Push vs. Pull Processes


All push and no pull doesn’t work in personal or professional life. (Photo: markal)

Preface: This is a guest post from Michael Port on standardizing business processes–or personal productivity–to minimize excessive trial-and-error.


Waste is a constraint. Reducing waste in your organization is one the easiest ways of reducing constraints.

And here’s a surprise—waste in offices is usually greater than in factories, especially because it’s easy to hide waste in cumbersome or non-existent processes. Creating unnecessary information inventory is another common waste in offices. Doing too many tasks “in anticipation” of a possible client, for example…

One way to think about waste is in terms of push and pull systems. A push system, like much of traditional manufacturing, produces as much product as the company can and/or wants to produce and then gets it out to the customer. The result is usually large inventories.

A pull system only produces what a customer needs and has asked for. You want to have as much “pull” in your systems as you can. Toyota has very little excess inventory. That’s why when the Prius was so unexpectedly popular, people found themselves on waiting lists for the car. Seems like a problem, but Toyota is much more profitable as a result of being so lean. You might also hear this concept referred to as “just-in-time production” or JIT (remember?—it came from the supermarkets).

I think of it this way—there’s a place for everything and everything in its place. No more. No less.

Here’s a story on how to reduce waste (figuratively and literally), by integrating people and process in a pull system. My Aikido dojo is on the top floor of a barn on a lavender farm with a view of a lake. It’s as extraordinary as it sounds. We don’t have a conventional toilet.

Instead, there is an incinerator toilet. You first press a button to start the heating system and then put a special purpose coated paper bowl liner (like a coffee filter, but don’t try using one for this purpose it won’t work) down between two sloping pieces of steel (sort of like a toilet bowl liner). You do “your business” into the paper filter, step onto a lever, and wave goodbye to your waste and any toilet paper. The toilet incinerates the filter and extra donations from you at a very high temperature, somewhere around 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit or the surface temperature of the sun, whichever is hotter. It’s a great way to eliminate waste. However, you can’t use the toilet without these special purpose coated paper bowl liners—they’re needed to keep the steel clean while also aiding in the incineration process. Many have tried and got a good scolding for it.

My teacher and his wife have implemented a very simple “pull system” so that we always have just the right number of liners. Not too many, which ties up money and takes up extra space with excess inventory. Not too little which can shut down the incinerator if it’s overburdened by non-regulation uses.

Over time my teacher and his wife have determined just how many boxes of this paper to keep on hand, based on the frequency of use. It happens to be four boxes. These boxes are then stacked on a specific shelf (the one closest to the toilet, not down the hall, which would create a different kind of production problem, but right where you need them—and can reach them).

On the bottom box is written—when you open this box tell George or Patti. You do tell them because it’s built into the culture of the dojo and you are part of the smooth functioning of the system. They then order 4 more boxes—and have determined, through learning by doing, just how long it takes to receive a shipment of 4 new boxes. It’s a very simple pull system that, in this case, only produces the right kind of waste.

As you can tell, there are a number of keys to success in this process.

Everything about this process is clearly visible and apparent to everybody involved in the process. If the box marked when you open this box tell George or Patti was inside a dark, hard to reach, cabinet, or it was written on the bottom of the box instead of on the flap that you have to open to get at the liners, it might not get noticed. The process relies on this visual indicator. Visual indicators or management charts, or checklists, etc. allow for communication and sharing. You can create standardized work sheets, but if you don’t have a way of seeing them, and the process, as if it were in a glass box, it’s likely that the standard practice won’t be followed and breakdown and waste will occur.

Problems have a way of bubbling up to the surface. The longer you let them simmer the bigger the problem will be when it surfaces. Our goal is to create standardized work processes that bring issues and problems to the surface, using visual indicators so no problems are hidden, at the earliest possible moment. People are stimulated by the visual, tactile and audible. People are part of the process.

Remember, we’re integrating. So it stands to reason that being able to see everything you manage is a balanced and harmonious way of creating flow in your work.

The Importance of Documentation

Early on in my business, I had a team member who would not document her processes, no matter how many times I asked, begged, and pleaded.

I spent hours coaching her on how to do it. I offered to hire someone to walk her through the process and essentially create the system for her. All to no avail. She eventually admitted to me that she thought that if she documented what she did, then I would just let her go. She seemed to think that standardizing might render her useless, as if it were somehow like mechanizing her job. Or maybe she thought that if I saw what she really did I wouldn’t think she was doing a good job. I told her that I wanted to standardize her tasks so her job would be easier and improve workflow throughout the organization. And furthermore, at this point, if she didn’t document and standardize her tasks I would be forced to hire someone to fill her shoes. Sadly, she didn’t come around and we parted ways.

Of course, this was ultimately my responsibility for not making documentation of process a standard procedure during the hiring process.

I know better now and have built into the hiring process a system of testing the ability of potential new hires to document a number of tasks. That way I can assess in advance of hiring them if they can and will do it.

Postscript from the Comments: The 7 Wastes of Toyota

Jeffrey K. Liker, author of The Toyota Way, says that Toyota has identified seven primary types of non value-adding waste in its business: over-production, motion (of operator or machine), waiting (of operator or machine), conveyance, processing itself, inventory (raw material), and correction (rework and scrap). Liker included an 8th waste (a personal favorite)—untapped employee creativity.

I have adapted Toyota and Liker’s lists for our purposes. So that they relate, not to a manufacturing process, but to a service business:

• Overstaffing—hiring people for whom there is not enough work.

• Overproduction—producing items (work) for which there are no clients or orders.

• Waiting—for information, resources, supplies, anything that slows down flow and creates waste.

• Over-processing or incorrect processing—activity, conversations, or processes that are not necessary or are incorrectly executed.

• Unused employee creativity—not enlisting and empowering your team, both intellectually and emotionally, in a continuous process of improvement.

In manufacturing, it’s often argued that overproduction is the greatest of all waste, since it causes most of the other wastes. I think the same could hold true for a service-based business. Not only overproduction of your services, but doing too much of everything that is not valuable to the internal or external customer. Overproduction waste, as Liker points out, “…leads to other suboptimal behavior, like reducing your motivation to continuously improve your operations.”

Typical business processes might be 90% waste and only 10% value-added work. Your objective is to create continuous flow in information processes and service processes. No one produces anything before it is needed by the next person or for the next step in the process.

Nothing should ever sit around waiting; except maybe things like cash savings in the bank for security and protection. Shortening the elapsed time from start of process to finished good or service will lead to best quality, lowest cost and shortest delivery time. There are at least two customers in this process—you and your paying customers at the other end of the process. Ensuring the best quality service benefits your paying customers and it’s also the best marketing. Ensuring the lowest cost benefits you as customer. Achieving the shortest delivery time might serve both you and your paying customer. But it might not. What’s the value of each of these objectives and where is it being created?

You might not have the best service, lowest cost and shortest delivery time. You might, however, find the optimal balance between the three. That’s the objective of all your processes.


The above is a combination of two excerpts from Beyond Booked Solid, authored by Michael Port, who has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and on The Big Idea for his exploration of concepts ranging from Toyota’s best practices to standardized management of virtual assistants.

Posted on: July 21, 2008.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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52 comments on “Push vs. Pull Processes

  1. Hi Tim-

    Glad to see Michael’s post here. He definitely knows his stuff.

    His point about the importance of documentation is quite solid. So many people see it as “just the details”-but it can definitely save a lot of time and money if implemented correctly.


  2. Very good post. However, I work in a college, where people equate knowledge with power and value. There is also very little in the way of negative consequences, if they fail to comply. How can you convince employees that documenting their jobs & processes is critical to the organization’s growth and the security of it’s intellectual capital? Which I believe equates to competitive advantage.


  3. I’m going to reference this in an upcoming post on software architecture. Why the tie in? Push vs pull describes a fundamental problem we face when integrating different computer systems…do we push the data to them or make them come get it?

    This gives a lot of substance to the arguments for pull. Great post, useful in more ways than thought of I’m sure.


  4. Congrats on firing the “non-documenter”. I’m a programmer and failure to document adequately can become a company plague. But really, anyone who fears losing their job as a result of documenting it is not someone you want on your team.

    Personally, I would have told them that the documentation needed to be in place so that they could spend their time doing more important, valuable and high-paying tasks.

    My current office actually has an internal wiki to manage these documents. They’re invaluable for things like accounting processes. Wikis are likely the future for this type of work.


  5. Now TIm, great post from Michael’s material…I just wanted to drop you a line to say I freaking luved your book – it just took a while to get a copy here in Oz! Not meaning to bring everything back to Personal Branding, but push v pull is also relevant to Personal Branding. Great brands have plenty of ‘pull’ going on where business and contacts come to them – they are ‘pulled’ in by the power and persuasion of the brand. Building a great personal brand is not all about push neither. Your personal brand is not what you say about yoursef, but what others say about you…therefore, do a great job, return calls, stay in touch, help others, and live an interesting life…and you will ‘pull’ business and interest in to everything you do! Hope this connection is not too long a shot! Stay well…keep busy in the things you love!


  6. Glad I tried a 2nd time to watch the video. I don’t know what any of the moves are called, but the single forearm spins are very sweet. I’m way jealous of some of their vertical leaps, too. I’ve always wished I could jump, but sadly, not in this lifetime.

    I might check out Dharma Mittra in Napa this weekend – he’s a well-known yogi that does handless headstands. I’ve never practiced with him before. Ought to do something fun for my birthday.

    Anyone know about tickets for BC One? I went to an international juggling festival with a friend once. It was kinda cool, but this would be way cooler. Do they sell out? Are they hard/easy to get? It would be a good excuse for me to go to Paris for the first time. I might be as close as London around that time anyway.


  7. Hi Tim,

    I see you can document, it is a requirement to the members of my mastermind group. How about you join ? Hehe. That would be interesting.

    My pro. activity is quite uncommon as you can see on my site. People wouldn’t think it’s a field of documentation, and it’s not, for the majority of “other-people-who-try-to-do-the-same-thing-and-do-not-succeed”.
    Since I decided to shift my way of working by documenting (for example: time spent on each piece, maximizing a pull system and so on ), the quality of my work has skyrocketed. Success in business will take care of itself.

    Yes, even in the arts, you will produce better by documenting every action and setting up a pull system.


    P.S.: next piece : tango theme ;)


  8. Hey Tim,..

    This is a very interesting (and rather humorous) post. I was thinking that some people may get overwhelmed with stuff in their business just through Parkinson’s Law. It’s my theory that Parkinson’s Law has a similar and/or same effect on time as it does on money. E.g something that normally will make you $500, that makes you $10k, all the sudden becomes a mental monster. This is perhaps why people overcomplicate the process.
    What are your thoughts?


  9. All of the problems you mentioned above plague my work place. The worst part is that almost no one wants to change them. Luckily the 4 Hour Work Week has helped me create a barrier around myself. Now if I can just get everyone else to read it.


  10. Hi Ken,

    I understand your challenge regarding inspiring others to document their processes in an educational environment.

    Some people are more motivated by the positive outcomes of taking on documentation projects, others are highly motivated by the negative outcomes.

    If you can show/demonstrate the outstanding benefits of doing this kind of work you may help them disclose new worlds (open up their thinking to see things they have not seen before). And, if you can demonstrate what will happen if they don’t do this work — like they won’t have a job any longer (I know sounds harsh but reality isn’t wrong it just is and more of us need to deal with it) you may get them to move in the right direction.

    Warmly and with respect,

    Michael Port


  11. Nick,

    I hear you! I totally hear you! Sometimes it seems that people don’t want to change. But, I beg you to be a revolutionary. Don’t let their current perspective negatively influence yours. Keep believing in change and be an agent for it. Continue to find the elegant solutions and you’ll turn on those around you. They’ll start to come to you and offer help. They’ll want to be involved and start jumping on your bandwagon.

    Michael Port


  12. By the way, one of the best ways to create your “operation manual” is through a private, internal blog. Since you can password protect it, it’ll stay private and you can upload, edit, and comment on all of your systems and processes. Create various categories and have multiple authors. It’s really a wonderful way to create an online operation manual. And, the best part is that it’s free and accessible from anywhere in the world. Ideal for a small business.


  13. Tim…could you do a post on surviving your mentor? I had a situation earlier this year where a man counted in the holy trinity of my mentors pretty much slammed what I’d managed then told me why my success as I did it wasn’t possible. That was a strange dark night of the soul. My other mentor killed himself Saturday. That’s going to be an ongoing one. But my sanity relies in keeping it up, not failing and not laying down. If success was actually “possible” everyone would have it every day.

    I know this isn’t uncommon. How does one survive one’s mentor…both literally and figuratively? How do you dis-entangle their sage advice and guidance from what you’ve become?


  14. @Gates VP – my office has a wiki as well, but frankly, I struggle with using it. On the surface, it seems to add yet another layer of documentation to my work when there are already several layers in place. I would love to hear from you or anyone else who has pushed through that barrier: How did you do it? What has the be ROI in terms of time gained, etc.?


  15. I love the Toyota system. They also reward their employees for any suggestion that is implemented into the company.

    This is a great article because it applies to everyday life. We need to make tasks as simple and easy as possible. The more time and space we waste the more we can’t do what we really love to do.


  16. I work in a large corporate environment (300,000+ employees)
    Process documentation is required by law (ISO 9000) and by corporate policy.
    Cross-training is required as well. In large corporations, no one is allowed to be the ‘sole go-to person’ because the company must continue when each person is off work. The company has been around for 100+ years, so clearly no one is irreplaceable. In fact, most people feel like cogs in a wheel – or less. But we all have processes and when they are followed, work flows smoothly.

    It is up to the management to recognize when they are not pushing hard enough for the processes to be documented or followed. Good on you, Michael, to recognize where the oversight was and for taking the action to correct it. From personal experience, I can assure that if one person in a team “gets away” without having to perform a (perhaps mundane) task then other members of the team will either feel slighted or will stop following the procedures. It’s the ‘bad apple” scenario and it can ruin a small company. It can get a mid-level manager fired or ruin a career.

    As for the push vs pull, it is always subjective and situation dependent. In the example of the Prius, the question arises as to how far back does the manufacturer go? Do they stock up on steel and plastic just in case a vehicle sells well? Increasing production when your JIT goes as far back as raw materials can take a year or longer. Contracts are written for X amount of goods over Y amount of time. Adjusting those values – and they are huge values – is expensive and time consuming. For some products there isn’t sufficient profit to respond to small increases in demand. Analyzing and predicting consumer demand in some markets is more art than science. The above vehicle is an example, as are Nintendo’s Wii (very hard to find for a very long time) and Apple’s iPhone 2 (currently sold out and only shipping 45 per day). These should be setup as Pull.

    On the other hand, there are many products – mostly consumables – that should be setup as Push. For example, the supplies needed by hospitals, schools, and restaurants can be relatively easily predicted. In as much as ‘consumer actions’ will normalize over time and the cost of having a small local stockpile of these items on site is not overly expensive, a supplier can count on shipping X amount of Y items on a regular basis. For example, a regional manager at McDonald’s can predict very accurately how much supplies are required at each of the local stores and can setup regular deliveries without much input from the local store. Yes, the stores have a feedback system that indicates how much product has been sold recently, but those numbers are not used for planning and distribution purposes as much as they are for trends and sales. And the cost of storing an extra unit of each item at the store isn’t tremendous, so over-pushing isn’t really a concern.

    Examples of systems where both push and pull are used about in the retail space. A great example is clothing stores. They are push when the season changes and new styles are released. These are sent out to stores regardless of their local need. Extra / old stock is shipped back. But the pull comes into play after the initial push for product that is selling well. In this industry, pull works at the retail level but is nearly impossible at the manufacturing level. Cloth is cloth, so it can be amassed by the manufacturer. But it is in the manufacturer’s best interest to make as many as may be necessary, then move on the to next product. By the time a product is seen as a ‘smashing success’ that would result in a major pull, the manufacturer is on making another product – possibly two more more removed from the in-demand product. To accommodate the increased demand, the pull manufacturing is usually performed by smaller, secondary shops that are more dynamic and have faster setup times – with higher per unit cost and less quantity capability. But by that time in the product cycle, the retailer can either afford to charge a higher price for an in-demand product or the designer has already recovered the initial design / bring-to-market costs and can absorb the increased manufacturing costs. Either way, in this industry, switching from a push to a pull results in increased costs, not less. But it has a value, so it is useful.

    As a final item, I want to point out that ‘waste’ isn’t always bad. To a certain extent, excess capacity is waste. But if that waste allows a competitive advantage, then it is a good thing. For example, if the Prius manufacturing process had been designed with sufficient excess capacity such that all consumer demand had been satisfied, the result could have been near-total market control. If everyone wanting a fuel efficient car had been able to get a Prius when they wanted one, the result would have an effect on all of the other car makers. It would have had an impact on their product plans knowing that they would have to ‘break into’ a field that is already dominated by a single product. While not perfect examples, I point to the success of Chrysler in the mini-van market and Ford in the pickup truck market. Their over-capacity and saturation strategies (both ‘push’) resulted in dominance of the area for a long time (in one case, 30+ years). Again, not perfect examples in light of how the auto industry is going right now, but they are examples of how excess is not always waste.

    Thanks for letting me post such a lengthy comment.


  17. Another way to document and therefore improve processes is to hire someone else to do it. Many companies pay big dollars to consulting firms to document process work flows and perform process improvement. It’s not always worth the cost, but it’s an option.

    Often when performing consulting we find that each person only knows their own job, and has no idea where they fit in the big picture or even why they do certain tasks. They may be performing tasks that someone else undoes later on. Having a single person or team talk to each person/department allows them to see how each process fits together.


  18. Tim and Michael,

    Thank you for bringing Lean improvement concepts to the 4HWW. I read your book right before I began learning about the Toyota Production System. They both compliment each other in the focus on reducing waste and increasing effectiveness (not efficiency!)

    I really like your point about adding documentation of process a standard into the hiring process. I think this could even go into a job description!