Less Meetings, Better Life: How to Run Lean Meetings

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Research shows that only 50% of the time spent in meetings is effective and engaging. But in many companies, holding meetings for every little issue is like a sacred ritual. These meetings at best become a place for a manager to instill a sense of leadership upon their team or an opportunity for approval and flattery for the big boss.

Long meetings without any specific output is the killer of time, energy and creativity.

Many books and articles have been written to about this and they present some tips and tricks about meeting productivity but an interesting and effective practical way is to apply Lean concepts in meeting management.

Lean really is a blend of Western and Japanese cultures and practices — as it was from the beginning when in 1929 Kiichiro Toyoda (Toyota Motor Corporation) went to europe and the U.S. to learn about automotive and management principles and brought them back to Japan.

What is a Lean Meeting?

At Toyota, as the bedrock of Lean, engineers and designers working on a project may hold several short meetings during the day, sometimes as many as five meetings a day at different times. These types of meetings have three interesting features:

  1. These meetings are not necessarily planned in advance.
    Meeting will be held as soon as it is needed. No special software or calendar is used to block the time. It means that the meeting time is not a multiple of 15 minutes, instead it could be 6 minutes or 19 minutes. Or sometimes even less than two or three minutes.
  2. There is not much discussion.
    Meetings are held for one specific purpose: to decide on a specific issue.
  3. Meetings are basically a kind of formality.
    Usually, project teams in Toyota do not use meetings to get approval from the meeting, rather, outside the meeting, all members get the necessary information about the topic of the meeting and their informal approvals are taken.

The term “Lean”, which was born in Toyota factories, was introduced in the book “Lean Thinking” in 1996 and became popular again in 2011 with the book “Lean Startup”.

Thos who use Lean way of thinking can divide work into two things:

Creating Value vs Creating Waste.

The ultimate goal of Lean is to create value by eliminating waste (Waste is everything that does not contribute to creating value.)

From this point of view, you can look at the meetings like any other Lean process: for a meeting to be considered Lean (valuable and value creator), it must have minimal, or preferably no waste.

3 “M”s:

The Japanese words Muri, Mura and Muda have a special place in the heart of a Lean practitioner.

  • Muri means overload and is described as stress, pressure or not using capacity properly.
  • Mura means inconsistency and can be in the form of disorder, imbalance or interruption.
  • Muda means waste and has seven main types: overproduction, overprocessing, waiting, unnecessary motion, transport, defects, and inventory.

Although most meetings are full of these three, Muda is generally more visible and the easiest to eliminate. In fact, many see meetings as a complete waste, as it takes away valuable time and attention without adding any real value.

Now let’s take a closer look at your last meeting and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Did it create value for everyone, or was it more of a talking about anything under the sun? Or confirmation and reaffirmation? (overproduction)
  • Was there a focus on one important issue, or was there a cursory glance at several different issues? (over processing)
  • Did you start on time and finish on time or did you wait? (waiting)

Think about these questions and if you got three negative answers, it’s time to make your meetings Lean. To do this, start with a simple three-part strategy:

1. Limit yourself to less than 12 minutes:

A process at Toyota is defined by the number of small, often one-piece, high-frequency batches that are completed just in time.

You can use the same strategy. Keep your meetings short, but with more repetition. Commit to meetings of less than 12 minutes and make sure you don’t get stuck in the default 15, 30, or 60 minute time blocks in your calendar software. This forces you to simplify the purpose of the meeting.

2. Organize meetings around only one specific goal:

Commit to using meetings for a specific purpose, which is to make one decision. Which forces you to use the third strategy:

3. Bring the meeting members together before the meeting:

At Toyota, the Namavashi principle (根回し) is used to gain consensus on ideas and plans. The term comes from the art of bonsai and means “preparing roots for planting.” In other words, introduce your idea in advance using water cooler chats, brief talks, and one-on-one conversations with meeting participants. Obtain members’ opinions and consensus outside of the meeting, so that the next step is limited to taking the decision in the meeting.

Now, It’s your turn:

What do you think about holding a Lean meeting? Share your thoughts.

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The Innovation Factory by Soheil Abbasi

Soheil is an experienced innovation director with 12+ years of startup acceleration & open innovation, chief Innovation officer at The Innovation Factory.