Often, such wandering takes the mind away from the task at hand. You might start to daydream about your next vacation or worry about some payment. If you are sharing your task with another person, you are likely to find yourself in a conversation, usually of a pleasant meandering kind. This leads to a certain amount of mental distraction from what you are doing – which would certainly not be the Buddhist way of course – but if your work is simple and you are not trying to improve upon your methods, it suits well enough.
The other day though, when I was cleaning the eggs, my mind did not wander away. Instead, I found myself focused on scrubbing the little bits of schmutz on the shells and finding the right spot for each colored egg in our rainbow egg arrangement. I had decided to see if I could figure out an egg cleaning process that was a little more time efficient. Sometimes, we clean and put our eggs away one carton or just a few cartons at a time. Or we might save up the eggs from multiple days and then do them in one sitting, but not have an efficient flow of eggs from the collection buckets to the cleaning bucket, to the cartons. It didn’t feel quite optimal.
On this afternoon, I had set up a flow with the buckets of uncleaned eggs on the left, my cleaning bucket in the middle, and six cartons open and in a row on the right. That made the egg flow strictly unidirectional: I would pick up an egg with left hand, clean with scrubby I held in my right, put the egg in a carton on the right. Because I had six cartons set up adjacent to each other, I could place the eggs to make a consistent color arrangement in all the cartons. Our ideal color arrangement is one that starts with darker, olive-green eggs on one end, then we have light green and blue eggs, then light cream color, a medium cream and we finish with dark brown eggs on the other end.
Now, often the eggs are somewhat sorted by color in the collection buckets because one flock lays mainly olive, green and blue eggs, while our other flock produces the cream and brown eggs. After we finish collecting the eggs, usually all the green/blues are on the top or the bottom of the bucket and the cream/brown ones are in the other half.
When you are cleaning your eggs, you will usually find either the blue/greens or the cream/browns at the top. Say you have a bucket with blue/greens at the top and you have only a few empty cartons out. Then you end up putting all those green/blue eggs in those few cartons. When you come to the bottom half of the collection bucket with all the cream-colored eggs and you are on to your next small set of cartons, you don’t have any green/blue eggs to put in them. In fact, all summer we have been bemoaning a shortage of green/blue eggs and have had to resort to making some all-cream-colored egg cartons. Which is sad because part of our brand is serving up those nice rainbow eggs.
With six cartons out, I could easily spread all the olive, green, and blue eggs from the top of the bucket over all the cartons, then spread out the cream/brown ones when I got to the bottom of the collection bucket. And I found out this amazing thing. We don’t have a shortage of green/blue eggs! In fact, I made 18 dozen eggs that all had a nearly identical rainbow arrangement – and not a single cream-colored dozen! Wow! What a surprise! I was elated!
OK, yes, this is just about some dumb eggs and a silly color arrangement. But at a very, very small scale this is about improving product quality and consistency. By changing part of the process, without any additional investments, I was able to make the quality and consistency of our product better. On top of that, the new process improved the time – the combination of the unidirectional flow and working in larger chunks with the greater number of empty cartons reduced the time needed by about 30 percent. Actually, this finding is nothing new – we all know that it’s possible to improve outcomes, not with technical changes, but by making tweaks to process (how we do something). It was of course, fun to get there with this little exercise. But what struck me was how I got to the improved outcome, which was through focus. It was not a deep analysis, or long thinking that got me there. It was just focusing on the work, not letting my mind go all around the world, that allowed me to see how to improve things.
So, do we always need to focus while we’re doing simple tasks? Well, yes, a Buddhist might say because then you are mindful, and mindfulness calms and opens the mind. But I think it’s not always necessary. It’s fine, once you have a process, to have an enjoyable conversation over joint egg cleaning or leaf raking or trench digging. But if you want to make simple things smarter and better, then yes, a little focus may be your key.