Are you making your work easier?

Over at The Lean Edge, Orry Fiume wrote something that really got me thinking: Productivity gains do not automatically reduce costs, they just free up capacity. The actions that management had to take to actualize productivity gains include. . . reducing overtime.

Okay, this is obvious stuff, I suppose. But let's transfer this idea from the production line to the managerial class, and all of a sudden you've got a problem: most, if not all, managers and supervisors are exempt employees, which means there's no overtime pay. If they don't get their work done on time, they come in earlier, stay later, or work on weekends, and the company bears no financial burden. The wife might not see her husband at dinner, the father may not make it to his son's baseball game, but the company? No cost, no loss.

So what's the driving motivation, and what's the metric for lean work applied to managers? There's no cost-reduction incentive, the work is difficult (or impossible) to standardize, and, well, let's face it: we're just used to applying lean thinking to repetitive tasks like those found on an assembly line or a repetitive business process.

Orry goes on to say that

Employees also tend to interpret the statement “improve productivity” as “work harder”. The reality is that you can’t have annual double-digit productivity gains without making the work easier to do. So here's the question for you: has your work gotten easier to do? What have you done anything to make it easier? When I think about the eight years I spent in product design and marketing in the footwear and outdoor goods industries, I can safely answer that in two words: very little. In general, I worked the same way as my predecessor, and my successor worked the same way as I did. That meant far too many last minute (read: expensive) flights to customers for feedback, a lot of late nights finalizing product specs, and a god-awful number of pointless, stupid meetings that chewed up time without adding any value to anyone. (I'd mention email, but this was in the days before we used email too much. We did run up quite a bill sending overnight FedEx packages to Taiwan, however.)

My point is simply this: you should be thinking about how to make your work -- no matter how variable, unpredictable, irregular, and creative it is -- easier. If you're not, you're probably not realizing the productivity gains that you could.

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