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Does The Power Of Small Batches Apply To Digital Workflows?

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Whenever possible, I batch tasks together. When I am making lunch, I make a few days worth. When I am doing errands, I try to wait until I have a number of stops in the same geographic area. I have set times to check and write email.

I try to apply this same concept to working with my digital files, as well.

What Is Batching?


I think of batching from two slightly different perspectives:

  1. Setting aside certain times to do certain tasks, and then grouping those tasks together. If you work in an office, this might mean specific times to respond to emails or calls. If you are a writer, this might mean having certain days reserved for writing.
  2. Grouping like tasks together and doing them sequentially. I find that when I set aside certain times to do email, I fly through my inbox. I am big on going paperless, so when I scan and process my documents, I batch these tasks together. Doing it this way helps me rip through my stack of documents in the most efficient way, or so I thought.

My Paperless Process


I have a very defined process for making my documents digital. It goes like this:

  1. Have a set time every week on my calendar to scan and process my documents so that I don’t fall behind.
  2. When it is time to scan, I organize the paper into its general type: a stack of single-sided one-page documents, a stack of double-sided one-page documents, and a stack of multi-page documents (you’ll see why I do this in a moment).
  3. I have special pre-defined profiles set up in my scanner’s software for each type of paper. This way, I can put a stack of paper into the scanner, hit the button, and it will kick out a PDF for each document. No need to feed each in one at a time, and no need to separate or combine pages later. Having set all this up once, it is extremely fast to digitize everything. Everything gets scanned to an Inbox folder.
  4. Once everything is digitized, I go through and name each PDF and file it away to where it is ultimately stored.

Having relied on this system for a number of years, I was confident that I was processing my electronic documents in the most efficient way, and I have helped thousands of people go paperless in this manner.

Why Eric Reis Made Me Want To Jump In Front Of A Train

Everything fell apart when I read The Lean Startup by Eric Reis.

The Lean Startup

If you have read the book you might remember the envelope story, which apparently came from Lean Thinking by James Womack and Daniel Jones.

The story goes like this: a father and two daughters have a stack of newsletters they need to mail. They divide the pile and have a contest to see who completes the task first:

  1. The daughters, who will do it the “efficient” way: fold up all the paper, then stuff all the envelopes, then seal the envelopes, then put on the stamps.
  2. The father, who will do things one-at-a-time. He will fold, stuff, seal and stamp one envelope, then do the next, and so on.

Most people, myself included, would think that the daughter’s method would be faster. After all, they are batching tasks together. Shouldn’t that be more efficient?

It turns out that in fact the father’s way is faster, due to a lean manufacturing concept called “single-piece flow”, and the power of small batches. As the Lean Startup explains:

Why does stuffing one envelope at a time get the job done faster even though it seems like it would be slower? Because our intuition doesn’t take into account the extra time required to sort, stack, and move around the large piles of half-complete envelopes when it’s done the other way. It seems more efficient to repeat the same task over and over, in part because we expect that we will get better at this simple task the more we do it. Unfortunately, in process-oriented work like this, individual performance is not nearly as important as the overall performance of the system.

I remember very clearly listening to this part of the audiobook. I was standing on the Stadium-Chinatown platform of Vancouver’s Skytrain, and as I was listening to how processing things one-at-a-time is more efficient than in batches, the blood was draining out of my face.

Had I been doing (and teaching) things wrong all this time?

The Efficiency Showdown


I decided that rather than throw myself in front of a train and inconvenience thousands of commuters, the only thing to do was find out for myself which is more efficient when dealing with electronic documents: batch processing or single-document processing.

In other words, does the power of small batches apply to electronic workflows?

The Test

I took a stack of documents with all sorts of paper and timed how long it would take to scan, name, and file away the resulting PDFs. The two tests were:

  1. Batch processing. As described above, separate the paper by paper type, use my special ScanSnap Manager profiles to digitize all documents first, then go through the resulting PDFs and name and file them away.
  2. Single document processing. Scan one by one, and at the time of scanning name and file each PDF.

To make the test more accurate (and more annoying for me), for each test I included the time it takes to pull staples out of the document.

The Results

Batch Processing

Batch Processing Result

Scanning and processing in a batch took me 17 minutes. Not bad, but what about doing it one-by-one?

Single Processing

Single Processing Result

Scanning and processing one-by-one took 19 minutes and 35 seconds. In other words, it took two and a half minutes longer to scan, name, and file each PDF individually than it did to batch these tasks together.

Take that, Eric Reis! It appears that at least when it comes to processing electronic documents, the power of small batches does not apply. At the very least, the times are close enough that it comes down to personal preference.

Batching’s Secret Weapon – Automation


I have a confession to make. I left one crucial part of my paperless process out of this test. Much of my electronic processing is done not by me but by my computer.

By batching tasks together and scanning everything to a central inbox, I can use tools like TextExpander (Mac) or Breevy (Windows) to quickly and easily name my documents, and I can use tools like Hazel (Mac) or File Juggler (Windows) to automatically name and file my documents away.

I re-did the test using batch processing, but this time I included the use of automation tools.

Automation Result

The time to scan and process documents went down to 12 minutes.

A five to seven minute time reduction may not sound like much, but extrapolated over a year, automation provides a massive time savings.

Just as important as the efficiency gains is the consistency that automation tools provide. Things will be named and filed correctly every time.

Assumptions Must Be Tested

While my existing method turned out to be more efficient, I am glad that I was forced to go through this exercise. It made me wonder what other parts of my workflow I should review.

What assumptions are you making, and what can you do to test them?

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Posted by Mark Forster  | July 22, 2014 at 4:53PM | Reply

Coincidentally I’m just having a discussion about this on my own website, with me heavily in favour of batches rather than one-at-a-time. That is as far as individual workflow is concerned – I’m not concerned with the industrial process.

One aspect which I think is very important is that in my own personal experience batching is less fatiguing than one-at-a-time. That’s probably because you only have to think about one thing at a time. To my mind that would bring the scales down in favour of batching even if there was a small time penalty (though I don’t believe there is).

I was wondering if this was your experience too?

Posted by Roelof Reineman  | July 15, 2014 at 1:51AM | Reply

You might also want to try and scan the entire stack in duplex in one go, letting the Scan Snap eliminate the blank pages (1 sided papers). Have it auto OCR into your designated scanner folder. Have it auto named based on OCR results and have Hazel sort it automatically, you only have to deal with the one-offs that remain on the inbox.

For more details, I highly recommend MacSarky’s Paperless Fieldguid (iBooks Store)

Posted by Brooks Duncan  | July 16, 2014 at 10:11AM

That’s exactly what I do Roelof when I refer to automation. Hazel + OCR = paperless happiness.

The only thing Hazel can’t do is tell when one document in a stack ends and the next document starts and put them into their own PDFs. Hence the splitting.

Thanks for your feedback. MacSparky’s book is awesome.

Posted by WJ  | July 14, 2014 at 10:00AM | Reply

Well done Brooks. This is a problem many people (myself included) have. We assume that advice is a “one size fits all” and if we saw it in a book, online, or heard it from an authority figure then it must be the best way for us as well.

A simple test like you completed took less than an hour to perform I think. If you batch once a week and gain five minutes, and let’s assume you keep your current work flow for only the next 2 years: you just saved yourself from losing almost 9 hours of your life. Nine awake, fully productive hours.

This is the reason I love the AsainEffiecency blog-I am gaining life almost weekly from these wonderful tips and workflows.

Posted by Brooks Duncan  | July 16, 2014 at 10:09AM

Always a good idea to take whatever advice you read in a book or blog post (even this one :) ) and refocus it to your own scenario. Thanks for the thoughts WJ, and I agree re: Asian Efficiency.

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