All along these process-focused series, I have been singing the excellencies of the TWI Job Breakdown list, and I thought I'd discuss in some more detail my experiences with such a deceptively simple and powerful tool.
Firstly, here's a bit of (50,000 ft) history: the TWI (Training Within Industry) program was created during WWII by the US to face the sudden need of training huge masses of inexperienced population, in a way as quick and efficient as possible, in making war machinery. The bulk of those trainees happened to be women and child, as men in those days were busy... well, using the machinery.
(This is one of those cases of that frequent historic phenomenon where the biggest achievements of the human race have to come attached to the worst of its moral bankruptcies: a war; humans killing humans. Another more audio-related example of this sad phenomenon would be the sturdy SM58, microphone of choice even to this day for millions of musicians -me included-, in its moment developed, if I'm correct, by militaries in need of a microphone that "just worked". Anyways, back to TWI.)
Funnily enough, after the end of the war, the success of the TWI did not transfer to civilian life. For a long period, the program fell into oblivion in its country of origin. Maybe, I venture, because after being done with a war you don't want to know about anything that even vaguely reminds you of it... But mostly perhaps, like the quality guru W.E. Deming often points out in his work, because the US at that moment had no real motivation to become efficient. They could afford sloppiness: with post-war Europe turned into a wasteland, any product they made was going to be better than the rest of the world's no production at all. Therefore, US took absence of competition for self virtue, "let the good times roll" and became somewhat complacent.
At the same time, another war had started short after WWII, although of a different kind: the Cold War. As a strategy to keep countries from falling into communist Russia's influence, the US got involved in the reconstruction works of several of them, and in those works the TWI methods, although long forgotten in its origin country, found a perfect home to be exerted and developed.
One of the countries that received such teaching was Japan, and they really "got it" and ran away with it; to the extent that, in a few decades, the "Made in Japan" products in the US turned from being the running joke ("cheap junk that breaks almost before you leave the store"), to causing market disruptions with their killer combination of quality and low price (in cars and electronics, for example). People started to wonder what on Earth were they doing differently in that tiny country, with no natural resources, that was however sweeping the floor with the powerful US' mass production systems (as a tale-telling example that shows perhaps the spirit of the age, NBC broadcasted in 1980 a famous documentary called "If Japan can, why can't we?").
The interest in these techniques was thus rekindled in the US and the rest of the world, and several studies on Japanese companies were made that brought TWI and its related techniques back to the light (like the book that perhaps restarted the movement, "The Machine That Changed The World", which also coined the term "Lean" -as in "doing more with less"- to describe the operating way of these companies).
Not broad; oceanic, measured in parsecs, are my strokes in this historic summary; but I wanted to give a feel of what these methods come from. Having been selected, among all the other contenders, as the method for fighting a war, is no small feat. It guarantees that you're going to get a 0 BS system (because you're in a scenario where doing anything silly means more people dead or mutilated, at the battlefield or the factory). These techniques are not trendy, they don't have flashy works or the slogan of the day. They just work and get out of the way. And their results, it has been proven time after time, are astronomically good.
Now on with my particular adaptation of the Job Breakdown, the list, out of the whole TWI arsenal, that I've found most useful for my music making purposes so far.
My adaptation has been completely DIY and self taught, with a lot of trial and error, and it is always changing and evolving; there's not a single day when I don't learn something new. As in previous posts, take only what works for you, and I hope some of these experiences can help your productivity in some way, either if you use standard lists or not.
Firstly let's look at what's a Job Breakdown list like. Here is a screenshot of the template in the version I posted in the previous post (slightly modified):
Intended to be a "transparent" tool, the list itself is very simple. There is description field on top to let you know which process we're addressing, and what tools and parts (I've changed those to programs and files) you're going to need, safety equipment (not very needed in audio), plus a "list common key points", that I usually fill with an overview of what's the task purpose.
Then there are the steps. In its more streamlined version, you can do with only three columns: 1) What (step to take), 2) How (how to take it), and 3) Why (reasons why things must be done in that way). (I've eliminated the Training aid column, that for some reason cannot be edited in my word processor, and use the second or third when I need to insert the occasional picture).
In fact, depending on the task, I have sometimes even streamlined it to two columns: 1) What, and 2) How/Why (using the cell for either how, or why, or nothing, depending on what's required in that particular step; some tasks are self evident and don't need a how; the same with why).
Regarding that "why" column, I used not to pay a lot of attention to it (perhaps I misconstrued it as too "philosophical"), but the repetition of a certain experience made me finally understand its value: it used to happen to me that, perhaps, I figured out a clever way of doing a certain thing ("heh, doesn't look like it, but starting this way saves a lot of time later because..."), and then I wrote it down, but revisiting the task after a few weeks, I no longer remembered why was that way so clever, so I shrugged my shoulders in confusion and went back to the vanilla way of doing things (perhaps only to notice a few minutes later, oh, I remember now, it would have been better if instead I had...)
A short explanation in the "why" column avoids this silly to-and-fro, and besides, the "why" column is in the third place for a reason; depending on the process at hand, I know I only need to read it for extra clarification, etc...
In addition to this "what-how-why" golden triad, when working with computers, sometimes I've found useful to also add a "where" for certain steps. In my current implementation it appears as a "@LOCATION:" in the first line of the step (@REAPER:, @PLUGIN:...) Having to switch attention among a lot of open windows, desktops, screens, fields, menu options... Is a situation that the initial list was not designed to handle (but it is so flexible, mind you, that see how well it accommodates to it :) ).
Another important element of the list are those four little signs, precursors of our computer icons, that "jump" to you easily whenever you put them on a page (I've put them on the header of the document, so that they are accessible in all pages and easy to copy-paste). For example, in my audio related lists, I've found the cross symbol ("could injure the person") very useful regarding volume levels in audio chains. The number of times I've "fried" my ears for skipping the step of checking the correct volume indicator has dramatically dropped since I use these symbols.
Now a bit about how I use the tool. From what I've gathered, Job Breakdown lists, at least in manufacturing, are normally used as a training tool: the worker memorizes and practices the lists maybe for weeks, and then they are only checked for brief consultations or improvements. My guess comes mainly from videos I've seen from the champion of Lean, Toyota: those guys assemble a whole car in 58 seconds -more or less the time I take to put on my pants, t-shirt and shoes!-; no time to consult a list there...)
My case is different to begin with in the fact that I have a very high number of different processes, which on the other hand I don't necessarily visit that often. For example, a "mastering the song" process will only be run when I have a song to master... currently every [cough cough] months. Therefore, there's no need to learn things by heart, and in most of the processes, it makes sense to just have the list in front of you and follow it reading step by step.
As an exception, I sometimes do something called "playing by ear" (what other simile could I use here, being a musician? :P ); I skip the process list and try to do things with only what I remember. It is sort of an experiment that helps me discover unnecessary steps that sometimes can sneak in if I've become too "formal". but here I want to underline the word "exception"; doing everything I do "by the book", i.e. following -or creating and then following- the corresponding process list, is for me a discipline; by now I know too well the consequences of just winging it.
And speaking of creating, now a bit about how do I go about writing a Job Breakdown list. I start with the template mentioned above (mine is in version 4 and looks quite different from the original by now; mostly I've been taking stuff away, plus the other changes I've mentioned).
I give the file a name (sometimes the name is temporary, because I'm not even sure how big of a "chunk" the list is going to cover). Then I start doing step by step of what I want to do "in slow motion", writing each successful step in the cells of the first column, and the hows and whys when they are needed.
I don't know if it's just me, but another thing here that for me is a matter of discipline, that I have to constantly keep an eye on, is: first doing the action - THEN writing down the step in the list. Not the other way. You tend to think you now how things will turn out, but the doing more often than not brings surprises. So it's better to first do the action, and if it is successful, then you write it down. Besides, by doing, even if you were right in the first place about what to do, you've for sure learned something that can be brought to how you write the step, which words you use, size of the chunk...
The thing that took me most time to get a hold of in this process was finding the correct "grain" level; my initial lists used to have in the "what" things that were very overarching. E.G.:
1 Compress the track
, with the actual steps in the "How" column:
*insert a compressor plugin
*start playing the track
*open the compressor
*rise the ratio
*reduce the threshold until it shows...
After some time of doing it this way, I noticed that I didn't need the explanation provided in the "what" (and it felt weird that the "meat and potatoes" of the process were on the second column), so now I put those smaller steps directly in the "what" column. How many of them per cell? As many as I can "chew" in one sitting. The moment a cell becomes too complicated, I divide it again into two and distribute the contents.
For example, in this compressor case, I guess one step for me would be:
1 Insert compressor plugin and start playing the track
(The how column would be left blank, unless I discover something useful that will speed things up next time)
Then in the next row, the "What" colum:
2 open compressor, rise the ratio, and reduce the threshold until it shows
Those would seem the logical units to me. This example, by the way, is hypothetical; the "grain" I currently use is finer than this, this would still make me think too much. I use it because I think it makes the example easier to understand. But my list would go more in the lines of:
1 right click on the track, left click 3compressor
("3compressor" meaning "you'll find the compressor in the 3rd row of the drop down menu".)
Lists, and the degree of granularity, are highly personal. For example, here, if you are a person who likes to try and mess around with plugins frequently, maybe it would not make sense to you to point that compressor is in the third place -because it is not steady-.
As I run this process time after time, I'm going to discover new things; and those new things will find a great accommodation in the list. For example, at some point I can discover that the compressor I use allows to save presets. So I can find some settings I like, save them, and then change the step 2:
"2 open compressor, rise the ratio and reduce the threshold until it shows"
to a more efficient
"2 open compressor, open preset X"
This step, on its turn, will be the basis for future improvements, etc...
As for the how and why columns, besides what I've already said, I don't think I can improve anything over the original design: write the key points that can make or break the job, injure you, or make the job easier... And list the reasons where they can help you move on quicker; we have a war to win here...
As another trick, it's also very useful to create a series of abbreviations for very common actions (e.g. left click, mouse wheel...), function keys (control, alt, caps...), and areas of the screen or window (e.g. right side, top right corner, left column...) All you do in front of a computer is pressing or clicking places, so this kind of tricks have a high return...
These lists take some time to make, but even the process of creating them can be very exciting, there is a continuous feel of growth and discovery in it. And you know that, once done, they are like a highway, easy to follow. "Do I have a process for that? - Yes - Phew, what a relief." "No - Well, let's get to it" It's a work that you'll have to do only once, and at the other side of it there's clarity. Having a process of this kind is like an investment in your future, like a bucket that guarantees that no rain drop will ever be wasted again. And, like I've mentioned in the former posts, it also causes that, from now on, the problems you're going to face will always be new, original, interesting, not the same old ball you're tired of taking up the hill only to see it fall again back to the beginning...
I hope you find in these examples something interesting that you can take to your practice. Stay tuned next week for "my engine, the proton level", where I'll discuss...
Just kidding! Enough with all this density, let's go and make some music. I for one know I'm going to...
I have a guitar and I'm gonna use it