Busy, But Not Productive

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Busy but not Productive

Everyone tells me they are busy.  They are on video or conference calls from morning until evening.  On average, workers receive over 100 emails per day and send at least 40.   A common complaint is, “I spend my entire day meeting and doing email; and have no time for my ‘real’ work.”

After listening to a podcast on remote work, I reflected on my experience working with distributed teams in the 1990s.  By comparison, we were in the dark ages. There was no WIFI, Internet speeds were a fraction of today’s, video conferences were in dedicated facilities, and Lotus Notes was the primary collaborative platform. 

Despite our rudimentary technology, we were (in my estimate) at least as productive and less stressed out than most people are today.  Labor productivity rates surged in the mid-1990s when personal computers became ubiquitous   Productivity rates flattened in the early 2000s and have remained relatively constant.  However, stress levels are higher now than they were 30-years ago.  The continuous stream of information and need to be connected has only fueled this stress

The secrets to reclaiming our time and becoming more productive are hidden in plain sight.  We simply need to start judiciously applying the principles of lean-agile management.  The foundational practices of Lean, Kanban, Scrum, and SAFe (Scale Agile Framework) were designed to create the space for us to focus on “real work.”

Create Value and Measure Progress

Both traditional and agile project management measures progress by creating items of value.  On our traditional projects, we decompose work into small, well-defined work packages.  In Agile, we break down projects into epics, features, and stories. 

It is easier to define and measure progress when creating something physical—like a building or a road.  It is harder to define outputs and assess progress in the service economy or knowledge work—developing software or writing a report.  

Consequently, we tend to track effort instead of progress and get trapped by the 90-90 Rule.  The first 90% of the work takes 90% of the time. And the remaining 10% also accounts for 90% of the time.  I can write the first draft of an article in 2-hours—it then takes another 10-hours to edit.

We should return to first principles, define our work, and measure our progress through the delivery of value.  This means we should clearly define the problem, desired outcomes, and set of solution deliverables before starting to work.  When addressing complexity, the solution is expected to evolve. 

Defining expected outcomes and deliverables focuses our attention and keeps us on track.  It will also help us feel more productive. Unfortunately, nearly 75% of people question whether they accomplished something each day.  That is a demoralizing statistic!

Make Work Visible

Kanban is a flow-based management practice initially developed to reduce inventory and manufacturing costs.  These practices are now widely used to visualize and manage work in industries as diverse as software development, operations support, and non-profit management. 

The Kanban board allows us to visualize, track, and manage our personal work and the work of our teams.  The simplest incarnation of a Kanban board is a 3-column chart showing the backlog of work (to do), work in progress (doing), and completed (done).  Work items are index cards or sticky notes.  Backlog items are prioritized by what provides the most value.

Work items should be small enough to complete within a few days. In addition, the work items should be clearly defined deliverables or outcomes where completion is binary (done/not done).  For example: organizing a program planning meeting is not well defined and needs to be decomposed into multiple, smaller items, such as: reserving the facilities, creating an agenda, inviting attendees, confirming each team is prepared, etc.

Defining work as small, discrete deliverables and marking them as “done” creates a powerful dynamic.  Most of us are motivated by achievement.  Seeing work move across the Kanban creates a strong feeling of accomplishment.  It is satisfying to see the completed column grow. 

Make Decisions

Making timely decisions can be a source of competitive advantage.  Prolonging the process does not yield better outcomes; it simply delays the conclusion.  Agile practices favor local decision-making and create opportunities to resolve problems quickly. 

The Agile Manifesto recognizes that the best decisions emerge from self-organizing teams.  It challenges management to create an environment where people are empowered and trusted to get the job done.  

One of SAFe®’s core values is decentralizing decision-making.  People closest to the work are best positioned to make frequent and time-critical decisions requiring localized information.  There are benefits to centralizing long-lasting and far-reaching decisions where there are economies of scale. 

Agile creates periodic opportunities for issues to be raised and resolved.  One of the primary goals of the daily stand-up meeting is to remove impediments.  Immediately after the meeting, problems are addressed by those impacted and able to resolve them.  Stakeholders are regularly invited to review accomplishments and provide feedback.  There are multiple cycles where priorities are assessed and adjusted, which reduces also unnecessary work. 

Creating a culture where decisions are made locally and quickly reduces waiting and eliminates waste.  In many organizations, issues are raised, and decisions are made in a weekly meeting.  Waiting and deferring decision-making only increases the time and effort expended to reach an answer.


My favorite Agile principle is “simplicity is the art of maximizing the things not done.”   There are so many things that provide little or no value and consume a disproportionate amount of time.  We are busy executing these tasks, but they do not make us productive.

Status reporting is an area ripe for simplification.  Clearly and effectively communicating project or operational status is valuable.  However, so much of the time and effort collecting, formatting, reviewing, and presenting information is unnecessary and wasted effort. 

The objective of status reporting is to enable better outcomes.  One major program held a 1-hour, executive review each week.  For the meeting, the team created a 60-page deck and held two, 2-hour prep meetings.  Every week, over 80-hours of effort was expended preparing for that 1-hour meeting.  Eventually, the deck was chopped down to a dozen slides, and the preliminary meetings were eliminated, freeing up countless hours for productive work.

Most business environments are rife with similar examples where effort is expended, but nothing of measurable value is produced.  Does your approval process promote effective decision-making?  At what point does the analysis no long yield actionable information? Unwinding these embedded processes is difficult but can yield incredible results. 

A telecommunications company took over 30-days to close its books each month which was much longer than the industry average.  Many attempts to improve the process never progressed until the company was acquired. Then, the word came down, “if we do not solve this problem, it will be solved for us.”  That was the impetus to cut 10-days of unnecessary work out of the process. 

With all our tools and technologies, it is easy to be busy in the modern business environment. But, we should shift our focus and aspire to be more productive and effective. 

© 2021, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

More by Alan

Alan Zucker authors 2 online, self-paced courses through InSite by Velociteach. Learn more about this Agile content:

See related articles:

Be Productive by Focusing on Value

Kanban 101: Improving How We Work

Unlock Potential: Push Decision Making Down

To learn more about Alan’s consulting services visit his website: http://www.pmessentials.us/.

Image courtesy of:  Forbes.com