Just an hour ago, I was sitting at my desk trying to solve a problem in a long Excel equation. One hour had gone by and I was still stumped. Finally, I remembered a lesson that has helped me so much over the last month and a half of my internship, which is, "Maximize your throughput, not your capacity." With that, I got up from my desk and walked around the office. I went to the break room, reclined on the sofa and relaxed. After five minutes I suddenly had a stroke of genius and despite being 20 yards from my computer, I could see the answer in my head on the computer screen. I ran to my desk and within one minute I fixed the problem with my Excel equation.
Over the past seven weeks of my internship, I have had this "stunned" experience (as I had with my Excel solution) several times:
First, at Intel few people work more than 45 hours per week. Employees get more than three weeks of vacation per year and every seven years, employees go on a 3+ month Sabbatical. Most people leave early or work from home on Fridays, and mandatory breaks are regulated by computer programs that lock you out of your computer for five seconds every ten minutes and five minutes every hour. This does not mean that people don't think about their work outside of their 45 hours of work or during their breaks. In fact, I have noticed the opposite. In the same way that I solved my problem in Excel while I was not working or intentionally thinking about work, people at Intel spend time unintentionally thinking about their work and solving business problems while walking to the cafe, spending time with family, attending the almost weekly Intel sponsored events (e.g., Barnum, Bailey Circus, Arizona Diamondbacks games, free movies and free lunches). This same "stroke of genius" that I experienced during my five minute break while relaxing has occurred to me dozens of times during my internship, and I have witnessed it in so many others at Intel over the last seven weeks.*
Second, my internship project involves process mapping an impossibly enormous process flow for the purpose of improving speed and efficiency. To make things complicated, people at Intel speak a whole other language that resembles something akin to Klingon and teenage texting language. In order to understand what anyone is telling me about the process flow, I enlisted the help of flashcards, Intel's "acronym dictionary" and several coworkers. When I found that I was still struggling to achieve the progress I was hoping for in my project, I turned to a friend of a friend, Joe, who owns his own Lean/Six Sigma consulting company in San Diego.
Two weeks into my internship, I drove out to San Diego and I went to lunch at Phil's BBQ with Joe where I picked his brain about my internship project strategy, process flow mapping and Lean/Six Sigma implementation. After about 30 minutes of talking, he said to me,
"Do you want to know how you can knock the socks off of your manager and get an offer from Intel?" he is quite the salesman.
"Yes, of course!" I responded.
"First of all, you are doing this all wrong!" he continued.
I was caught off guard a bit by his blunt accusation.
"You are trying to map out this process in such detail and you are wasting your time! What you need to do is find the bottleneck."
"OK," I said, not quite sure where he was going with this.
"Have you read the book The Goal?" he quizzed.
"Yes, I have" I replied enthusiastically.
"I use that book to teach every one of my Six Sigma courses at SDSU. I'll let you in on the secret to success with Six Sigma. You see...I'm lazy."
At this point, I didn't know where he was going with this.
"I don't want to do more work than I have to when I consult for a company. Do you remember Herbie from the book?" he questioned.
"Yes" I replied again. I was two-for-two!
"Remember how no matter what anyone in the Boy Scout group did, they couldn't speed up the hike until Alex helped Herbie out with his pack and redistributed the load."
"Oh yeah!" I said. I thought I was starting to get it.
"That's what I do when I consult," he continued. "I don't pay attention to anything else in the process except for the bottleneck. I search for that bottleneck and when I find it, I halt all work-in-process (WIP) inventory behind the bottleneck until every last piece of WIP inventory is through. This is when managers start to scream at me. What people don't understand is that in order to go faster you need to stop starting new work."
Now I was sure I didn't understand.
"I can't tell you how many consulting jobs I have lost because of hard-headed managers that fight me on this. But, once you relieve the bottleneck and you maximize the throughput at the bottleneck and make the bottleneck regulate the flow of the process, you have maximized your productivity without hardly lifting a finger. It's just like when Alex put Herbie in front so that Herbie could regulate the pace of the Boy Scouts on the hike.
That's when it clicked in my head, "That's what Dr. Snow meant!"
"Don't continue to waste your time anywhere else," he warned. "Any work you do at any other point in the process is waste because it won't speed up the process one bit. If Alex had taken the pack of one of the faster boys, would it have helped?"
"No." I replied with a fascinated tone.
He reached into his pocket, pulled out his business card and extended it toward me. "When you find that bottle neck," he continued, "I want you to call me and I will let you know what to do next."
At this point, I smiled big and he smiled back. We both understood the unintended reference to The Goal, and it was becoming a bit weird. I half expected that I would receive a phone call any second from Bill Peach.
I thanked Joe(nah) profusely. We finished up lunch and parted ways. I couldn't knock the grin off my face after that.
Ever since my encounter with Joe(nah), I have been profoundly focused on finding that bottleneck at Intel, and more importantly, finding bottlenecks in my work and personal lives. This focus has given me a profound respect for Intel's work philosophy and has drastically improved my personal productivity.
In my personal life, faithfully following this principle has given me the experiences (like my Excel problem experience) that have pushed me closer and closer to truly comprehending the counter-intuitive concept that "Maximizing throughput leads to greater productivity, not maximizing capacity."
Furthermore, in my work life, this principle has drastically improved my personal productivity. For example, I read the book Personal Kanban, discontinued new work at the office (scary!) and maximized throughput at my bottle neck (i.e., my mental bandwidth) by limiting the number of projects I can take on at any one time to three. I map everything on a Personal Kanban chart with sticky notes and a whiteboard. My Personal Kanban sits behind my computer monitor so I can always see it. It looks very similar to the whiteboard in this picture below. My personal Kanban helps me to visualize my work, and minimize the clutter in my mind. I am able to focus on the task at hand, finish my work quickly and wow my manager. It has also made reporting on my work to my manager very simple. I have found great success with it, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to improve their personal productivity.
*Intel was recently ranked 3rd on The Gartner Group's 2013 ranking of The Best Supply Chains in the World.
"A Harvard Economist's Surprisingly Simple Productivity Secret"