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A Lean Look at Task Management

How effective are you at juggling multiple tasks?  What is the effect of irrelevant tasks on value-added activities?    A hat tip to Management Craft and The Coyote Within for finding this study in the journal Nature on the human ability to manage tasks.

The study describes how a typical human can only manage three or four "objects" at a time... the "extreme limitation."  How many of us have desks cluttered with a myriad of projects, and how many of us have tried many methods of managing tasks... from writing in a day planner to advanced computer systems?  I personally use a very simple system of writing tasks on Post-It notes, which I organize every couple of days.  This presents some problems as I work out of three separate offices, but I have never had the fortitude to keep a mobile electronic task list.

Management, especially in a manufacturing environment, requires the processing of a large number of inputs to create outputs.  At any one time we're watching production metrics, battling quality problems, managing customer situations, providing input to other functional silos, answering to bosses... all while trying to drive lean initiatives.  As the lean initiatives begin to take hold we start to see a simplification, but perhaps we can still do better. 

As lean leaders we all know the sometimes counterintuitive power of one piece flow.  Can the same be applied to personal task management?  What would happen if we only focus on two or at most three tasks at a time, and drive them to completion?  True effective output would probably improve.

Another perspective from the study's conclusion:

"A study of brain activity in subjects performing a task in which they were asked to 'hold in mind' some of the objects and ignore other objects has revealed significant variation between individuals in their ability to keep the irrelevant items out of awareness.  This shows that our awareness is not determined only by what we can 'keep in mind' but also by how good we are at keeping irrelevant things 'out of mind'.  This also implies that an individuals effective memory capacity may not simply reflect storage space, as it does with a hard disk.  It may also reflect how efficiently irrelevant information is excluded from using up vital storage capacity."

Those of us in our 40's and beyond are already very much aware of the "storage capacity" dilemma.  But the study's conclusion is also very relevant to our managers and employees.  As managers we have to be able to distinguish valuable data and activities from the irrelevant, and not waste time on the irrelevant.  It is especially critical to our production operators, particularly those in a lean environment, that they are freed from having to work on or even think about irrelevant (ie non value added) activities.  These types of activities add inherent waste, but as the study points out they can also decrease effectiveness even when working on the value-added side of things.

Excellence through simplicity.

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2 Responses to "A Lean Look at Task Management"

  • Jon Miller
    30 December 2005 - 7:48 pm

    Great find Bill. Yet another argument supporting one-piece flow of work, transactional or manufacturing.

  • Bill Waddell
    30 December 2005 - 8:09 pm

    It was a great find – and an intersting perspective. But it was Kevin that found it and blogged…as much as I would like to take the credit

    Bill