Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 9:05AM
Knowledge work tends to be unstructured. Specifying a detailed flow of work is sometimes possible, but is probably not the best way to improve a knowledge work process.
This passage comes from Thinking for a Living: How to Get Better Performances And Results from Knowledge Workers, a stimulating  read about my "peeps" (i.e., you) and what the highly overused term means. When I read it I thought: That can't be right! Heck, teaching structure (for self-management) is what I do for a living. But after a few seconds of thought I recalled exceptions from my consulting that I'd like to share.
When I work with clients I look for opportunities to integrate the general methods I teach with their specific work. When I identify them, we jointly come up with customized systems that work for them. I love this kind of work because it requires creativity, and really streamlines their work. This allows them to think less about mechanics and more about the important stuff - getting insights into the customer's needs, hiring the best person, solving a tough engineering problem, or dreaming up the Next Big Thing for the business.
As Davenport points out, not all jobs are amenable to this kind of analysis, but there are usually parts that can be cleaned up, standardized, or simplified. I'll share three such systems with you in hopes that they'll provide ideas for streamlining your work. The first three are specific ones from clients, and the last is a collection of smaller, generally applicable ones.
(Side note: In The Myth of the Paperless Office, via "In praise of clutter" Economist, 00130613, 12/21/2002, Vol. 365, Issue 8304, there's a fascinating summary of why removing paper from flight controller workflow is so hard. I've excerpted the section below .)
Regarding terminology, I consider this kind of personal workflow streamlining (anyone have a better term?) different from automation. I'll give the definition a shot: Workflow streamlining is capturing the steps and states that you regularly encounter to do some aspect of your work. It's about thinking less about the process and making fewer mistakes. In contrast, automation is removing steps you have to take, i.e., compiling many steps into one. It's about thinking not at all about the process.
Finally, a little request: I'd like to reach more readers, so to make this easier I added a "ShareThis" widget at the bottom of my posts. If you think a post is useful, please share it. Thanks!
Questions I'd love to hear your answers to:
- How globally do you think this kind of streamlining applies to professional work?
- What are some examples of ways you've been able to streamline parts of your job?
- As you go higher up the organization, do the opportunities for this necessarily decrease?
This client was responsible for handling training requests for a product company. Work would come in as requests that include the type of training and the event's desired date and location. Each request involved a regular sequence of steps, and active requests had corresponding states - New, Waiting for Venue, Waiting for Travel Arrangements, Waiting for Finish, Waiting for Evaluation, etc. After capturing the states and the overall sequence as a checklist , we decided each request would be handled as a project with a corresponding paper folder (the client's preference). A printed blank checklist affixed to the cover acted as a kind of "job card" , and kicked off a new request. For overall tracking and review we listed each request in the client's master list of projects, which she reviewed frequently during the day. When an event related to a particular project happened, my client would go to the corresponding folder, update her notes, and activate the next step, e.g., making a phone call, sending an email, or arranging travel. Neat!
Human Resources Director
In this case I worked with the HR Director at a mid-sized company that was growing rapidly. She was overloaded by a spate of new hires, so we put into place a simple workflow to streamline that part of her job. Like the previous case, we took advantage of states inherent to the process. In this case for each position to be filled we created six folders :
- Completed Interviews
- In Process - including Waiting For and Action Support
- Interview Packets - grouped by applicant
- Not Interviewing - including "maybes"
- References - grouped by applicant
Doctor at a small medical clinic
For variety, the final case is a doctor running a small clinic. She has a staff of four people (e.g., receptionist, office manager, nurse, bookkeeper), and eight treatment rooms. Much of our work was setting up communication flow and boundaries. An important one was the physician's Outbox (on her desk, right under her Inbox - always on top!), which had two uses. First, as she was emptying her inbox the doctor would rapidly decide each item's action  and if it could be delegated she would write a quick note directly on it (or on a sticky) and put it in the Outbox. The staff were instructed to empty this box regularly, which made for timely action. (Before, there were delays and lost work.) This enabled a crisper back-and-forth life cycle for a particular item. For example, it might arrive in the mail for the front desk and, while processing it, if the receptionist had questions she'd write a note on it and put it in the doctor's inbox (no need to interrupt her). When the doctor got to it she'd write her answer on it then put it into her Outbox, which a staff member would pick up that day and dispatch appropriately. Some of the items were of the "we'll talk about this during staff meeting" variety, which went with an entry in the doctor's agenda for that person.
This was very different from her previous approach, which was to either not handle the paper at all (activating a "nag" mode from the front desk), to fill it out then return it opportunistically (that is, when she thought of it), or to interrupt her staff when one of them walked by. As you can imagine, each of these had consequences that created waste. Even more satisfying was how my client was able to focus on the kinds of staff interactions that meant most to her (education and support, for example), rather than these mundane ones. Everything went smoother afterwards.
(Note: She and I talked a good deal about who should be receiving what information. Typically my clients are getting a lot of incoming that should be going to staff, or not coming in at all. This quickly becomes apparent when clearing paper and email backlogs. "Why am I getting this at all?" is a good question to ask.)
Beyond these larger, more specific "checklist/state" flows, there are often opportunities to streamline frequent small jobs. They mostly come down to having a task-specific work station and a corresponding checklist. Liz Davenport puts it well in Order from Chaos: "When you sit down on your desk to work, you need to have all the tools you use at appropriate places." Following are a few to get you thinking.
- Balancing your checking account: Although some think balancing accounts is a thing of the past, I've found the state of the art in financial software hasn't yet automated the process. So I was still stuck with a rather unpleasant 45 minutes  each month of processing receipts, verifying transactions and amounts, and entering categories for tax purposes. The first step in improving this was to breaking the process down into its atomic kinds of tasks: entering recepts and reconciling. My thought was to do the former each week, which would simplify the latter and make it purely making sure the statement matched. It worked great. My work station in this case was simply an "Unprocessed Receipts" folder in a dedicated shelf of my stacking trays. Every day I toss into it receipts from my wallet or online orders, and once a week my calendar reminds me to enter the current batch into the program and file or recycle them (I have a little checklist for this). When my account's monthly statement arrives it goes onto my actions list (it takes longer than a few minutes to do), with the statement itself going into my Action Support folder to get it off my desk until I need it. This eliminated my resistance to doing this, and made it easier and more pleasant overall. A win.
- Sending snail mail: Whether you like paper correspondence or not, it's hard to do away with it. And in the case of writing personal notes, I like using paper. It's my way of staying in touch with clients (past, present, and future) and expressing gratitude. The work station in this case is an at-hand drawer of all needed supplies including pens, envelopes (including padded ones for my Super Spy Night Pens :-), note cards, business cards, stamps, postal scale, and pre-printed return labels. Make sure you have close by a copy of your postal rates.
An unexpected side effect of these I noticed is that I enjoyed each task more. I think it has to do with the comfort of the routine . Each felt like a little ritual, and made the task a bit more sacred, if that makes sense. For example, when writing notes I'm not scrabbling around looking for stamps and a card. Instead I take a breath, relax for a minute, and jump in.
-  A funny bit of synchronicity: While searching for Davenport's book I came across She Comes First: The Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a Woman. It's now on order from my library :-) Not sure about the cover, though.
Air-traffic control, for example, does not, at first glance, seem a likely candidate. The business of monitoring incoming aircraft and predicting their future course, which depends on measurement and mathematics, sounds as though it should be entirely electronic. Yet paper remains an essential part of the air-traffic control system in Britain.
Each air-traffic controller works in a team of about five staff. Information about each incoming plane in that controller's sector is printed out on a piece of paper - a flight progress strip, about eight inches long and an inch deep. As the plane moves across the controller's sector, the strip is annotated - with, for instance, speed or altitude changes. On the basis of those annotations, different team members can do their job - working out, for instance, the implications of those changes for the next sector. In a busy sector, one team may have 50 strips on display.
Many attempts have been made to get rid of the flight progress strips. The only way of doing away with them, it turns out, is to give air-traffic controllers smaller areas to cover. For larger areas - which means a more complex job - the paper strips are essential. "They are a jolly efficient means of annotating information," says Richard Wright of Britain's National Air Traffic Services. "The controllers can read them at a glance. If we replace them it will have to be with something better. They will be with us for some time yet."
-  Checklists are useful, and one of the most-blogged about productivity topics. I break them down into two types: "Do" and "Bring." The former is a list of actions you repeat every time you do a task. See my checking account balancing example above. The latter type is useful for prepping for events of a type, e.g., leaving on a trip or packing equipment for a gig. For complex activities you'll often use a combination, such as in my 1:1 consults and workshops. Each step often initiates a back-and-forth sequence of actions and waiting tasks. For fun check out The Checklist: Reporting & Essays for a history of their use in medicine.
-  Do you have a good name for these? I think the idea comes from manufacturing, esp. the lean world, but I couldn't find a solid reference. The closest I've read about is the turtle sheets Len Merson uses for each task in The Instant Productivity Toolkit. Also: I'm not sure why, but this reminds me of the Noguchi filing system. Probably due to its having a folder with the title and date on the front... The original page is gone, so more is found here, here, and here.
-  As is typical with the state of the art, we had to suffer with the typical triad of paper, email, and disk folders. They key, though, is uniforming naming.
-  An executive behavior common to all highly productive people: Decide, let it go, don't think about it, and recover/adapt as needed.
-  Yea, I timed it :-)
-  I'm interested in trying Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. To reduce stress and be more present, a daily ritual like this will be welcome.