« A Matt Update | Main | Induced personality disorder, or: I tried it, but I'm not proud of it »

Custom workflows for knowledge workers 

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 [1] 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 [2].)

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?

Education Coordinator

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 [3], 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" [4], 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 [5]:

  • Advertising
  • Completed Interviews
  • In Process - including Waiting For and Action Support
  • Interview Packets - grouped by applicant
  • Not Interviewing - including "maybes"
  • References - grouped by applicant
Controlling these was a checklist that used these folders: First, create and place ad, putting the associated materials into the first folder. Enter Waiting For and calendar reminders. As responses came in they'd go into Interview Packets folder, grouped by applicant. And so on. Again, the point is to identify what's common to the job (or that part of the job) and make a routine of the steps and structure involved. This lets you give the appropriate amount of attention to each aspect without having to reinvent the pieces each time. The plus is this requires less thinking about the process itself, which frees you up to focus on the creative side of the job, e.g., writing the ad and evaluating applicants.

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 [6] 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.)

Smaller Workflows

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 [7] 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 [8]. 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.


  • [1] 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.
  • [2]
    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."

  • [3] 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.
  • [4] 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.
  • [5] 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.
  • [6] An executive behavior common to all highly productive people: Decide, let it go, don't think about it, and recover/adapt as needed.
  • [7] Yea, I timed it :-)
  • [8] 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.

Reader Comments (11)


"Kanban cards," a term from lean manufacturing, is a pretty close approximation for your "job cards." Like your cards, kanban cards signal when more work needs to be done. They don't contain a checklist of actions, but they do trigger action, so it's a pretty good match.

And while we're on the subject of lean, your story about the air traffic controllers is a perfect example of the lean concept of making work visible. A string of numbers might convey the same information, but there's nothing better than having a piece of paper physically -- and visually -- represent a plane. In fact, Toyota is legendary for being slow to introduce new technology into their workplaces: their feeling is that the simpler (and cheaper) the solution to a problem, the better. And nothing's simpler and cheaper than paper.

November 12, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdaniel markovitz

I agree that they're in a similar realm, though signaling isn't all of it, and may not be any of it... Job cards:

o Follow the work around
o Indicate state
o Indicate position in flow (steps completed/remaining)
o Are attached to the artifact (or a facsimile)


Quasi-related links:
[ Kanban cards | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanban_cards ]
[ Kanban | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanban ]
[ Kanban - Lean Manufacturing | http://www.magnatag.com/page/KANBAN-LEAN/category.asp ] (products).

November 12, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Hey Matt,

Nice integration of divergent thoughts in these examples from your work. I was particularly interested in your thoughts on personal workflow streamlining and its application in cited examples. Nice piece. You posed the question: "As you go higher up the organization, do the opportunities for this necessarily decrease?"

I think not. In my experience, as you move higher up the org chart, you increase the opportunities associated with a well thought out and executed personal workflow streamlined through experience and priority. The reason this is such a hard sell is gatekeeping insulates most executives from removing these deficiencies. In most cases, if you could streamline the personal workflow of said executive assistant, almost by defacto, you will have streamlined the workflow of the associated executive.

I have viewed streamlining as an incredibly powerful way to re-engineer workflow. As you have so ably illustrated, it is hard work that requires focused collaboration coupled with a keen eye toward outcomes.

Thanks again for surfacing this topic. As always, keep up the thought-provoking work and insightful examples from your consulting gigs.

November 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDavey Moyers

Thanks a ton for your thoughts, Davey. A great point re: gatekeepers. I've always enjoyed when my executive clients bring me in to work with their assistants too. As you point out, a big enabler.

November 17, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

hello everyone, me (jp) again...

BACKGROUND: This goes back to some posts I made a while back and the idea that those great ideas (Light bulb ideas, or beta waves for want of a better term) seem to come in waves and they seem to arrive at certain times, they really don’t arrive at random times, they come when your brain is engaged but not truly immersed in some task. (See below: immersed vs engaged)

Typically I will be hard at work on a paper, say I am typing the footnotes and these great ideas will just starting coming to me: a totally new theory for the dog bites man case; or don’t forget to call the printer before 5 pm, or what if we re-pasted section II as I.b?? All this stuff happens in waves and I have to capture it so a) I don’t lose it and b) so I don’t lose track of typing…

Because when you are ENGAGED in a rote, manual task like this (call it alpha wave thinking) the best way to get it done is to get it done in one block of time, i.e. once you pick up a file, don’t put it down until you are done. You know the drill it’s the same basic idea of getting these sort of tasks done in one time block that is devoted to it.

But of course the contradiction is that these great ideas, or beta thoughts will come to you when you are engaged and so you cant just stop typing and write down your itinerary for the Hawaii vacation, that would not be not time efficient.

TOPIC SENTENCE: They say television is mind killing because it stifles the imagination. People say this all the time until it is a cliché but the thing is there is some truth to this.

As I watch a good movie and I really like it I almost never have these sort of beta thoughts. I am so IMMERSED in the story, that my mind does not wander. They call it ‘suspension of disbelief” in literary terms; I think of it that my mind is so immersed in the story, I feel like I am Michael Corleone about to shoot that guy in the restaurant and how does that feel?

But now take when I listen to classical music or jazz. Invariably all these Light Bulb ideas will come into my head. So my mind is ENGAGED by jazz, there is some part of my brain that is interacting with the music but other parts of my mind are doing their own thing. So one can construct a sort of continuum of sorts. Starting w/ say meditation where you are in more of a state where you don’t think like that:

Meditation <………..> Jazz, classical <……………> Television, movies
No beta waves? ....…Engaged, lots of beta...……...Immersed, no beta

Any number of activities can be placed on this scale. When do deep thoughts happen? IN the shower, when I am driving, when I am typing, etc. These can be placed in the middle part of the spectrum. Now say you are giving a lecture, and taking questions. There is almost no beta thoughts here (unless you sit down and listen to other sides argument), now your brain is on the far right hand side.

But then I think what about Rock and Roll? Listening to John Lennon sing “you say you want a revolution.” Now my brain is immersed by rock/roll, and I really do think about these lyrics and what he is saying. So there are aspects of music that do immerse me. And typically when I listen to rock, I don’t think in beta waves I am too immersed.

So all TV bad right? No! Wait a second! Did you ever watch a Ken Burns documentary like the ones about the Civil War or Baseball? What happens? Your mind goes back into the beta format, that is the genius of Ken Burns, he allows your mind to wander and to think on its own. He does this by showing you a still photo and a narration, the camera moves in or moves back and that’s all. The images don’t really move so much. It’s very interesting, so TV per se does not always kill your mind, it is the way your brain is engaged. And same for music certain types of music do ENGAGE your brain other types IMMERSE your brain.

SUMMARY: WHAT IS THE PT? Well I think one thing that helps is to know what state of mind your brain is likely to be in: For example: if I am likely to be in the car driving to someplace then that is a good time to expect Deep Thoughts aka: Light Bulb Ideas. So to prepare for this Make sure Ive got my ubiquitous capture tool somewhere nearby, no use running out to the car w/o my note pad. Also put on the classical station, I like rock/roll but if I put on rock and roll, this will defeat the idea of trying for idea capture.

Another example having more to do with human relations. After dinner I sometimes put on the oldies station and dance around the kitchen with my daughter. Now I want to introduce her to classical music as well, but since I am in a social setting with her I find it more useful to put on rock and just immerse myself into it. If I were to put on classical I can see it now: I would take out my note book and start writing, my daughter would look at me and then my wife would come in and say “what the Hell, are you playing with her or not??” Right? So putting your brain in the right framework has social repercussion as well.

November 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjp in MD

Hi jp. I'm really happy that you write these. We should talk - I'm sure good stuff would come of it. I'll respond to a few points.

1) Here's something related I just came across: [ Be more productive - daydream | http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/opinion/points/stories/DN-lehrer_21edi.ART.State.Edition1.26dc487.html ]

Many scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity, a thought process that allows the brain to make new associations and connections. Instead of focusing on our immediate surroundings .. the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings. As a result, we're able to imagine things that don't actually exist

.. people who engage in more daydreaming score higher on experimental measures of creativity, which require people to make a set of unusual connections

Two types of daydreaming:

  • people who notice they are daydreaming only when asked by the researcher (individuals who are unaware of their own daydreaming while it's happening don't seem to exhibit increased creativity)
  • subjects catch themselves daydreaming during the experiment, without needing to be questioned (The hard part is maintaining enough awareness so that even when you start to daydream you can interrupt yourself and notice a creative insight)

2) I love your point re: activities, types of brain waves, and intellectual output. Ideas come to me best when I'm taking in something [ scribbly | http://matthewcornell.org/blog/2005/11/interesting-but-not-useful-or-does-it.html ], i.e., an activity that makes me think. Actually, this is a good definition of "entertainment:" That which does not require you to think. Notice that this doesn't exclude art or fiction (think about it). The other time is when I'm in bed at night. I'm OK generalizing the former, but I suspect much of it depends on personality... ? Planning thinking time (as you suggest) makes sense if the relationship is predictable.

3) I really love your well-developed capture habit. Feel free to share your tools, lessons, etc.

> SUMMARY: WHAT IS THE PT? Well I think one thing that helps is to know what state of mind your brain is likely to be in: For example: if I am likely to be in the car driving to someplace then that is a good time to expect Deep Thoughts aka: Light Bulb Ideas. So to prepare for this Make sure Ive got my ubiquitous capture tool somewhere nearby, no use running out to the car w/o my note pad. Also put on the classical station, I like rock/roll but if I put on rock and roll, this will defeat the idea of trying for idea capture.

I like it.

Thanks for the essay, JP.

November 21, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Hey, thanks for the comments, Matt. I really like to write these as I have a need to elaborate on these fine pts. and I really like to contribute to the forum.

I feel a bit sheepish when you just posted a new blog entry and I am still responding to the old one... I wanted to try to make them timely.

ANyhow, I've actually got quite a few of these essays in the hopper: some of them on cheap-ass GTD tools like my notepad and some of them critiques of GTD stuff and some is just theory, I guess...

ANyhow, I'd love to contribute what I can and hope you can find a larger audience for the blog...

November 22, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjp in MD

Yeah I want to talk, I just haven’t gotten around to it. Havent written the “next action” on this one because it’s one of those things, What do I mean, what do you call it when….

Well, I can do the action now right away, but will I do it most efficiently if I simply call out of the blue without an outline? My wife is like this, she likes to take action ASAP, which often leads to messes up especially like when she starts putting away the tabasco when I am still needing it! You know sometimes a kitchen works best when things are a little, well....messy.

So I guess the next action for me is to outline what to talk of...

BUt what is the pt. of that? I dont need to outline it, it will come to me at some pt. I dont need to actually commit this to a GTD list.

Is this procrastination or is it a more circumspect, more mature way to approach the task? Or am I violating Allen’s GTD??

Which goes back to what I am sensing with the Allen GTD theory as well as our own theory of Unified Field theory of GTD (as I write these essays). There are going to be certain conundrums that you cannot get past. It may be impossible to write a set of postulates that have fully complete and unified GTD. Like Kurt Godel’s improvable idea. It just cant be set up as a set of postulates and still be complete.

For example there is a conundrum between writing down every NEXT STEP and the idea of getting things done FASTER or most efficiently. I can write every step down but is that the best way to do it? How do I know? I can dream about vacation in Hawaii but until I stat making inquiries do I really know the best way to get there? The cheapest, the funnest?

Or look at this way:

ORDERS: Take Arnhem from the Germans.

Now, Allen would say I have to write down HOW I am to do this. But why? We wont know until we get there what is the best way to do this. Is it lightly defended? Can we take it by surprise? DO we need armor? Or is the project to unfeasible that we should try for other targets? None of this is known now..

SO we have this conundrum, where we are to organize everything, we are to write down each NEXT step, but the fact is that the fast most efficient way to do it, might very well not be known until later. Between the time we conceive of the idea and we take the action. So it is useless write down the next step..

There is another dynamic that I am trying to say. The dynamic of fully ORGANIZED or fully written down vs FLEXIBILITY.

It seems to me that there are two competing ideas here, Allens idea of writing every next step and the idea of flexibility. It maybe impossible to maximize both of these ideas

Probably one of my next essays..

November 22, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjp in MD

Even if they're not synchronized with posts!

November 24, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I'll just reply by saying thanks for sharing, and that there's a lot you've brought up. Re: speed, some things are not worth doing slowly/carefully. For more on this check out [ The Age of Speed: Learning to Thrive in a More-Faster-Now World | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1885167679?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1885167679 ], including this formula: fast != irresponsible.

November 24, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Nice references here to related ideas. I think this is one of the best parts of your blog: It is highly referenced with useful click on links. I like this a lot. In fact I discovered this blog when I went to reference Tracey's Eat the Frog and here I am.

One thing about blogs is that they are often indexed simply by chronology and that may not be the only way. I wondered what would happen if you had a sort of index by subject matter on the side bar? Nor is the archives all that useful for finding that sort of thing.

One thing that bothers me is the search function often does not provide the useful information, this is a problem with many websites. I realize most of these search function tools are simply downloads from google or what not. LIke that time I wanted to figure out what Next Actions was all about and all I got was confused. Or take my favorite cooking site: Discusscooking.com. Try to find a recipe w/ the search function. Cant hardly be done. Now if I want to discuss how to do my pork shoulder I will discuss it there but 6 months later I cant find the discussion...Or I get 100 threads related to pork or butts or something, i.e.all the search function produces is ANOTHER search.

Indexes are great, so are glossaries. One thing I do when I pick up a book on history is look for an index, if the book doesnt have one, it's an instant toss...

November 24, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjp in MD

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.