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Should we multi task or single task with reduced ‘switching time’?

Just a few decades ago, hardly anyone was contactable via e mail until they reached office and the concept of text messages or hand held phones for that matter, were yet to become part of our collective reality. The good old land line with the rotary dial was the ‘go to’ device for instant communication.

With the introduction of smart phones and the ‘app ecosystem’, our daily lives have changed exponentially. Today you can literally spend the whole day with your smart phone lounging on your sofa, switching from one app to another, watch movies, play video games and basically take a break only to consume a meal (also conveniently delivered to your doorstep via an app) or to answer your biological needs. The apps are also designed in such a way that once you open them, you can literally scroll through the content ‘forever’ (thanks to ‘infinite scrolling’), not to mention the notifications that keep ‘screaming’ for your attention to make sure you never turn your eyes away from the screen.

As a result, we now live a life of constant distraction with ‘pseudo multi tasking’ the way of life. Studies done by Harvard psychologists Mathew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert show that we spend 47% of our time on things completely unrelated to the task at hand. People also check their e mail or IM every 6 minutes (Adam Gazzaley) and take 25 minutes on average to re focus on a task once concentration is broken (Deborah Bulcock – ‘Is it Better to multi task or single task’). As it turns out, we simply aren’t built for multi tasking and the jury is out on its long term effects on our mental health and cognitive abilities.

The question then is, rather than attempting to multi task; i.e. skip between half completed tasks, ‘A’. whether it would be more efficient to prioritize and complete a particular task at a time; i.e. ‘single task’ and ‘B’. reduce the ‘switching time’ between tasks in a similar vein to the concept of ‘SMED’.

SMED or – ‘Single Minute Exchange of Die’, which was popularized by the Lean Toyota Production System focuses on reducing the activities involved and time taken when switching from one particular product to another in the manufacturing line in order to speed up overall production. This includes activities that are carried out prior to and during the changeover.

At a very superficial level, when comparing this with our day to day activities, it means rather than multi tasking, one should entirely focus on prioritizing & completing one activity and reducing the time taken to commence the subsequent task by ensuring everything that is needed to carryout the task is in place; i.e. planning the most efficient way of carrying out the task (even the creation of a project plan, a project charter etc in the event the activity is large in scope). Usual distractions like notifications, e mails, phone calls etc should be better managed either by disabling them or attending to them once the task is completed.

Absolute focus on a single task at hand and reduced switching time between tasks should trump multi tasking every time.

‘Power of the compounding effect’ – Through the lens of Kaizen

I recently came across an interesting book called ‘Atomic Habits’ on Transformational change, by James Clear. The gist of the book was simple, yet powerful. Some of the key takeaways, though not directly linked to Lean or Kaizen, are still very relevant nevertheless:

1. Over estimation of the power of any single action over small actions over a period of time.

2. The Power of 1% – 1% change on a daily basis will have a compounding effect over a year.

3. ‘Forget Goals’ – Focus on creating the right systems instead.

4. Plateau of latent potential – Change initially takes time and may even seem as if things aren’t moving at first.

These points have a lot of significance both from a personal and organizational standpoint and it reinforces important tenants from a Continuous Improvement perspective. The concept of Kaizen or Continuous Improvement, is one many companies around the world have bought into since its adoption from Japan. However in my experience, even companies that have formal Kaizen or Lean programmes with ample support from the Senior Management, face challenges in successfully making it a part of the company’s culture. ‘Atomic Habits’ gives us food for thought as to why this could be the case.

Most companies make the mistake of hoping that a Kaizen or Lean programme would be a silver bullet that provides immediate results, rather than it being a methodology that should be reflected in the way processes and systems are designed, resulting in incremental improvements that accumulate over time; i.e. ‘The power of 1%’. These concepts should also not be goals in and by themselves, but rather, a way of working; i.e. the culture within the company. For example, most companies measure sales target achievement and profit after tax but do not measure the achievement of continuous Improvement KPIs, which results in a ‘piece meal’ approach to continuous improvement; i.e. lack of adequate focus on creating the right behaviour and system for continuous improvement.

Visible organizational change through continuous improvement also takes time and at times can even seem as if things were worse than they were at the beginning (due to initial resistance to change). It is important therefore to understand that it takes time for dividends to start to come through; i.e. The ‘plateau of latent potential’. This is also referred to as the ‘hockey stick effect’.

The author goes on to state that in order for desirable change to manifest, one needs to make desirable practices easy and less desirable ones harder in comparison. From a Kaizen or Lean perspective, not only should the re engineered processes be more efficient, but what is equally or more important, is that they are easy and intuitive, especially when there is technological change involved. Most improved processes are never practiced the way they were designed to by staff, either because the technology takes time to get accustomed to, or due to even simpler reasons, such as, the PC screens provided for ‘digital paperless processing’ being too small for multi tasking for example, resulting in staff continuing to take printouts instead.

Most importantly though above all, the key to lasting change, both in life and in organizations is perseverance.

COVID -19 and the Lean Lessons of Yore

Never has the entire business world and the world in general been challenged to revisit and re-imagine their way of life and operating models as they are now, due to the global pandemic that has hit us after nearly a century. This pandemic has made every Government, Business owner, employee and household question and re think everything they took for granted. Enforced lockdowns are having a domino effect on the economies, creating uncertainty in every fabric of society.

Interestingly though, the countries that are getting a relative grip on the situation are the ones that are relying on data, facts, Science and ground realities and have followed the tried and tested ‘PDCA‘ (Plan, Do, Check, Act/Adjust) approach. These are Governments that are very aware of their people’s actual needs and challenges. Decisions on opening up the Economies are based on data analysis, modelling and Statistical trends. Whilst different countries are dealing with the challenge in different ways and to varying degrees of success, Sri Lanka’s approach (and other notable countries such as New Zealand, Taiwan & Vietnam to name a few ) seems to have been quite effective so far, quite possibly due to the aforementioned PDCA approach which is elaborated below.


  • Early planning , screening and detection of people entering and leaving the country to ensure they were of good health (Ensuring people who showed symptoms did not enter the system).


  •  Fast action by ensuring people worked from home and were isolated, no sooner early cases were detected (Stopping the flow, no sooner a problem was detected)
  •  Continuous communication via the media, visual marking at workplaces and in public transport (Communication and Visual Management)
  • Action taken to ensure business owners and employees were relived from Loan repayments (via Credit moratoriums) and numerous other actions to alleviate the problems faced by the masses based on VOP (Voice of the ‘People’)
  • Testing to monitor the number of  new cases in the population
  • Piloting incremental steps in re opening the economy once the curve had flattened


  • Continuously monitoring new cases to ensure the curve remains flat and new cases keep dropping (Statistical Trend analysis) post piloting opening up of the Economy
  •  Closely monitoring the ‘R No’ – Reproductive rate to ensure it remains below 01
  • Increasing the testing sample size and improving the efficacy of the testing methodology


  • Constant review of the success of the steps taken thus far and making adjustments  to the execution plan as required

When contrasting this method to a ‘fly by wire’ approach that has been mostly based on a gut feel; well the results tend to speak for themselves. COVID -19 has taught us that ‘Lean’ Principles hold true, even whilst countries and businesses the world over are revisiting and reimagining their ‘New Normal’.

One thing is for sure; Lean will be very present even in the New Normal.


Making Six Sigma everyone’s cup of tea


I was reading a very interesting take on why Six Sigma just isn’t sticky enough by Jay Arthur, where he starts by describing how books related to Six Sigma are stored on the bottom racks of book stores. I find this very interesting since this is also the case in most Sri Lankan book stores. One would expect however, things to be slightly different in the U.S, which afterall is the birth place of Six Sigma!

The whole concept of making Six Sigma ‘sticky’ hits close to home since this has been a considerable challenge in my experience too. Irrespective of the type of deployment model used department/business unit or enterprise wide, they all need some version of the famous ‘elevator speech’ made by Bill Smith of Motorola and a whole lot of perseverence, just to receive the ‘go ahead’ to introduce it in any company. But commencing a Lean Six Sigma programme is only half the battle, sustaining it is another story altogether.

In my experience, many people tend to have a perceived notion that Statistics is hard, do not fancy extended training sessions or the hassle of lengthy exams and in general simply want a ‘quick and easy’ solution, and who can blame them? The need of the hour is to strike a balance between making it overly stringent (and self gratuitous?) and making it seem less scary and more accessible. One way this could be achieved is to teach people how to use key statitical tests for analysis and problem solving outside the confines of ‘DMAIC’ (In fact, this deserves a whole new blog by istelf).

As for Six Sigma not being sticky, the fact that Six Sigma books are displayed in the Sri Lankan book stores (which are a pretty fair distance from the U.S) is a testament to its worldwide acceptance and popularity, even if they are only found on the bottom racks.

“What does not get measured does not get done..”


The statement ‘what gets measured gets done’ is a time tested truth. This is the foundation of any decent Performance Management mechanism in an organization, without which sub par performance is almost guaranteed. Since I am involved in Japanese 5S training, mentoring and implementation in my organization, much of my time is spent ensuring that there is a robust monitoring mechanism to ensure that new teachings get adopted and practices institutionalized.

That being said, all my effort is solely directed at my organization, while there is much to be desired when it comes to even a semblance of such principles being practiced at home! To a great extent, this might be attributed to the sheer lack of energy to teach such concepts such as Seiri and Seiton to one’s family members after a gruelling day at office, or it could simply be a case of apathy. Afterall, which one of us has any KPIs to adhere to in our homes?

Does Six Sigma kill innovation?


A recent post on ZD Net which talks about how Geoff Nicholson who’s considered the ‘father of the Post-it note’ at 3M feels that Six Sigma nullifies innovation, caught my interest. He also goes on to say that they had tried to implement Six Sigma at the Product Conceptualization stage.

Now one does not often associate Six Sigma with innovation, but rather with improving what is already in place, so it is easy to just brush this aside as an example of the wrong use of a good tool. However, what also struck me was that Six Sigma, by design looks at aligning any improvement project with the company’s current strategy, however, it does not necessarily question its (the existing strategy’s) merits, it merely progressively drills down into the root causes of a problem using statistical tools and looks at innovative ways of resolving it; i.e. doing things better rather than doing different things. Six Sigma in my view, looks at continuous improvement through problem solving akin to the gradual perfection of the Porsche 911, as opposed to the development of the all new electric Hybrid Justin Bieber happened to get on his 18th birthday – The Fisker Karma.

So does Six Sigma kill innovation? Certainly not; however, it probably would not feature on the top of the list of tools one would choose to get their creative juices flowing either…


The Innate Need for Improvement

The Innate Need for Improvement

As I sit here writing my first entry I look back at how my career and indeed my life has lead me to this point. From the time I can remember I have always been a person who could never be content ‘standing still’ in life, I had to be doing something that added value. It was almost as if standing still meant I was going backwards. Come to think of it, this need to improve and solve problems is a unique compulsion for our species as a whole. No other species has ever managed to improve its quality of life like we have, let alone within such a relatively short time. How far we have come from the hunter gatherer days.

In my early years in the Corporate world, I knew I wanted to improve the way business was done, but I didn’t possess the right tools nor the right amount of freedom to do so; that is until I was introduced to the remarkable power of Lean and Six Sigma.

Lean Six Sigma has opened my eyes to new ways of improving the way things are done, a new way of identifying waste & variation where we never realized it existed. This is a new lease of life for me, a trek towards continuous improvement like never before. Shigeo Shingo said “The most dangerous kind of waste is the waste we don’t recognize”, well I guess the only thing worse than that would be us not doing anything about it even when we have recognized it.

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