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Whats Your Job?

March 16, 2012
Applying Lean principles to banish waste and improve your personal performance.

Have you ever stopped to consider what your job is? Your title may be vice president of Marketing, or HR benefits manager, or “entrepreneur.” But going beyond your title, what is the essence of your job? What aspects of your daily work create real value for your customers? From the perspective of lean manufacturing, there are three kinds of activities: value-added work, non-value-added (but necessary) work, and waste. For an activity to be considered value-added, it must meet three criteria: 1) The customer must be willing to pay for the activity; 2) The activity must transform the product or service in some way; and 3) The activity must be done correctly the first time.

In other words, the starting point for defining value is what your customer has asked you for—whether that customer is a paying client, a colleague, your boss, or even yourself. Valueadded work comprises the actions that move your work closer to what that customer needs. Non-value-added work (or “incidental” work) may not move the value forward, but it’s essential to your ability to do value-added-work. And finally, waste is just that. Waste. To paraphrase Ernest Hemmingway, it’s the difference between motion and action.

Calling an activity value-added or non-value-added is not a judgment about the person doing that work. Sometimes systems or policies force you to do non-value-added work or waste. (I mean, really: does a florist or a barber really need a special licensing exam? Probably not, but it’s necessary to provide that service.)

This definition of value is actually a pretty high bar to clear. If you were to track your daily activities, you’d probably be shocked at how little time you spend on value-added work—and I’m not talking about the time you spend on Facebook, either. The truth is that the vast majority of your work-related activities don’t meet these three criteria. And this is where many personal productivity books (in my opinion) go awry: they’re totally focused on helping you get work—any work—done, without considering whether or not that work is value-added. They fail to challenge you on the most important question of all: is this work that you’re getting better at doing something you should be doing at all? Sure, you can become an email ninja and get your inbox down to zero by the end of each day, but given that much of the stuff in your inbox is garbage anyway, wouldn’t you be better off figuring out how to reduce the volume of incoming mail in the first place? Or, perhaps you’ve reduced the time it takes you to prepare your monthly sales meeting PowerPoint presentation from three hours to two … but do you even need the PowerPoint? Does your team? Perhaps a one-page summary report would be faster, easier, and more valuable.

It’s astonishingly easy to forget that the work on which you spend so much of your day must be guided by what your customers need. In fact, they couldn’t care less how you get the work done. They don’t want inputs (e.g., focus groups, training sessions, PowerPoint reports) or “deliverables.” They want outputs and answers. They want results that solve their problems in the shortest time possible for a reasonable fee. Therefore, you should always be mindful not to accelerate activities that look productive, but don’t actually provide value for your customer.

Sadly, the work that generally gets short shrift in these busy days is the value-added work that customers actually care about. In their book Far From The Factory, George Gonzalez-Rivas and Linus Larsson express this situation beautifully:

We think that the appearance of being busy and overloaded is simply a management proxy for effort and productivity. … But in the absence of meaningful measurements, we settle for the Plato’s Cave version of productivity—a cluttered desktop, an overloaded calendar, and workers running from meeting to meeting.

What is your work, anyway?
In any discussion of value, it’s essential, first and foremost, to figure out who your customers are and what they want. That’s your work.

I want to distinguish here between your “job” and your “work.” Your “job” has some sort of fancy title and incorporates the formal requirements and trappings of your position. By contrast, your “work” is your real value-creating activities. Your job description probably isn’t very helpful in figuring this out. It usually bears only the faintest relation to the job you actually do. (Plus, it’s written in turgid HR- and business jargon that makes sense to no one except the folks who define job classifications for a living.)

To identify your “work,” you need to identify the various customers you serve and the various value streams in which you operate. That’s the first step to determining what valueadded work is for you.

For example, when I supervised people in one of my earlier jobs, my direct reports didn’t really want corporate performance evaluations from me. What they really wanted was guidance in developing their careers and improving their skills. The performance evaluation was just a tool (and not a very good one, for that matter) for delivering that value. As another example, the v.p. of Sales worked together with the CFO to forecast revenue for the year. He needed pricing, margins, and target volumes from me—but he didn’t need me to attend all the finance meetings—and much to their surprise, I gracefully excused myself from them.

Even if you’re an independent contractor or an entrepreneur, this thinking still applies. Obviously, you have a variety of customers that benefit from your services—that’s easy. But your biggest customer, most likely, is yourself: you are the beneficiary of your marketing activities, your bookkeeping, the RSS feeds you read, and the classes you take. What value are you gaining from these activities? If you had to pay for them (and of course you are, with your time and attention, if not your money), would you want to?

Here’s the key point: focusing on the value to the customer, even when you are the customer, frees you up to improve both what you do and how you do it. Once you have that perspective, you’re unshackled from preconceptions of how to do your job, and you can see more clearly how to create value and reduce waste.

Yogi Berra is reputed to have said, “You can see a lot just by looking.” The truth is that you probably haven’t looked—really looked—at your work honestly and objectively in a long time (or maybe ever). Step back and examine your daily activities for truly value-added work using the three criteria I listed earlier. Identify what the real value is—the outcome that the customer really wants. Use that insight to eliminate and restructure what you do. What you’ll find, I think, are enormous opportunities for improvement, both in how you do your work and what you’re working on in the first place.

Dan Markovitz is the president of TimeBack Management (, a consulting firm that applies Lean manufacturing principles to individuals and teams to improve performance. This column is adapted from his new book, A Factory of One, available from Productivity Press.