Does This Man Look Efficient?

Two days with Toyota’s productivity guru changed my life
Photograph by Harry Gould Harvey IV for Bloomberg Businessweek

Jamie Bonini is sitting at my breakfast table, keeping a log of everything I’m doing wrong. 6:18, read Bloomberg e-mail. 6:22, read personal e-mail. 6:33, read article on bank capital controls. I respond to e-mails slowly, he says, and should tweet faster. He wants me to set goals and suggests I start the day by walking my dog. “What would constitute an amazing dog walk?” Bonini asks. I tell him it would involve heading to a creek and seeing a blue heron. “Blue heron … bull’s-eye,” he jots down.

Bonini runs the part of Toyota that teaches the company’s suppliers in North America how to make and do everything more efficiently. Toyota volunteers his time to help nonprofits, too, and for two days it has volunteered him to me. In the past year, my editors have raised the demand for my product: words. In my twenties, rather than increase efficiency, I could add man-hours. I stayed late, worked weekends. I have children now, and my wife also works full time. My 3-year-old daughter wanders over at 7:10 a.m. “Daughter,” Bonini writes. “Families are really not very efficient,” he says.

Greeley (left) gets a lecture during the ride to work
Harry Gould Harvey IV for Bloomberg Businessweek

Every time Bonini describes some part of my life as “waste,” he apologizes. Think of a nut on a bolt in a manufacturing plant, he says. Threading the nut is waste, as are the first five turns of the wrench. Only the last quarter-turn of the nut adds value. The customer doesn’t pay you to turn the nut. The customer pays you to fix the joint. My customer—my editor—only pays me to hand in completed articles. Everything else I do up to that point is waste, Bonini says. Then he apologizes.

In the early 1950s, Toyota adopted the ideas of a manager named Taiichi Ohno who abhorred inventory, saying it hides inefficiency. He built small boxes at each station on his shop floors; the stations could not allow inventory to overflow. The artificial hardship was designed to force managers and workers to live without waste. The approach worked—Toyota’s factories cut production time and improved output—and was widely embraced.

Ohno’s philosophy, taught at U.S. business schools as “lean manufacturing,” is most commonly associated with the concept of kaizen, or making continuous small improvements that reduce the waste of unnecessary motion. Toyota will scratch at tenths of a second to bring down “takt time,” what it takes to complete a single step in a process.

Bonini’s log of Greeley’s inefficient day
Harry Gould Harvey IV for Bloomberg Businessweek

There’s no perfect way to apply these lessons to a human life. “Your day has a lot of moura, which means unevenness,” Bonini says. As soon as he arrives, he starts cleaning out my inventory. Normally when I read the news, I’ll bookmark around 20 tabs of links, intending to read them at some point during the day. This is what Bonini calls a “batch” process. Instead of batching, Bonini wants me to “flow”—to finish each task as it starts. Flow is so important to him that, at home, he washes each dish individually as he uses it. The batch inventory of the dishwasher just bugs him, he says. (It does not bug his wife: Bonini’s only allowed to flow in the kitchen when she’s away.) As I open stories, he forces me to either print, close, or tweet out each article as I find it. On the 75-minute car-and-train ride to work, Bonini sits beside me and asks questions about my commute. I tell him I decided to use that time to learn Spanish, which would be helpful for my job. “Great!” he replies. Then I mention that I haven’t actually gotten around to it. He’s silent.

Once at work, Bonini starts at my desk by shoveling all the paper off it, printout by printout. He forces a decision on each—throw out or file away. Bonini puts the documents I keep in a cabinet under my desk. What I discard he gathers in a single pile, to measure our progress. In its plants, Toyota hangs each tool in a specified place on a board, so Bonini tapes individual squares to my desk to show where I should leave my wallet, phone, stapler, and notepad. He wants me to manage my day visually, just as plant managers read from a hand-updated whiteboard at each station. On the back wall of my cubicle, I place Post-its, each labeled with an article or idea, arranged in columns by priority.

Bonini notices that I don’t ever look at my second monitor. We get rid of it, revealing an acre of fallow space. Bonini improvises a hook at the edge of the desk with tape and a paper clip, to keep my telephone headset within easy reach. He says order focuses the mind.

At the end of two days of observation, Bonini has a hand-drawn pie chart of what I’ve been doing with my time. I type articles or tweet for 3 percent of my day. If I include edits and rewrites, I get to 21 percent. Not to worry, he says. This is exactly what he would expect to see upon arriving at an unimproved manufacturing plant: just 3 percent of man-hours adding value. What he calls incidental work, reading tied directly to an article, adds another 19 percent of my day. This leaves 60 percent of my day wasted. Writing e-mails makes up 12 percent of my waste. Bonini asks whether I have to spend so much time editing my messages before I send them. Talking to my editors takes up another 8 percent of waste. (They tell me they’d be pleased to give me that time back.) But the biggest problem should have been the most obvious—my drive to and from the closest metro station takes up 40 minutes, 40 percent of my waste. Bonini tells me my single most effective improvement would be to work from home.

A dark moment as Bonini analyzes Greeley’s mess
Harry Gould Harvey IV for Bloomberg Businessweek

That was four months ago. I can’t suspend either the laws of physics or my employer’s will. The commute remains. But Bonini has been able to help me carve into the margins of my waste. I have not emptied my e-mail in-box since his visit. A clean in-box contributes no value, he says. It’s been harder to convert batch to flow. I try not to set aside things I find on the Internet, leaving dozens of browser tabs open. When I remember to, I open a tab and force a decision—print, tweet, or close. I have held to my Post-it system. Ideas no longer lurk in the back of my mind, but sit in front of me. I have to physically move them around and decide whether to work on them or crumple them up.

I’ve also become rigid about putting things on my desk exactly where Bonini gave them homes. This invites mockery. I leave a banana on the desk and return to discover my editor has outlined the banana with tape. But like a nail on an otherwise clean shop floor, misplaced paper indicates a failure: I’ve either not made a decision, or I’m gathering up a batch that needs to be flowed. Another editor says she much prefers this “new Brendan.”

At home, too, I’m trying to accomplish chores, rather than pile up reminders to do them later. I ask my wife if she thinks I’ve become more efficient. I have called her from work. It’s late, and she wants to get off the phone. “Minimally,” she says. Less than a week after Bonini visited, she and I had our fourth child. And families are just not that efficient.