For those who insist they just need to inventory and prioritize their day, there’s a business that provides you with a small electronic gadget that tracks your activities. If the first thing you do in the morning when you drag into work is check messages, you simply tap the “correspondence” button and the clock begins to tick. Hit the “meeting” button and it begins adding up your time in the conference room. Of course, reporting goof-off time is on the honor system. And when the fun is over, it won’t tell you if you’re overworked and underpaid. But once the gadget is plugged into a computer, it cranks out a small forest of paper detailing your every move. So, if you’ve wondered where all the time goes each day, you’ll be left with no doubts.
For those of us needing to dive a bit deeper, we often find our inefficiency virus embedded in the organization’s culture. In a department that was once assigned to me, employees used to amass piles of computer printouts spending three or four days each month hunched over their desks crunching numbers. When they were done, they made a pile of copies, dutifully slipped reports into about 60 interoffice mail envelopes and sent them on their way. When I asked why they insisted on this torturous ritual each month they said they didn’t know; they were just doing what they were told from way back when.
After reassuring my staff that it would be okay, I coaxed them into an experiment. The next month, they completed the report so it would be ready if anyone asked for it, but conveniently forgot to send it out. Funny thing, three months sailed by with no complaints, and the manager who did call was just making sure that he wasn’t being “iced out” of something. When we followed up with a message to those on the recipient list to make sure they weren’t missing essential information, the few who cared had other ways of getting the data and didn’t need the report anyway.
Tossing out three or four days worth of work each month felt great, but that was only half the equation. The problem couldn’t be reduced to a mere subtraction problem for saving time. The other half of the equation was buried in the culture of status quo. If employees continued to just plod along in practices of the past, those extra days would be quickly absorbed by some other valueless activity and nothing would be gained. I needed my staff to challenge what they were asked to do—injecting their expertise and organization knowledge into decisions—so they didn’t again end up in activities that added no value.
This same boogeyman popped up in another business when leaders tried to implement a technology solution to resolve a social system problem. It turned out that the cool looking, time saving robot they bought simply moved more of the product with the same problems as before. Now a big problem turned into a huge one. Technology couldn’t change the team’s culture of “it’s someone else’s problem,” nor could it breach the wall that prevented team members from confronting it. So, quality checks continued to be missed, and it was business as usual until the status quo was challenged.
Consider how many departments function as sovereign islands unto themselves with employees who never venture beyond their perceived borders to ask what other employees need from them to be more effective. It’s remarkable how many department personnel admit they really don’t care what happens outside of their immediate realm. They’re stuck in a culture that promotes the current state of isolation and independence. Breaking loose requires cutting the shackles that keep employees fearing to take action and always waiting for some imposed directive or other to deal with the problem.
Sometimes we need to punch buttons on a little gadget when it helps keep email, meetings, and paperwork from overtaking higher priorities. Most of us should also be looking at how we can challenge unproductive meetings, wasted correspondence, decisions that miss the point, and practices that prevent worker collaboration.
Maybe the gadget we really need is one that tracks time spent pushing for more value activities. You could hit the “question” button when challenging dubious decisions and activities, and “perpetuate” when just going along with the status quo. Now there’s some data worth poring over.
Trying it on for fit: One tactic for avoiding problems of status quo freeze is to encourage employees at all levels to consistently ask:
- Why are we doing this?
- What are we trying to accomplish?
- How does it add value?
- How can we do this better?
- What should we be doing to make the business unit more competitive?
A second tactic is to ask others, including core workers, for the argument against what you propose. Insist on a case for the other side before a decision is made.
Set the example by using these tools and calling for others to use them as well. Be persistent to make them part of a culture of questioning and improving.
Send an email and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!