Cold, limp, green beans. I love green beans but for some reason I always end up in the same spot: dinner is winding down and I’m staring at those cold limp green beans with a full stomach. My conscience chimes in, I narrow my eyes, steel myself, and eat those green beans. I feel the cold, slightly wet, slightly mushy vegetable matter slither down my throat and feel satisfied.  Some people move around their plate, having a bit of this and a bite of that until it’s all gone. Others attack their plates with methodical precision, conquering one food to completion before moving on to the next. Which leads us back to the green beans. For me, a clean plate gives me a feeling of completeness, a feeling that I haven’t wasted anything, a feeling I wish I got at work.

Working Lean, Working Clean

You may have heard of the Lean Manufacturing style popularized by Toyota in the 1990s. Lean Manufacturing is a systematic approach to improving operational efficiency and maximizing the value delivered to stakeholders. This approach has been slowly percolating from the manufacturing sector into other areas including the nonprofit sector. Even if your organization has not begun to implement Lean Principles, here are three ways that you can use them to work more efficiently. If you are like me, your ‘plate’ at work looked like you went to an all-you-can-eat buffet. My plate was overflowing, piled high, about to collapse under its own mass, and other superlatives.

Focus on Where the Value Is

Lazy is probably too strong a word for my own personal work style but it illustrates the point that I try to focus on doing only the work that is bringing value to my stakeholders. Too often we get caught up in doing a task because it feels really important. One of the ways I’ve been able to bring focus to my tasks is to write them all down in one place. Only after I look at this backlog of tasks am I able to evaluate and prioritize what the most important thing I can be working on right now is. The backlog then becomes your menu that you will order from. Yes, you could have six servings of pizza but you are better than that. I know you will choose a well-portioned and balanced meal according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Control the Task Creep

The Task Creep is a disembodied voice in my head. That’s not true. He looks like the Noid from Domino’s. Always trying to wreck my pizza! Sometimes though, it causes me to miss deadlines. The Task Creep says, ‘sure you could just do the bare minimum but if you were cool, you would add in this little extra bit.’ The problem is that I rarely disagree with the Task Creep but coolness comes with a cost. Being cool is also about finishing tasks on time. Finishing tasks on time means finishing more tasks. We all know it’s better to go shopping when you have a full stomach. It’s the same at work: you are much better judge of what work needs to be done before you start doing it. So make a list of only what needs to be done and stick to it.

Clear Distractions

Nonprofit workers suffer from today’s always-connected communication style. There are benefits to this constant connectedness but you have to admit, a lot of it is shallow chatter a.k.a. empty carbs. Likewise, we all know that constantly switching between tasks decreases our efficiency. The antidote to this problem is to figure out how to carve out blocks of time with no distraction. Can you imagine several consecutive hours of uninterrupted work? It almost seems like a guilty pleasure. It could be yours with a little bit of dedication though. If you were training to be a Major League Eater with the goal of being the best like nobody ever was, you would have to come up with a way to get more Eating in your schedule. If your training regimen kept getting interrupted you’d never learn how to eat them in rapid succession, you would just be snacking. High level techniques such as the ‘one-armed bandit’ require deep concentration to master and refine.

Keeping a Clean Plate

So how can we get the feeling of a clean plate at work? First, you need to be sensible. Don’t put so much food on your plate that you have no hope of ever seeing the plate itself. Second, you need to make sure you aren’t needlessly tweaking the recipe. Make sure you can fit in the basics before adding the slivered almonds or the shredded parmesan. Lastly, try to eat your food in one sitting. Otherwise you will be hungry and snacking all day.

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