Is Batching Always Bad?

QueueI was recently skimming the archives of one of my favorite “blogging” blogs – Problogger – when I read something that stopped me dead in my tracks.

The thing that slammed me into this proverbial brick wall was an article titled: How Batch Processing Made Me 10 Times More Productive.

When I first read the title I thought to myself, “Oh dear. I’m going to have to educate Darren.” I mean, as lean practitioners we all know one piece flow is faster than the traditional batch and queue system.

And to make matter worse for poor old Darren, batching is the root cause for so many other issues: it creates overproduction, it hides defects, and creates mounds of inventory that in many cases no one wants to buy.

With this in mind I humbled myself and read the article anyway. And a strange thing began to happen… I started to understand why Darren was making these claims.

Some of the areas Darren uses batching are:

  • Writing Posts
  • Checking and Writing Email
  • RSS Reading
  • Editing Posts from Guest Authors
  • Instant Messaging
  • Comment Moderation
  • Book Writing

Darren claims that by focusing, or batching as he calls it, on these tasks he is far more effective. Email is the easiest one to understand. Darren writes:

I’ve written previously about how I overhauled my inbox using Gmail but batching my use of email has helped me even more than the systems I put in place to filter my inbox. I generally do a very quick scan of my inbox first thing in the morning to look for anything genuinely urgent – but then do most of my processing mid morning and then in the evenings. Of course I scan it a few other times a day in case there are urgent emails (or if I’m expecting something) but attempt to get it right down to 0 every day (I don’t always succeed).

What do you think?

So, let me turn it over to you. Is batching in these cases OK? Or is it even batching at all? I mean one could argue checking email and blowing through them in one sitting is more an example of one piece flow.

What do you think? I am extremely curious to hear your thoughts.

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13 Comments

  1. Mark Graban

    July 10, 2008 - 12:09 am

    You might be shocked, Ron, that as a “Lean Blogger” (not a “Blogging Blogger”) I often batch up my writing and then release posts over time in a “level loaded fashion.”

    There are times when I “get on a roll” writing and I do multiple posts in a sitting. Maybe it’s “overproduction” but the feedback from my readers is that it’s better to have one post a day instead of 3 on one day and nothing for the next 2 days.

    I don’t see this as any huge problem, as most of what I blog about isn’t super timely. I don’t think there’s any benefit, in the case of my blog, to any “single piece flow” dogma.

    Now, in a hospital lab I’ve worked with…. single piece flow *is* clearly superior for the processing of patient specimens that arrive in the lab. We’re shifting people from batching work to single-piece flow, which is reducing cycle time and helping improve quality. So don’t think I’m in love with batching. It depends on the situation and the value/waste equation.

    Now, in a workplace setting, again, some batching might be necessary depending on demand and capacity. When things are really busy in a lab, you can’t always run a centrifuge with just 2 specimens at a time…. you have to allow things to batch up somewhat or otherwise you won’t have enough capacity to get all of the work done. But during slow times, you might do just 2 at a time so you’re not waiting too long to let a larger batch accumulate. There is often a tradeoff between batch size and capacity. You have to first meet capacity needs, but then with the smallest batch size possible.

    I’m not making excuses for batching, but I’ve found you sometimes have to be practical about it, not dogmatic.

  2. Ron Pereira

    July 10, 2008 - 7:58 am

    I hear you, Mark. Now that I think about it I’ve also done the same thing preparing for vacation. I actually wrote the “kaizen” series one evening and then had them sent out each of the next 5 days automatically.

  3. Andy Wagner

    July 10, 2008 - 11:29 am

    Remember, it’s not single-piece flow for it’s own sake. It’s single piece flow to provide value to the customer as quickly as possible. By focusing on one task through to it’s conclusion you serve that goal. I suppose somebody unfamiliar with lean terminology might call that batching, but I’m not sure I would.
    Reading and writing email a few times per day means fewer interruptions to the flow of other tasks. That’s certainly lean. The unit size is not each individual email message, it is the daily task of handling all email.
    I suppose the question is, who is your most important customer, the emailer, or the customer for all the other tasks in your day.
    Your quote also says that he gets down to 0 emails in his inbox. That means he’s not keeping inventory day to day. I wish I could say that.

    -Andy

  4. Anonymous

    July 10, 2008 - 2:01 pm

    There’s two things here, firstly clarification as to where you’re batching and where’re not. Just because you don’t read your email as it turns up doesn’t mean you’re batching, it just means you’re not stopping what you’re doing to change onto that. (writing a book even more so)

    Secondly, you are quite correct, the goal is to reach single piece flow however you can’t just stick single piece flow in somewhere and expect it to work brilliantly. You need to improve the system to make single piece flow achievable. Is the system to moderate guest authors posts too clumsy or complicated to switch into and out quickly?

  5. pete abilla

    July 15, 2008 - 5:18 am

    In transportation, it sometimes makes sense to batch instead of sending less-than-truckload, especially with gas prices the way they are. In this energy-challenging environment, I’m sure Toyota is doing less of the “small batches, frequent trips” strategy in their supply parts business (I was on that side of the business) and opting for “a little bit bigger batches, but less frequent trips”. In either case, Toyota still does batches — the question is about “how big should the batch be?” The goal should be a batch-size of 1, but if not, then you increment from there.

  6. Meikah Delid

    July 30, 2008 - 9:47 pm

    Yes, batching my tasks do good for me, too. You see am not only updating blogs but also project managing two websites. So, every day, I am torn between creative (which is blogging/writing) and technical (the work on the websites) work.

    It came to a point that I felt inefficient doing both every day. What I did, I did batching, much like what Darren is doing. Now, I have 3-4 posts in my every other day, which I think is more effective.

    During off-blogging days, I can give more concentration on my website projects.

    As they say, do what is best and most effective for you and for your processes. 🙂

  7. Kim Niles

    August 3, 2008 - 12:17 pm

    I disagree. I’ve tried to write emails, articles and books via batch and queue of ideas … it doesn’t work for me. I end up re-reading or re-writing the same things over and over in different parts of the article because I forget what I’ve read or written earlier. It’s very inefficient. It’s always best to develop the outline (equivalent of process) then populate each section in one sitting (equivalent of single piece flow). Reviewing that work after it’s done is like having an inspection point beyond the production of the part.

    Regarding emails, sorting out the different types of subjects is like sorting materials to different production lines. Batch and queue under this context would be like sorting out all the emails of a certain subject then compiling and pasting in one email to respond to all the emails… which no one does because we naturally know it’s inefficient.

    KN

  8. Steve

    April 22, 2009 - 3:32 am

    Depends on what your value is…is it the speed at which you read your emails or is it the quality and timeliness of information flow.

  9. Bhavin Kamani

    July 29, 2009 - 2:30 am

    I think it depends on from whose point of view you are viewing a given operation. In case of an email, if the point of view is from a person waiting for my reply, I guess he would prefer me to apply single pice flow. Whereas if it is just informational mail (where I am the customer), then I may be more efficient with batch and queue.

    Having said that, in any batch and queue scenario, there is always WIP. Its best to keep this WIP optimal. For example, pile up of too many informational mails for days/weeks may not be a good idea. Daily or weekly clearance of informational mails in small batches helps.

    My takeway – Batch/Queue or Single piece Flow? Batching looks more efficient for the task executor. However, task customer will always perfer single piece flow. One has to strike a balance between these two bi-polar needs

  10. Bill Sims

    August 22, 2011 - 4:25 pm

    Could there be some confusion? I assume that the blogger has another job? Have we confused bathcing for what is actually change over to production of another product? Just wondering…….