I’ve previously talked about how the size of your blocks determines how productive you are. In a nutshell, someone who builds a shed by planting trees to grow into lumber and mining the ore to make nails is going to be much less efficient than the person who buys a kit and assembles it from Home Depot.
In this piece, I want to look at the size of blocks from a process design or work-flow standpoint. This is probably going to be a little abstract because it can apply to a number of different areas on many different levels. Regardless of what you do, you are responsible for creating processes and work-flows. These may be as simple as working out the process for cooking dinner or as complicated as designing the entire manufacturing and fulfillment process for a large company. Everyone creates processes all the time.
Boxing and Abstracting
There is an aspect to block size that I like to refer to as “boxing things up”. In computer programming, we talk about different levels of abstraction. This is a way for human minds to deal with all the things that are going on. Lets say that you have part of a program that takes some information, does a bunch of different calculations with that information and then returns a result. There could be hundreds or thousands of steps involved and if you try to think about your program at this level of detail, it will be impossible to wrap your mind around anything but very trivial applications. What programmers do is abstract away all the details. Once the code for those series of steps are written and tested, they simply think in terms of what goes in and what comes out.
Another way of looking at this is where I get the term “boxing”. You basically take a bunch of steps and put them into a box. You put your input into one side of the box and the desired output comes out the other side. You no longer concentrate on the details.
One of the ways that this type of mentality helps you is when it comes to planning out your work processes. If you concentrate on everything that has to be done, it can become difficult to see how everything fits together. Instead, build your processes with “magic boxes” and then figure out what needs to go into each box.
Let’s say you are trying to come up with a better way to manage your finances. You might use a “magic box” that represents the deposit process or one that represents the actual process of balancing your accounts. You can map out what needs to happen without first figuring out all the details. One of the advantages of this type of approach is that it allows you to see your work processes from a high level. This vantage point allows you to discover possible work-flows that would be difficult to discover while working on the task by task, step by step level.
Another way that “boxing” can help you is when it comes to working with others and delegating responsibilities. It allows you to delegate on an appropriate level while still creating systems that are very complex. For example, you may tell your assistant, “when you get x and y, I need you to give me z. Come up with a process to make that happen.” This type of approach lets you pass off some of the responsibility of designing your processes without overwhelming anyone or losing control.
When you are working with a process that is just a series of boxes all hooked together, you can open boxes individually and make improvements without upsetting the process as a whole. By identifying the bottlenecks and working to streamline them, you can continue to make your process and work-flow more efficient while the entire machine is still operating.
Boxing is a useful way to think about your work from a higher level. It allows you to see the big picture and ignore details that might become distractions.