A couple of weeks ago I have received a text from a friend who seemed to be overwhelmed and increasingly exhausted at work.
“I get so many emails. It’s like I am being flooded with it.” She said. “I am working in a matrix organization where I do have many internal and external stakeholders. For some topics I am really the only one who they can approach. I have tried a simple to-do-list but it didn’t work for me. There are just too many tasks and some are really specific. I regularly receive also a bunch of mini tasks – really just 10 to 30 minutes worth of effort. I then think to myself ‘lets get it done quickly’ but I often end up doing nothing else for the rest of the day. I think my biggest problem is that I can’t say no to anyone. I am actually expected to treat all stakeholders – no matter if internal or external – like customers as this is ingrained in our corporate culture. I am expected to get back to them in no time which really cracks me up sometimes.”
A feeling of frustration
Many of us know this feeling. Although we have worked all day – even overtime – we feel like we haven’t been productive. We sat in meetings, got back to the reports we urgently have to finish just to find another email in the inbox with an urgent request. How can it be that we have worked all day long but haven’t been productive?
What is work?
The mechanical definition of work is simple: It is the product of force and displacement: W = F · d. So when you lift up a mass from the ground you perform work. Same goes if you dig a hole. The work you perform per unit of time by the way is power. But what is work for knowledge workers? Where you can measure the size and depth of your hole at the end of the day, work in the office is often widely invisible. Only if work delivers value we talk about productivity.
Lean – more than a buzzword
Lean management started in the factories of Japan about 40 to 50 years ago (namely the Toyota Production System). Unfortunately, since then lean has decayed to a big buzzword: ‘We need to get lean,’ or ‘We have to follow a lean approach.’ Often it is misunderstood for some sort of a business diet – an euphemisms for cutting costs. Frankly, I am guilty for having said those words myself. It took me years before I understood what lean is actually about:
The fundamental principle of lean is the flow of work
In a factory raw material comes in at one side. After passing incoming control the raw material is transferred from one work-center to another. At each station value added work is performed. Material is formed, cut, ground, welded, assembled, processed etc. before it is packed and shipped to the customer. Only when completed and shipped it delivers value. At each given moment throughput and output can be measured. If one work center is inefficient or error prone it becomes the bottleneck. Work will pile-up in front of it and will adversely affect the performance of the whole operation.
When the world was stunned by how many cars Toyota sold with just a fraction of a percent of defects every manufacturer started to analyze their philosophy. Today every factory floor looks like an operation theater: Clean, tidy, and almost sterile. Everything is organized and optimized to perfection.
Lean in the offices
While there has been a revolution on the shop floor, only a few things have changed in the offices. Yes, we have gotten internet and computers so we can store everything in bits and bytes, we send myriads of data every day, but we continue working like we did decades ago. Even worse: Now with the convenience of electronic mail we send and receive countless messages every day and sit in unproductive meetings where we ‘work’. Well yes, there was a bit of sarcasm in the sentences before. But haven’t we not all experienced it? The good thing is it’s not all doom and gloom. What lean was for the shop floor is called agile in the world of white collar workers. However, the principles behind it haven’t changed.
Lets get (sh)it done
Step 1: Make work visible
In order to make your work visible write down all your tasks on a Kanban board. A free tool you can use is Trello (make sure you check for corporate IT-compliance). But there are many others, such as Kantree and also Microsoft Teams. This first step is the most important one as work comes in through many different channels. Take your time and really write all tasks down. Try to see which topics or projects they belong to and group the tasks together. Put tags if that is helpful but keep it simple. The great thing about tools like Trello is that you can simply forward emails to your board and have it transformed into a task with all the essential information present.
How your board should look like
The column of your board should be the following (but don’t worry, you can adapt it to your situation):
Backlog | In Progress | Waiting | Firefightig | Done
Write all the tasks you have yet to begin with in the backlog. You can add descriptions, tags, upload files and so on. It often comes with practicable checklists where you can add sub-tasks. But make sure you keep it simple for the beginning. Don’t worry too much about the right ‘flight level‘ of your tasks – you will feel the correct resolution over time. But, if a task description is longer than Twitter message it is probably overly complicated.
Firefighting is urgent unplanned and disruptive work. A customer complaint for example. It requires immediate attention and is very often business critical. You have to stop all other activities in order to ‘extinguish the fire‘. Depending on your business context you may need to account for some firefighting activities. However, same as the actual firefighters you can prepare processes and contingency plans so it causes minimal disruptions. Most firefighting activities are attributed to technical debt, a term actually used in software development: “It reflects the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy (limited) solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer.“
Step 2: Prioritize
Prioritize all your tasks in the backlog according to value and effort. Unfortunately, we are extremely bad with prioritization, and estimation of the effort. It is important that you learn to estimate your work load when you reflect your previous day (more on this in step 4). When it comes to prioritization, it is important to which criteria you prioritize. The Eisenhower Urgency/Importancy principle works very well for this matter (we have incorporated it in the spreadsheet below). I also suggest to sort it according to the amount of Effort needed and how much Value adding a specific task is to a project. High Value tasks with low Effort are easy wins and should be completed first. Same goes for Important and Urgent tasks (those are essentially firefighting). Also give planning poker a go – it goes great with our spreadsheet.
Prioritize your tasks with our practicable guide.
In the HBR Article How to Prioritize Your Work When Your Manager Doesn’t leadership coach Amy Jen Su suggests a framework of passion and level of contribution.
“Focus on those [tasks] that align your passion with where you can contribute the most. Tolerate, elevate, and delegate the rest.”
The sweet spot is where passion and value-adding are the highest. On the other hand, tasks with low level of excitement and little value adding (like managing emails, meetings or other administrative work) are a burden and often are considered waste. Check regularly how much of your work-week is contributed to those.
Step 3: Daily planning and Time boxing
All checklists and Kanban boards won’t help you to get your tasks done if you don’t know when you’ll do it. Use time boxing: Take 15 minutes every morning to consciously plan and schedule your day. Which tasks do you want to complete today? How large are these tasks? When and how are you going to do it? Then, reserve time in your calendar. You then are ‘indistractable‘ for others, and also for yourself.
Plan your day with our Daily Planner.
Step 4: Avoid distraction
The opposite of distraction is not focus, but traction. With your daily planning you now have reserved time boxes for specific tasks. Make sure you are indistractable and avoid interruptions. Close Slack, Outlook and all the other tools and gadgets that pop-up or give you a bing – you can reserve some time for them es well. If any of these tools give you a new task forward them to your backlog. I also suggest to have a simple checklist on your desk for all those mini tasks that won’t take long.
Don’t be disturbed. Use the Checklist to write down all the Mini-Tasks you’re getting.
If you are easily distracted try using the Pomodore Technique: Set a timer for 25 minutes and then take a 5 minutes break. Continue this cycle four times and deserve yourself a longer pause. A great app for this is Flat Tomato.
Avoiding distraction cannot be understated. It is the killer of productivity. Also, it is mentally exhausting to shift focus as we can only focus on one thing at the time. Although a mini-task seems to be completed in just a few minutes, avoid the urge to be distracted. Rather try and tick them off in the time between two meetings, or before your get onto a new task. If you need some small achievements to get you going in the morning use them as low-hanging fruits to start your productive day.
Step 5: Review and adapt
Having a plan is good but unfortunately it often goes up in smoke as soon it hits reality. Plan your day every morning and review the previous day. Check if you are still on tack and ask yourself three questions:
- Have I done yesterday everything I wanted, and why?
- Have I underestimated or overestimated a particular task and why was that?
- Have I struggled with one particular task and maybe need support?
Adjust your daily planning accordingly. Learn from your previous experience. If you are often distracted with interruptions or meetings see if you can delegate them. Try to time box them in a such a way that they don’t cause too much interruption.
Sept 6: Reduce Work in Process
The second killer of productivity is Work in Progress (WIP). It is the ugly cousin of distraction. Only execute one task at a time and finish it completely. Move it to Done and enjoy the little dopamine kick that you get when it is crossed off your list. Therefore you deliver continuous value and increase your productivity. If you have to wait for others, put them into waiting. I found that the Column In Progress should have not more than 3 or maximum 5 tasks at the same time. Switching between tasks and too much WIP kills productivity and is extremely frustrating.
Step 7: Reduce waste
If you notice Waste write it down. Waste are obstacles, such as waiting for input, burdensome processes or simply useless work. Call this list Continuous Improvement (Kaizen in Japanese). Once a month – or as needed – take some time to look at the items. Discuss them with those who ‘own’ the wastes and find solutions to reduce it. If you need to convince the owners use our Presentation Concept and read the accompanied article.
Design your convincing argument with our presentation concept
Lead by example and start collaborating
Now that you have mastered your tasks and increased your productivity start leading by example and show others how you have improved your own productivity. Invite them to use Kanban and manage team tasks on a joint project board. Daily planning then is supported by a brief 15 minute team huddle, or daily stand up meeting where the following questions are answered:
- What have I done yesterday to contribute to the project goal?
- What am I going to do today?
- Are there any obstacles that block me?
- everyone shows up on time
- it’s called Stand-up for a reason so don’t get too comfortable
- don’t let one person dominate the huddle
- challenge if someone states the same task on consecutive days
- most importantly: don’t let it become another status update meeting!
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