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.


I'm going to try to break out some of the ideas in my lengthy intro into some more chapterised essays.

My Blinding Flash of the Obvious is the content of this first post: what buckets do you choose to make sure you catch all your Stuff?

Friends, I'll give you the straight answer here. You'll read guff and stuff out there in the Wide Wide World of Web about what you need, and it will be very confusing. It will be written by highly caffeinated geeks who think that spitting out concepts is the same as spitting out information. These are the five buckets you need:

  • goals
  • projects
  • next-actions
  • someday/maybe
  • waiting for
That's it. That's the entire kaboodle, kit included.

What do you want to do with your life? What do you want to do THIS YEAR with your life? What do you need to get done to meet your commitments? Why get out of bed in the morning? What will be the proof that you've been worth your salary? It's not enough to be working on projects - you have to know WHY you're working on those projects and not something else. This can be short: 5 items. Any more and you'll be unable to commit to the right project that will satisfy your goals.

Ok. So what are you working on? What are your open loops? We don't need to know what Projects you're assigned to; that's what your KPIs are for. Just write down the projects. You're a natural born planner - you know what's involved in your Project; you need to do your CAPEX, you need to get the concept design done, you need to find a supplier for those components, you need to you need to you need to you need to. What ducks do you need to get in a row? What blind alleys do you need to go shooting down? What processes do you need to follow? What conversations do you need to have?

Ok, this ought to be obvious. Go through your projects and write down the very next-action that needs doing on each project. If there are two seperate actions that could be taken, don't choose between them just write them down. But don't write down the second and third steps - that stuff is doomed to live in your project planning. Face it, the future doesn't happen according to your plan. All you can do is manage yourself, now.

I have to be honest and say that I don't think this list is particularly useful for me. As I said above, I'm uncomfortable trying to second-guess future realities by populating the Someday list with Step 3 through Step 43 that I'll be able to start as soon as I've done A and B. It doesn't work like that. And I've got far too much work on my plate for such a thing as Maybe. I either decide to do something or decide not to do something - there's never going to come a quiet lull in the activity where it becomes appropriate to discuss getting a new CAM software that integrates directly with SolidWorks. I either need to do it at an inappropriate time or toss the idea. I'm comfortable with both approaches.

But I keep the list because without it there would be a functional hole for actions and projects that are worth taking but can be cheaply deferred for the present.

waiting for
This is perhaps the keystone for me. I was amazed the other week when I went through my waiting for list and shot a followup email to the interstate sales manager asking where my competitor sample castors had gone. He'd sent out the request to all the branch managers then forgotten about it altogether. So had they! Weeks had gone past where I thought they were all diligently beavering away for me using their contacts to generate samples I needed to validate the design for the castor THEY'RE hassling ME to hurry up and design. They'd forgotten about it!

The thing that really got to me wasn't that the branch managers had forgotten the commitment. These things happen. That's what communication is for. That's why engineers spend 3/4 of their waking life chasing things up. What got to me was that the National Sales Manager had no record or reminder or popup or note of the deliverable that his staff had promised. He hadn't added this to his waiting for list. He had no live document of what future events had to take place before his promise to me was fulfilled.

The most profitable thing I've ever done for my company is to develop the skill of never losing a thread. Where's the quote on that widget? Coming next week. What's the latest scope? I'm waiting for the Production Manager to submit his comments. What's the state of the tooling? Tooling design is sitting with the toolmaker.

I prefer those answers to: which widget? I was supposed to get quotes for that too? Scope? Did you not want me to show that to the Managing Director yet? Tooling? I dunno. I guess they're working as fast as they can.

Competitor samples that you need to benchmark the design? I dunno what happened to that.