Error Proofing Your Meetings


By Dan Markovitz

Sometimes it's hard to spot errors in an office, much less error-proof the workspace. With so many value streams running through each knowledge worker, and so much of the value being intangible and invisible, error-proofing is tricky.

But if you consider that the goal of error proofing is to reduce waste, then Ikea has devised an ingenious form of error proofing: they've come up with a way to keep meetings focused. . . and short. Which is to say that the company has built in a method to reduce the time wasted in meetings that wander like a drunken sailor.

In an article about the design of the company's US headquarters, the New York Times noted that the building features

14 “huddle rooms,” 10-foot by 10-foot cubes painted in primary colors and designed for small groups. The bright colors can be harsh, but that's part of the plan. . . . Meetings in them tend to be brief.

There's a picture of one of these rooms, too. It's a bit small (both the room and the photo), but it gives a pretty clear idea of what the feeling is:

It's hard to imagine wanting to spend a whole lot of time in such a… YELLOW environment. As a result, you'd probably be pretty considerate about getting to meetings on time, starting them on time, and getting the hell out of there on time.

Compare that to your company's meetings. Have you ever had a 30 minute meeting that ended at the designated time? For that matter, have you ever had a 30 minute meeting at all? Think of the collective muda created by one of those meetings that last longer than a Robert Byrd oration on the intricacies of Senatorial privilege.

You can argue that the color scheme might impair real productivity. I mean, can you really think clearly when you feel like you're being swallowed by a lemon and your retinas are screaming for mercy? (And imagine the red room. Yech!)

Nevertheless, the idea of building in waste inhibitors — poka-yoke for the knowledge worker — is pretty cool. I once worked for a boss who would lock the door to the conference room at the meeting start time. People only missed one meeting before figuring out that they better be there on time. I know of a company that holds their meetings standing up — straying off topic is a bit less appealing when you're not resting your butt in an Aeron chair.

I don't know if any of these approaches is perfect. They all seem a bit heavy-handed. But if the result is a reduction of wasted time, then I applaud the effort.

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Dan Markovitz
Dan Markovitz is president of Markovitz Consulting, a firm that radically improves operational speed and efficiency by applying lean concepts to knowledge work. He is a faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute and teaches at the Stanford University Continuing Studies Program. He also lectures on A3 thinking at the Ohio State University’s Fisher School of Business. Dan is a frequent speaker and presenter at conferences, and has consulted to organizations as diverse as Camelbak, Clif Bar, Abbott Vascular, WL Gore & Associates, Intel, the City of Menlo Park, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. His book, A Factory of One, was honored with a Shingo Research Award in 2013. Dan has also published articles in the Harvard Business Review blog, Quality Progress, Industry Week magazine, Reliable Plant magazine, and Management Services Journal, among other magazines. All of these articles are available for download on the Resources page. Earlier in his career, he held management positions in product marketing at Sierra Designs, Adidas, CNET and Asics Tiger, where he worked in sales, product marketing, and product development. He also has experience as an entrepreneur, having founded his own skateboarding footwear company. Dan lived in Japan for four years and is fluent in Japanese. He holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.


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