Switching costs are real!

We talk about switching costs at my workplace – the time spent moving attention from one project to another.  Changing your focus requires you to wrap up what you are doing, perhaps before you had brought it to a natural place of closure.  Then you need to get engaged in something new, perhaps reminding yourself about what the goals of this project are, look for documentation to give you context about where the project is and what needs to happen next, connect with team mates to find out what they have been working on and where you can contribute. It is a well-known axiom in Lean that limiting work in process, or WIP, increases productivity.  I found this great video on YouTube that walks through an example process and does the math on the relationship between WIP, cycle time and throughput – it really helps you understand the interrelationships and results of varying WIP from a process point of view (throughput) and a customer point of view (cycle time).  There is also a series of posts by a Jim Benson on his blog personalkanban about the multiple benefits of limiting WIP for knowledge workers.

I experience switching costs several times a day, as I go from meeting to meeting.  The worst is when I have multiple 30 min meetings back to back.  Sometimes it just is what it is, but I always come home pretty exhausted after a day like that.  And I learned why while reading John Medina’s book Brain Rules.  Specifically, in the chapter on attention, I learned what goes on in my brain when I move my attention from one task to another.   It is not possible to multitask with attention, and switching your attention literally costs you in the form of energy consumed in your brain, and indirectly costs you in the form of lower productivity (taking longer to accomplish a task) and lower effectiveness (more errors).

I am not sure I needed to be convinced that switching costs are real, and I already believed that placing limits on WIP is a good thing.  But I don’t seem to be doing anything about them for myself or for my colleagues who work with me.  I notice that as a leader, I even have a tendency to try and work on more things simultaneously, because I have the feeling that I am a bottleneck for others.  This leads me to do things like try to read and respond to long email threads on my phone – which makes me feel like I am making good use of my time, but now I wonder if I am just taking longer and making more errors.

I think I am going to give a personal Kanban board a try.  It might make me more effective and efficient.  And since I am a leader, that might have positive benefits for those around me.

Follow up:  Since writing this, I have created a personal Kanban that I plan to use for a few weeks and see how it goes – see photo.  I chose to go low tech, and use a file folder with sticky notes – so that I could have some structure with flexibility, and be able to carry it with me to meetings with my manager, direct reports, and others who I want to have visibility to my work and priorities. As my boss says, it is not enough just to declare that you want to make a change – you need to create a support structure so that you can follow through on your commitment to change.

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One Response to Switching costs are real!

  1. Karl Hoover says:

    Eleanor, Great post – appreciate the YouTube and book references. Looking forward to reading your reflections on the personal kanban [have been pondering testing that out for myself]. – Karl

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