On Simplifying Through Subtraction

I am on a mission to minimize. It started with this website which went minimal a few months back. It was hard to give up on all those fancy pages, content and images that I had created before. I kept adding more pages to this website till it started feeling like a burden. Now that clutter is gone, it feels so much better. I am now extending the same fundamentals in other areas of work and life.

Outside of mathematics, it is easy to add but far more difficult to subtract.

Adding more stuff at the home, more thoughts in the mind, more pages on the website, more services in business, more features in the product, more property assets, more tasks in the day and more everything else. That’s easy.

Try eliminating what you accumulated and it is way more harder. In a world that is getting more and more complex, we seek more and more simplicity. It seems to me that subtraction is at the heart of simplicity and hence effectiveness. Lao Tzu really got it when he said,

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day”

This may sound paradoxical but the act of subtraction is actually the act of addition in some other form. When I eliminated graphics, I added focus to the content. When we stop doing many things at a time, we create a room for more effort/focus on a few important things.

Methodologies like Kanban promote the idea of limiting the work-in-progress items. When you limit the “stuff on your plate”, you decrease distractions and increase the possibility of finishing what you started without compromising on quality.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” – Peter Drucker

This applies in almost every aspect of business and life. I have seen senior leaders spending days (and nights) doing meetings to frame a grand strategy when it is really the small and basic things that they are really missing. What would happen if they trade grandeur of strategy with simplicity?

Further, what would happen if we simplify the meeting agendas and subtract the number of meetings from our work day? If we reduce the slack in each and every process to get the work done? If we stop trying to load up our teams for doing more work in less time and set them up to focus more on less number of active tasks?

These are all possibilities. To realize these possibilities, we have to actively pursue simplicity through subtraction.

You can’t juggle too many balls for long. What balls are you ready to drop? What will you subtract?


Note: I have learned a great deal about simplicity and subtraction from Matthew E. May’s blog and his book “The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything” is definitely on my reading list.

Measuring Right Things: Utilization Versus Efficiency

In manufacturing world, there is a direct correlation between how much machines are utilized and how much they produce. This works because machines do the work that is non-linear and there is very little variation in producing exactly same unit of work. Utilization is the extent to which installed capacity performs actual work. Less idle time means more utilization.

Knowledge work – where people find optimal ways to apply their knowledge to a given context in such a way that it produces the best possible business result – is very different. In this world of work, more utilization does NOT always equate with more productivity and efficiency. With re-usability, someone can churn a great deal of work in a short time whereas a tiny piece of work/defect may take up days to solve. Being busy, in this world, does not mean progress and when people seem to be sitting idle, it does not necessarily mean they are not working.

In HBR article “Six Myths of Product Development”, authors Stefan Thomke and Donald Reinertsen say –

Processes with high variability behave very differently. As utilization increases, delays lengthen dramatically. Add 5% more work, and completing it may take 100% longer. But few people understand this effect.

And when companies focus solely on measuring and improving utilization alone, people will respond to that expectation accordingly. People will seemingly remain (or report) busy all the day when nothing real is accomplished. More utilization without visible gain in efficiency is a waste.

Instead of focusing on utilization, we should focus on efficiency – how much real work gets shipped and how well. Efficiency encourages people to work smart, focus on quality and find best possible route to achieve the desired business results.

For this, we should focus on building a system where efficiency is more likely to happen. We need to engage our people to the purpose of our product/organization. We need to give them autonomy and promote self-organization. We need to share feedback early and often. Most importantly, we need to trust them.

And we need to monitor real progress instead of simply trying to occupy people for 8 hours everyday!

Productivity Reminders…

… For Managers

  1. In knowledge world, productivity is hard to quantify. If you try to adopt old “command and control” style of management to drive knowledge workers, they get even less productive. Don’t command, empower. Don’t control, but lead them instead.
  2. Understand that knowledge workers cannot always be productive between 9 to 5. They have their creative zones and routines when they are most productive. Give them a mental space, when they can concentrate.
  3. Equate productivity, not with how much work is done, but how well.
  4. Give them autonomy and challenge them through work. Clarify what is expected out of them and set them free. Facilitate and support, but don’t spoon feed and micro-manage. Enrich their job by allowing them to focus on the core aspect of their work. Eliminate waste from their routines. Define what performance means.
  5. Provide them constant feedback. Feedback is the compass they use to drive their performance. Recognize their efforts.

… For Individuals

  1. “Busy-ness” is not equal to progress. Passing/pushing papers, constantly responding to emails, constantly checking social media and attending endless meetings is NOT productivity.
  2. Understand the context. You can work better when the bigger picture is clear to you. Understand clearly what needs to be done, why it needs to be done and then figure out how it needs to be done.
  3. It also means identifying what should *not* be done. Eliminate busy work and additional activities that add no or little value. E.g. A sales person should focus on sales/customer service more than she focuses on filling out reports and doing logistical activities involved in sales.
  4. When working, be ‘with’ work. Social media can wait. That new email notification screaming for your attention can wait. Other low priority items can wait. Multi-tasking kills concentration – one of the key elements of personal productivity.
  5. Learn continuously – the more you learn, the more you know, the more productive you get. Seek training, read blogs (better yet, write one), read at least one book in your area of work in a month, meet people, attend conferences/webinars. Learn.

In his book “Managing For The Future (1992)”, Peter Drucker said that raising productivity of knowledge and service workers must be an economic and social priority in twenty first century. Almost twenty years after that was written, it is a truth that we cannot afford to ignore.

Being productive at work is not just an organizational, economic or social priority, but a personal one too.

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Related Post at QAspire: Getting Work Done: Flow and Distractions