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.

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I've met the enemy. And it's me.

Posted November 2, 2009 @ 9:37 AM

t's embarrassing, really.

I spend a good deal of my time and energy inveighing against waste in individual work habits -- I mean, I get paid to teach people how to spot that type of waste, identify root causes, and put countermeasures in place so they can get back to creating customer value. So you can imagine how red-faced I was when I turned the A3 on my own work habits and found enough fat to make me a poster child for American obesity.

I started an A3 because I haven't been making as much progress as I want on the book I'm writing. I've always been very disciplined about my work, particularly during previous careers when I worked in other companies. But working at home has somehow undermined that focus and discipline. Between household chores and work responsibilities, I just don't seem to have enough time to write. I figured that an A3 might help me identify the root cause of the waste.

I assumed that the root cause of my problem was external interruptions -- you know, phone calls, emails, text messages, etc. My life certainly isn't as interconnected as it is for people who work in large organizations, but still, there's a fair bit of client and other business-related interaction. So I blamed the outside world.

Then I started my A3. I quickly wrote down the current conditions. Easy.

Then I went back and watched myself work to really get a sense of the actual conditions. I measured everything: how long I spent on each task, how often emails arrived, how many times I got up for a drink. Everything. The results were depressing.

I interrupted myself nearly 80% of the time. Not clients. Not my wife. Not my cat, Pixel. (Though he was responsible for a fair number of interruptions - it's hard to type when he sits on the keyboard.) Talk about self-inflicted punishment.

I suppose it shouldn't have been a surprise. Gloria Mark, a professor at UC Irvine and a researcher of work habits and environments, realized that people don't really have work days; they have work minutes that last all day. She also found that people interrupt themselves 44% of the time.

Since I was analyzing my own work habits, discovering the root cause for the self-interruptions required introspection rather than scientific analysis. It forced me to face some unpleasant truths. As Joe Ely wrote  about his own root cause analysis,

At that point, I got upset.  I had hit the root cause.  I knew it.  And I didn't like the answer.  Yet, it was undeniable.  It made incredible sense, explaining both the observed problem and several related issues.  All at the same time.  The fact that I didn't like the root cause gave it added credence.  It was something I avoided because it was hard to fix.
The A3 revealed some uncomfortable truths about me and the way I work. As I put countermeasures in place, I've never realized so keenly that (as Toyota constantly emphasizes) they're temporary, not final solutions. I'm going to struggle with these issues for awhile.

Lean is about respect for people, even when it's ourselves. And we're our own worst enemy.


The calendar as kanban

Posted October 25, 2009 @ 7:33 PM

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.



Lowering the Water Level, Redux: You Really Do Have Too Much Time On Your Hands

Posted October 19, 2009 @ 5:23 AM

The past few weeks I've been obsessed with the relationship between time and efficiency. (Okay, maybe not obsessed. The subject isn't Joan's crappy fate on Mad Men, or Devin Banks on 30 Rock. But I have been writing about it a whole bunch.) Now comes Sue Schellenberger of the Wall Street Journal -- no lean acolyte, she -- who has realized that imposing constraints on her work time forces her to figure out how to work with less waste.

After years of working on and off throughout most weekends, I was trying a new approach by taking off at least one entire day every weekend this month, away from reporting, writing and all other work. Early on, I hated it. As simple as it seemed, sticking to a time-off plan stressed me out at first. What I didn't see right away was that my little test was forcing me to improve the way I work. . . . [It] forced me to put proven time-management principles into practice: Plan blocks of work time and stick to the plan; set short-term deadlines to keep work from spiraling out of control; and keep up with email daily, to avoid backlogs.
As a journalist, her work life is quite likely less complicated than yours. But the benefits accrue to people in more complex corporate positions where they're involved in multiple value streams -- and they go far beyond just getting to happy hour a little bit earlier. In the experiment at the Boston Consulting Group that I wrote about last week, requiring time off among the consultants forced them

to communicate better, share more personal information and forge closer relationships. They also had to do a better job at planning ahead and streamlining work, which in some cases resulted in improved client service, based on interviews with clients. Boston Consulting is so pleased with the outcome that the firm is rolling out a similar teaming strategy over the coming year on many new U.S. and some overseas projects, says Grant Freeland, senior partner and managing director of the firm's Boston office. "We have found real value in this," he says. "It really changes how we do our work."
The concept of constraining resources in order to stimulate growth, innovation, and improvement is tightly wound up in the Toyota way of thinking. That's what "lowering the water level" is all about: reducing inventory in order to make problems visible and to force people to develop creative solutions. You just can't do things the same way when you have fewer resources. Matt May, author of In Pursuit of Elegance, explains it this way:

You see, the problem is an addiction to abundant resources. And that addiction to resources is blocking innovation. The cry is for more money, people, and space to innovate. But wait a minute! That’s probably not how the company started. Somewhere in the company tree is a story of humble beginnings. Maybe it didn’t start in the proverbial garage, but it started with little of everything: money, space, labor. But it was those limits that made people more creative and resourceful than they are today.

In a similar vein, he describes how Toyota's North American Parts Organization set a series of deliberately opposing goals to help spur the company to create new ways of working:

They arrived at ten key objectives that needed to be met in order to accomplish the mission: Reduce inventory 50%, decrease backorders 50%, reduce packaging expense 50%, reduce damage 50%, increase throughput 25%, improve safety/decrease errors 50%, increase space utilization 25%, decrease landfill usage 25%, reduce freight costs 25%, and decrease lead time 40%.
To the casual observer, the list of ten targets seems like a simple master wish list. But look closer. See if you can spot the tension points. Here’s a hint. Take a look at the first two targets, inventory and backorders. In most supply chains, they’re opposite sides of the same coin. Increase inventory, and backorders drop. Decrease it, and backorders generally rise. So management brilliantly and counterintuitively paired the two, pitting one against the other in order to generate creative tension.

The ten goals are actually five pairs of conflicting goals. In essence, the company is removing resources from different aspects of operations in order to stimulate new approaches to business.
Which, of course, is exactly what BCG did by reducing the amount of time their consultants spent working on a project. And what Sue Schellenbarger did by eliminating one weekend work day.

To me, this approach is so very necessary now. Your company has probably laid off staff (or lost them through attrition). You're being asked to do more with fewer resources. You've probably responded by working a bit later in the evening, or doing more work on the weekends.

But what if you took the Toyota approach? What if you deliberately reduced the amount of time you spent on certain tasks (or the total amount of time you spent at the office) and actually thought about how to change the way you work? Remember, the way you work is not cast in stone. BCG has found a different way. Best Buy, with their "Results Only Work Environment" has, too.

What innovations could you come up with? How can you do your job differently so that you spend less time and get better results? Why not try a few PDCA cycles to see what you can accomplish?

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