Value Curve of Service Delivery

It was recently reported and brought to my attention that Elon Musk had issued a memo to the staff of Tesla. I’m no Musk acolyte, but within his commentary there can be found some good stuff. Within this particular memo Musk highlighted a number of productivity boosting tips. One tip jumped out at me because it is aligned with how I explain to my customers the way I aim to deliver the Business Evaluation service of the Entrepreneurs’ Programme. This is fundamental to how I work to be respectful of their time commitment.

Elon Musk was reported as writing:

Excessive meetings are the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time. Please get rid of all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short.

The aim of my engagement with my customers is not to prove myself, or the worth of the service, by hanging around for hours and hours on end. If something can be achieved in two hours rather than four, then it’s bad business to take the four hours. If the work needs four hours, then I will commit that time. I won’t commit six.

What I say to my customers is that I want to stay with them for as long as I am delivering genuine value that is over and above the time, effort and person-hours they are committing to the process. Once I see the value they are receiving is tapering off, then I will wrap things up. The last thing I want to do is overstay my welcome, using up their time when they could be doing something else that could contribute more to their business success.

Just as Musk implored his staff to keep meetings short, so I remind and encourage myself to only use as much time is necessary – and no more.

Calendar Management for Productivity & Sanity

I lean heavily on my diary to plan ahead, guide me through my days, and establish a rhythm to my life. The type of work I do has a tendency to drift towards haphazard if not controlled, so a calendar helps me establish and maintain order.

The problem I’ve faced in more recent times is having an overabundance of calendars I need to refer to before being able to commit to something. In simpler times, if I had a gap between 9am and 5pm, it was available to be taken up by a meeting. With the added complexity of kids and a wife who has an even more complex and random schedule than my own, things have reached a point where I need to check about 5 different calendars before I could confirm if I actually had availability for a meeting, irrespective of whether there was a gap in my calendar.

This year I made a personal pact to get better at managing this uncertainty. I’ve considered how I could build a system that works better for me and my family, while maintaining flexibility for my clients. Many of the methods I’ve adopted are not new ideas; in fact, some are a blast to the past when people used paper day-runners and had a personal assistant (secretary?) who would prepare things on their behalf. Alas, I have neither of those, so I have leveraged my skills in process design and automation.

Following is an outline of my diary management workflow as it has developed to date. It remains a work in progress and I expect it will continue to change.

Structure

I started by establishing clear and non-negotiable days for which I was available for visiting and meeting with clients. I refer to these as “External” days. The remaining days were locked in as days to spent at the office – my “Internal” days. These days are consistent every week, to help with that rhythm.

When visiting clients a lot of time is lost in transit. By collating these visits into a fewer number of days, I reduce my transit downtime, and have the opportunity to fill those days more effectively.

My “Internal” days facilitate getting into a flow state more often because they aren’t broken up by meetings and appointments. Again, a more productive outcome.

For calendaring, I rely on BusyCal on the Mac and Fantastical on iOS.

Technology – WhenWorks

My next area of improvement was in the way I was booking the meetings with clients on my “External” days. I had been spending too much time and effort bouncing emails back and forth, doing the ‘availability exchange’ – trying to find a time that works for me and them. I needed to find a better way that was efficient but respected the impact of items on my other calendars.

I started with a trial of Calendly. This cloud-based service provides a method for people to book a meeting time that is subject to the parameters I set. Calendly was good, but had its drawbacks. I use FastMail for email/calendars/contacts and it uses standards-compliant IMAP/CalDAV/CardDAV protocols. Unfortunately, Calendly wants to only work well with Office 365/GSuite/iCloud. My employer provides me with an Office 365 account so I could still make use of the service, but it meant that I had to remember to replicate my Fastmail calendars to Office 365. It worked, but it never felt simple and seamless.

Enter, WhenWorks. After trialling this for just a couple of weeks, I have purchased an annual subscription. WhenWorks is fundamentally an iOS app that is supported by a cloud-based booking platform. By running on my device it improves on Calendly because it can access all my calendars, irrespective of what platform they reside upon. WhenWorks can take into consideration the impact of every single calendar when making times available for others to book.

WhenWorks is simply brilliant. It looks great and offers a full range of options without being overwhelming. Most importantly, my clients have used it without any problems whatsoever.

Automation – TextExpander

For the first half of this year I have been using saved email templates in Cloze to correspond with clients and ask them to select a meeting time using my Calendly service.

Now with my change to WhenWorks, I’m moving away from Cloze and back to using TextExpander to send email using Mail.app instead. With TextExpander I can make a few choices upon snippet execution that lets me customise a boilerplate email. This way the email the client receives is quickly and efficiently tailored to the type of meeting we will have, and will prompt them to schedule a meeting using the appropriate WhenWorks meeting template relevant to that meeting type.

Credit to David Sparks for providing some of the tools that helped me get this up and running quickly and easily.

Routine & Preparation – OmniFocus & Daily Papers

The last step is incredibly low-tech, but has made a profound difference to my state of mind at the beginning of each day. It is not a new approach. It is common sense. It is simple. But it requires discipline.

I have set a daily repeating task in OmniFocus that commences at 4pm and is due at 5pm, prompting me to prepare for my next day’s meetings. That’s it; a simple prompt.

This prompt, however, ensures I remember to gather the various documents, information and whatever else I need to have ready to be successful for the events of the next day. Sometimes this process takes 2 minutes, sometimes the full hour.

Since doing this, I’ve found I don’t have stress the next morning, suddenly realising that I’ve got a meeting first thing that I have not prepared for. It creates a calm state of mind for the evening, knowing that I’m ready for the next day. It enables my mind to cogitate on what I have coming up, such that when events unfold I find myself better prepared and ready to roll than I otherwise would have been.

Final Thoughts

Each of these elements is fairly straightforward in and of themselves. Bringing them all together, though, has improved my flow, and has largely resolved the problem of double-booking and calendar mixups.

Of course this stuff is never done, and it will change with workload and circumstance. For now, however, I feel like it has gotten me closer to the concept of ‘mind like water’ than I was previously.

In Flow

Some days the work just flows. Tasks feels easy, decisions are made, words transfer from the brain to the keyboard with nary a pause; and engaging with people makes you realise the world is full of interesting characters.

These days of flow are generally few and far between. We structure our days such that we have no breathing room. Alternatively, we don’t structure anything and drift through without a clear and achievable goal in mind. If we can happen to find the Goldilocks Zone between those two extremes, and establish a mindset that is engaged yet relaxed, well, I think that’s where the magic happens.

Most days, of course, the work doesn’t flow. Things are a grind and stuff fails to work out as intended.

So the days where flow occurs; embrace it, because there’s no guarantee it will be back tomorrow. Get the most out of this rare and elusive asset!

Take Time to Breathe

Life can get overwhelming. Work to do, dinners to cook, kids to care for, relationships to tend. Trying to do it all can be fatiguing. I have found this to be particularly true over this current long school holiday break, where the presence of children and their needs are incessant, but the other parts of life still need to be managed.

Trying to balance it all is not easy, and I don’t believe there is any magic bullet that will solve it all. There are only ever going to be 24 hours in a day. So I think the best response to the pressure comes down to 3 main things1:

  1. Scheduling: maximising the efficient use of time.
  2. Accepting: there’s no such thing as perfection.
  3. Breathing: maintaining mental health through awareness of the bigger picture.

Scheduling

Planning and scheduling can ease the mental burden. By making an agreement with yourself to do certain things at specified times there is clear evidence that time is being utilised to effect and things are getting done. At these times there is no need to worry about all the other things that aren’t getting done in the moment because at least you are doing something.

Personally this year I am trying to improve the structure of my scheduling. I am establishing days as either internal or external. Internal days are dedicated to working on the tasks I have recorded in OmniFocus, following the general Getting Things Done approach to task management. I will also use this time for internal meetings, planning and the like. External days will be available for me to get out on the road, visiting clients, following up business development opportunities, and networking.

I have taken my management of External days one step further by setting up a Calendly account. This service allows me to permit clients to book meetings with me directly, subject to my availability. Calendly knows the days I have set as External, and it knows when the slots I have made available are taken up, preventing them from being double-booked. Much time and effort was wasted last year mucking about with the to and fro of trying to coordinate meeting dates, so I hope this more automated approach will ease the burden.

Accepting

I am the type of person that wants everything to go just as according to plan. Of course, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. I have to accept the foibles of humanity and roll with the punches when things don’t go the way I wanted.

This is why planning methodology has moved away from ‘waterfall’ to ‘agile’ — because nothing works as intended, so change the plan rather than pretending that perfection is about to occur.

Breathing

In the chase for productivity at the micro-level, it is easy to lose context. Really, in the grand scheme of things, it’s highly likely that none of what we are doing actually matters that much. Now, this is not me promoting nihilism, because what we do does matter to those in our circles. What I am saying is that there are going to be few times where there is not sufficient slack in the timeline to pause; to take a time-out. In this moment, breathe.

Go outside, take a walk, talk to a friend, pray, meditate — just do something different and unrelated to the task. Taking a break will freshen the mind and offer an opportunity to perceive that larger context. The thing that was causing stress may suddenly not seem quite so significant afterwards.

Ultimately, having a sound and stable mind will allow a focus on scheduling and facilitate acceptance of what can and cannot be achieved. It’s a virtuous circle.


  1. Because any good list worth it’s salt has 3 things. Not 2, not 4. Three. 

A Place for Everything

Over the past five years I’ve spent a lot of time learning the fundamental philosophies of a production system known as lean. I’ve read books and articles, I’ve taken a study tour to see lean in action in Japan. I’ve developed lean guides for business, and coached companies in the theory and implementation. Yet despite all of this, I still consider myself a beginner1.

Most of my lean work has been in relation to the manufacturing sector but the principles can also be applied to healthcare, food preparation, administration, and software development, to name a few. IT has even created further derivations such as kanban and agile.

Lean origins

Toyota is the company that can be credited for originally demonstrating the value of lean through their own Toyota Production System. Implemented with the help of Edward Deming after World War II, the company has embraced the lean philosophy of continuous improvement ever since. The company is now the gold standard with respect to lean implementation.

The theory of lean is much like an onion: there are many layers to it (and implementing it might sometimes make you cry!) Trying to emulate the Toyota Production System at the outset is an effort not worth taking, but any company can do implement some simple elements without too much trouble if they commit.

The best way to start

To get started I recommend following the exact same advice my Grandma used to give:

“a place for everything and everything in its place”

Yes, it’s as easy as that.

This concept represents one of the basic tenets of 5S. 5S is all about keeping things neat and orderly within the context of a lean workplace. Make sure if you take something, use something, or move something, that it gets put back once it has served its purpose. This approach will make it easier for your future self or somebody else to find a thing in the future. It will prevent the need to buy another thing because you couldn’t find the original thing. It will reduce stress and anger when you can’t find the thing you need at the time you need it.

Simply make sure everything has a home and that it always lives at home when not in use. Good tip, Grandma.


  1. In lean of course, maintaining a ‘beginner’s mind’ is a good thing as it keeps you open to new ideas and opportunities for improvement.