Focus on the product. Not on you.

In their seminal book Lean Thinking, Jim Womack and Daniel Jones state, “things work better when you focus on the product and its needs, rather than the organization or the equipment.” This is a simple and deceptively powerful concept. Even people who aren’t directly involved in providing a product or service to a consumer have a customer somewhere in the organization.

All too often, we focus on the equipment (ourselves): our schedules, our to-do lists, our responsibilities. But what does the world look like when viewed from the perspective of our work rather than our role as a worker?

Let’s say you’re in the finance department and you’re involved in the budget rollup. From its perspective, the budget wants to get rolled up and finalized so that it can fulfill its duty of guiding your customers (the other departments in the organization). Any delay means that its “productive capacity” – that is, its ability to guide people in making resource allocation decisions – is wasted.

Or let’s say you’re manager of the product development team, and you have to finalize new product specs. From its perspective, the spec sheet wants to move down the value stream so that it can fulfill its duty: guiding the production of the new product. Any delay means that its productive capacity is idled, and the people in charge of production can’t do their work. And that’s waste, too.

You get the idea. The information you manage has a job to do, and when you don’t move it downstream, there’s waste. Your customer is waiting (waste), the productive capacity of the information is waiting (waste), and ultimately the product or service you provide to the end user takes longer to get there (waste).

Obviously, you can’t do everything at once, and you can’t do it right now. You have limited productive capacity, too. But when you view the world from the perspective of your work, you begin to ask important questions about the way the workflow is structured. Are you consistently a bottleneck? What’s the root cause of the bottleneck and can it be fixed? Can the workflow be improved so that there’s less waiting and less waste? Can you improve the way you manage information so that it can fulfill its purpose more quickly?

These aren’t easy questions to answer. But you’ll never even raise the questions if you focus on your needs instead of the product’s.