Standard work and the folly of multitasking.


I've been harping on this for a long time, but since there's new information I figure that it's worth saying again: multitasking doesn't work. The latest blow to that myth is from researchers at Stanford University:

People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time, a group of Stanford researchers has found. "They're suckers for irrelevancy," said communication Professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers. "Everything distracts them."

Further tests showed that compared to light multitaskers, heavy multitaskers perform worse on memory tests because they're struggling to retain more information in their brains at any given time.  And in a beautiful display of irony, heavy multitaskers suck at switching between tasks:

"They couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing. The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can't keep things separate in their minds."

In fact, the heavy multitaskers were inferior in all ways:

Eyal Ophir, the study’s lead investigator and a researcher at Stanford’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab, said: “We kept looking for multitaskers’ advantages in this study. But we kept finding only disadvantages. We thought multitaskers were very much in control of information. It turns out, they were just getting it all confused.”

Now, imagine if in your efforts to eradicate waste at work you identify a work process that was clearly inefficient. Maybe it's the way an operator reaches for a part. Or perhaps it's the kind of form someone in accounting fills out for travel reimbursements. If you're worth your lean salt, you'd try to find a way to eliminate the waste in the process. You'd create standard work and establish benchmarks, and then you'd run experiments to find a better way to do the job.

And yet we never do this kind of analysis for the way that knowledge workers manage the flow of information they deal with. Multitasking is a way of life for these folks, as they check their Blackberries in the middle of meetings, reply to emails while working on new product development, and in general expect (and are expected) to drop everything whenever someone comes by with a question.

But this isn't the best way to operate, as evidenced by this Stanford study (and many others). So why do we tolerate gross inefficiency among these workers, at the same time that we take arms against a sea of inefficiency in all other arenas of the company? Some people argue that eradicating this waste won't "move the needle." They want to focus on the 38 days it takes to generate a quote, or the $3 million in scrap and rework -- that's where the money is, they say. But who has the time and the mental bandwidth to take on the 38 days and the $3 million in scrap if they're constantly undermining their own ability to process and analyze incoming information?

My challenge to you is this: seriously examine the way that your highly paid knowledge workers process the information that flows to them and benchmark performance. Create standardized work, and then try to improve it. See if you can find a better way.

My guess is that you can -- and without too much difficulty. All you need to do is let go of the fallacy that multitasking is an efficient way to work.

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