Nine Rules for Fighting Endless Meetings

I’ve heard that at Toyota the meetings are 60 minutes long, with 50 minutes of actual meeting time and 10 minutes to get to the next meeting. The use of the standardize A3 size one-page format to communicate the progress on PDCA problem solving keeps meetings on time. This is truly impressive, but we won’t all get there in one leap.
Here are nine rules for fighting endless meetings:
#1 Start on time. You don’t arrive 15 minutes late for a school examination. You don’t arrive 15 minutes late for your flight. If you do, you don’t fly. You don’t arrive 15 minutes late for a job interview. Yet once we pass the test, make the flight and get the job, we think nothing of making others wait for meetings at work. Why?
#2 Have clear objectives. Meetings will be more productive when you start with an agenda that answers the questions: Why am I at this meeting? Who requires that I be here? When does this meeting end? How will we know if the meeting is successful?
#3 Be prepared. Review the agenda or other background information ahead of time. Know where the meeting will be held and how long it takes to get to and from that meeting place so you can be on time.
#4 Be engaged. This starts with turning off your cell phones or blackberries. Ideally, put them all on the table where they are visible to all. Make reaching to answer them is a visible offense. Pay $1 towards charity if you reach for your phone, unless it’s an emergency. As long as meetings are kept short, you can get back to people who call you in a reasonable amount of time. Stand up rather than sit, it will keep you more aware.
#5 Communicate visually. Humans process more than 80% of information through their sense of sight. Psychologists say most of communication happens through body language, then tone of voice and a smaller portion through the actual content of speech. Give and read visual cues. Use images to tell a story and anchor your communication, rather than talking on and on about something without structure.
#6 Solve problems. If everything is going well, why meet? Ideally meetings should help solve problems. If there is a clear objective and a problem to solve, the meeting can end either when the problem is solved or everyone knows what to do to start solving the problem. Problem solving is engaging, and in that is what we are all here to do.
#7 Practice genchi gembutsu. Whenever possible hold the meetings at the location where the particular problem or issue being discussed has occurred. This is more visual, engaging, and improves direct access to the facts. This speeds up problem resolution by taking away opportunities for conjecture and blurring of the actual condition.
#8 End on time. You need to get to the next meeting on time.
#9 Avoid the Three Evils of Meetings as taught by Takeshi Kawabe, former executive of Showa Manufacturing Co. and student of Taiichi Ohno:
1. Meet but don’t discus
2. Discuss but don’t decide
3. Decide but don’t do
These nine rules will develop the behaviors to support more effective meetings.

8 Comments

  1. Ron

    March 15, 2007 - 8:23 pm

    Jon, these are all good ideas. I have found nothing more beneficial than a good SPACER before each meeting. SPACER stands for safety (where are bathrooms, fire escapes, etc), purpose (why are we here), agenda (what will we do), conduct (what are the rules of the meeting), expectations (what do we expect from this), and roles (what do I need to do). I can do a good SPACER is about 5 minutes. For training classes we take more like 20 minutes. But it will solve bad meeting and help facilitate a good class like nothing I have ever seen. I often add a SPACER outline to meeting invitations letting people know why they are coming, etc. This saves some time once they show up.

  2. robert thompson

    March 16, 2007 - 12:21 am

    My top tips for meetings are:
    . Don’t Meet.
    . Set Objectives and provide an Agenda before the meeting itself.
    . Assign actions and target completion dates
    . Start and end the meeting on time – I personally hate meetings which are delayed until a key attendee decides to show-up.
    . Emphasize that each participant is a valuable member of the group and she should both listen attentively and also speak freely.

  3. Jon Miller

    March 16, 2007 - 10:07 am

    I like your first rule Rob.

  4. Veeru

    March 16, 2007 - 11:06 am

    My manager at Toyota gave following advice for chairing meeting:
    1. Meet everybody in person, well before the meeting, discuss the issues and make it very clear why they should be coming to the meeting.
    2. Ensure everybody coming to meeting have the same level of information (Heijunka of information), else the meeting will be waste as some of the attendees will be confused and hence no consensus.
    3. Finally, meeting is to display everybody’s consensus. Meeting is to DECIDE not to DISCUSS. (This may not hold good if your are brainstorming.)

  5. Jon Miller

    March 16, 2007 - 11:55 am

    Thank you for the very good input Veeru. That is an example of what the Japanese call “nemawashi” or decision making by preparation and making consensus in advance.

  6. Karthik Chandramouli

    July 19, 2007 - 8:52 am

    When I worked at Toyota, the acronym for their North American manufacturing headquarters was TMMNA (Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America).
    Our public joke was that TMMNA really stood for “Too Many Meetings, No Action” and it was not far from the truth. The other interpretation was “Too Many Managers, No Authority” and this was definitely true.
    Toyota has a TERRIBLE meeting culture in spite of A3s. No one pays attention in meetings because meetings are just formalities (tatemae). The real decisions don’t get made in meetings, they are made over sake and sushi.
    Meetings at Toyota are never to decide. Even the most senior member of Toyota’s management team would not make decisions in front of people. It is a cultural artifact that is obsolete in the modern world, but is a way of life at Toyota.
    Endless meetings, to tell someone what you plan to tell them in the real meeting, followed by more meetings to actually get something done. After the meetings, then you can do real work.
    Ask someone at Toyota how many Japanese coordinators go running in and out of meetings to answer meaningless calls to their keitai (cell phones).
    It is one of the most disrespectful things you can ever be a part of — no one cares about your time or effort to prepare for a meeting.

  7. Jon

    July 19, 2007 - 9:26 am

    Hello Karthik,
    Thanks for your interesting perspective on meetings at Toyota.
    Have you worked in other non-Japanese companies? If so, how you would compare meetings in those companies with meetings at Toyota?
    Your point that “Meetings at Toyota are never to decide” makes me think about cultural assumptions we have about what is a “decision”.
    American leaders may make decisions in the first 15 minutes of a meeting, while a Japanese leader may make a decision after 15 meetings. Both are making decisions, but using a different process with a different outcome in terms of the quality of these decisions.
    In general, Japanese leaders take longer and work to build consensus, and as a result the process of deciding may take longer but the execution of the decision is more sure.
    In the West we may decide quickly but struggle to gain agreement or consensus, and execute poorly. Not to mention that the quick decision may not have benefited from careful consideration through the many meetings.
    I freely admit that this is a generalization, and that I have an appreciation (some may say bias) for the Japanese approach.
    Again, thanks for sharing your personal experience.

  8. Shivakumar

    February 8, 2008 - 2:01 am

    Dear Jon ,
    Great to see all the threads and the info.
    I am a TPS practitioner & have worked in the Toyota Group of Companies for a decade. During my interactions with the Japanese Sensei & time spent with them , I would say you portray my feelings & experiences in toto.
    Now I am out of Toyota and help companies adopt the TPS Way of thinking and bringing about a change in the culture
    more so regarding meetings as well.