Fasteners, Facebook & Things That Matter

If you’re not doing value-added work, just what is it that you’re doing?

Like many people, I learned about lean in the context of manufacturing. Process improvement. Elimination of waste. One of my all-time favorite lessons came from Dennis Pawley who, back then, was heading up manufacturing at Chrysler. He and a number of his colleagues had developed what they called the “Chrysler Operating System,” which was a thoroughgoing methodology to apply lean principles in production operations. One afternoon I participated in a Pawley-organized lean game—it involved things including Lego-like blocks, metal balls, and people who were assigned tasks ranging from plant manager to equipment operator—that was held in a conference room at the Jefferson North Plant. It was a game, but it was revealing. During that session,  Pawley talked about value-added. He explained, quite simply, that “value-added” meant something that a customer would be willing to pay for. A simple example of that was a fastener holding two pieces together. (Yes, my other mentor in the world of leanness, Sandy Munro, would rail against the use of threaded fasteners, but as this is for example only, I’m sure it is permissible.) A customer, Pawley said, wasn’t at all interested in paying for torquing that fastener down—except for the very last turn. Everything up to that point: waste. (Which is why, Munro will point out, threaded fasteners aren’t a good idea in a multitude of applications that presently have . . . threaded fasteners.)

Generally when we think about lean, we think about it (1) in the context of a factory, as in tightening things or (2) as something that someone else does, perhaps after we have explained to them what it is that they need to be doing more effectively and efficiently. And this last-named is, again, generally in the context of a factory. But Daniel Markovitz, a lean consultant, has written a book that brings lean right to your very desk: A Factory of One: Applying Lean Principles to Banish Waste and Improve Your Personal Performance (CRC Press). Not something that’s done elsewhere by someone else. Something that you can and should do.

Markovitz defines a value-added activity as something that meets three criteria: A customer is willing to pay for the activity; the activity must have a transformative effect on whatever; it must be done right the first time. “If you were to track your daily activities,” he writes, “you would probably be shocked at how little time you spend on value-added work—and I’m not talking about the time you spend on Facebook, either. The truth is that the vast majority of your work-related activities don’t meet these three criteria.” This is the valuable part of the book. No, not that he’s calling us out for doing non-value-added things, but because he points out that while many people are dedicated to getting things done and variants thereof (just Google “GTD” and prepare to be astonished by the extent of the results), the real issue is not the efficiency and effectiveness of doing them, but whether they should be done, period. Or said another way: Providing someone with a faster screwdriver isn’t necessarily the right thing to do when there ought not be a threaded fastener.

But a problem is that unlike the person on the assembly line, the work (i.e., value-added activities) that many of us perform are not quite as visible, nor even tangible in some cases. (You can’t see or touch a decision. The consequences yes, the decision, no.) What’s more, “As a knowledge worker, you have a nearly infinite amount of work—and an infinite amount of flexibility in what you can work on at any given moment.” When the parts are coming down the line, it is fairly clear what needs to be done next. Things aren’t so straightforward when your email inbox is dinging, your text messages binging, and phone ringing. So the issue is figuring out what truly needs to be done, then doing it.

One place where I part company with Markovitz is his contention that “if you had less time for your work, you’d get it done more quickly. You’d be forced to get it done faster.” He uses going on vacation as an example: Somehow you get everything done before you leave . . . right? Well, even if we are to assume that that is indeed the case, how much of our best work is done when we’ve got to get it done? I’m guessing not a whole lot.

Doing the right thing is important. But doing the right thing adequately is insufficient.

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