Lean matter management: a novel and practical innovation

10 Jul

k1By Gordon Vala-Webb, Principal at Building Smarter Organizations

Part two of a series about practical and novel innovations for law firms and legal departments.

There has been much ballyhoo regarding the use of LPM approaches – both the legal project and the legal process management varieties – in law firms and legal departments. Unfortunately, while some successes with both forms of LPM have occurred, neither approach has really lived up to the hype.

This is ironic given that, like Moliere’s M. Jourdain who was “speaking prose without knowing it,” most lawyers intuitively have been using some form of their own (light-weight) project and process management. However, when firms or departments formally implement either kind of LPM, it tends not to work for two reasons:

  1. the majority of lawyers’ work varies too much – both in the nature of the work itself and the day-to-day (minute-by-minute) priorities, and
  2. both formal project and process management run strongly against the grain for most lawyers who are typically task-oriented (“I don’t want to plan, I want to do.”) and value their autonomy (“Don’t fence me in.”); the result is strong (passive or not so passive) resistance when leadership attempts to apply LPM.

However, law firms and legal departments feel the pressure to be more efficient and effective and desperately seek ways to manage and improve legal work.  An alternative that I call “lean matter management” (LMM) does this by solving two fundamental problems that make firms and departments inefficient:

  • The work itself is invisible (unlike, for example, manufacturing widgets), making it difficult to
    • co-ordinate who works on what (especially as priorities constantly change) and
    • identify how the way the work is done could be improved (because inefficiencies and gaps are hidden).
  • The workers – primarily lawyers – inefficiently switch between too many different pieces of work (this switching-cost problem is a little understood, but substantial drain on legal productivity).

Also called kanban,  LMM comes from the lean (Toyota) production approach, but applied to legal work. The recipe for simple LMM is as follows:

  • Start with the “to do” lists lawyers already keep (either in their heads – the risk of error boggles the mind! – or in a notebook or electronic device).
  • Take each “to do” for a matter and place it on a shared board under one of three columns indicating status, namely To Do, Doing, and Done.
  • As work progresses, tasks move across the columns (consider adding another column titled “Waiting” for work that has been sent for client for review).

This can be done on a physical board, with each item of work – and the name of the person responsible for the task – on a separate Post-It (see image) or using software (many free or relatively inexpensive kanban software tools are available – Trello is any easy one to try).k2

With an LMM board, the work is visible and everyone immediately sees who is working on what, what has been completed, and what remains to be done. You can add information to the work items by, for instance:

  • colour coding for priority (for example, using red for high priority items),
  • including due dates (many software tools allow the board to be viewed as a calendar),
  • categorizing tasks (to allow for filtering by certain types of work, such as pleadings on a particular issue), and
  • using size (for example, small, medium, and large boxes) to indicate hours or complexity of work.

For larger matters, team meetings could focus on reviewing the board to co-ordinate work, identify where work might be stuck, and look for opportunities to do the work more efficiently or distribute it more evenly. You could even share a (perhaps restricted) view of the board with clients to provide up-to-the-minute information on the work you are doing on the matter.

Critical to the LMM/kanban approach is understanding that adding more work to a lawyer (or other team member) who is already fully committed to other work has four negative consequences:

  • A backlog of work waiting for that person develops.
  • Time is wasted as that person switches among the larger set of tasks now assigned (because reorienting deep attention on a task takes several minutes each time; so, the more tasks, the more time wasted).
  • The heavily tasked person becomes stressed worrying about all of the balls in the air.
  • Stress increases the possibility of errors.

The LMM solution for this is to limit the work-in-progress that each individual involved in the matter has at any given time (for instance, each person can have no more than a set number of hours of work in the “doing” column at any time). Placing limits forces individuals, the team, and leader to rebalance work and priorities realistically in the moment. The alternative is to pile the work on, have people work inefficiently, and be faced with some crisis as the deadline approaches.

Using software – with people and teams across multiple matters or projects – allows a team, firm, or law department to review work on a matter (or set of matters) for opportunities to improve the sequence and kinds of tasks, reuse a board for the next similar matter, balance workloads across a team or firm, and easily keep clients (whether internal or external) up-to-date on the status of work. You can also apply kanban to legal processes (for example, foreclosures) by setting each step in the process up as a column on a kanban board.

Applying our “practical and novel” test (from part one of this series), lean matter management rates as follows:

Test Answer Comment
Usable by both law firms and law departments Yes
Not widely in use Yes In use by only a small number of law firms (though widely used in other industries, such as software development)
Available now Yes
Track record to show the business results Yes Seyfarth Shaw LLP, known for LPM excellence, notes in the 2013 ILTA White Paper article, “Agile: A Non-traditional Approach to LPM” that “Kanban boards are an effective tool to track item backlog, work in progress and completed tasks. They are beneficial in visualizing and optimizing workflow in real time, and whether electronic or whiteboard with sticky notes, they often act as a centralized hub for team collaboration.”
Easy to adopt by most lawyers most of the time Yes Because it starts with what lawyers are already doing (and allows them to change what they like), it is easy to adopt
Can be started at a relatively small cost Yes Free and low-cost tools are available
Cost-effective Yes It is inexpensive per user and scalable (if using SaaS) and provides significant productivity improvement

LMM is a practical and novel innovation for law firms and departments.

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One Response to “Lean matter management: a novel and practical innovation”

  1. Gordon Vala-Webb (@BuildSmarterOrg) July 31, 2015 at 2:57 pm #

    Anyone who is @ILTAConf #ILTA15 please drop-in at breakfast, Tuesday, 7:30-9:00 to chat, share and learn.

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