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.


Anonymous said...

Elegant! Beautiful in its own way.

Thank you once again for a simple insight to something we all fight every day.

Anne K. said...

Joe, this stuff is great. The clogged e-mail in-box is also one of the banes of my work existence and probably the biggest barrier to true productivity. Thanks for this great way to assess and move ahead!!!!

Anonymous said...

This is one of the best ways I've seen to approach a real time killer and improve your productivity. Thanks for the tips! BTW, I'm a life-long Toyota fan :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Joe;
This is great thinking. In my blog I wrote about something similar. I think while it is very important to eliminate WIP from your InBox, it is even more important to look at the processes which cerates the inventory of emails. If you have subscribed to an email news letter which you never read, simply you can unsubscribe from that for an example. This is source reduction concept in operation.
Lean concepts in communication – Data Accumulation

Cristal Mcmeans said...

It's amazing how you were able to apply Lean for personal use! When we had our TPM presentation and simulations last week, I was thinking of doing the same thing but I don't know where to start. Thanks for the idea - maybe I'll try doing that with my mail too!

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Well, it is surely handy for me and I will keep this list next to my desk. I guess that almost everyone who is used to work with the bash environment should do so as well.

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