Sowing the seeds of our own demise

Leslie Perlow, author of the seminal study on "time famine," is at it again, this time with a new book called Sleeping with your Smartphone. The book is based on experiments that she did with the Boston Consulting Group (and which I described in an earlier blog post) to reduce the need -- or the perceived need -- to be "always on." In a new HBR blog post, Perlow points out that

accepting the pressure to be "on" — usually stemming from some seemingly legitimate reason, such as requests from clients or customers or teammates in different time zones — in turn makes us accommodate the pressure even more. We begin adjusting to such demands, adapting the technology we use, altering our daily schedules, the way we work, even the way we live our lives and interact with our family and friends, to be better able to meet the increased demands on our time. Once our colleagues experience our increased responsiveness, their requests on our time expand. Already "on," we accept these increased demands, while those who don't risk being evaluated as "less committed" to their work.

She calls this the "cycle of responsiveness (although I'd probably call it the "vicious cycle of responsiveness"), in which our willingness to respond to increased requests simply leads to increased demands. Like ocean waves gradually wearing away a sand castle, these demands end up eroding any vestige of time that we can unambiguously arrogate for ourselves.

From a lean perspective, there are two major problems with this cycle of responsiveness. First, there's the waste of overproduction. I've argued before that if the only thing you're providing your customers is a fast response, you'll soon be replaced by someone cheaper in Shenzen or Mumbai. Your job is to provide real value -- value which most of the time doesn't need to be delivered within 12 minutes of receipt of the email. In other words, being "on" all the time isn't necessarily what your customer needs. Yes, your customer may appreciate it, but that doesn't mean that they need it. And that, from a lean perspective, is overproduction.

Second, the cycle of responsiveness prevents (or at least impairs) the ability to do kaizen and reflection. If you're always "on" and responding to customers, you never have the time to stop, to reflect, to figure out how to improve your processes and systems. You end up racing faster and faster in a desperate attempt to stay in the same place on the treadmill, like George Jetson.

Perlow provides valuable suggestions for how to break the cycle. Check them out here.