Last week, I quit my job of four and a half years. Over the next few weeks, I need to transition all my projects at work; find a subletter for my current New York City apartment; tour new apartments until I find one to my liking; sign a lease; buy a car; pack my belongings; move to Boston; unpack; and begin my new job as a senior quality engineer at a Massachusetts based housewares company. Over that time period I also have two dentist appointments in upstate New York, a previously-booked weekend trip to Denver, and a dinner date with my girlfriend in Boston. There’s a lot going on.
In times like these, I find myself snapping rapidly between two conflicting impulses. One: to organize obsessively, crafting an intensely detailed master spreadsheet — I always have a spreadsheet — that will anticipate every possible pitfall and lay out my plans, alternate plans, and alternate alternate plans. Or, two: to just like, fuck it. You know? Make plans on the fly and deal with issues as they arise. This is the eternal struggle of my left-brain/right-brain existence. Or at least it feels that way, sometimes.
When I find myself getting mired down in detail, I often find it helpful to step back and look at things from a lean systems perspective. In manufacturing environments, engineers are trained to identify common areas of waste (referred to as “muda,” the Japanese word for “futility; uselessness; idleness; superfluity; waste; wastage; wastefulness”) and eliminate them. There are a variety of math and science-based tools we use to accomplish this, but honestly, I’d say about 90% of industrial/systems engineering work boils down to this super easy exercise: stop for a minute and think about what the main objective is. Now look at what you’re doing. Is that activity getting you closer to the goal? If yes, carry on; if no, pause. Why are you spending time on this activity if it’s not getting you closer to the goal? Is it really necessary? If what you’re doing isn’t adding any value, there’s probably something better you could be doing with your time.
Of the seven common types of muda, my favorite to eliminate is “waste of overprocessing.” This is when people expend unnecessary energy trying to make things perfect where it doesn’t really matter. In manufacturing, this means things like setting the tolerances too tight, or painting areas inside a product that nobody’s going to see. Applied to my day-to-day life, I think of this as things like obsessively sorting and resorting my pantry, in pursuit of the perfect organization scheme. As a very casual home cook, as long as I can find everything I need when I need it, my needs are met; it doesn’t matter whether I got perfectly matching chalkboard labels or not. Or another example: spending hours comparatively shopping to buy fifteen types of precision eyeshadow brushes so that I have the exact right tool for every possible occasion. For me, this counts as overprocessing, because in my actual lived reality, I only ever do two different looks and don’t even understand what the different shapes are for! Someone else might have different objectives, and those chalkboard labels and eyeshadow brushes might be exactly what they need. But I need to look at my goals, not theirs. If an activity isn’t value added to me and my goals, it’s not worth my time.
That’s the mindset I’m taking with me as I plan my move, and the practical applications are boundless. Do I need to organize the supplies in my craft bin before showing my room to potential subletters? No; they can’t see the inside of the bin, and they definitely don’t care. Do I need to create elaborate inventory lists and put them on the outside of each box labeling the contents before moving it? No; that step is very time consuming and isn’t strictly necessary for me to achieve the goal of moving all my stuff. Do I need to make a ranked spreadsheet of Craigslist ads for housing I’m interested in? Yes, because I only have a few days to tour apartments before I need to choose where I want to live, and I need to be as efficient as possible during that time. That is a value-added activity.
What are some areas in your life where you can apply a lean systems perspective?
Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of 14 days. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.