Plan To Drop The Unproductive

Not To Do ListJanuary is always a great time to think about your goals for the next year.  Between New Year’s resolutions and the simple fact that we’re at the beginning of a new calendar, it just feels like the right season for planning.  One important but often overlooked aspects of productivity management, whether it’s personal or team productivity, is deciding what you do not want to spend time doing.  Since we cannot create more time it is essential we understand which activities consume it without significantly contributing toward results.  You can improve your own performance through this exercise and it can also be used for team performance management.

Manage Team Productivity by Eliminating Unnecessary Work

Practice Systematic Abandonment

Peter Drucker, a pioneer in the field of management, advocated what he called “systematic abandonment.”  Drucker believed organizations should institutionalize the practice of identifying and abandoning products and services no longer worth supporting.  After studying a multitude of organizations for years, Drucker found most continued supporting products and services well beyond the point where they propelled the organization forward.  As a result, businesses do not optimize resources because the out-dated products and services demand resources which would otherwise be available for more strategic initiatives.  Given a limited pool of resources, anything applied to a low yield endeavor depletes the organization’s ability to pursue higher yield opportunities.

Leverage the Lean Principle of Muda

While Drucker focused primarily on products and services, the same concept can be easily applied to activities within an organization.  Businesses capitalizing on lean manufacturing principles have successfully employed the concept of “muda” (waste) to determine their most important activities.  Toyota pioneered this concept of waste to describe business activities and the Japanese reaped the rewards as leaders of manufacturing efficiency.  Now, many American service, financial and technology organizations categorize activities as customer-value-add, business-value-add, or non-value-add (i.e. wasteful) to determine where to focus their efforts.

As an example, documentation in a technology business is important but does not drive customer adoption.  When building computer systems, the delivery or improvement of documents rather than the technology itself is considered a non-value-add activity and should be scrutinized.  In a regulated environment such as banking or healthcare, documentation is required by law therefore must be completed to meet business-value-add audit requirements, avoiding negative impacts to the business.  In a marketing firm documentation could be seen as a differentiator in the marketplace, and perhaps even the end product for which the customer is paying.  Since presentation documents are customer-value-add they should be the focus of company activities and perfected to meet customer needs.

What Should Your Team Eliminate?

As you’re pulling together plans for the New Year, ask yourself what activities, products, or service your team could abandon to improve productivity.  Many organizations continue producing reports and holding meetings long beyond their useful life, so that’s one place to look.  Here are a few questions to get your ideas started:

  1. What are people doing just because that’s what’s always been done?
  2. Are there routine activities taking place that people don’t seem to take seriously?
  3. Which activities within your team require significant involvement from many people?
  4. Are there internal deliverables which are non-value-add; that is they don’t have a meaningful impact on your team’s end results?
  5. Can you identify activities that produce useful results but are very elaborate or time consuming?

Adopt a Less-Is-More Attitude to Improve Personal Productivity

Hone Your Personal Productivity With A Not-To-Do List

While organizations can practice better productivity management by abandoning useless or marginal activities, individuals can do the same at a personal level.  Many people live by their to-do list and Timothy Farris, author of “The 4 Hour Work Week”, advocates creating a “not-to-do” list.  The Pareto principle, commonly referred to as the 80/20 rule, states 80% of results come from 20% of effort.  Farris suggests applying the Pareto principle to our personal activities creates significant performance improvement by eliminating many of the activities and focusing on a few.  According to Pareto, most of the activities that take our time only generate a fraction of our results.  While it may not be possible to eliminate 80% of your tasks, it can be surprisingly easy to identify activities you routinely engage in that don’t generate results.  Once you’ve done that you can make them part of your not-to-do list.

Find Your Personal Muda

You can also apply the lean principle of muda to your personal tasks by thinking of your workplace or career goals as the customer.  With your goals in mind ask yourself are tasks you are performing directly supporting those goals as customer-value-add activities, keeping you out of trouble as business-value-add activities, or are they non-value-add activities to be avoided altogether?  A personal task list reflecting a lean priority view makes it easier to limit the muda in your life.

Items For Your Not-To-Do List

Here are some thoughts on where you may find items for your not-to-do list:

  1. Which activities are non-value-add and do not directly contribute to the results you are trying to achieve?
  2. What activities take significant portions of your time?
  3. Are there activities you could delegate to others?
  4. What are you doing out of habit rather than out of necessity?
  5. Are you producing work products nobody is using?
  6. Are you engaging in activities that simply fill your time?


How you choose to define productivity may largely depend on what you value but we all have room to improve our results.  Whether you’re responsible for managing a team’s productivity or simply want to improve your own, spend some time thinking about what should be on your not-to-do list.  By eliminating non-value-add activities you will free up time to focus more on customer-value-add and business-value-add activities.