Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Have More Meetings (But Keep Them Short)

Meetings are often the bane of many a creative’s existence, especially those working for a big outfit. “Death by meeting” is a common complaint, the lament usually being one of frequency, length, or lack of productivity. Despite the many books written on the subject, meetings remain a sore spot for many. There may be a practical solution.

Introducing the “Lean” Meeting

One of the most interesting things I observed over the eight years I spent as a creative advisor to Toyota was how a team of designers or engineers working on the same project might hold several short meetings over the course of the day—sometimes as many a five different times. The interesting aspects were three-fold:

  1. The meetings were not necessarily scheduled. They were held as needed, on a just-in-time basis. Further, they weren’t anchored by any scheduling software timeblocks. In other words, they weren’t slave to some multiple of 15 minutes. They might be 7 minutes, or 22 minutes. I saw one meeting last barely over a minute.
  2. Little discussion occurred. The meetings were held for a single purpose: to make a key decision.
  3. The meetings were in essence a formality. I learned that the Toyota project teams held a completely opposite view of the “meet and confer” philosophy held by most organizations. The “confer” part was held outside the meeting, conducted by individuals in one-on-one dialogs, so that by the time the meeting was held, all team input had been gathered and an informal consensus had been achieved.

Born in the factories of Toyota, “lean” was the term coined the 1996 book Lean Thinking and recently re-popularized by the 2011 book The Lean Startup. A lean practitioner looks at the world of work as being one of two things: value-adding, or non value-adding. The ultimate goal of becoming lean is to add value by eliminating everything that doesn’t.

While some of the success can be contributed to Toyota’s overall mindset of keeping things lean, the good news is that you don’t have to be Toyota to dramatically improve the results of your meetings in much the same fashion.

The critical starting point is to think of meetings as you would any other process: to be considered lean, a meeting must be characterized by minimal, and preferably absent, non value-adding work.

The 3 M’s

The words muri, mura, and muda in Japanese hold a special place in the heart of a well-trained lean practitioner. They are the brainchild of Taiichi Ohno, the founding engineer of the vaunted Toyota Production System.

  • Muri means overload, and is described as stress, strain, or undercapacity.
  • Mura means inconsistency, and can take the form of irregularity, imbalance, or interruption.
  • Muda means waste, and comes in seven basic flavors: overproduction, overprocessing, waiting, unnecessary motion, transportation, defects, and inventory.

Although most meetings are fraught with all three, muda is the easiest of the three to target because it is generally more visible. In fact, most people view meetings as a complete waste, as they so often steal precious time and productivity without adding anything remotely resembling real value.

Take a forensic look at your last meeting and ask yourself a few questions:

Did it add value for everyone, or was it mostly arm-waving (i.e. overproduction)?

Was there a – focus on a critical issue, or did we simply brush the surface of too many subjects (i.e. overprocessing)?

Did we start and stop precisely on time, or were we waiting?

These are just a start, but if the answers to those questions reveal three negative answers, it’s time to make your meetings lean. Start with a simple three-point strategy:

1. Limit yourself to keep it under 12 minutes.

Part of what constitutes any lean operation is the absence of “batch and queue,” meaning piling and lining up. A Toyota process is characterized by small lots, often a single piece, and high frequency…conducted in a just-in-time fashion.

You can employ the same strategy. Keep your meetings short, but higher frequency. Commit to meetings under 12 minutes, and use your calendar software to help you avoid the 15-, 30- and 6-minute timeblock default. That forces you to simplify the purpose of the meeting.

2. Only have meetings around a single purpose or goal.

Commit to using meetings for the singular purpose of making a decision. That forces you to employ the third strategy:

3. Unsocial meetings.

At Toyota, the principle of nemawashi is used to gain consensus on ideas and plans. The term comes from the art of bonsai, and means “preparing the roots for planting.” In other words, socialize your content before the meeting using quick huddles, office fly-bys, one-on-one conversations. Gain input and consensus outside the meeting context, so that the whole notion of “next steps” is limited to being decisive in meetings.

How about you?

What methods have you tried to make meetings more efficient?

More insights on: Office Dynamics

Matthew E. May

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Matthew E. May is the founder of LA-based EDIT Innovation, and the author of the new book, The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything.
load comments (6)
  • marykparker

    I had a mentor who used to send out “read-aheads” and post the questions for decisions. When we met, it was just a question of if anyone had any further questions about the decision, then we voted. Very efficient. Now you can used Outlook to send a request to vote, so maybe even physically meeting isn’t important.
    Saving up topics to present at a meeting isn’t wise either—it takes a lot of time to go over the topics, it wastes the time of the subject matter experts who are waiting to present, and usually the “crisis” that precipitated the need for some of the topics has passed so there is no urgency to make behavioral or procedural changes. “Just-in-time” corrections is so much easier—and doing it face-to-face can be more efficient if there are major differences in understanding and comprehension of the staff.

  • anniefiddle

    I was agreeing with all of this till I got to the part where it’s OK to stop people at what they’re doing to have quick individual chats prior to meetings: “quick huddles, office fly-bys, one-on-one conversations” can be the worst time sinks of all.

  • Timothy O'Dell

    Patrin I trained for 6 years with a 30yr Toyota problem solver. Written communication is distilled in a report called an A3 ( and even that is discussed using the principles below.

    It’s a simple elegant effective and respectful way to collaborate

    (One of Toyota’s pillars is respect for people)

  • Patrin Watanatada

    Timothy, thanks for this link!

  • Elise Keith

    I’d echo the recommendation for passive forms of communication – we really like Slack for this – but find that it’s insufficient for bringing out those who don’t proactively communicate, and remote work definitely attracts a those kinds of self-contained people. Regardless of whether you use a passive or active meeting communication style, keeping a remote team in synch definitely requires more discipline. In the case of our remote team, we do quick check-ins at least twice a week to make sure we stay connected.

  • gabrielleherbert

    To keep a meeting short I got used to use an iPad app called Beesy I mainly use digital note taking. I save so much time especially when I have to do reports!

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