My high school swim coach used to love to tell the story of the old bull and the young bull, standing on a hill overlooking a herd of cows. The young bull says, “Let’s run down there and (do) one of those cows.” The old bull replied, “Let’s walk down there and (do) them all.”
I mention this in this series because so far the implication has been that using lean principles to improve personal work means getting more work done faster. So, when we strive to improve personal productivity, it’s tempting to try to pick up the pace of our work. Common sense tells me that if I want to drive from Point A to Point B, I can save time by going faster. But constantly changing from lane to lane to try to get a momentary advantage may actually slow me down, not to mention that my speed may cause me to be pulled over by the police or cause an accident. By trying to do too much, we run the risk of exceeding natural speed limits that exist for good reasons.
In weapons training, you’re constantly reminded that “slow is smooth; smooth is fast.” This speaks to the importance of flow, which brings us to the connection with lean principles. It is the idea of lining up all steps in the value stream so that they get done in a steady continuous flow with no wasted motions or interruptions. The steps taken to improve flow: focusing on the actual object being worked on (make work visible), removing impediments and rethinking work practices, all take time to implement, but the effort can cut work times in half, according to Womack and Jones in Lean Thinking.
There are limitless ways of taking time before, during and after your work to improve outputs and ultimately speed up cycle times. Here are just a few examples:
Five whys: When we encounter a problem, we want to solve it as quickly as possible so we can keep going on with our work. But if we treat the symptom and don’t get rid of the root cause, we are likely to have to repeatedly solve it. The Toyota technique of asking why five times (the number is not hard and fat) adds time to the process but forces you to think at a much deeper level and may help you uncover and address the root cause, which saves a lot of time (among other things) in the long run.
Thinking slow: I’ve written here before about the two modes of thinking we all use, popularized by Daniel Kahneman as fast, intuitive, System 1 thinking; and slow, rational System 2 thinking. Most times intuition and instant recognition of what to do serves us well, but we’re all subject to built-in biases which can lead us astray. The trick is to know when to slow down and apply careful, deliberate thinking to the problem or task at hand. It becomes particularly important in a fast-changing environment, because we’re more likely to encounter situations that are different from anything we’ve seen before.
For creativity, start fast and end slow: In my own experience, whether writing an article or completing a sales call plan, there’s a tremendous benefit in doing a first draft early and then putting it aside. Flashes of insight seem to come instantly, but actually slowing down can help here as well. Somehow the flashes seem to come much easier when they’ve been incubating in my subconscious for a while. It’s especially helpful in crafting and rehearsing an important presentation; taking the time to space out the rehearsals will spark many more improvement ideas.
Preparation: Investing time upfront in preparation is one of the best ways that slowing down can help you finish faster—and better. That’s no newsflash to anyone reading this, so I won’t waste keystrokes with the usual examples. What is amazing, however, is that preparation can improve outcomes even in situations that would seem to allow no time at all for it, such as in superfast sports activities like returning a serve in tennis or hitting a baseball. Frank Partnoy in his book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, explains that 500 milliseconds—half a second—elapse from the time a ball leaves the server’s racket to the time the receiver hits it. The first 200ms are required for visual reaction time. This “see” phase is the same for amateurs and pros alike. That leaves 300ms for the actual physical reaction, the “hit” phase. While you or I might be able to raise our racket into the path of the ball during that time, the pros can do the physical part in 100ms. The extra time is used in gathering and processing information, so that they can actually choose their shot. In other words, the ability to go fast at the end allows them time to better prepare.
Delay and persuasion: Since a big part of getting things done is getting others to do what you want done, this precept applies to persuasion as well. In persuasion, we often find that trying to convince someone before they are ready can be counterproductive. Sometimes by slowing down selling you can speed up buying, and vice versa. A buyer who feels rushed may react or shut down entirely. New ideas often take time to gain acceptance. When you’re trying to sell ideas internally, it can be tempting to go straight to the top and get a decision forced on the organization, but good luck implementing it. In negotiations, impatience and hurry can be your biggest liability. As long as time is on your side, you don’t have to accept a bad deal.