My fridge & the phantom work jam

Have you ever had too much to do? Did you react by working even harder – like the rest of us? At first, the situation seems to improve and everything looks just fine. However, even though “harder” might lead to “better”, it still is not the same as “good”. Time passes and you keep putting in the extra effort and then some. By now you are quite busy, but not actually getting anything done. Congrats – you have met the phantom work jam.

I was in my car talking over a really bad connection. At the far end was Steve Denning, a renowned author of several books on management. He wanted to know how we work at Jayway. During a long interview, interrupted by countless GSM holes, we kept talking. Among other things I told him the story of our old house – a school from 1928. It is a good example of a renovation that had gone wild and how we managed to get on track again. It ended up in Steve’s new book which came out last fall, “The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management” (http://amzn.to/radicalmanagement). It is a great book and a funny thing happened while I was reading it: I took notes in the margin. That has not happened in the last twenty years, basically back in university. Denning’s book really made me think. I just had to scribble and make comments.

Shortly after the interview I got the transcript – boy was that a sorry sight. Not only did the bad connection play tricks, my half-finished sentences and fuzzy thoughts made the text almost incomprehensible. Therefore, I was thoroughly impressed when I got the following text from Steve Denning’s latest book. It was spot on.

“The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management”
CHAPTER 7— PRINCIPLE #4: DELIVERING VALUE TO CLIENTS IN EACH ITERATION

Björn Granvik lives in Malmö, a small town in the southern tip of Sweden. At work, he is the chief technology officer of a software firm called Jayway. In the evenings and weekends, he works on renovating the house that he occupies with his wife and three children. The house used to be a school and so it is rather large, but doesn’t have many rooms. Transforming it into a livable house requires a massive effort.

When he started the renovations, his wife would stand in the corner in one of the rooms, and she would say, “Björn, here’s something over here that doesn’t work.”

And Granvik would run over and start trying to fix it.

But then he would hear her from somewhere else in the house and she would shout, “Here’s something even worse.” And he would leave whatever he was doing and go over and try to fix that. So he kept running between projects in the house. There was so much to do that he was constantly jumping from one project to the other, hardly ever finishing anything. So one day he said to his wife, “This doesn’t work. We can’t go on like this.”

Granvik had encountered a phantom work jam! Too many inputs had jammed the system.

Given Granvik’s experience with the practices of radical management and the simplicity of the situation, the solution was fairly obvious.

“I know that there are a bunch of things to do,” he told his wife. “But we need to do them in some kind of order.”

So he cleared a space on the door of the fridge, and he said that they would have three available slots. There would be one slot for all the big things that needed to be done—things that take a lot of time like fixing the leak in the roof—and two slots for small items, something that would take less than an hour to do, for which he could squeeze in an hour here or there. That might be like: “Hang ten photographs on the wall.”

“Anything we put on these slots,” he said, “we can talk about. And we can get them going. I will concentrate on these three things. If something else comes up, we can put it on the side of the fridge, but I will not look at it. There’s no point in talking to me about this, because although I will listen, I won’t do anything about it. I will only work on the top priority items in the three slots on the fridge.”

So he and his wife began working this way. And it went really well. He was happy because his wife stopped bugging him about things that weren’t on the priority list. And she was happy because things that she really wanted done were actually getting done.

The interesting thing was: it turned out that his client—his wife—was equally happy if he hung ten photos, or if he fixed the leak in the roof. Fixing the leak in the roof is a big expensive project that takes considerable time and effort. But the amount of joy that comes from it was no bigger than a tiny task like hanging the ten photos.

By focusing on what his client really wanted at that particular moment, he found that increasing client delight didn’t necessarily cost more. A small thing delivered sooner could delight more than a big thing delivered later.

In order to become more productive, and generate more delight for his wife, Granvik had to restrict the flow of work. To go faster, he had to go slower.

Steve Denning goes on to talk about “phantom jam work” and the havoc it plays on our efforts. Doing too much at the same time invariably leads to less being accomplished. It certainly does not feel like it. Putting in the hours makes us count the effort and not the actual value we create. Just like tunnel vision, we are blinded by speed and forget that we are not reaching any goals.

Whenever you are stuck in effort blindness, stop and think.
– Am I really doing the right thing, the right way – is this value? Is it fun?
In my case I needed something that would focus our effort. Something to slow us down and get stuff done, really done. “The big and small list” was my solution of getting a good flow through my org… err, family.

Works for big people
So how did we do it?

Figure 1: Our fridge and the simple task board with a “small” (lilla) and “big” (STORA) list. Big stuff is “lift roof and fix it”, small might be “hang photo on wall”. Second from the left at top is the “build room” note (Bygga rum).

The first important step was to reduce the number of things going on at the same time. The lists are each limited to “3 notes”. This meant nothing could be introduced or worked on before there was a vacant slot in one of the lists. In order for this to work we have to prioritize the work. It is of no use if I go off on a fixing spree if it is not what both my wife and me needs or wishes.

Separating the small stuff into their own lists, or “swim lanes”, was the next step. As a parent I usually can squeeze in the 1 hour tasks somewhere into my calendar. Getting those smaller tasks done is an easy way to turn around a bad situation. It was baby-sized steps, as compared to the big list stuff, but at least it was a step forward. And remember, sometimes even small values are big wins.

Works for tweens
As Steve Denning writes in his book, we actually started to land projects, small and big. My wife was happy again, but my oldest son Max started to talk about the rooms I had promised him and his younger brother Felix. Since we live in an old school we have rather large rooms and no wardrobes. By Swedish standards we are apparently defined as “cramped living” (Swedish “trångbodd”). The statistics have us as living in a “small” house since our three sons shared a single bedroom. This is no small feat in the 360 m2 (3 800 square feet) that make up our ex-school.

My oldest son, Max, kept asking me (in a nice way) about his room. Being 12 years old, I could understand him. He wanted a room of his own. I recognized the earlier situation with my wife and yet again our fridge came to our rescue. This time around I made some more slots available – I needed to size up to include my sons. I explained why the “leak in roof” note came before “Build Max & Felix Room”. This worked really fine because it was now understandable and transparent to Max why he would have to wait. Moreover, our kids needed to be better included in the decision process. Roughly once per week we visit the fridge and check the progress. If there are any vacant slots open we discuss what needs to be done – both fun and important stuff get their chance. And of course, we constantly check to see if we have the right prio – something might have come up that needs to “push through” the other tasks.

In the spur of the moment I took a pen and asked Max for commitment.
– You could help, I explained. What do you want to do?
He took the pen and to my surprise he signed off on one of the jobs before his own room note. Despite being young he understood that helping me with some other task would make us as a team work faster on accomplishing his goal. Sure enough, when I came home one afternoon I found a big hole in the garden for one of our roses that my wife wanted to plant. It might not sound all that much, but digging through those layers of ice age clay leaves even a grown man panting.

Works for small people
My second son, Felix (8) saw and understood the fridge. One morning I came down and saw that one empty slot now had a new note scribbled with a child’s hand: “go bovling”. A couple of weeks later we did just that.

In order to get a sense of flow with the big tasks I introduced a “scratch”. Every man-day, roughly, was a scratch on a big note. Otherwise, they risked going stale – staying on the fridge “forever”. It also meant we got a counter and a “reward”. The quotes are needed, since a scratch is such a small reward, but none the less it works.

At this time we had introduced red notes. They were important high prio tasks that needed to be executed quickly, basically to push ahead of the ordinary yellow notes. This risked blocking out the fun stuff. Where is the R & R, if we just kept doing good? My solution was to introduce the green notes. It is a just such a natural color to indicate fun 🙂

Figure 2: The “before” image of the rooms.

Close to a year later, me and my children have finally built the rooms for Max and Felix.

All it took was: some 2,5 metric tons of building material, 97 man days of work (yes, I counted) and the ability to focus – all visible on our fridge.

Sometimes I even managed to find some work that was easy, but still important, for Bix (4). We were working on the roof/floor above the rooms and Bix had the important task of bending the floor boards. Boy, was he proud. All it took was some creativity in dividing the work.

Having a simple, visible system with understandable rules promotes transparency and understanding. As a parent this translates into less nagging.

Final thoughts

If you find yourself working really hard and being quite busy, without any real results to show – except for sweat – then stop and think. It will feel contradictory, but you need to limit your work so you can focus on getting something worthwhile done. Add some transparency and a shared prioritization and you get commitment. It doesn’t really matter if the people around you are colleagues or kids. We are all pretty much wired the same way.

Having learnt all of this, I’m I immune? Or will I repeat my mistakes and try to do too much at the same time? Most likely the latter.

The experience might make me quicker seeing a solution, but it’s still hard to convince myself – and others – that we need to do less in order to do more.

Figure 3: Max and Felix rooms.

Am I proud of what we accomplished? You bet.

//Björn

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