Emails can be muda too

The New York Times recently ran an interview with Ed Reilly (American Management Association) on the distractions that can result from technology. Email, for example:

“Companies go to great lengths to set up lists of authorized approvals, meaning who can approve what size of purchase. But you will find that people who are not authorized to spend $100 on their own are authorized to send e-mails to people and waste hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of company time.”

(Link via Merlin Mann at 43folders.)

For me, this is not just about the distraction caused by receiving email (although re-acquiring the flow state does definitely cost). In Ed’s comment I see the muda of working on the wrong stuff – of spending time on conversations, research, or even whole projects, that aren’t on the value stream.

This isn’t about finding the right balance between creative freedom and strict customer pull. It’s about making sure that everyone can always identify the business value of the things they spend their time on. Is this project right for our strategy and markets? Is this feature ever going to be used? I’ve spent time in three very large (>20,000 people) organisations at various times in my career, totalling sixteen years in various roles in software development. And only twice did I work on projects that were actually delivered into the hands of users. The remainder all seemed to be great ideas to someone, I’m sure. But the waste incurred was huge. This is the muda of working on the wrong stuff, and very often it begins with an email…

personal goal-setting

Here’s an absolutely mad thought-experiment…

Over at KnowledgeJolt, Jack Vinson is on a “personal effectiveness kick”. And being interested in the Theory of Constraints, he’s naturally looking to define his Goal, and to define one or more effective measures of progress towards it. In response to a little goading from me, he says this in the comments on Too Busy Being Unproductive to Learn to Be Productive:

“What we need to know (in terms of measures) is whether we are reaching our goals or not. If we’ve taken action that moves us in the wrong direction, that’s probably the wrong action. (If we didn’t know that it would be wrong in advance, then it was a good learning experience, and we can do something different next time.)

“The difficulty with productivity, as it is typically used, is that it simply measures output without looking at direction. For example: I did ten things, but only one of them contributed to my long-term goals. Even worse, two of them distracted from my ability to meet my goals.

“I’m not sure what the final personal measure would look like, however. I’d rather have something that showed how much progress I’ve made, rather than an accounting of how many things I’ve done.”

What’s required, then, is a way to define our goals – and to quantify them.
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the blog as a backup brain

In the podcast Blogs as Personal Knowledge Management Bill Ives gives a very brief (6 minutes) overview of one very specific use of a blog: as a “backup brain”. The idea resonates for me, because that’s why I began this blog. I had found that when I’m in conversation, I often don’t know what I think until I hear myself say it. And more often my ideas come out in reverse order, which must make it hard for everyone else to keep up! So I began blogging as a way to try getting my thoughts in order, and hopefully to increase my general coherence in public. Not sure I succeeded…

(Link via Jack Vinson.)

procrastination and wabi-sabi

Procrastination – we all do it. Some of us even know we’re doing it, and know we shouldn’t, and yet we go on doing it regardless. Consciously, almost. In Solid tactics for understanding (and beating) procrastination Merlin over at the wonderful 43 Folders points us to a nice clear explanation of why, and what to do about it. Overcoming Procrastination through the Pull Method suggests that

“Most procrastination happens because through procrastinating we are temporarily able to relieve fears: fear of failure, fear of being imperfect, fear of impossible expectations. Most of these fears, in turn, are ultimately based in the idea that work and life are awful struggles which we must somehow get through…”

The article goes on to recommend that we replace this kind of thinking by letting go of the concepts of “perfect” and “complete”, focussing instead on the joy of “in progress”.

“I choose to start on one small imperfect step, knowing that I have plenty of time to enjoy life.”

This made me think of wabi-sabi, the Japanese ethic of the unfinished, imperfect and incomplete. I whole-heartedly recommend Leonard Koren’s beautiful little book Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers; read it in an hour, and be changed forever.