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How to keep your personal factory in top gear

How to keep your personal factory in top gear


A Factory of One

By Daniel Markovitz

(CRC Press, 159 pages, $28.50)

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Your Best Just Got Better

By Jason Womack

(John Wiley, 251 pages, $29.95)


Lean production has become popular in factories, rooting out waste and improving quality. And since each of us is a factory in our own daily work – taking raw materials, notably information, to produce something for customers – consultant Daniel Markovitz believes we can all benefit by applying lean thinking to our work flow.

At its essence, lean is about doing more with less. From the perspective of lean, at work there are three kinds of activities: value-added, non-value-added (but necessary), and waste.

Value-added activity is something the customer must be willing to pay for, transforms the product or service in some way, and is done correctly the first time. So value-added activity moves your work closer to what the customer needs while non-value-added work, or incidental work, may not move the value forward directly but is essential to your ability to perform value-added work.

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Waste, he says, paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway, is the difference between motion and action.

Too often, our work is waste – shuffling papers that serve little purpose. "If you were to track your daily activities, you would probably be shocked at how little time you spend on value-added work – and I'm not talking about the time you spend on Facebook, either," Mr. Markovitz writes in A Factory of One.

That's why he feels most personal productivity books go awry: They are focused on helping you to get any work done without considering the value of the work.

"Sure you can become an e-mail ninja and get your inbox down to zero by the end of each day. But given that much of the stuff in your inbox is garbage anyway, wouldn't you be better off figuring out how to reduce the volume of incoming mail?" he argues.

"Or perhaps you've reduced the time it takes you to prepare your monthly sales meeting PowerPoint presentation from three hours to two … but do you even need the PowerPoint? Does the sales team? Perhaps a one-page summary report would be faster, easier, and more valuable."

The book applies various elements of lean thinking that you may have heard about in other contexts to your daily work. For example, going to the Gemba is the now-legendary Japanese management technique of going to the place where work is actually done, and watching closely to see what is wasteful.

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Mr. Markovitz wants you to look, objectively, at the work you do and what waste it contains. For example, he takes you through the process of serial tasking, bunching similar activities together so they can be done more efficiently and creating meeting "corridors," or periods of time, for interruptions.

A chapter on visual management shows how to track your work, and he explains the importance of studying variability – for example, why on certain days, you are more productive attacking certain tasks than at other times.

In Your Best Just Got Better, executive coach Jason Womack offers advice for your personal factory, starting with trying to identify your ideal day and goals that flow from that vision, so you can adjust your workday behaviour accordingly.

Mr. Womack urges you to identify four most important things every day that you must make progress on. He suggests finding an accountability buddy – a mentor, coach or friend who you will talk to every five to 10 days about your progress on key goals.

When we're managing time, he says, we're managing much more than the ticking of the clock. "We're managing our areas of focus and responsibility; we're fielding interruptions from others; we're listening to our own self-talk; and we're generating all kinds of other ideas. All the while, we're inhibited by very specific influencers to our productivity," Mr. Womack writes.

He's a big believer in capturing, and productively using, small increments of time that crop up during the day, such as when you arrive at a customer's business and have to wait. He plans for such openings in the day, creating a list of 20 to 30 things he can do in less than 15 minutes. Mr. Womack stresses you should think of your day as divided into 96, 15-minute slots (a good time period for focused activity) and you should figure out how to make the best use of the non-sleeping quarter-hours.

Your Best Just Got Better has lots of good ideas, although at times it is repetitive and the structure is not clear enough to allow you to shuffle ahead or return easily to check a previous point.

While I like Mr. Markovitz's approach and found that A Factory of One offers an intriguing way to look at personal productivity through lean thinking, there are far more ideas you can sift through in Mr. Womack's book. And given that his system flows from thinking about sensible goals, it shouldn't lead your factory of one astray into waste.


When you get a new piece of information, an e-mail, or a new idea, Jason Womack says in Your Best Just Got Better that there are three decisions you must make:

Me or them: Are you the best person to deal with it, or are you better off asking somebody else to handle it?

Now or later: When should you deal with it? If you delve into it now, you risk losing the focus and momentum you have going at this point. If you delay, and stay focused on what you're doing, you run the risk of being repeatedly distracted by the idea until you deal with it or, alternatively, it disappears from your mind.

Track or trust: Do you track the idea, writing it down or sending yourself an electronic message? Or do you trust you will remember it, and not make a note of it?

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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