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To do or not to do, is it your choice to work on the system?

To do or not to do, is it your choice to work on the system?

Lean Transformation Diary Entry from Andreas Heinz, October 22, 2010

Some readers in Germany might have come across a book called ‘Momo’. It was a great success in the 90ties telling the story of mysterious men in black suits who steal time from people. A little girl – Momo – get’s into the adventure by trying to find out what these men do and how they steal time.

In the story, I remember, she reveals they don’t do it by influencing ‘the time’ itself but by driving people to do more activities throughout their day. These men are the cause of additional activities that finally leave people with the impression that their time has been stolen.

I am reminded of that story when I hear time and time again statements from various corners in our organization: “We don’t have time to work on change”. This is often the answer we hear from others and very often we say the same thing particularly when we are asked about the progress of our own plans.

If we are honest the statement does not only apply to the workplace but also to our private lives “I don’t have time”  is a welcome and easy label putting a dense fog in front of our real problems and saving us from serious reflection or revelations about our personal priorities or weaknesses.  Maybe a better way to expresses this ‘time-problem’ while avoiding the dark depths of those personal weaknesses, is like this  “I don’t spend my time on this, but on other things.”

Clearly – very clearly – we all have too many things to do within any busy organisation but we all have the same amount of time, that’s the law of ‘physics’. However, how about changing our use of language again by saying: “I don’t spend my time on this, but on other things.” and: “I have more tasks to do than I can do”. This changes the focus of our attention.

Simply saying “I have no time” distracts us towards an imagined scarcity of time – as if somebody had stolen the time like the men in black from the ‘Momo’book.- It does not have to be like that.

In contrast, saying “I spend my time on other things” leaves us at the end of the sentence with –  “other things”. Which is a perfect starting place to think about what these other things are and where these other things are coming from. Questions can then be asked such as: “What causes these activities? What is the real need for it? What is their purpose? Finally, we might ask: How can I reduce the number of these things that hinder me to do those things where purpose, need and value are clear to me?

In a situation of  ‘too much to do’ we are the ones, who are making the choice of which activities we do and don’t do. Nobody,  in normal organisations, puts us in chains or gives us drugs or stands with a loaded revolver behind us to force us to do certain activities. If there is a list of more things to do than we can do, we are obviously making a choice but what is informing that choice?  How do you choose what to do or not to do?

Our time is not stolen we give it away without realising because we let others choose for us, we blame others not ourselves for being overburdened. We choose to say, it’s not us, but our managers or our customers that are removing choice: We should keep in mind that as long as they ask from us more than we can do, it is not their choice, but ours in the end, simply because, again, it is impossible to do all within the time we have.  So, from that angle, it looks like if we have some freedom of what we do as human beings in a normal office environment. We are not slaves or robots, and we are not Human doings but human beings.

However, I realise it does not feel like that. Yes, it is hard to deal with pressure and to keep control, feeling you have no chance to become proactive and sometimes no chance to even be reactive. Because something is working on us from outside. Something not someone is stealing your time. You could call this stealthy time stealer ‘the system’.

The ‘business and working system’ pushes and pulls us in so many directions that at the end of the day we say ‘I had no choice’. And indeed, as long as we only think and react within the logic of that system, we feel as if we do not make choices. However, thinking and staying in that system is a choice we make. We could also choose to think and act and work on the system, instead of thinking and working in the system.

So How to get out of this trap? A very simple start is to delete “I don’t have time” from our vocabulary and to replace it with: “I don’t spend my time on this, but I spend my time on other things.” Then, ask: “What are these things?”, “Where do these things come from?” is already thinking about the system, instead of just reacting in the system. Asking: “What activities on my list are those who can remove causes of other activities on the list?” – is thinking about where I can start to influence the system, thinking about where I can choose those activities on my list where I work on the system, where I change the system.

Do we ask what is creating value for our customers? What is value for our management? Can we change the system to produce less waste?  Can we create a space for new possibilities and different ways of working that give back time instead of stealing it.

I still wonder why we choose to do the important things last or not at all, the things that will secure our future by changing the system and that can open a way out of the waste that fills our task lists. Wouldn’t it make sense to choose those activities first, that can help to remove the need for other waste activities on our list?

So, give it a try. Stop saying “I don’t have time.”  And go with “I don’t spend my time on this, I spend my time on other things.” And listen to the echo to follow and track down from which corner in the system they come from, those ‘…other things…other things …other things…’