Being Busy and Being Efficient – What you Need to Do When

We’re all aware of the “Busy Fools” syndrome – high output, high costs, high stress, and high risk. When you’re up to your neck in alligators it’s tempting to just keep ploughing on, Head down, bottom up, you know that you’re wasting time and money but you hope for the day when everything “quietens down” and “gets back to normal”.

If customer service deteriorates, this might be self-fulfilling. An IT industry insider once described to me the typical cycle of a high-growth IT business – rapid growth leads to poor service, which slows growth. Service improves, the company grows, service declines, ….. and so the cycle continues.

If we can avoid this decline in service levels then we’ll need to accept that things won’t just “quieten down” and that “busy” has become the new “normal”. So we need to know what to do about it.

And businesses who are “Quiet” and “Efficient” also need to have effective strategies.

That’s why some years ago we developed this simple “Busy” / “Lean” Grid, to help business leaders understand where their business is, and what they need to do about it. Let’s have a look at each of the four quadrants:

  1. “Busy and Inefficient” – the “Busy Fools” scenario. The busier we are, the less efficient we become. Stress levels increase, service declines and productivity tails off. One of our biggest challenges (as a management consultancy and training organisation) is in persuading prospective clients to stop chopping down trees and spend some time sharpening the axe! In this situation very few business leaders have the courage to make everyone “down tools” for a week to transform the way they operate, so we need to find another way. The solution is to spend a couple of hours training staff to identify the main sources of wasted time and effort, to generate improvement actions, and to implement a prioritised improvement action plan. Pretty soon, productivity increases, stress levels are reduced and morale improves.
  2. Quiet and Inefficient” – the “About to go out of business” scenario. At this point, massive action is needed to turn around the company’s fortunes. Sales, service and efficiency all need to increase – often with little or no investment available. Fresh thinking is required, often driven by new Leadership.
  3. “Quiet and Efficient” – the “All dressed up with nowhere to go” scenario. Being Lean is all about adding value and eliminating waste. Many organisations like eliminating waste but far too few focus on increasing the “value-add”. If you find yourself in this situation then you need to get close to your customers, understand exactly what they value and are prepared to pay for, and find more and more ways of providing this. As part of our work with clients in this quadrant we focus on VAST – Value-Added Sales Techniques. In the longer term, this needs to become part of effective Supply Chain management.
  4. “Busy and Lean” – the “making it look easy” scenario, where most of our clients are! When you’ve truly embedded Lean thinking and Continuous Improvement, the rewards are very clear. Even in a recession, sales increase, margins improve and people still find time to make this month better and more efficient than last month. These World Class organisations invest broadly across the business, they innovate their products and processes, they look to inspire their employees and stakeholders and they understand “why” they do what they do.

Whichever quadrant your business is in, if you’re keen to improve contact We can help you add value, reduce costs, and “work smarter not harder” – all at the same time!

How to break out of the “Too Busy to Improve” trap

Once you’re up and running with Lean and Continuous Improvement, you’re in the “virtuous circle” where you’re continuously becoming more efficient, saving more time, and investing some of that time in becoming even more efficient.

But if you’re very busy and you haven’t yet started your Lean journey, what do you do?

The biggest danger to avoid is just to “wait until things quieten down”. This approach can be self-fulfilling – but not in a good way! If you don’t improve then the downside of “being busy” can be longer lead times, higher costs and reduced performance. All of which can lead to a permanent – sometimes fatal – reduction in business as customers go elsewhere. This is often called the “busy fool” approach – putting in more and more effort, but getting back less and less benefit.

Instead, you need to get started on the virtuous circle by finding ways to “force in” about 10% of additional time and resource “up front”.

To do this, you need to do a bit more of the things you always do to increase your capacity: work some short-time overtime, cut back on time-consuming unprofitable work, bring in additional labour, contract out some of the workload, reschedule low-priority work, etc, etc.

And then you use some of that time to provide some short, sharp awareness training about Lean, non-value-added activities and the Eight Wastes. People will soon identify where the problems are, and come up with improvement ideas. Then you help the teams to prioritise their ideas and implement them. Focus first on improvements that save time and make the job easier. In no time, you’ll start getting some “quick wins”. Productivity increases, morale improves and people start to smile again.

Pretty soon, you’ll experience the unusual sensation of having time to actually stand back and think. And then you realise that the virtuous circle has begun….

If you want help to break out of your own “Too Busy Improve” trap, contact Pretty soon, you’ll be getting better results with less effort. And who knows, you might even start to enjoy work and live longer!

The Three Stages of Lean Transformation

As our knowledge and practice of Lean has developed, many of us have come to the conclusion that there is no standardised “one size fits all” roadmap or sequence that details every step of “how to implement Lean” for every organisation. But there are three vital stages that it makes sense to follow. Here they are:

1. Grasp the Current Situation. A full understanding – by all team members – of the current situation, is the essential starting point for any improvement activity. Questions to ask might include: Exactly where are we now? What are we trying to do here? What is our purpose, our mission? How do we add value for our customers? Honestly, how are we performing now? Are our measurement systems capable of telling us? Are we collecting (only) the right information to help us to make decisions and to take action?

2. Achieve Stability. What are the most important processes in your business? How do you develop new products or services? How do you deliver them? How do you plan, execute and measure the vital few? How do you manage your people, from cradle to grave? Are these processes capable, under control and stable? How do you sustain “One Best Way”: do you provide clear instruction, effective training, regular monitoring, wide-spread mistake-proofing?

3. Implement Lean. Only now can you begin to change the way you work, with a real prospect of success and sustained improvement. Once you have stable, repeatable processes you can analyse them and find ways to do them better. With the right tools and support the team can simplify and streamline the processes so that you become more efficient and more productive, and achieve better outcomes.

The detail of how to do it – and the exact tools to use – are gained only through years of experience. If you don’t yet have that experience you’ll need to hire it in, but make sure that you coach your people so that they “learn by doing”. By following this approach, and by rigorously following the PDCA Improvement Cycle (Plan-Do-Check-Act), you can genuinely transform your organisation and make Continuous Improvement a way of life.