Preface: A Christmas present from a lean-thinking friend, Brian Dandrea at Mass Mutual Insurance, is the inspiration for this week’s post. Those of you who have seen the Toast Kaizenvideo will remember the big batch of toast I make in my deluxe four-slice toaster. For years that toaster has been the metaphor for wrong-sized monument equipment, wrong-thinking about true efficiency and resulting overproduction. And I’ve embellished the metaphor with the assertion “You can’t buy a one-slice toaster, you’d have to build your own.” This assertion was based upon my apparently cursory search of the web, which turned up all sizes of toasters (even a ten-slicer!), but nary a single example of one-slice toaster. When I mentioned this to Brian D. recently however, he made it a personal mission to challenge my hypothesis. The result you can see for yourself in the following clip: click here. Toastmaster apparently discontinued its 1x1 model toaster around 1953 (coincidentally at about the same time Toyota was rolling out its just-in-time production system. )
Post: While it would be easy enough to parlay my new right-sized toaster into more discussion of the virtues of single piece part and information flow at the front lines, let’s consider instead the “work in process” for managers. Especially in the last decade, it seems to me that managers have become buried in administrative WIP -- projects and objectives. Infinite loading of managers is the norm: give them a hundred projects and ask them to spend 1% of their time on each -- just like on the factory floor, we figure if we keep pushing work in, something will eventually come out. We launch many objectives and then expedite the hot ones – and hot unfortunately usually means most urgent, not most important. Managers are rewarded for stamping out the fires, for working long hours to keep up, and for juggling too many ‘priorities.’ Loaded down like Santas we have to decide on a moment’s notice “who’s naughty and nice,” who gets help, what is the best short-term solution. We may be preaching one-by-one production to the shop floor, but we are often victims ourselves of way too much manager work in process.
I had a boss many years ago who would call me to his office almost daily to lecture me: “Project X is your number one priority, I want you to spend 100% of your time on it!" The following day I’d receive a similar message, but this time for a different project. After trying to juggle too many priorities for a while, I just learned to fake it – to pretend things were happening even when they weren’t – since it was virtually impossible to handle all of my manager WIP. Ultimately, when we overburden managers, we make them bad managers.
This being the holiday season and my last post for 2013, I like to suggest to managers that next year you give your direct reports and yourself the gift of one-by-one projects – or at least smaller batches. Focus on less at a time, get some balance in your life, and the flow will improve. Less WIP, greater velocity.
Thanks for reading and commenting this year; hope to have you back in 2014.
BTW. Please Join me on January 14 from 3:00 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. for a free “Tea Time with the Toast Dude” Webinar. Next month’s topic will be “Value Stream Mapping Mistakes and Faux Pas.” You can register on our website: go to www.gbmp.org and click on Events.