Brandon's Notepad

March 15, 2013

Getting Things Done @Work (Part 3)

Filed under: GTD — Brandon @ 2:53 pm
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Home > My Research > Improvement > Getting Things Done > @Work (Part 3)


This post is a follow-up to Part 1 (July 2009) and Part 2 (September 2011). I’m in my fourth year of using GTD at work, and I saw no reason to wait until summer to provide another update.


Background. To recap, I work in a fairly structured environment, at all levels really, but most especially in my team. We are charged with the task of controlling the changes made to the company’s computer systems. This means making sure that changes are authorized before they are made, deployed on schedule without conflicts, and validated by users in a timely manner. It is a high-volume shop, so we must stay organized to remain effective. Unfortunately, our corporate culture clings to paper, so we still handle a good number of physical forms. (There is a glimmer of hope that this may change within the next year, but we will see.)

A Powerful Witness. The system of Context Queues (described in Part 2) that I implemented to organize the change-effort folders based on my current involvement — doing, waiting, or done — worked extremely well for me, but it did not settle well with the rest of the team. In fact, I mentioned in my last post that it had been likened to cancer by one person. I had this private little process through which forms and folders would flow when I was working on them, and though it was simple enough to understand, it made the others feel like they were intruding if they ever had to retrieve a folder from my workspace. This was especially painful for them on the days I unexpectedly called in sick. My manager knew that my system was improving my productivity; in fact, it was exposing the variances in our work styles (making us look increasingly inconsistent) and a revealing a few inefficiencies to boot. He also saw some value in my system, but it was not something that he wanted to force the team to use as a whole. This was, in part, because GTD (my adaptations included) seemed so unorthodox and downright cultish. It was a cancer, right? So, we put our heads together and designed a new system based on the Context Queue concept.

The Bucket System. I never have liked this name, but it is accurate. The folders we use are letter-size Smead pressboard fastener folders, the ones that require a two-hole punch at the top of the pages. We like these because they are rugged and take abuse well. They fit really well in those five-inch-deep black plastic bins designed to hold hanging folders. We ordered about twenty of those boxes, labeled them with the names of the workflow states, and distributed them amongst ourselves such that none of us has two states back-to-back. Now, we each handle the parts of the change process represented by the buckets sitting on our desks. So, when a change is ready to be deployed to the QA environment, the record in the system is placed into the “QA Ready” state and the folder goes into the bucket of the same name. Whoever owns the bucket at the time is responsible for delivering the folder (which also contains deployment instructions) to the appropriate administrators at the scheduled time. We rotate the buckets periodically just to keep the process standardized and us on our toes. When someone is out of the office, we just divvy up his or her buckets.

Despite the fact that we still have to deal with this volume of paper at this day in age, one beneficial side-effect of this system is that our work is very visible. We tried to drive the process electronically, but the folders were just too ingrained in the culture. It remains our interface with the rest of the department. So, our best efforts quickly became an exercise of accepting things we cannot change — well, for now at least. Going paperless is still on our radar. Maybe someday.

Collect! Process! Organize! The team still uses a group inbox, except instead of using a single flat letter tray, we have a three-compartment file sorter that hangs on the wall outside of our workspace. This permits a bit of pre-sorting by those who deliver forms and folders to us, but it is still, essentially, just an inbox. What has changed — and this I attribute to the influence of my personal GTD practice — is the way forms and folders are processed. Any and all of us are responsible for processing the inbox whenever we see that new items have arrived. Forms are spot-checked for a few key data points, rubberstamped with the date if found acceptable, noted with a sticky if not, punched with the two-hole punch as appropriate, and dropped into the proper bucket. Folders can simply be distributed without fanfare. Nothing in our process takes only two-minutes to do, but this processing and organizing (delegation of work) is very quick and has paid serious dividends in terms of productivity. Forms don’t get pigeonholed anymore!

Look, Ma, No inbox! Yep, that’s right. Since all of my work is now delivered directly to my buckets, I no longer need a personal inbox. I kept it around for a long time, but it stayed empty, so I eventually stuck it in a drawer and freed up some space under my monitors — uncluttered and beautiful. Hot items and personal correspondence still land in my chair, but that happens rarely now, which means these items actually get the attention they deserve instead of getting buried in a stack.

Et Cetera. I’ve gotten better at using my tickler file and my desk stays clean. My e-mail archives are quite sparse since I’ve made it a practice to delete messages as soon as possible. I still haven’t worked journaling into my process, but it’s coming. I continue to use my book of record as an inbox for nuggets of information, meeting “action items”, and the like, but now it resembles a check register or (accounting) journal page as each item is date stamped on the day it is recorded and again on the day it is processed into something else, say a note or a work ticket in our ticket-tracking system.


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