Thursday, May 22, 2008

Minimizing Work-in-Process for Knowledge Workers

We all know the drill; work-in-process is a problem in manufacturing. It ties up cash, limits flexibility, masks problems, decreases customer satisfaction. We’ve seen the “lower the water level; expose the rocks; fix the problems” illustration.

It’s no different in non-manufacturing setting. Making it personal, it’s no different for me, either. I’ve been bugged the last few years by this concept and, finally, have seen some progress over the last few months. Let me illustrate, in hopes you might find something useful.

My first step was to isolate just what constitutes WIP for me in my managerial role. I concluded it is all in two places:

  • My physical in-box. This is all the physical junk that lands in my office. Papers, forms, mail, memos.
  • My email in-box. All the electronic junk that comes my way.

Some folks might add Voice Mail to this list, making three piles. For me, VM is not a big deal so I simplified it to two.

And these two are crucial. Virtually everything I do which does not involve face-to-face meetings flows through these two portals. And the degree to which I do or do not deal, promptly, with both flows does all the things WIP does in the manufacturing setting. It ties up cash (slow decisions), limits flexibility (“we’re waiting on Joe”), masks problems (I don’t respond), decreases customer satisfaction (“he's avoiding me”).

The breakthrough that hit me a few months ago is classic lean. I have always tried to minimize and optimize these two queues. Not good enough. I realized I had to take them to zero. Empty. Zip. No email in the in box. No paper in the in box.

Zero is easy to measure and observe. Impossible to fudge. And, I have found, amazingly liberating.

The further breakthrough was pragmatic. In a dynamic business environment, I can't keep the boxes empty. So, my quest is to get to email zero and/or in box zero once in every business day.

Here’s my current metric. A simple blue 3x5 index card. With an “E” for days I get to email zero and an “I” for in box zero.

You can see I don’t get it done every day. I've had some bad streaks. The metric, though, is huge. It sits there on my desk as a brutal reminder I have not flushed out email for 3 days, that I’m avoiding something in my in box.

It’s not perfect. But it is way better than my other efforts. And, as goofy as it sounds, it's fun to get to zero and record the "E" or "I".

How to get to email zero or in box zero? That’s another discussion…if you’re interested, please let me know and I’ll write on either.

But, until I settled on a) the location of WIP b) the zero standard for WIP and c) the simple measurement of WIP, I was not making progress at all.

Hope you can find something here you can use.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Why do visuals help?

Several recent observations converged for me.

  • A colleague drew a Value Stream Map for a new process we were developing. Two major barriers became clear. In 45 minutes, we had a plan to overcome them, problems that had bugged us for six months.

  • We had a struggle over a particular system of nomenclature; the group of six were stuck. One member then walked to the whiteboard, drew a simple diagram of his understanding. Then another person modified this diagram with her perspective. Soon, all six people had added to the drawing. And a solution became obvious.

  • A vendor was preoccupied with the splendor of his proposal and talked and talked. One of our engineers then asked him to draw how his system worked. Reluctantly, he began putting boxes and arrows on the board. And the conversation turned to solutions. Egos faded.

  • A friend of many years invited me for lunch to discuss an important decision he faced in his career. A visual person to begin with, he had put an elegantly simple line drawing capturing the history, context, and trajectory of his options. Making the drawing, coupled with the active discussion, made choices clearer.

Why do drawings make decision making clearer? People a lot smarter than me have looked hard at this. I simply see that it works.

Somehow, the drawing, however simple or clunky, engages a different part of the brain. Flowing through both the eyes and the ears, the idea finds a different path to the processing parts of the brain. In this way, new understandings of tough problems emerge. The original idea then burns more brightly, more clearly, with more focus.

Go doodle somewhere. It usually helps.