Yak Shaving

A little neglect may breed mischief … for want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost. -Benjamin Franklin

This title isn’t strictly true - yak wool actually goes for about $24 a kilogram, bought in bulk. But my title, like the imperfect metaphor by Big Ben above, served it’s purpose: To talk about the interconnectedness of things and activities and how we can leverage, reduce and increase those connections to help our designs. If we strive to build regenerative and lasting designs, we need to always observe how those systems interact with the real world, and constantly make iterative improvements in those processes.

Yak Shaving is a software engineering term, coined in the MIT media lab sometime after 2000. It describes something we’ve all dealt with, where you need to get something done - something like “wash the dishes.” You find you’re out of detergent, and head to the store, but your neighbor has parked behind you. When you go to talk to the neighbor, you discover he needs help with one little thing and … 20 tasks and 17 hours later, you inexplicably find yourself in Tibet, shaving a yak - with the dishes still waiting for you at home.

Now, everything in that chain - even the part about the yak - upon reflection was useful and pertinent, but you just lost a day (plus air fare) trying to accomplish a 5 minute task. If you look carefully, your entire day is probably often spent this way. Many days for everyone in your entire organization may be spent this way. It’s very common for me to encounter organizations that just think “this is the way it is,” sometimes they budget manpower accordingly.

Now, that’s an important point - if you have a mechanism in place, no matter how crude, to measure proficiency or project velocity then at least you’re one leg up on most organizations. If things take much longer than expected and you’re not compensating it creates stresses on your group. That’s the sort of thing that turns a job into a death march. Since one of our ethics is Care for People, we can’t let that happen. Make sure whatever your process needs for resources are being met, and we’ll talk later about ways to measure that.

But what about the core issue above, what can we do about making things take the time and effort they are “supposed” to? To some degree, yak shaving can’t be eliminated, because mistakes and surprises happen. But there are things we can do to mitigate and reduce it’s effect, and it’s the same stuff we should be doing to increase productivity anyway.


To begin, start thinking about mise en place. This is french, usually a professional culinary term that means “putting in place.” Before a shift in a restaurant, the kitchen should go through mise en place, ensuring that everything that will be needed is not only available and on hand, but also prepared in the optimal way for use later. During the rush shift, we don’t want to be julienning carrots, that should take place in the morning when there is time and space for it. Make stock the night before and put it where you can get it quickly. Mise en place extends to ensuring there are enough burners and even cooks on hand to handle the predicted number of dishes to be prepared.

If my mise en place included buying a bottle of dish detergent when my current one was half empty, I could have avoided a whole lot of trouble. Mise en place is part of the larger concept of organization and planning. Arranging your workspace is another - some people are knollers, following the code ; personally, I keep projects in messy but segregated heaps, other people have a place for everything, and everything goes back into it’s place, hidden from sight.

Whatever your organizational process is, recognize it and find places it can be improved.

In a company, being organized is more than just having your physical things in the right places. It’s also about procedures and processes, and the documents that define them. Think about processes, and when they evolve naturally, be sure to revisit them as early and frequently as possible. Some of the most horribly wasteful processes imaginable can become deeply ingrained in an organization - and two years later, people might be scared to change them. Make a point of revisiting them often - if you can, improve with every iteration.

The same holds true for any project or organization - having procedures and a process for revisiting them is the path to constant improvement.


In the strictest sense, computers don’t really multitask. What they do is switch between tasks very quickly, so every task gets a piece of every second - quickly enough that you don’t notice. But this is resource expensive; every time one program goes to “sleep” and another is brought up to speed, a little time is lost in the system. In a modern operating system, great care is taken to only switch between programs when it’s smart to do so, so these context switches happen as infrequently as possible while still allowing a good user experience.

Every time a person switches tasks, that same issue is faced. Switching contexts is one of the most expensive things a person can do. If you’re putting, say, decorative rocks in little plastic bags, the process might be open a bag, weigh out the rocks, pour them in the bag, settle them to the bottom and then seal the bag. Doing it in this order is far less efficient than opening a hundred bags at once and laying them out, then weighing and filling them, then settling them all and then sealing the entire batch. Switching between tasks - even just turning yourself to match different stations - robs time from your process. Even if you’re only losing a few seconds per bag the old way, you’re gaining minutes per batch and hours per week with the new.


Also consider that by working in stages, each stage can be done by a different person, in a different location. This sort of arrangement results in efficiency increases that allow more break time per person while still producing more inventory. It also gives the organization more flexibility and allows us to improve different parts of the process without disrupting the entire staff. We can make local changes that improve the process on a macro scale.

That same sort of assembly line improvement can be used by people doing creative work. Don’t switch between tasks, stay with one as long as you can. When you’re ready to move on, that’s when you should check your email, or look for alerts on your phone. Switching between these tasks is extremely wasteful, and it keeps you at a lowered level of efficiency. If you feel like you never get anything done, try turning alerts off on your phone and closing your email and Facebook tab. You can open it back up, just do it when you’re ready, not when it beeps at you. It’s not about spending less time on each task, it’s about spending more time in one productive, contiguous block.

What about Integration?

A young man was preparing a ham dinner. After he cut off the end of the ham, he placed it in a pan for baking. His friend asked him,”Why did you cut off the end of the ham”? He replied ,”I really don’t know but my mother always did, so I thought you were supposed to.” Later when talking to his mother he asked her why she cut off the end of the ham before baking it, and his mother replied, “I really don’t know, but that’s the way my mom always did it.” A few weeks later while visiting his grandmother, the young man asked, “Grandma, why is it that you cut off the end of a ham before you bake it?” His grandmother replied, “I had to, otherwise it would never fit into my baking pan.”

One of the permaculture principles is to integrate, not segregate. And doesn’t all of this task splitting seem like segregation? Well, segregating tasks isn’t breaking any of the rules - we’re creating an integrated system that has segregated tasks. Each of those tasks is interrelated. How could we increase the level of integration? Increase communication - for example, make sure that the people filling the bags are talking to the people who open the bags.

In one company I was involved with, this tiny step resulted in huge wins - when the open bags were placed in lengthwise columns on trays, it required the fillers to reach much further to grab a bag in the right position, sometimes to stop and turn a half-filled tray around in mid-batch. By aligning them in rows instead, the optimal position was easily in reach, and we ended up with less spilled batches, less tired arms, and less wasted time.

This same sort of thing can be applied to office or creative work - instead of sending a blind forward of a long email thread to another department, spend a few seconds writing a summary at the top. That prepares the person who receives it and will save much more time than if they had to figure it out for themselves.

If you’re working in vector and you send a creative piece off to the print department, see if they want it that way, or if they are going to have to convert it. Since you already have the file open, it’s probably going to be much easier for you to do the conversion and present it to them in the format they need it, rather than them needing to have all of the tools and assets necessary to recreate your process.

Spend time thinking about how to make your process mesh with a downstream consumer, just like how you would consider making use of water flowing over a landscape. By considering the larger design, you can align yourself better to the process, and it becomes easier to see what needs improvement, benefitting everyone in the system.

Make meetings matter

Integrate your meetings too. Meetings are simultaneously one of the best communications tools that an organization has, and also one of the biggest deterrents to productivity. Schedule them at regular times, so people can plan their work around them. Don’t move them around at the last minute - don’t move them at all! Make sure everyone gets there on time, and have an agenda. Make that agenda as comprehensive as possible, so another meeting doesn’t have to take place to follow up on this one. Then, end them on time, so no one has to leave early to get back to some time-sensitive task or personal need. Well-run productive meetings that are respectful of the attendees are in turn respected by the attendees. Badly run meetings that start and move randomly with no well-defined goals are viewed with scorn and not taken seriously. We’ll talk in the future about some ways to make meeting even more productive and useful.

Rather than accepting yak shaving as a cost of doing business, take every opportunity to analyze why it’s happening in the first place. Often, the first time it’s not painful enough to do anything about. By the second time, people are already getting used to the burden. Very soon, some crazy build process or time-consuming manual task gets absorbed into the daily routine and a little more energy waste is accepted into the team. Wasted energy has a cumulative demoralizing effect as well as real and significant costs. It robs the organization of money and the people of good will.

New here? Reading “what is permaculture” will help you catch up quickly. Thanks to Pete Keen, author of Mastering Modern Payments for providing the title of this blog post in one of his tweets. @zrail on twitter