Road Line Mark

One of the most powerful tools we can use to enhance personal productivity is to standardize tasks and processes. This is nothing new, yet it has become part of the much touted Toyota Production System as a way to reduce automobile manufacturing costs. A classic example from hundreds of years ago is the way that railways came up with a standard spacing or distance between the two parallel rails that make up a railway. Before they did, every railcar had to be unloaded and reloaded onto a railcar of a different gauge for each railway it traveled.

However, too much standardization is also a bad thing. Henry Ford found this out when he refused to introduce new styles and colors when people started losing interest in his Model T cars that were produced by the millions in his day. He only made them in black at the time. Don’t try to come to a date with a standard agenda and present well-organized and detailed lists. How special do you make them feel when you book them in to a time slot? Or if you take them to the same restaurant all the time? Or if you picked up your date in one of Ford’s black Model Ts at the time?

So, where do we draw the line? The answer for how much you should standardize is actually quite plain and simple: standardize as much as is practical so long as you and the other involved parties (customer, friends, etc.) derive greater value from the standardization than from a competing innovation. For a customer situation, if you have a standard, boring product, they might turn elsewhere for something more exciting. The same is true for a date. There are several areas or ways to standardize. A list of things that should probably be standardized for improved productivity are:

  1. daily and weekly planning process,
  2. email and correspondence collection and response systems,
  3. sleep, exercise and eating times (your body loves these things),
  4. goal setting and reviews,
  5. business tools including software, notebooks, PDAs, etc. so that there isn’t tremendous waste in fiddling with these things to get them to work,
  6. daily chores list while finding ways to cover them more efficiently,
  7. rest and recreation times,
  8. preparation for any type of competition.

People who become overly preoccupied with the standardization aspects can become a real problem. Taking a family to a GTD productivity seminar on a vacation trip is probably not a great idea. Now, let’s take a look at what should be innovated for improved productivity. The following list of things should be handled with an innovative mindset:

  1. reading (& audio and video) materials since limiting sources can cause stagnation,
  2. relationships – keep trying new things to keep them interesting and creative
  3. exercise routines themselves since doing the same exercises forever does less then changing the routine does,
  4. personal and professional networks because meeting new people in different areas can greatly broaden experiences and perspectives,
  5. fashion (overly standardizing this one can get you into trouble),
  6. vacations should be kept varied and interesting,
  7. recognition, appreciation and expressions of gratitude,
  8. places you take your dates or spouse to and the things you do.

The ways to determine the limits of how far you should go in standardizing are not always easy to know. We should be careful not to assume. Unchecked standardization might result in you seeing every office coffee mug with someone’s name on it and some there wearing the same suit every Wednesday. This would suggest your office experience is becoming a banal one. The person wearing the suit likely has no idea this is a problem and correctly assumes it to be a practical thing to do. Another example is the guy who brings home the roses every time he screws up doesn’t scream sincerity. There are some simple ways to find out where appropriate limits are such as:

  • asking someone familiar with a routine how it comes across. If handled right, people probably are not aware of it to begin with. For example, someone who always attends appointments on time by allowing an extra five minutes travel time will likely find no objection.
  • testing a new routine before fully implementing it.
  • develop a clear and preferably measurable indicator of success so that if something is working, it can be continued or discontinued.
  • decide if it adds value. If a standardized routine becomes a nightmare, it should be re-evaluated.

Whether you are manufacturing cars or picking up a date in one, know where the limits should be on standardizing versus innovating. Standardize wherever practical, but don’t go overboard or things won’t go well. Use this strategy to maximize productivity without losing spontaneity. Henry probably picked up his wife Clara in a black model T from time to time, but she married him before he invented it so it might not have mattered as much. However, showing up in a Model T to pick up a date today might be a great opener. Just know where to draw the line.

Peter Paul Roosen and Tatsuya Nakagawa are co-founders of Atomica Creative Group , a specialized strategic product marketing firm. Through leading edge insight and research, sound strategic planning and effective project management, Atomica helps companies achieve greater success in bringing new products to market and in improving their existing businesses. They have co-authored Overcoming Inventoritis now available.

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