How to do more of what matters and less of what doesn’t


Taiichi Ohno, the man behind the Toyota Production System, believed that only a quarter of the work done adds value for the customer.

There are two linked words there – value and customer.

Some things that add value are seen by the customer – better service, making it cheaper and more simple.

Other things are not – improved safety, better screws, brighter tail lights.

What takes the other three-quarters of time?

Another quarter is incidental work, stuff loosely associated with the main value adding activities.

The rest is waste.

With physical systems – like making cars – we can focus on waste because it’s visible.

If there is excess stuff, it piles up. At home, if we’re buying the kids too many toys that’s clearly visible.

So we can focus on removing and eliminating waste wherever we can see it.

That’s easier said than done, especially when we need to get rid of stuff we already have.

But we can try and create rules and habits that mean less new waste is created.

In knowledge work, that waste comes in the form of emails and meetings and requests for long reports.

In this paper by Matthew May, he argues that because we can’t easily see waste piling up in knowledge work we need to focus instead on what work adds value.

That means working on our own lists of jobs before looking at our emails and responding to other people’s priorities.

It means avoiding all meetings.

It also means picking up the phone sometimes instead of sending out emails.

But that doesn’t really get to the point of it all.

The point is that there is a ratio between doing things that add value and everything else.

We’re trying to maximise that value to waste ratio – cut down the waste and increase the value.

At the same time, the size of the whole work package also needs to shrink.

It doesn’t make sense to do more. A lot of the time it actually makes a lot of sense to do less, to have less, to need less.

An attitude of removing, however, focuses our attention on the rubbish around us.

Which means we might miss the good stuff.

We should instead develop the ability to work on things that add value – and incidentally get rid of everything else.

How simple rules can help us become better at everything


Complex situations need equally complex solutions. Or do they?

This is the question explored in Simple Rules, a book by Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt.

Let’s be honest – how many times do we make something look really complicated so that we can come across as knowing more than everyone else or justify the fee we are charging.

But really, in many many areas, just using simple rules will give better results than complex ones.

So, what are simple rules and how can they help us?

Sull and Eisenhardt split simple rules into those that help us become more effective and those that help us become more effective.

Becoming Effective

Becoming more effective is squeezing more out of the time we have and that means saying yes to some things and no to others.

We can do these in three ways.

Boundary rules

First there are boundary rules. These are binary decisions of the yes/no variety.

What should we do and what shouldn’t we?

For example, when revising for exams for my first degree, I had two very simple rules.

I never worked after 12 in the afternoon and on weekends.

Working from 9 – 12 for four weeks before the exams was more than enough time to revise and prepare for them.

Prioritisation rules

The next kind of decisions revolve around what to do first.

The classic example of this is how medics triage patients during an accident.

Everyone is tagged based on the severity of their condition and how urgent it is that they are seen.

I remember being in an aircraft accident simulation as one of the volunteers to train the response teams where we were all labelled with the injuries we had supposedly sustained.

I had a broken foot and so was transported slowly by ambulance while enviously thinking of the helicopter ride being taken by the person with far more serious injuries.

Prioritisation can be a double edged sword, however, leading to unnecessary escalation and messing about unless the rules are clear and applied consistently.

Stopping rules

The last kind of effectiveness rule has to do with when to stop.

Enough needs to be enough. Cultures that have a rule that people should stop eating just before they are full have much lower obesity levels than others that stop eating when they are full.

Perfectionists sometimes don’t know when to stop. In most cases, it’s good to stop early – and that leaves us with the capacity to go longer on the things that matter.

Becoming Efficient

Where effective is about doing the right things, being efficient is about doing things right – and once again there are three types of rules.

How-to rules

How-to rules set out a pathway, a series of steps to follow.

The best example of this is the idea of mise-en-place – laying out everything that is needed and following an efficient sequence of operations to cook.

One thing I learned here was to put the pan on the fire before starting to get ingredients out. By the time I had everything, the pan was hot and I could get on with cooking.

Coordination rules

Coordination rules are about playing nicely with others – working as a team.

A nice example is when to use the words you and we.

When we talk to someone else and need to talk about a negative situation, say the person did something wrong, how should we phrase the sentence?

Is it You made a mistake or We made a mistake.

Using you will immediately result in the listener getting defensive and upset. With we, there is a recognition of collective ownership and a more likely move towards thinking of ways to stop the problem happening again.

Timing rules

The last set of rules are about timing – when to do things.

For example, many productive people believe that we should the things that are most important to us first thing in the morning.

When I started writing this blog, I did just that – the first thing I did every day was to write. And having that rule made it much easier to do the work needed

Many activities have cadences – a sequence that needs to be followed to get results. Getting the timing right on these is crucial.


Simple Rules is an easy-to-read book that sets out a clear map of what simple rules look like and how to come up with them.

So here is a simple rule – Read the book.

The three ways in which we think about systems


Professor Peter Checkland has written a number of books about systems, and in 1981 published Systems Thinking, Systems Practice.

As one of the commentators on Amazon writes, the book elegantly describes the history of thought that led from early Greek logic displacing the religious and faith based approaches through to stunningly successful scientific reductionism and then to systems thinking.

The modern world is so much a result of reductive thinking – of breaking things into parts and understanding how they work – that we sometimes think that’s the only way to look at things.

The systems approach captures the idea of emergence – the fact that some things cannot be explained just by looking at its components – the idea that the whole is more – is something other – than the sum of its parts.

Many of us want to know the detail – how did something happen – what did someone else do, so that we can replicate or copy those tactics and apply them in our own lives and situations.

This works sometimes, and doesn’t at other times. Human beings and the way we function cannot be reduced to formulas.

If anything, human societies are constantly changing how we act in response to what we learn about what happens when we act the way we do.

So, when it comes to systems, Checkland suggests that there are three ways we tend to approach them.

First, a system could be looked at as a black box – with inputs, outputs and feedback. We look at what comes out of the box and adjust the inputs to get what we want.

This approach is mechanistic and assumes that the same input will always give the same output all else being equal.

Which it rarely is.

A stable system, however, that operates within a reasonable range, will give a set of outputs that are more or less regular, and we could use statistical methods to then figure out what might come out of the system.

Other people want to look inside the system, to figure out how it works.

That’s another approach – more reductionist – as we look at the workings of the system in detail and see what happens.

It’s like dissection – we can keep going through organs, cells, all the way down to atoms.

So, given that we can look at systems from the outside, or try to look inside them, Checkland writes that we tend to adopt three approaches.

The natural historian looks at the system and describes it. This is like an academic’s approach to social studies – we have no interest in changing what is there but we do want to try and capture what is happening.

A manager tries to organise things so that the system works well. This involves moving bits around and trying different approaches.

A designer tries to come up with a new system or modify an existing system so it does something better or differently.

All three look at the same system, but from different points of view. And this means that they have to work hard to understand what the other is doing.

A designer wants to change things around, and could be impatient with a manager that wants to do the most with what is there.

And the natural historian doesn’t want things to change, but does want to know what is going on.

The point is that we need all three – we can’t manage what we can’t describe, and we can’t design something when we don’t understand what we are trying to achieve.

Just like the starting point, trying to break things down into roles and pieces just doesn’t help when we’re trying to understand the entirety of something.

We’re trying to get at the whole thing – and that is what it means to take a holistic approach.

Why don’t more small businesses invest in information systems?


Are the businesses around us as effective as they could be at using technology to improve how they do things – from serving customers to keeping costs low?

As we move into an increasingly digitized economy, what kinds of organisations are likely to take advantage of the new opportunities that emerge?

A paper from 1999 by James Y.L Thong may still have useful lessons for us nearly twenty years later.

The core systems that businesses require are more or less understood. Almost every business is probably going to have email, some kind of office software and a website.

But what happens after that… what about customer relationship management (CRM) systems, specialist analytics tools, marketing software and so on?

Thong’s paper argues that there are three key characteristics shown by businesses that adopt information systems (IS).

First, CEO’s matter a lot.

CEO’s that are innovative and open to trying new things are much more likely to put their weight behind an IS initiative than more conservative ones.

The amount of control held by CEOs over decisions in small firms means their approach is critical in making something happen or not.

In addition, their approach will also be influenced by how much they personally know and understand the technology being considered.

Someone who is unfamiliar with computers and suspicious of technology may be unwilling to engage and understand what is possible with modern systems.

This is not an age related thing – many older CEOs and Chairman have reached their positions by being ahead of the technology curve at every stage of their careers.

It’s an attitude thing instead.

Second – the innovation matters

People will only think about adopting something new when the benefits of doing so are clear.

We tend to use at least three rules of thumb to evaluate technological options.

  1. Is it better than what we have now – does it have relative advantage?
  2. Is it compatible with how we work now?
  3. Is it easy to use – or at least no more complex than how we do things now.

If an innovation passes these three tests, then there is a good chance we’ll consider it further.

The main thing is whether the organisation is at the right point in its lifecycle

An organisation that is too small is struggling to survive. It probably has owner managers and generalist staff.

The in-house technical people needed to properly evaluate and implement a new information system simply aren’t there.

In larger organisations with more defined roles it’s more likely there are a few people with the capability to take on the necessary jobs.

Larger businesses may also have more money to hire outside help with specialist skills.

The main difference between 1999 and now is the amount of capability aware as a service – the software as a service or SAAS model.

Email, documents, file storage, file sharing, email marketing, website design – all the capabilities that would have taken teams of people to create are now available over the internet with simple interfaces most people can use quickly.

The challenging area now is selecting and using specialist software that helps businesses do unique work.

Things haven’t changed over the decades. It’s not really about software.

It’s always about the business and the people in it.

Why we might be thinking about goals all wrong


Goal setting theory has always bothered me – there’s something a little artificial about it – something not entirely natural.

Take the wording in this paper, for example. Edwin Locke and Gary Latham point out that some 400 studies carried out over 25 years show that specific goals lead to better task performance than easy or vague or abstract ones.

This inference hits the target but misses the point.

Before we look at why that is the case, it is useful to note that goals are then split into extrinsic and intrinsic ones.

We try and achieve extrinsic goals to show that we are capable of doing something, or to avoid showing that we are not capable.

We try and achieve intrinsic goals because they give us feelings of mastery and control and satisfaction.

The findings from more studies is that intrinsic goals lead to longer lasting performance.

There seems to be little appreciation, however, about the nature of goals themselves.

A more useful classification of goals, it seems to me, is to think of them as simple or complex.

A simple goal might be something like hit the bulls eye four our of five times on a shooting range. A complex goal might be create a sustainable level of income for a consulting business.

What happens all too often, especially when it comes to an activity like sales, is that we try and set simple goals and targets to achieve a complex outcome.

We’re then surprised and disappointed when the results don’t materialise and get cross and angry and change people.

Perhaps the mistake we’re making is in thinking that all goals are the same and all we need to do is make them SMART – the whole specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound thing that is trotted out in courses.

Instead, we need to recognise the characteristics of the two types of goals and what we need to do to make progress towards them.

Take a simple goal, like getting better at hitting a target with a bow and arrow.

That is a specific goal and can be made SMART.

We can make progress towards the goal by improving how we carry out each step of the sequence of activities needed to achieve goal.

Elite athletes train until their muscles remember what to do and visualise every step they must carry out.

Finally, simple goals have an end point. We achieve them – and then that’s that. There is nothing else we need to do.

Complex goals, on the other hand are vague. They include things like living a good life, having peace of mind, and doing one’s best.

We make progress towards such goals not by following steps but by practising behaviours.

For example, we might try and learn something new every day, talk to a new person, take a different route, try new experiences.

When it comes to tasks like writing or sales, it is well known that having ridiculously low targets is a good way to actually make progress.

Finally, with complex goals there is no obvious end. When do you achieve being good? When is your business sustainable?

There is always change and we will need to adapt and discard less useful behaviours and adopt more useful ones.

Goal setting is a useful exercise. The problem is that we may be trying to adapt goals that are designed for success in fields like sport to life in general.

And life is more complex than that.

What Groucho Marx teaches us about win-win strategies


Groucho Marx, an American comedian, once wrote when resigning from a club that he didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member.

Which, when we think about it, is often the way that we approach many situations.

Take selling or job hunting.

Many of us believe that if we make enough calls or apply to enough positions we’ll get somewhere – it’s a numbers game and we just need to make the numbers.

So we grind it out, spending day after day, and wondering why we aren’t getting anywhere fast.

That’s not a strategy – it’s a treadmill.

Terry Speed, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley writing in the American Statistical Association membership magazine, suggests that a job hunter should instead make two lists.

  1. Where would I immediately accept a job offer?
  2. Which employers would be delighted to employ me?

It’s important that answers to both questions are unconditional – we accept and they offer without bargaining.

If we’re thinking like Groucho Marx, there is no win-win.

We want to work at places that may not want us. And we’re hesitant to consider the places that do.

According to Professor Speed, we’re in good shape and well calibrated if there is an overlap between the lists.

It’s worth spending the time to work out who really wants to – or will want to work with us because we can both benefit from collaborating.

That really means seeing if we’re aligned. No amount of external management or manipulation can overcome poor alignment of goals and expectations.

Conversely – sharing goals and aligning expectations means that we can spend less time on control and more time on execution.

Ideally then, we’d join clubs that we really wanted to be part of, and which would be delighted to have us as members.

But how do we know when this is the case – how do we know when we’re aligned?

There’s no easy answer to that question. It’s not something that can be assessed with a simple checklist.

We may just have to learn to look harder at what is in front of us until we can see.

How to become more intentional


What does it mean to be intentional?

Google to the rescue. It means to be deliberate, to do on purpose, to be purposeful.

That is a teleolgical concept – an attempt to explain something in terms of its relationship with a goal or final end point.

So, being intentional is, in a sense, being purpose driven, or goal driven.

How does knowing that help us?

There are three things, at least, that we need to think about when trying to be intentional.

The first is that we can’t do everything – we have to choose.

Students are often told when going to University that they have a choice of three things: sport, a social life and their studies.

If they are going to excel and be at the very top, they need to pick two to focus on.

We have to decide which two are most important to us and make those our primary activities.

Even if we aren’t planning to perform at an elite level, we still have to make choices between reading and watching telly, between going out late partying and staying up late working on a business.

The second thing is that we have to develop routines.

Willpower is a hard and tiring way to organise our lives.

Routines are better. If we set and keep appointments with ourselves every day to do the things that are important then, over time, we will see results.

We don’t have to set hard to achieve targets. We just need to do the minimum every day and it will build up over time.

As the saying goes, people overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what is possible in ten years.

The third thing is that we have to know how we will respond when we stumble.

And stumble we will. We may want to do something – work on a book, lose weight, make sales calls – and there will be times that we just don’t have what takes to do it.

There’s no point getting upset about that – it’s going to happen so we might as well deal with it.

As W.C Fields said, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point being a damn fool about it.

With some things it’s hard to keep going – especially when our intention is to overcome routines we have created earlier, like overeating or smoking.

The thing about stumbling is to follow the if-then rule. If something doesn’t go the way we wanted, then what are we going to do next?

Do we want to get to an end or get balance?

An intentional approach suggests that there is an end – a place we can get to where everything is all right.

At the same time, we may only realise we have arrived when we don’t feel the need to go elsewhere – the end is where we are right now.

That’s another choice we need to make.

How to be more focused in life and work


We’d all like to be more focused.

At the same time, there is an industry that specialises in hijacking our brains and hooking us (and our children).

How are we going to win?

It turns out that we can focus on the things that we want to focus on – a so called top down approach – when we want to.

At the same time, our focus can be drawn automatically to distractions – or bottom up signals – like notifications on mobile phones.

So, is there anything we can do to get better at focusing on what we want to rather than being victims of our devices and environments?

According to Edward M. Hallowell, the author of Driven to distraction at work: How to focus and be more productive, there are five things we need to do.

Manage our energy

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, writes that we should manage our creativity, not our time.

People who manage their creativity get happy and rich.

People who manage their time get tired.

Substitute energy for creativity and we get the same message – the more energy we have, the more creative and productive we can be.

Many people make a big fuss about how hard they work. In this day and age, however, is that the smart thing to do?

Manage our emotion

How we feel affects how we work.

A high stress environment or managers that use blame and threats to get work out of people isn’t going to make us feel good.

And feeling good – or even more fundamentally – feeling safe – is crucial for us to be able to do good work.

If we want people to produce, we have to give them room to experiment, to fail and to learn.

No one gets it right the first time. If it looks like they do, the chances are that they are just very good at hiding it when things go wrong.

Be more engaged

We’ll do things more happily when we’re engaged – when we like what we do.

That seems obvious – but the fact is that we’re all good at different things. Some of us like working with people. Others like solving problems.

What’s important is looking out for the tasks that help us get into flow, where we can lose ourselves in the work and we finish with more energy than when we started.

If the work drains us, or the people around us drain us, then it’s time to look at what else we can do.

Be more structured

Routines help.

They help by reducing the amount of thinking we need to do, freeing up time for more creative and important work.

Some people take this to extremes – wearing just black, for example. That cuts down decision making on what colour to wear.

Routines also create habits. If we have a routine where we start or end the day with creative work and do the administration in the middle, then every day we are going to get a little further.

Learn to take back control

This is the hardest one for many of us to learn.

We’re too eager to please – to say yes.

Life is all about goals.

As Brian Tracy says, either we’re working to achieve our goals or we’re working to achieve someone else’s goals.

We really need to focus on reaching our own goals.

Why cities and businesses benefit from clustering


It’s easy to assume that if we had no competition, business would be great.

It turns out, however, that we are much better off being near competitors than far away – and this is because of the benefits of clustering.

Four benefits in particular stand out.

The first is access to talent More companies in a region means a greater need for people with relevant skills. This may drive up prices for talent and attract people from elsewhere.

Alternatively, a company may spawn a host of related businesses set up by ex-employees.

One of the most famous examples of this happening is the traitorous eight, employees who left Shockley Laboratories to found Fairchild Semiconductor.

Fairchild Semiconductor in turn led to birth of Silicon Valley and the creation of several companies, including Intel, founded by Gordon Moore (of Moore’s law) and Robert Noyce from the original eight.

Proximity leads to productivity When we have competitors operating close by we watch them carefully and try to match what they are doing and keep up or stay ahead in the market.

This sense of competition means that we’re always trying to become better – to become more productive.

In a global economy anything that is seen as a commodity sees margins fall the virtually nothing.

The only way we can make money is by doing more better with the things that go into our business – and that means being more productive.

At the same time, we want our local economies to succeed – we have common interests Businesses don’t start and stop quickly. They take time and effort and investment.

If we work on something for a while we’d like it to be sustainable and endure.

In addition, when the local economy does well, everyone does well. For example the value of the houses we own goes up. There are more jobs, and our children don’t have to move cities or countries to find work.

So, working together to make our local economies grow makes perfect sense.

Although we can work with anyone anywhere, we still like face-to-face Finally, we can hire people from anywhere. But our competitive advantages may lie in what is available closer to home.

We need a local touch to tap into the ecosystem around us – and this is still best done with face-to-face contact and a personal connection with others.

That’s when we realise that there are other people that are in the same position as us, and yet more that have gone through a similar process before and can share their knowledge and insights with us.

To benefit from an ecosystem we must invest the time to become part of the ecosystem.

It’s give and get, not just come and take.