24/7 availability does not create peak performance.


Mark Graban's latest post on Chrysler's CEO, Sergio Marchionne, reminded me of a recent visit to a client's R&D facility. Two of the managers bemoaned the incessant demands on their teams. Even as recently as a few years ago they would have downtime after the completion of a project when staff could go on vacation, work shorter hours, and generally refresh themselves. But no more. Layoffs and increasing pressures from the executive team means no more breathers. It’s constant pressure year-round now. Unfortunately, as psychiatrist Edward Hallowell says,

Making yourself available 24/7 does not create peak performance. Recreating the boundaries that technology has eroded does.

In an interview with CNET earlier this year, Hallowell explainted that “attention deficit trait” is

sort of like the normal version of attention deficit disorder. But it’s a condition induced by modern life, in which you’ve become so busy attending to so many inputs and outputs that you become increasingly distracted, irritable, impulsive, restless and, over the long term, underachieving. In other words, it costs you efficiency because you’re doing so much or trying to do so much, it’s as if you’re juggling one more ball than you possibly can.

Organizations are sacrificing their most valuable asset, namely the imagination and creativity of the brains they employ, by allowing ADT to infest the organization.

Pick up any business journal this year and at least once a week you’ll read about the need for innovation. Companies hire consultants, conduct off-site retreats, install “chief innovation officers” (whatever that means — probably a sign of a non-innovative company), and give employees toys from the Fisher Price catalog in an effort to spur innovative thinking.

But maybe they’re missing the mark. (In the case of the “chief innovation officer,” there’s no maybe about it.) Maybe what the staff needs is some time away from the office, away from the Blackberries, away from meetings. Maybe they need to go hiking and rafting away from their electronic tethers.

Of course, you don’t have to go that far. As Hallowell says,

It’s not that hard to deal with, once you identify it. You need to set limits and preserve time to think. Warren Buffett sits in a little office in the middle of nowhere and spends a lot of his time just thinking.

Back to Sergio Marchionne: you could make a powerful argument that his job above all requires innovation, creativity, and imagination. Does answering his six Blackberries within minutes or seconds, 24/7, have a negative effect on his own performance? (And for that matter, the fact that so many decisions are funneled through him surely has negative consequences. The always-available executive subtly undermines the people around him by telegraphing that his team is incapable of running things on their own. A good question might be why Marchionne has to make all of these decisions at all times.)

Think about it: getting more with less — less energy, less time, less effort. If we can apply lean thinking (creating more value with fewer resources) at the macro-level to manufacturing and services, why can’t we apply it at the micro-level to individual output?

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