Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Metric people. METRIC. It's called the metric system.

...wait a minute wait a minute. This is dumb.

Why do we have to keep using this ridiculous base-8, base-16, base-32 numbering system? It's just confusing.

I can't tell if this doodad is meant to be 1 9/16" or 1 3/8" long... and you know what? I don't even care any more. I mean - WHO can tell what we're talking about here?

Wouldn't it be great if there was some simple, base-10 unit of measurement we could all just agree to use? These imperial measurements are just screwy. Wouldn't it be great if we could just call it 40 _somethings_ and everyone would know what we're talking about. I don't want to have to do division of fractions just to figure out what half a 1 9/16" bolt is - if it were a 40 _something_ bolt, then a bolt half the size would just be 20 _somethings_. Doesn't that make sense?

I mean, 8.3 pounds of water in a gallon? What's that all about? I mean - it's such a standard thing. It's water fer chrissakes. It should be one _something_ per _something_.



Let's use the METRIC system!

They've already got it worked out! It's ALL base-10 numbers! MILLIMETRES! Of course! We should call the bolt a 40mm bolt! PROBLEM SOLVED!

Density of water?!? Why, it's 1 kg/litre! How easy is that?

Wow. That's our entire problem solved!

Why didn't we think of this before?

Oh. Wait. I know.

Because we're American.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Zero Inventory is about more than just saving money on holding stock.

The ideal batch size is one.

When you order one shiny new blue automatic Toyota Corolla with air-conditioning and power windows (but without the sports bumpers or tinted windows) precisely one order for a blue automatic Toyota Corolla with air-conditioning and power windows (but without the sports bumpers or tinted windows) enters the factory.

In a perfect pull system this means:
- one more engine block gets poured
- one more automatic transmission sub-assembly is delivered to the final assembly line.
- precisely 875 M5 screws are delivered (ok I made up that number)
- when the blue car body goes barrelling down the assembly line, an air-conditioning unit is manufactured to arrive at the assembly line at just the right time.

To achieve anything approaching this level of synchronicity is a special kind of magic. But I want to talk about WHY you'd do it. Why not just make make 500 engines, 500 air-conditioners, 500 transmissions and sit back and wait for the orders to pour in.

Why go to all the trouble?

When you don't buy more from suppliers than you can manufacture you don't have to waste money to have stock lying around gathering dust. When you don't manufacture more products than you can sell you're not wasting your time making the wrong thing. That's easy, anyone can see that.

The Lean Manufacturer takes it further than that: they look at the process involved in getting there. They recognise that while taking ANY forwards action is commendable, true perfection is unattainable; and that this fact should be seen as a motivator to remain constantly vigilant in the face of recent success.

A Lean Manufacturer is agile, able to change pace or direction at the drop of the hat. At all levels, from corporate direction and new model design through to deciding how many car-seats are to be delivered this hour, plans are worked and reworked right up until the last moment. The LM'er is able to respond to market demand.

While there is very little room for error in the Lean factory these things do happen: when a fault occurs at one station the ENTIRE line stops and EVERYONE rushes to that spot to fix the problem immediately. By committing themselves to the Lean path the weak links are quickly rooted out and strengthened.

When a factory operates according to a true pull-system everyone can be confident that their effort is valuable. People won't bust their guts for 3 weeks straight cranking widgets that are just going to sit in some warehouse somewhere, those widgets are going to be in the customer's hand by the end of the week: guaranteed.

How does this relate back to GTD?

So, you've got a ToDo list. Well done. When you organised you don't waste time doing things that don't need to be done. Ok. That's the easy part.

When you take it further and start applying GTD you learn WHY you have that list, and how it makes your life easier:
  • your life will never be perfect, but the closer you get the more serene you will be. Every step in the right direction is great. Seriously, well done. Now you know that you can take that step: go take the next.
  • when you have all your Stuff totally zipped up and captured you're able to change projects instantly. You can finish what you're doing and go play with the kids, safe in the knowledge that you aren't leaving some vital unclosed loop unrecorded.
  • because you concentrate more on what needs to be done immediately you have more feedback on the doability of your commitments. What can look like an easy week's work on a ToDo list suddenly becomes 90 hours of cumulative Next-Actions! That's good information to have at the START of the week BEFORE it becomes a problem.
  • When you use GTD you know that you're putting your efforts in the places you want your efforts to be. You're only ever bothering to do the stuff that leads you towards your goal.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

3 things that context-lists can't do.

I was thinking today about some stuff in my system that doesn't seem to be described in the diagram: I thought that I had discovered the Flaw in GTD until I realised that there's that sneaky little loop off to the side called Project Planning. GTD will only get you halfway - it'll only help you keep track of the balls you have in the air - at some point you have to start juggling.

Don't forget:

Project Folder

It may sound redundant to list the Project Folder as a promise-management tool, but I wanted to make it clear from the start that there's a reason why you have these things - and it's not just to keep you busy.

You keep returning to your scope document - you refer to the drawings - you keep quotes for things you've ordered - you keep sales projections.

It's not enough just to have a random manilla folder stuffed full of bits of paper you think you might one day need again. You have to start each Project with a proper folder - and use appropriate labels to guide you to keep track of the things that need to be kept. Personally I have the following labels in my folders:
  • Scope
  • Development
  • Drawings
  • FEA
  • FMEA
  • Prototyping
  • Tooling
  • BOM
  • Component Plans
This list isn't exhaustive - and it's probably missing some things that a better engineer than me would include - but it directs to map out the path of a Project before it's started and to not get lost along the way.

Non-context lists

David Allen only really talks about keeping action lists for the various contexts that you have. I've written my thoughts on the usefulness of contexts already.

When you have a Project that essentially involves a confluence of many semi-unrelated events it can be useful to maintain action lists for each project. For example: monitoring the progress of design, development and tooling for each component in a completely new assembly.

DIYplanner.com has a blank checklist. I write the name of each component at the top of each list, staple them all together and then note the next-action or waiting-for. Then reviewing the Project progress is simply a matter of flipping through the sheets to make sure that each component is under control.

I don't use these lists to store todo's - maintaining more than one master-list would be Evil. The purpose of these project-based lists is rather to simplify the review process.

Time blocks
Some things you can't plan as a series of actions, you just have to sit down and do them.

I've learnt that, for me at least, the process of invention can't be scripted. While I do have methods at my disposal I have no way of knowing how long I'm going to take to solve a design problem, or even what thought processes I'm going to use.

It wouldn't make sense to plan out the week by saying "On Monday I'm going to invent that component, then the day after I'll invent the other bits, and I'll finish probably on Thursday by reinventing those other bits." It doesn't work like that. At that stage I don't even know what the constraints are, let alone the shape of the pieces or even how many pieces there are. How can you put a forecast on solving a puzzle when your first step is to invent the puzzle board?

I don't track next-actions for jobs that rely on my creativity. I rely on my creativity for that. That means that I just have to block out time - 4 hours at a minimum - and just do it until it's done.

The song Yesterday was written on the first take: apparently Paul got out of bed one morning with a song running through his mind. He couldn't work out where he'd heard it before so he went to the piano and played it. Nothing. He played it for some friends, who loved it, but no-one had heard it before. After a while they realised that it was a brand new song that had literally come to Paul in his sleep.

How long does it take you invent something? The answer is "Sometime between a long time and a short time."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Why I get upset when people leave a pen in my office.

Ok. So I don't get upset. I don't chuck a hissy fit or loose my nana. Let's be clear about that to start with.

This is how I understand 5S:
  • Organisation (Seiri)
  • Neatness (Seiton)
  • Cleaning (Seiso)
  • Standardisation (Seiketsu)
  • Discipline (Shitsuke)

Organisation (Seiri)
"Put things in order (remove what is not needed and keep what is needed)" [1]

There must be a reason for a thing to be in your workspace. Keep only the tools that are in current use and discard obsolete tools. If you need a 12mm spanner, then have one. Do not obtain any more spanners until the need presents itself.

If you find that you're constantly searching for pens even though you KNOW that you have 50 of them somewhere, here's a tip: throw out 49 pens, and put 1 pen in your pen-holder. You'd be amazed at how this helps you focus.

Find a spot for your stapler. Put your 6" rule in the right spot. Put your vernier in the right spot. Put your Post-It notes in the right spot. Throw out anything that you never need to see again. If you need a desk-lamp: get one. Obtain a wrist-pad for your mouse.

Neatness (Seiton)
"Proper Arrangement - (Place things in such a way that they can be easily reached whenever they are needed)"

The correct tool should have a logical location. It's not enough just to have the right tools in a random tool box: they should be up on a shadow-board. Tools that are used more often should be close at hand: there's a reason that surgeons require their tools to be laid out so precisely.

The logical extension to this idea is that you should know where something is and where it isn't. By maintaining a proper spot for everything you will know immediately if it isn't there. You won't waste time searching for a stapler: you'll know immediately that someone has pilfered it and you need to go get a new one.

When you ask someone if they have a pen it's interesting to see if they reach for exactly where the pen is - or do they go scrabbling about in their top drawer? If you ask them for the latest quote or drawing, do they reach immediately for the right folder - or do they start sifting through a foot-high stack of randomness?

Further: What's that person's email Inbox like? Do you find that important emails get lost? What's their approach to maintaining track of projects - do they let minor details turn into huge crises?

A person's neatness affects everything they do. By 'neatness' we mean functionally neat, I don't care if you brush your hair or not. I am not a particularly neat person by nature, which means that I have to consciously work to maintain my neatness. I do care if you can't readily access your tools and do not see this as a problem.

Cleaning (Seiso)
"Clean - (Keep things clean and polished; no trash or dirt in the workplace)"

Randomness is the killer of your creativity. The instant that your well-ordered folder of notes, spreadsheets and drawings becomes random you might as well throw it in the bin. The instant a corner of your office become randomness and Junk you have lost the ability to find anything ever again: something might be missing or it might be hidden in randomness, you have no way of knowing.

Do not maintain possession of items that you no longer need - the only thing an obsolete piece of paper can possibly do is cover up something important.

By making your office clean you make it a nice place to be. You make it a nice place for people to visit. You feel good about the work that you do.

Standardisation (Seiketsu)
"Purity - (Maintain cleanliness after cleaning - perpetual cleaning)"

The trick, then, is to maintain this order. It may seem like maintaining a bare desk is a sign that I waste time on tidying that I could spend on working - that I don't have enough on my plate.

I say that the opposite is true: my clean desk is a sign that when I need to work I am able to. I have so much to do that I cannot afford to waste my time dealing with the sheer volume of randomness that obscures my path. Instead, the usual state of my office is one of readiness.

It may be tempting to designate a small corner of your office to Junk - but this corner will only ever grow. That Junk will become randomness, and that will eat away at your productivity and reduce your ability to deal with the task at hand - your ability to act now.

Whenever you feel flustered, swamped or hectic; simply put everything back into its place. This process will take less than 30 seconds, and I guarantee that you will:
  1. feel in control
  2. have the tools at hand to cope with your current challenge
  3. find some forgotten but actionable item hidden under something
Every day you leave your office you should be able to glance around, once, to convince yourself that there is no randomness in your life and that you will start tomorrow without surprises.

Discipline (Shitsuke)
"Commitment (an attitude towards any undertaking to inspire pride and adherence to standards)"

The reason to be neat is because you want have the self-esteem that comes from aiming for excellence in your profession. Control the things you can control, and accept everything else as an opportunity for growth. When you know that all the little things in your life are under control you will be able to concentrate on the bigger issues - and trust to the outcome.

Maintaining neatness - and knowing how to get back to that state after a firestorm hits you - is a way of respecting the work that you do; and thereby respecting yourself also.

This cannot be achieved by making a decision once and then forgetting about it. The decision must be constantly re-affirmed. Neatness is a relationship (a battle) with the randomness in your life.

When you leave a pen in my office I have to do something with it.

I use my desk for all sort of important things that are vital to my sanity and ability to perform my job. I can't just leave the pen sitting there: I need that deskspace to be clear.

I can't put the pen into my penholder and claim it as my own, because I already have a pen there. This second - probably inferior - pen will only add to the confusion in my life.

I can't throw the pen into my top drawer because I already have a spare pen or two in there.

I can't throw it out because you might come back for it.

When you leave a pen in my office I need to get up out of my chair and return it to you. You might think that I'm an idiot, but it's the only way I can see that lets me keep control of my workspace without being wasteful. Keeping control of my workspace is integral to keeping control of my work.

"Hey, this is your pen."

EDIT: Some scoundrel must have left a pen in my office or something today, because I reached for a pen, looked down and found that I had a Bic that I didnt' recognise.


  • [1] Definitions taken from http://www.isixsigma.com/dictionary/5S-486.htm

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Universal Filing

If you're going to carry actionable papers backwards and forwards between work (and you are), then you need to carry a document folder in your bag. This folder is only allowed to carry actionable things.

Carry the folder with you regardless of whether it contains anything, because the time will come when some important document needs to cross the great divide life/work divide. A half-complete filing system is a useless filing system - it's not enough to be carrying random pieces of paper around with you half your life, hoping that somewhere in the back of your mind you remember that there's that thing you should be doing about that piece of paper that's floating around somewhere.

Life's more important than that.

The rules are:
  • Use it exclusively. If your partner wants you to take a document to work the following day, train them to put it in the folder and then tell you. There will never come a time where it is more usefu lto throw the piece of paper randomly into your bag.
  • Putting something in it take 10 seconds. If you come across a piece of paper that needs to cross the divide, put it in the folder immediately; there is to be no stack of papers that are waiting to go in the folder, this stack will remain on your desk and in the back of your mind for days.
  • Regularly process it. Make going through the folder a part of your daily Inbox Emptying.
  • Label the folder. This is important. Don't ask for an explanation. Make it a neat little label with a prissy well defined font. Making it official means you'll use it.
  • Only ACTIONABLE things allowed. Even if the action is "File at home". The second that you put a truly random piece of junky junk in there the entire folder stops being a precious portable Inbox and becomes another pile of Randomness. You have too much Randomness in your life already.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Getting things DONE

When I was first trying to make heads or tails of GTD one of the biggest barriers was that I couldn't quite make sense of how it all related to ME: how my job could be defined by David Allen's gospel.

It all seemed so useful - so revelatory - and yet it was almost completely useless to me. It didn't make sense to put all my projects into one big basket and pretend that they could be managed that way. GTD's defintion of 'project' is anything that has more than one outstanding action. That included all my Projects, as well as all the subprojects that were born from the Projects, as well as every little deliverable or job or whatever.

My problem was that I didn't quite understand the question. What was I trying to achieve with all this nonsense? At the time, my time-management system consisted of a single todo list. That list was also my project management. It was also mainly completely ignored as I barrelled from one disaster that I didn't understand to another. What part of my life would time-management be repairing?

My GTD lists aren't my entire life. They aren't my entire job either.

At the end of the day the answer was in the question: It didn't make sense to put all my projects into one big basket and pretend that they could be managed that way. So I seperated out the Projects and tried to track those as a seperate bucket.

I'd have this list of named Projects that I was assigned to, and then a list of projects that I was working on, then a list of actions on those projects. The idea was that my daily review would consist of confirming that my actions were the right actions to take on the right projects that got my Projects completed properly.

The problem with all this was that it became unweildy. Things would come into my life, but not make it into my deck of cards system. My system became too precious to allow it to be easily or gracefully torn to shreds. I had too much non-basic stuff piled on top of the system. Too much architecture, not enough walls.

I ditched Projects eventually. They were written on my white board ferchrissakes. My KPIs were based on them. That's what project planning is for. Those project folders sitting on the bookshelf. That's where you track which Projects you're working on.

Now I just had projects, next-actions, someday/maybe and waiting for. There was a clear part of the system missing.

This is why I inserted goals at the top. I know. I know I wrote just a few sentences ago that you don't need to be trawling through all that higher altitude stuff every morning just to work out what you need to get done this morning. But a goal is different to a Project. A Project is something you live in. It's something you inhabit for the unforeseeable future. A goal is a place, a state. You don't need reminding what you're Projects are, but you do need reminding of what the goals are.

Every vector needs to know which direction to face and where it is right now.

Every knowledge worker needs to know what must achieve at the end of the day and what is achievable immediately.

The only way to get things DONE is to focus on what needs to be done. State your Projects as a finished proposition, then check that proposition every morning.


Where are the contexts, you ask? Where are all my @ signs? I will tell you now. I invite you to reach deep within your soul and examine your life. Think of all the spheres that you influence - learn how far your grasp is.

Close your eyes, let your mind go blank, then let it focus on the details of your inner-child, then let it go blank, then focus again on your inner child then let it go blank.

When you open your eyes you will realise that you have two contexts: you're either at home or at work. There is no need to be maintaining such foolishness as @MyMum'sPlace or @VideoStore. Go and wash your brain out!

Keep It Simple Stupid.

[I know, I know. You're a volunteer at your church. You coach basketball for under 9's. You own and operate a ski-lodge on the side and spend every waking moment managing it by webcam and loudspeaker. Right. You can have another context. Personally, I've also got @shops.]

If you're like me you work with a PC on at all times, you have a phone on your desk and a mobile in your pocket. There's a fax/photocopier a few feet away and your PC is constantly connected to some variety of broadband intermanet. There's an intranet, for what it's worth, and the entire company network is available to you.

There's no POINT to having contexts called @computer, @phone, @fax, @email. Those things are always available to you. An action called "call Scumbags R Us to follow up on rivet delays" isn't WAITING for the moment when the phone is available to you. The phone is right there. Any time that you're at work you could pick up that phone and call.

You could also be writing that email. You could be reading [this] blog. You could be sending a fax to a supplier or working on your CAD. All things are possible.

The point is that you must not let your contexts overlap. That's wastage. David Allen can be forgiven for having the contexts @computer and @internet, because he frequently travels and spends time at his laptop unconnected from the outside world. The rule is that a context is defined by the tools that are available at that moment in time.

If you're sitting at your desk at 9am wondering what context you are in - I'll tell you. You are in @computer, @internet, @CAD, @fax, @phone, @boss, @email... all at the same time.

Now. I'm not telling you what MODE you're in. Maybe you enjoy emailing first thing. Maybe you love Dilbert. But your CONTEXT is firmly @work. You have all your @work tools available.