Avoid the Arbitrary Constraints of Time

By Kevin Meyer Updated on December 7th, 2018

It’s that time of the year again when many people ask “where did the year go?” and furiously try to wrap up projects, crank out potentially unnecessary production, create plans and budgets for next year, and perhaps start reflecting on the past twelve months.  Why?  What is so special about the calendar year?

Over a decade ago Steve Player did a presentation at a Lean Accounting Summit where he challenged us to stop “budgeting to an arbitrary wall” – the end of the calendar year.  That resonated with our team (which included our CFO), so we went back to our company and announced we were stopping budgeting altogether, and would instead make the best financial decision at whatever point in time we were at.  It was a dramatic, and positive, change for our company.  We also took the concept a step further.  We tried to no longer constrain projects to arbitrary timeframes like “years” or “months,” but instead determined was was an appropriate, and challenging, target for completion.

Early in most lean journeys companies learn to stop trying to maximize production at the end of a calendar month just to “make the month look good.”  Instead, production is matched to demand, regardless of time frame.

For many organizations a subsequent and similar hurdle is to get over the fear of insufficient demand.  Traditional companies like having sufficient demand in the following month to ensure the operation is fully loaded, but as they remove waste and streamline processes their lead times may shorten to less than a month.  This is good – but can be a bit gut-wrenching not having the next month “filled.”  The increased value to the customer almost always creates a good outcome, and over time the confidence is regained.  The importance of the arbitrary concept of “months” decreases.

I’m trying to become more cognizant of when I put activities into arbitrary time blocks, and I even attempt to minimize the impact of time altogether.  For example, I stopped wearing a watch years ago and recently I’ve even stopped wearing my Fitbit.  Having my phone in my pocket is sufficient for when I really need to know the time, and is remote enough so I’m not continually aware of it.

My wife and I are currently in Hawaii for twelve days (not two weeks!) to celebrate our 20th anniversary.  We’re staying on the north shore of Oahu, right on the Banzai Pipeline beach where world class surfers are participating in the Vans World Cup of Surfing.  It’s spectacular to watch right from the house we’re renting, especially a few days ago when there was a monster swell.  It took a little getting used to waves far taller than our house coming right at us, but then breaking and flattening, ending just a few feet from the deck.  Somewhat unsettling, especially at night.

Surfing competitions are interesting as they are completely dependent on weather, which destroys any attempt to align with time.  The competition only takes a couple days, but is scheduled for two weeks.  Each morning the organizers determine if conditions are right and make a call as to whether it will be held.  If it is, then the competitors, judges, spectators, press, and support services such as food vendors and traffic control, are notified.  A complex logistics chain must remain flexible, independent of time, ready to respond within just a couple hours.

A similar defocusing on time can happen to us as individuals.  Consider the difference between chronological and biological age.  Some of us are lucky enough to have a biological age considerably younger than our chronological age – or at least it feels that way.  Yet we make decisions on our future based on our chronological age.

My father in-law worked hard his entire life, and unfortunately due to a biological age that was older than his chronological age he passed away just a couple years after retiring from GM.  He was unable to enjoy a long retirement filled with the travel and projects he was looking forward to.  In some cases you can influence your biological age while in some, such as with my father in-law and his battle with brain cancer, you can’t.  But how could decisions change?  Although I feel like I’m in good health and great shape, I know I don’t know everything.  So I try to live life to the fullest, every day, and not put off new experiences.

Time can be an appropriate measure of progress or relative change, such as my anniversary or a reduction in manufacturing lead time.  Time can be a valuable tool, but as with most concepts in lean it is just that – a tool.  It needs to be used deliberately, judiciously, and only after understanding the “why?” it is needed.

For example, I do use the pomodoro method to be more productive, and I have a 30 minute hourglass on my desk.  I have found that removing all distractions and focusing on a single task is more productive and hence adds value.  However, I do not try to constrain the task to 30 minutes – that is just the amount of time I will focus solely on it.  Some tasks take more time, some less.

I have also found that a deliberate and planned reflection activity is powerful every four to six weeks.  It is not a “monthly” activity anymore (it used to be), but is based on what I have found to be a timeframe that allows both sufficient activity and with sufficient recall of the past.  I do not constrain the reflection to a set amount of time, but go through a planned set of questions.  As I begin to organize more around kata experiments driving toward a desired end state, this reflection process may change again.

So at this arbitrary time of the year, think about how time influences you.  Where does it unnecessarily create constraints?  Does it add value?  If not, how will you change your relationship with time?

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