Jim Womack, founder of the Lean Enterprise Institute
and the man responsible for putting Lean on the map (at least in this
country), recently wrote an article about what he calls “cadence.” This
concept ties in nicely to what I preach about how to “live in your calendar” rather than your inbox, and why a to-do list just isn’t a powerful enough tool to enable you to manage your work.
Please be patient with the lengthy quote that follows. I
think it’s acutely relevant in a world in which your boss or colleague
often drops stuff on your desk at 4pm and expects you to finish it by
9am the next morning – even though it’s been sitting on her desk for a
week and a half.
I hope that every Lean Thinker by now understands
takt time. This is the available production time per day divided by the
number of items the customer is demanding each day. For example, if the
single-shift production process operates eight hours a day (480
minutes) and customers demand 240 widgets a day, the takt time is two
minutes. . . .
But takt time is difficult to apply in a product
development activity like e-letters [or any knowledge work, for that
matter]. What is the rate of customer "demand" for a new product no one
has ordered? And what is the available production time, particularly
when developers are working on several products at once?
Although Jim doesn’t mention it, the difficulty of calculating
available production time also stems from the need to respond to crises
and the daily snafus that can suck up much of your day. It’s often hard
to tell in advance how many hours per day you actually have to work on
your key projects.
Which brings me to the concept of cadence. Think
of cadence as takt time adapted to activities beyond routine
production. . . .When there is no steady cadence for starting and
completing projects, work starts to bunch up and the resources of the
highly trained and integrated development team can’t keep up. As a
result, projects are delayed or delivered with some functionality
missing. Or they are completed with less than the full attention they
require for consistently high quality. And in either case development
costs are often much higher.
Another way to think of cadence is heijunka
(production leveling) for product development, in which the needs of
the customer for new products . . . are set against the capabilities of
the development organization. While it might be nice to continually
vary the output of the development organization to meet changing
customer desires, this is usually impossible if many of the resources
are specialized and scarce.
The practical alternatives are (a) unrealistic goals and continuous gyrations in scheduling, causing muda, mura, and muri,
or (b) an acknowledgment that a development organization can only do
so much in a given period of time and that it can actually get more
useful work done if everyone is working at a steady pace. In my
experience, the organization and the customer are better off with the
latter approach, when a clear cadence is established for project
completions and the cadence is maintained.
So how does this tie into my notion of “living in your calendar”?
Living in your calendar means keeping it – and not your email –
front and center. It means assigning all your tasks and projects to
your calendar, rather than putting them on a to-do list, keeping them
in your head, or letting them fester in an email in your inbox.
The calendar enables you to “level the production” of your key
projects at work. It helps you to allocate time each day or each week
to those projects, so that you can work at a steady (and sustainable)
pace on those projects. And it’s the very specific allocation of time
that makes the calendar better than a simple to-do list. The to-do list
doesn’t capture or display the vital bit of information you need: how
long will the next step in the project take? And the corollary: how
much production time do you have available?
Most people, of course, don’t live in their calendars. They live in
their inboxes and treat the pile of messages as an ancillary to-do
list. They spend a huge chunk (most?) of their day reading and
responding to email, and they only use the calendar function of Outlook
(or Lotus Notes, or whatever) to capture meetings and appointments. But
without using the calendar, it’s impossible to establish a steady
cadence for critical projects. And without a steady cadence, you end up
missing Saturday morning cartoons in last minute scrambles to meet
Look, I know that your company expects you to pull a lot of freight
without giving you a lot of support. You’ve got internal and external
customers screaming for attention and help. Your computer dings like a
pinball machine from the overdue calendar alerts. Allocating time to
your work isn’t easy, when you can’t even find 15 minutes for lunch.
But if you want to get control over your work, and if you want to
avoid unrealistic goals and continuous gyrations in scheduling, you
don’t have much of a choice. Live in the calendar. Establish cadence.
And see how much you can really get done.