Wasting Time in 3 Billion Meetings

Meetings are one of the few times when humans have the opportunity to positively and constructively interact with one another, yet it seems businesses and organizations large and small struggle to make them effective. In fact often meetings are a great waste of time and even a source of frustration for many. The article How 3 Billion Meetings Per Year Waste Time, Money and Productivity in the Enterprise informs us that while 69% of people in the world feel meetings aren’t productive, 71% of people in the U.S. feel this way. I’ve heard a few Toyota alumni say that the Toyota management has a culture of too many meetings. I wonder what these numbers would be specific to Japanese companies, to Toyota in Japan, and to Toyota globally? If even companies famed for their lean management have too many meetings, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The article states:

With an estimated 11 million formal meetings per day in the United States, corporate America has been held hostage by 3 billion meetings per year.

Not every meeting itself is a waste of time, but waste is inherent within every meeting. Being a bit more aware of and giving names to the types of waste we typically encounter in meetings is the first step to reducing this waste. We can apply the framework of the 7 types of waste in lean thinking to meetings:

Overproduction . Too many topics in one meeting. Too many PowerPoints slides. Inviting too many people. Belaboring the point, pontificating or talking too much. These are all examples of overproduction. The article informs us that up to 25% of meetings are spent discussing irrelevant issues. Based on my experience this seems rather optimistic, or based on a loose definition of “relevant”.

Transportation. The transportation or conveyance of ideas in a meeting involves needlessly wandering from topic to topic. This happens when the problem or issue being addressed through the meeting is not clear, or when there a meeting agenda is not followed. The article cites a statistic that 69% of meetings in America have no prepared agenda. Treat a meeting like you would a wilderness rally: a destination, a map, a target time to finish, and a driver for the win.

Waiting. Meetings starting late or disengaged people waiting for meetings to end are both examples of time wasted waiting. Locking the door once the meeting starts or charging a $1 per minute penalty and donating this to a good cause are possible ways to change this behavior, though admittedly at the symptom and not the root cause level.

Inventory. When more tasks are started instead of completed as a result of the meeting, we can say that inventory has been generated. Any time and cost put into new ideas, given project resources or management attention are as much a type of inventory as durable physical goods. Meetings are huge inventory generators, when they should be designed as inventory reducers that keep projects moving through status communication and issue resolution.

Defects. Another data point from the article tells us that 90% of participants in a meeting are daydreaming at some point. This can result in communication rework as disengaged people snap back with a “Huh?” requiring the meeting leader or speaker to recap the last 2 minutes of the conversation for the daydreamer. Keeping the group size small, making sure each person has a reason or purpose for being at the meeting, and assigning each person a role during the meeting are effective ways to keep people engaged. One of these roles is the secretary or minutes-keeper whose responsibility is to take good notes on what was agreed so that information not lost or communicated incorrectly, another form of defect waste in meetings.

Processing . Whenever a meeting is used instead of a simpler means of collaboration or decision making, we are in danger of over-processing or even making the entire meeting itself a wasted process. The best way to avoid processing waste is to clearly establish the purpose of the meeting, the agenda include scope, deliverables, participants and time, and then to ask “What is the appropriate technology to hold this meeting?” Face to face is the most oldest and most basic of meeting technologies. It may be the most effective in some cases but also can be the most expensive when bringing people together. Telephone, Skype, video, the circulating A3 document to build consensus through informal meetings, stand-up meetings and daily shift start meetings are all examples of meeting technologies that may be more appropriate than the classic leather chair board room zzz…

Motion. Shuffling through paper, slides, computer equipment, or in any way being physically unprepared is an example of how waste can be introduced into even the best planned meetings.

It’s important to have an agenda for a structured and effective meeting. It’s also important to leave a bit of time for learning within each meeting, and on each agenda. Some learning may require deeper reflection, so a meeting should also start with a discussion of reflections since the last meeting as part of the “old business, review of minutes from last meeting” section. As a way to make meetings more fun, add an element of kaizen – continuous improvement. As a way to get started in applying lean thinking to running your meetings, during you next meeting assign one person (maybe the daydreamer?) to observe the meeting and take notes on the 7 types of wastes visible during the meeting. Review this list at the end of the meeting and agree on one thing to improve as a group. Do this periodically, rotating the roles, and use some of the time you save through to celebrate the your small successes in applying kaizen to your meetings.

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1 Comment

  1. John Santomer

    October 9, 2010 - 12:56 am

    Dear Jon,
    In Toyota Way, I beleive the reason for the meetings is becaue it is a built-in practice. Even the Japanese culture recognize the importance of “tatakidai” and “nemawashi” to assure the good flow and success of a lean initiative. The process of conducting the meeting should be structured to avoid more waste. Every part of the vehicle should work for the same goal in order to achieve the best results at the most efficient time required to reach its targetted levels. Once its there, then its time to set new goals.