Why a to-do list just doesn't work

I get a daily email from superfactory, an organization dedicated to what is called "lean manufacturing". I thought this was an interesting concept -- something I personally have never done. There have been some other links to forms which attempt to allow you to schedule your day so you can "live in your calendar". I have been reading several articles about using lean manufacturing techniques in the office, and am about to begin some implementation within my department. Maintaining consistent flow is essential -- which in the article that follows is spoken of as "takt time".

I am curious whether any of my fellow pen-and-paper based planners have attempted to use such a system.

Thanks, heres the article:

15 January 2008
Why a to-do list just doesn't work.
Jim Womack, founder of the Lean Enterprise Institute and the man responsible for putting Lean on the map (at least in this country), recently wrote an article about what he calls “cadence.” This concept ties in nicely to what I preach about how to “live in your calendar” rather than your inbox, and why a to-do list just isn’t a powerful enough tool to enable you to manage your work.

Please be patient with the lengthy quote that follows. I think it’s acutely relevant in a world in which your boss or colleague often drops stuff on your desk at 4pm and expects you to finish it by 9am the next morning – even though it’s been sitting on her desk for a week and a half.

"I hope that every Lean Thinker by now understands takt time. This is the available production time per day divided by the number of items the customer is demanding each day. For example, if the single-shift production process operates eight hours a day (480 minutes) and customers demand 240 widgets a day, the takt time is two minutes. . . .

"But takt time is difficult to apply in a product development activity like e-letters [or any knowledge work, for that matter]. What is the rate of customer "demand" for a new product no one has ordered? And what is the available production time, particularly when developers are working on several products at once?"

Although Jim doesn’t mention it, the difficulty of calculating available production time also stems from the need to respond to crises and the daily snafus that can suck up much of your day. It’s often hard to tell in advance how many hours per day you actually have to work on your key projects.

Which brings me to the concept of cadence. Think of cadence as takt time adapted to activities beyond routine production. . . .When there is no steady cadence for starting and completing projects, work starts to bunch up and the resources of the highly trained and integrated development team can't keep up. As a result, projects are delayed or delivered with some functionality missing. Or they are completed with less than the full attention they require for consistently high quality. And in either case development costs are often much higher.

Another way to think of cadence is heijunka (production leveling) for product development, in which the needs of the customer for new products . . . are set against the capabilities of the development organization. While it might be nice to continually vary the output of the development organization to meet changing customer desires, this is usually impossible if many of the resources are specialized and scarce.

The practical alternatives are (a) unrealistic goals and continuous gyrations in scheduling, causing muda, mura, and muri, or (b) an acknowledgment that a development organization can only do so much in a given period of time and that it can actually get more useful work done if everyone is working at a steady pace. In my experience, the organization and the customer are better off with the latter approach, when a clear cadence is established for project completions and the cadence is maintained.

So how does this tie into my notion of “living in your calendar”?

Living in your calendar means keeping it – and not your email – front and center. It means assigning all your tasks and projects to your calendar, rather than putting them on a to-do list, keeping them in your head, or letting them fester in an email in your inbox.

The calendar enables you to “level the production” of your key projects at work. It helps you to allocate time each day or each week to those projects, so that you can work at a steady (and sustainable) pace on those projects. And it’s the very specific allocation of time that makes the calendar better than a simple to-do list. The to-do list doesn’t capture or display the vital bit of information you need: how long will the next step in the project take? And the corollary: how much production time do you have available?

Most people, of course, don’t live in their calendars. They live in their inboxes and treat the pile of messages as an ancillary to-do list. They spend a huge chunk (most?) of their day reading and responding to email, and they only use the calendar function of Outlook (or Lotus Notes, or whatever) to capture meetings and appointments. But without using the calendar, it’s impossible to establish a steady cadence for critical projects. And without a steady cadence, you end up missing Saturday morning cartoons in last minute scrambles to meet deadlines.

Look, I know that your company expects you to pull a lot of freight without giving you a lot of support. You’ve got internal and external customers screaming for attention and help. Your computer dings like a pinball machine from the overdue calendar alerts. Allocating time to your work isn’t easy, when you can’t even find 15 minutes for lunch.

But if you want to get control over your work, and if you want to avoid unrealistic goals and continuous gyrations in scheduling, you don’t have much of a choice. Live in the calendar. Establish cadence. And see how much you can really get done.

Syndicate content

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Potential fertilizer...

I should start by stating that "Lean" is a sore spot for me.

A bit of background for folks who do not know about "Lean".
Wikipedia reference
It is a concept developed in the manufacturing industries aimed at increased efficiency and decreased waste.

My gripe is when the same ideas are put in motion in an industry like software development where the "manufacturing" is intellectual rather than physical. It is argued that all the concepts apply in both, but I do not agree. You writers can identify: A bookbinder can consistently turn out so many books in a workday while a writer cannot guarantee being able to write so many pages per day -- because the writer's process is intellectual and the binder's is physical.

I do feel that a lot of the "Lean" concepts can have a positive impact on an intellectual process, but not the same as a physical one.

Same thing, I feel, about to-do-lists. It is, IMHO, more an intellectual process than a physical one. I believe it is a tool - one that has helped me more than I can say.

I do not know about "living in a calendar", but without my checklists, to-do lists, and "honey-do" lists I would not get much done.

Another facet of my bad feelings toward "Lean" is that my experience with it was one of those where the process got more attention than the results.
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

Shoveling coal into your

Shoveling coal into your fire, dear. I agree.

I Know What You Mean

Well, I've been lurking here for a couple of months now and have really enjoyed your dynamic templates and all the other stuff I've found. It is nice to know that there are others who like fountain pens, notebooks, paper, etc. as much as I do. I like my technology too, but still enjoy the 'finer' things in life as well. Anyway, I work in software maintenance and have had programs such as 'lean' forced upon me before too, so I know exactly what you mean. One of my continual gripes is that the process gets more attention than the product.

babies and bathwater...

Now, let's not go and toss out that poor little baby here!

I don't have you all's perspective, not working in a corporate environment, but in a real sense, my work is creative work, and not in any sense, manufacturing--preaching, of course--and other facets of ministry.

However, when it comes to sermon prep, and other creative projects, I have discovered that what he is describing--at least from my perspective--can very _much_ help.... However, I wouldn't use all the buzz words, etc. that he does. To me, it works very simply.

I use David Seah's Printable CEO Series Electronic Task Planner forms. They work very simply. First thing in the morning, I write down my projects for the day (typically 2-4 of them). I estimate the time I need to spend on each, penciling it into the little time ovals next to the project, and then pencil them into the time column on the side, noting specific times for each. Next, I either fire up the electronic ETT form, my Newton's alarm clock, or my Palm, and start working. Every 15 minutes, a short "bing" to remind me of the passage of time helps keep me on-task, and I work through my plan. One thing I do is plan "rewards" for keeping on task (15 minute breaks).

It has worked very well for me. Now, there are some vital differences. The one that pops immediately to mind is that I am doing this to myself, not to a team. In other words, it's self-imposed, not heirarchically imposed. That can make a big difference.


Good Concepts

I agree that these concepts can be quite helpful. I think scheduling time for projects (intellectual or physical) and those rewards is very important. I was just commiserating with ygor regarding the 'across the board' implementation of good programs while losing sight of the overall goal of an organization. Where I work, we have had too many occurrences of good manufacturing programs applied to software maintenance/development. While the programs are worthwhile in the right context, they don't always work so well in another and you wind up spending lots of time trying to make them fit and not enough time producing a product.


Right on !

Now I am not saying these programs are useless - they are not, if implemented with a bit of thought. Software engineering/development can benefit from efficiency and process and all. The problem I see is this "One Solution for EVERYTHING" mentality that management seems to have universally.
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

Lean is NOT a "one solution for everything" solution

Lean is a concept, a tool, a means to an end -- the elimination of waste in its many forms. It does not pretent to be a one solution for everything. Believing in Simplicity as I do, I find it a helpful approach.

The intent of my post was the "living in your calendar" approach -- the setting up of specific objectives within a specific timeframe... a concept I think can work in factories, in the office and even in creative endeavors.

The Passionate Pilgrim
-- Excellence through Simplicity

Let me try a different approach to the discussion

First of all, here is a link to the original blog article. It has some nice connecting links.

Now, I think I have a better handle on my initial discomfort of "living in my calendar". It seemed to place more importance on how much you get done and how you "do it" versus WHAT you do. It struck me as contradictory to the Covey-ish "First Things First" concept.

I found, after reading FTF that I totally agree with the idea that it is better to do one correct/proper/appropriate thing rather than many things that may or may not be correct/proper/appropriate.

I believe both are necessary, like a yin/yang of time management.

How's that ?

Comments ?
Discussion ?
Back-rubs ?
Chocolate chip cookies ?
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

(hands you a cookie) --- "I

(hands you a cookie)

"I want to live in Theory. Everything works there."

Is this your quotation: "I want to live in Theory. ..."?

Would you mind if I put this in the Quotations & Aphorisms thread? If so, do I attribute it to you? If not, do you know the original source?

I did not create it, but it

I did not create it, but it suits me so well that when I read it, I had to keep it.

It's from a novel I read some years ago, but I can no longer recall which novel, or even the author. Sorry.

Feel free to add it to the collection, with perhaps an "Author Unknown". Maybe someone else will recognize it, and be able to tell us who wrote it.

"I want to live in Theory. Everything works there."

I tried Google...

and got a gazillion links.
WikiQuote says "Unknown"

Great quote.
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)


I agree.

Lean seems to be a very good process for organising someone's day if they are working for The Company like a good little robot. But it's structure doesn't inspire self-analysis, creativity and knowing Why one's doing something.

Using a calendar rather than a to-do list does work but it's the analysis of What, Why and How appointments get onto the calendar that's important.

One area that a lot of time management processes miss is self-improvement and improving the business. If a person wants a promotion in 12 months time what are the projects they could be doing at work to better their chances. Or if there's a process that's annoying the heck out of someone and they want to improve it (but it's not on their boss's list of 'things to do') why can't they do it anyway. It's amazing how much can be done in 15 minutes a week.

I suspect that if an organisation picks up something like Lean then the tendency would be for supervisors to monitor every minute on their employees' calendar and discourage any innovation at all. So the first people to find a job elsewhere are the creative ones that any organisation needs.

a list is a list is a list is a....

This sounds like just moving the to-do list from a card to a calendar. It is still a to-do list though, isn' it?

To-do lists work for me simply because I cannot remember everything.

I do not use a calendar of any sort and the only timepiece available is my computer and cell phone.

There are 3 things I keep track of every day.
1. what I need to do that day
2. record of inspiration/ideas/plans
3. everything else

At the end of every day I throw away the to-do list and make a new one. It gets put in my mobile bleacher with project cards. On the right side of the bleacher is an A5 pad where I write down all the things which come up and can be dealt with tomorrow or later. On the left of the bleacher is another A5 pad for writing down and/or sketching ideas as they come up.

I work thru the to-do list in whatever order I think is best. The daily distactions are either dealt with at the moment, added to my daily list or put in the pad on the right to be forgotten today and dealt with tomorrow. Whatever is not completed on my daily to-do list is carried over to the next days list.

This system helps me to handle the numerous daily unexpecteds by being able to maintain a flexible schedule while keeping on target with what I need to accomplish.


I appreciate your comments (well, most of them...)

Other than getting side-tracked on Lean Manufacturing, I appreciate those who took the time to respond to my principal question -- do any of you try to "live out of your calendar". There are times when I have -- especially arround dead-lines where I block out a two or three hour block in Outlook as "busy", close my door and put my phone on "send all to voicemail puratory". I don't do it too often, so my staff honors my solitude.

Sometimes I think I would be more efficent, and accomplish more if I did so more often. About half my day is usually used in other people coming into my office, 80-90% of which is business related. As a young manager I was impressed with the "One minute manager" and wanted to be available to staff and have maintained an open door policy except when dead-lines loom.

Someone reminded me of the Emergent Task Planner (davidseah.com) in response to my post. I dug through my archives and found the information I had printed out and filed for future reference. ETP is not a name that rolls off the tongue, so I had forgotten about it. Since I am in the midst of another time driven deadline, I may well attempt to use those forms for the next several days. I am grateful for the reminder. My initial reaction was, and continues to be, that the ETP is a little too intense for my usual daily use -- at least as it pertains to my priority of being available.

As I have reflected a little more on the subject I have concluded that Covey to some extent asks us to "live out of our calendars" with his teaching to schedule your priorities rather than merely prioritizing our schedule. And IF Getting Things Done is about living well, then putting specific tasks within my calendar might make less "take home" work and greater accomplishment.

I like the idea of establishing a cadence in my work -- leveling the high's and low's -- I probably will never succeed completely (its the nature of management), but if I don't TRY, then for certain I will never have it level. I might be able to deminish the highs and the lows.

So again, thank you to those who stayed on subject. It was helpful. And to those of you who don't like Lean as a concept, I would enjoy a discussion on it -- most of the negative comments were not (in my opinion) reflective of lean as it ought to be. Unfortunately, the negative comments are accurate of what some companies have done in the name of "lean".

The Passionate Pilgrim
-- Excellence through Simplicity


Somehow I missed the point that you are in management...

I would agree that the ETP is not the best form for use in management. The ETT might help you a bit better, at least, to see where your time went once it is over.... but not help plan it. :-)

Management can be difficult. I did it for three years, with part-time working students, and 11 full-time staff. It was fun. I enjoyed it, but it would not have meshed well with the ETP--except, as you noted, those times when you have large projects, and deadlines looming. Like you, I probably cheated an awful lot, staying after hours, or coming in early. My best tool, though, was to take lunch at a different time from everybody else. That gave me about 45 minutes of uninterrupted work. :-)

Back then, I was quite fresh out of college, and still heavily in my Daytimer world--and I _did_ live out of my calendar. Todos were not a major part of how I scheduled. I pretty much kept up my college habits, blocking time for projects, together with pre-written deadlines for the parts. I never had a name for it, and had never heard of the names that people sling around today--Covey, GTD, etc. This was late 80s and early 90s, so I don't even know if these people were around then. I took some of Daytimer's own tips and guildelines, and modified them to work for me.

However, the idea of working out of your calendar does seem to be something that should work for you--to some extent. Since you respect your workers, and give them access to you, and it seems they respect your need for undisturbed work, I would suggest blocking certain times each day, during which you ought to be left undisturbed. If it's a daily thing (maybe right after lunch, or an hour after work has started), it would simply become habit for everybody. But not knowing your situation, this can only be a general suggestion. Plus, it's been over 15 years since I did this.... so, take my "advice" with a block of salt. ;-)



Appreciated your comments.

The Passionate Pilgrim
-- Excellence through Simplicity

I think that I know what really the problem is here

If your original post had been titled "When a to-do list just doesn't work", then I could have agreed with most of your reflections. As it is, I have to say that I really have a lot of issues with your assertions. For a lot a people, in a lot of circumstances, to-do lists really do work really well. For me, for instance, I have daily tasks lists, where all the things I have to do in one day, regardless of project, with room for overflow from the day before. That works really really well. For me.


Wouldn't all this go along with GTD, then? Doesn't GTD say that something that takes longer than a couple minutes or couple steps belongs in a project? If worked out this way, you may not live in your calendar, but you are living in your projects... which is almost the same thing at least practically.

Since I'm not much into theories and philosophies, this is good enough for me. I'm more of a fundamentalist--(quoting Jack Nicklaus here)

I don't believe in philosophies. I believe in fundamentals." --Jack Nicklaus



The title of the post was the title of the blog quoted

The title of the post was the title of the blog quoted in the post -- Point taken, especially since I was asking a question about the blog and not necessarily agreeing with the blog. The assertations were not mine, but the orginal blog writer -- a link was provided by another DIYer above (my attempt to provide a link failed).

I am a list maker, organize my life by lists, but am always on the lookout for better methodology... and in light of my current deadline driven project was struck by the idea.... AND I received helpful suggestions from the DIY community.

The Passionate Pilgrim
-- Excellence through Simplicity

Would you agree...

that the two pieces -- list and calendar -- are best used together rather than separately ?

It seemed the original article was favoring the calendar while ignoring the list. That's how it came across to me.
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

Tish pshaw! ;-)

that the two pieces -- list and calendar -- are best used together rather than separately ?

Pa! My calendar is on my computer, and lists are on paper, and ne'er the twain shall meet! Not only that, but my calender is never looked at unless I'm entering a new item, or responding to an alarm that my calendar alerted me to. I like it that way. That way, I only need to think about these things when necessary, and they don't interfere with my tasks.