Introducing the Lean Meeting: How to Get Rid of the #1 Time Suck

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Meetings are often the bane of many a creative’s existence, especially those working for a big outfit. “Death by meeting” is a common complaint, the lament usually being one of frequency, length, or lack of productivity. Despite the many books written on the subject, meetings remain a sore spot for many. There may be a practical solution.

Introducing the “Lean” Meeting

One of the most interesting things I observed over the eight years I spent as a creative advisor to Toyota was how a team of designers or engineers working on the same project might hold several short meetings over the course of the day—sometimes as many a five different times. The interesting aspects were three-fold:

  1. The meetings were not necessarily scheduled. They were held as needed, on a just-in-time basis. Further, they weren’t anchored by any scheduling software timeblocks. In other words, they weren’t slave to some multiple of 15 minutes. They might be 7 minutes, or 22 minutes. I saw one meeting last barely over a minute.
  2. Little discussion occurred. The meetings were held for a single purpose: to make a key decision.
  3. The meetings were in essence a formality. I learned that the Toyota project teams held a completely opposite view of the “meet and confer” philosophy held by most organizations. The “confer” part was held outside the meeting, conducted by individuals in one-on-one dialogs, so that by the time the meeting was held, all team input had been gathered and an informal consensus had been achieved.

Born in the factories of Toyota, “lean” was the term coined the 1996 book Lean Thinking and recently re-popularized by the 2011 book The Lean Startup. A lean practitioner looks at the world of work as being one of two things: value-adding, or non value-adding. The ultimate goal of becoming lean is to add value by eliminating everything that doesn’t.

While some of the success can be contributed to Toyota’s overall mindset of keeping things lean, the good news is that you don’t have to be Toyota to dramatically improve the results of your meetings in much the same fashion.

The critical starting point is to think of meetings as you would any other process: to be considered lean, a meeting must be characterized by minimal, and preferably absent, non value-adding work.

The 3 M’s

The words muri, mura, and muda in Japanese hold a special place in the heart of a well-trained lean practitioner. They are the brainchild of Taiichi Ohno, the founding engineer of the vaunted Toyota Production System.

  • Muri means overload, and is described as stress, strain, or undercapacity.
  • Mura means inconsistency, and can take the form of irregularity, imbalance, or interruption.
  • Muda means waste, and comes in seven basic flavors: overproduction, overprocessing, waiting, unnecessary motion, transportation, defects, and inventory.

Although most meetings are fraught with all three, muda is the easiest of the three to target because it is generally more visible. In fact, most people view meetings as a complete waste, as they so often steal precious time and productivity without adding anything remotely resembling real value.

Take a forensic look at your last meeting and ask yourself a few questions:

Did it add value for everyone, or was it mostly arm-waving (i.e. overproduction)?

Was there a – focus on a critical issue, or did we simply brush the surface of too many subjects (i.e. overprocessing)?

Did we start and stop precisely on time, or were we waiting?

These are just a start, but if the answers to those questions reveal three negative answers, it’s time to make your meetings lean. Start with a simple three-point strategy:

1. Limit yourself to keep it under 12 minutes.

Part of what constitutes any lean operation is the absence of “batch and queue,” meaning piling and lining up. A Toyota process is characterized by small lots, often a single piece, and high frequency…conducted in a just-in-time fashion.

You can employ the same strategy. Keep your meetings short, but higher frequency. Commit to meetings under 12 minutes, and use your calendar software to help you avoid the 15-, 30- and 6-minute timeblock default. That forces you to simplify the purpose of the meeting.

2. Only have meetings around a single purpose or goal.

Commit to using meetings for the singular purpose of making a decision. That forces you to employ the third strategy:

3. Unsocial meetings.

At Toyota, the principle of nemawashi is used to gain consensus on ideas and plans. The term comes from the art of bonsai, and means “preparing the roots for planting.” In other words, socialize your content before the meeting using quick huddles, office fly-bys, one-on-one conversations. Gain input and consensus outside the meeting context, so that the whole notion of “next steps” is limited to being decisive in meetings.

How about you?

What methods have you tried to make meetings more efficient?

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