What Containers Can Teach Us

Any major world port today is filled with hectares (or acres) of containers stacked up. There are a number of lessons applicable to the IT management world in the humble container:

Standard sizing: containers come in a standard size; they may be filled or partially full, but the type of contents (heavy or light) and the degree of loading make no difference in moving them around.

We often schedule people to perform events — participate in this project, attend this meeting, etc. Schedule drift occurs as a result.

Chunking work into blocks of a standard size (this could be a defined portion of a task, or several tasks for one larger activity) and then reviewing the results from the standard chunk not only put a premium on actually completing something (and on organizing work) but also make it possible to judge whether a person’s performance is gaining or losing ground over time, and why.


Down time: containers without a load to carry — or filled containers for which there is no onward transportation — sit, earning nothing.

Chunks of “work” that are attendance at meetings, etc. can be judged as to whether this work is “productive” or “down time”.

Many status meetings, for instance, are “down time”: nothing is happening that couldn’t be taken from a living document on a wiki, for instance.

Thinking about time in this way allows for the unlocking of productivity. It also allows for the assignment of apparent down time, i.e. “time to think”.


Transit time: containers, once loaded on a ship, train or truck, are in transit. Until they reach a destination and are either reloaded onto a new conveyance or are opened, no one can do anything with the contents.

We tend, in the workplace, to think of some types of events as interruptions when in fact they could (and should) be scheduled.

Most email handling, approvals in workflows, etc. should be blocked and dealt with en masse. Peter Drucker talked of half-hour blocks for returning messages (ignoring incoming messages otherwise); some companies have “turned email off” to create uninterrupted work time.

Self-discipline is key here, especially on the part of senders who expect immediate replies.


One load at a time: a container carries only one shipment at a time. It is single-tasked.

For those of us with pocket technology (e.g. a BlackBerry) the temptation to “multi-task” is legendary. This actually decreases productivity: studies repeatedly show more and better work from those who do one thing at a time, without interruption.

It can take upward of 10 minutes to resume detailed analysis following the handling of an email or phone call. If we block our time into chunks, we will actually do something in relatively short order, freeing us for “a new load” of work.


There are many other analogies that could be drawn from containers, but the point should by now be clear.

Using standard time units to advantage, and single-tasking while doing so, opens up productive time. For those of you who believe there is no time to think, or no time to collaborate, thinking of your day as a set of containers should help find the time needed.

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About passionateobserver

I am a passionate observer of our society, the economy, and politics. Mostly I don't like much of what I see, so I write as a concerned citizen. To the fray, I bring a background in the philosophy of history, a lifetime's reading, a work history in information technology management, consulting and education.
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