Five Powerful Principles for Reducing Waste in Personal Work

The previous article in this series about applying lean principles to improve personal work identified seven principal sources of muda (waste) that limit our ability to produce value-adding work. In this post we’ll look at some general principles and specific countermeasures to these.

The list of ways to reduce waste is potentially limitless, and what works for one might not work for another. For that reason, we’ll keep this at a fairly high level, and only bring it down to specifics to illustrate each principle. The five principles that I’ve distilled from my reading and which I have found work well for me are:

Don’t give waste a place to hide

Simply exposing waste to the light is one of the best ways to start killing it. First, by categorizing your work as value-adding or non-value-adding, you begin to see how much of your activity is directed at the wrong things. Some sources of waste become obvious, but once you have dealt with the low-hanging fruit, you need to become a little more methodical. One of the most painful—but rewarding—things you can do is to actually track your time over a few days and then analyze it.

One tool that works well for me is the Emergent Task Planner that David Seah has devised. It allows me to prioritize my main tasks at the beginning of the day. I then estimate how much time each task will take, and then record the actual time. That helps me to calibrate my own estimates, which makes me less likely to underestimate the actual time necessary to do things.

The other major countermeasure to prevent waste from hiding is 5S, as described in my first article. Since I radically rearranged my work environment, I have all but eliminated the time and frustration of searching for materials and files. At a very basic level, keeping things in the same place will save a lot of time when you need them. How much of your life would you estimate you spend looking for your car keys?

Make the routine, routine

I once had a management professor who told us something that I thought at the time was the silliest thing I had ever heard; only much later did I begin to see the wisdom in it. Someone asked him why he wore the same outfit to class every Tuesday night, and he told us that he had decided at an early age not to waste time thinking about what to wear every day, so he planned out his week’s wardrobe and stuck to it. The paradox of routine is that, by liberating your mind from having to rethink the same basic things over and over, it frees up mental energy for creativity.

Merely going through the exercise of documenting your process and creating checklists for routine work will clarify waste reduction opportunities.

Build up the endurance of your focus

Distractions carry the visible costs of time taken from important tasks, as well as hidden “switching costs”, which are the mental inefficiencies of getting back up to speed after interruptions. So, you can reduce a lot of muda by building your capacity to focus on specific tasks for longer and longer periods of time. It’s like an exercise routine; it takes time but you can make significant gains if you stick to it.

As  a personal example, when I began blogging I used to find it difficult to write for more than 10 minutes without getting antsy or distracted, but I’ve managed to increase this to about 60 minutes of continuous writing time. I began setting goals for myself and forcing myself to write for increasingly longer periods. (A task planner laid out in discrete blocks of time, such as the one mentioned above, is a great help.) The benefit of this is not only that I get more done, but I’ve found that I actually get more creative and spark more ideas the longer I’m immersed in the work.

Adopt a growth and learning mindset

Just because something has been the same way forever does not mean it has to be. Henry Ford, explaining his concept of reducing waste, used the analogy of a farmer trudging back and forth every day to the well “for years instead of putting in a few lengths of pipe.”

While that example is about big changes, small changes patiently accumulated can eventually lead to massive transformations. Kaizen is one of the core principles of lean thinking, and it will merit its own future article as well. One key to its success is the proper mindset: the belief that your abilities and hence your results are not fixed or pre-ordained. You’re not good at something? You can be, if you’re motivated enough. When you know you are capable of improvement, you remove the blinders that keep you from seeing improvement opportunities.

Slow down to speed up

This principle is meaty enough to warrant its own future article, but the summary version is that adding “overhead” in the form of extra time can yield large returns on the time invested.

Before your work, the old quote by Lincoln, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe,” applies here. Time invested before the task in preparation can make the task itself flow smoother and prevent errors. At the beginning of every day, you might be tempted to plunge right in to your work because your energy level is high, but take a few minutes to map out your day and write down your priorities.

During your work, limit your work-in-process. Remember that throughput is not the same as capacity. Just as traffic on an interstate slows down as the road reaches capacity, your work will suffer if you try to do too much at once.

At the end of your work, record the result, update your personal kanban board, and put everything away before starting on the next. At the end of the week, spend a few minutes reflecting over what you accomplished and thinking about further improvements.

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October 12, 2012

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