get pushed into the grey netherworld below the fold. You'll never find those messages again either, because if you haven't processed them, you won't remember them. And if you don't remember them, no amount of sorting by sender or date will help.

Why is this important? To cite one example, in 1999, NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in the Martian atmosphere due to a colossally stupid blunder. Apparently, there were two teams of engineers working on this project, one in English units, the other in metric units. Inconvenient, but not catastrophic, as long as they reconciled their calculations. Alas, they never did, and we ended up with a very pretty fireworks display over the Valles Marineris. And here's the kicker: the flight director had an email buried in her inbox addressing this very problem. Presumably, she had seen the email, but it wasn't a priority at the moment she saw it (it was 10 months from launch to fiery finish), so she never processed it. It simply slid off the bottom of her screen into oblivion. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that was a $327 million email.

We need to establish standard work for processing email. The reflexive, unthinking, 120 second "checking" of email just won't cut it. Whether you handle email once a day, twice a day, or every hour doesn't matter -- but for god's sakes, process it. Don't "check" it. Give yourself enough time to deal with all of the messages. Whether that's 10 minutes or 30 minutes is up to you, but don't go into your inbox unless you have that time for processing.

Obviously, there are circumstances when your only option is to triage your inbox -- you only have time to look for a truly urgent item that needs your attention. But treat those instances as the exception (the variation from standard work), rather than the rule. Otherwise you might lose a $327 million email in your own inbox.

1 comment

A root cause approach to email overload

Posted March 10, 2008 @ 11:01 AM

I've just returned from the Lean Enterprise Institute's Lean Transformation Summit where I ran two workshops on applying lean ideas to the individual desktop. I've covered many of those topics in this blog before, but the discussions with the participants got me thinking: maybe my approach is wrong.

For example, I've spilled a lot of electronic ink (fortunately, electrons are cheap) telling you how to manage email. But I'm now wondering whether my advice has merely been addressing the symptoms, and not the actual problem. Which is to say, I'm giving advice on how to handle email once it's hit your inbox. But perhaps I should be focusing more on the root cause of all those emails.

If you're versed in lean, six sigma, or the writings of Peter Drucker and William Edwards Deming, you know that you can't control -- and therefore can't improve -- a process if you can't measure it. And I would argue that we do a terrible job of measuring email. Yes, we know how many messages are in our inboxes, and we have some idea of how many messages we get per day, but that's only a small fraction of the measuring that we should be doing. And it's the least important fraction, too.

If you really want to reduce the time you spend in email and increase the amount of time you spend on the stuff that's really important to you and your organization, you have to understand what's coming at you. And why.

Instead of simply bemoaning the flood of email you get, you should be asking questions like:
- what percentage of my emails are worthless?
- which departments (or people) generate most of my worthless emails?
- what topics show up in most of my worthless emails?
- does the volume of worthless email vary by the day of the week?
- how long does email sit in my inbox?
- why do emails sit in my inbox so long?

Only with this sort of analysis can you begin to attack the root cause of the email problem. Undoubtedly, you'll learn that some of the problem stem from your own habits -- habits that people like Merlin Mann, Matt Cornell, David Allen, and countless others (including I) have written about ad nauseum. But you're liable to find that there are also systemic causes to the email deluge. And in keeping with lean thinking, it makes far more sense to build better levees than to spend time bailing water.

This same approach can help you analyze why so many of your productive work hours are spent in meetings that add so little value. I've yet to meet a person who isn't frustrated by the amount of time spent in meetings, and yet no one seems to conduct a thorough measurement of this blight.

Why not ask explore some of the following questions?
- how often do meetings start and end on time?
- how focused are meetings?
- how often do meetings end without resolution?
- what are the most common goals of meetings?
- are meetings the best way of accomplishing those goals?
- can the company set standards around meetings -- standard times, standard days, standard formats -- to accomplish those goals?

I think it's worth taking a broader view of any organizational/personal productivity issue and exploring it in the context of the processes in which you operate. Sure, your habits may be part of the problem. But there's likely a systems issue that exacerbates your own inefficient work habits.

I plan on exploring these ideas more deeply in future blog posts, but for now, let's leave it at this: start asking questions about why work doesn't flow more smoothly. Try to find the root cause of the problem. You may be surprised at where the investigation leads you.

1 comment

Batching vs. One-Piece Flow

Posted February 25, 2008 @ 4:55 PM

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know that many of my ideas about efficient work come from lean manufacturing. This is the framework I use in thinking about how to reduce waste.

One of the ideals of lean manufacturing is single-piece flow: building one item at a time to precisely meet customer pull. In this scenario, there's no buildup of needless inventory, because everything is built to a specific customer's demand. (Chrysler offers a cautionary tale about the consequences of building a giant pile of unsold inventory.) This one-piece flow stands in stark contrast to "batch processing," in which orders are built up to a certain level before production starts, in order to reduce average production cost.

Knowledge workers like you, who spend their days handling text files, spreadsheets, and email, can't operate in this ideal world of single-piece flow. For one thing, their work is too complex. You've got multiple value streams flowing through you, with each stream flowing at a different rate. That makes it impossible to determine takt time (basically, the average pace of work, for you non-Lean folks).

More significantly, the volume, speed, and variability of customer demand makes it ludicrous to work on each item as it arrives in order to precisely meet customer pull. You'd have to switch tasks every two or three minutes. But paradoxically, this is precisely what you do. Everytime an email comes in, you check it. Everytime the phone rings, you answer it. Everytime a coworker has a question, you stop your work to answer her.

For your own sanity (and efficiency), there has to be some sort of batching of work. But how do you reconcile that with the ideal of single-piece flow and customer responsiveness?

The answer, I think, lies in viewing knowledge workers as monument machines (large, complex machines through which multiple value streams flow). These machines inevitably take a certain amount of time to set up. Batch production makes sense for these machines, where the time and cost of setup is amortized over the entire production run. (That's why simpler machines are better, whenever possible.)

You're like that, too. It takes you awhile to set up -- to "get into" an engineering problem, a spreadsheet, or a performance evaluation -- so it makes sense for you to work in batches. (If you've ever been interrupted in the middle of one of these tasks and lost focus, you know the effort required to get back into it.) These longer "production runs" will reduce the waste and inefficiency caused by switching between tasks too often.

Of course, this means that inventory will build up -- unanswered voice mails and emails in particular -- so the flow of the value stream won't be perfectly smooth. But I believe that the waste of waiting borne by the downstream person (or the ultimate customer) is less than the waste caused by you switching between tasks several hundred times per day. The best you can do is to minimize the waste of waiting by batching your email and voice mail -- dealing with those inputs regularly, two to four times per day, for example. And in all likelihood, this kind of methodical approach to handling your paper and electronic inboxes will result in fewer lost or unacted-upon tasks.

So take a few minutes and look at your work as a value stream. Apply the same critical thinking to your workflow as you would to a physical production line. And see if you can't justify intelligent and mindful batching, instead of the mindless urge for one-piece flow.


« first‹ previous789101112131415next ›last »