One of the simplest and most impactful things an organization can do in the pursuit of excellence is to reform how they hold meetings. And yet this is one of the most challenging changes. A recent conversation reminded me of this. The customer’s objection was to the idea of adopting a framework of standup morning meetings, leader standard work, gemba walks, process checks and so forth, collectively known by the exciting lean buzzword of daily management. Wouldn’t all of these things just result in even more time spent in meetings?
Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but there are estimates that each working day in the United States, people hold between ten and fifty million meetings. Multiply even the low end of that number by what the people in these meetings earn, by how much of that meeting time is wasted, and this soon adds up to billions of dollars. Even worse, ineffective meetings interrupt or prevent people from doing the work which motivates them. This is disrespectful to people and how they spend some of their limited time on earth.
Meetings aren’t inherently bad. But it is rare that a room full of people walk away beaming, “Good meeting!” Human interaction, relationship-building, communication, creative exchanges, and collaboration are all essential to success in the modern organization. The meeting can be a valid format for accomplishing these things. But we use that term for a wide variety of interactions: a conversation between a sales person and a customer, for a group discussion about an upcoming policy change, for creative brainstorming, for a performance review. Under the same label, they are vastly different in format, content and outcome.
The lean approach to daily management is a set of processes to build accountability by making performance, projects status and problems visible at each team’s level, linked to a routine for leaders to check in and provide support, known as leader standard work. In theory these shorter, more frequent meetings replace many of the traditional meetings, and there is a net time savings. But as with any Lean methods, copying the artifact and adopting the superficial activities rarely succeeds long-term because the underlying values and cultural beliefs remain unchanged. These have a strong influence on our behaviors. For example, if we hold a stand-up meeting but the highest paid person in the room arrives late, takes over the agenda, makes decisions from the gut rather than facts, and leaves people feeling that their input was not heard, the nature of meetings has not improved.
It is not enough to adopt best practices of meeting management such as having an agenda, keeping a parking lot for off-topic issues, assigning clear roles including keeping time, standing up, and not scheduling meetings back-to-back, and so forth. These things will make the traditional meeting more effective, but still not always fit for purpose. This requires thoughtful preparation, deliberate design and persistent testing and refinement to make the daily management process fit to your situation. What size of decision should we make? With what frequency? How long should it take to make a decision (or arrive at whatever knowledge-based outcome is the purpose of the meeting)? Based on what process? With what information? How are these outcomes evaluated? How do we apply these lessons forward? Who in the organization has the power to divert one-eighth of a person’s productive capacity without any direct measure of payback on that time? Assuming the productive work day is 8 hours and the typical meeting one hour, leaders do this to their people multiple times per day. How can we design meetings so that people leave them with more energy, enthusiasm and connectedness than they came with?
A meeting is a cultural artifact. It reveals the nature of power relationships in an organization. Meetings reveal what the leaders really think about how people should spend their time. Before the advent of modern production methods, we produced batches of goods in isolated processes. We wasted time and energy handling the resulting inventory, scheduled work, discovered defects too late in the process and dealt with delays. Today we know better. We have demonstrated that it is easier, faster, better and cheaper approach to deliver value via downstream pull, one bit at a time, synchronized with the voice of the customer, while leaders support local efforts to make problems visible and solve them. And yet many of our decision-making and communication methods remain antiquated. This will change only when leaders upgrade the way they think about how we spend our time.