The Productivity Myth.

Tony Schwartz asks this question over at the HBR Conversation blog:

But is it [the productivity gains in the economy since the market meltdown] good news? Is more, bigger, faster for longer necessarily better?

Tony argues that the fear of layoffs is driving workers to sleep less, work more, take fewer vacations, and have less downtime during the day. He says that this amped up work pace "ultimately generates value that is narrow, shallow and short-term." Personally, I think he takes his argument a bridge too far when he blames the more, bigger, faster ethic for Toyota's problems and the sub-prime mortgage crisis (more sales, more profits, damn the torpedoes).

And yet, there's an element of truth in his argument. Mark Graban penned a wonderful piece today on the perils of 100% utilization, whether for a system, machines, or people. As he says,

The goal of 100% utilization leads to dysfunction and waiting time. Yes, we don’t want the doctor to be idle anymore than ZipCar wants its vehicles to be idle, but you need some “slack capacity” in any system for things to flow.

I've never expressed this idea as concisely as Mark, but I talk about this all the time when I consult to companies. I see people who are stressed and overworked, and they come to me for ideas on how to get more done during the day. To be sure, there's often a high level of waste and inefficiency in the way they work, and we have no problem coming up with ways to reduce that waste. But if all they're going to do is fill up their new "production capacity" (usually with more stupid email, pointless meetings, or non-value added work), then their efforts are ultimately self-defeating. By pushing themselves up to 100% utilization, they're guaranteeing that the system will break: they'll get sick, they'll make mistakes, they won't be a good bosses or husbands or dog owners.

Bottom line: you need some slack time to relax, recharge, and you know, actually think and reflect for a bit. Your performance will improve (as will your health).

Schwartz say that

Getting more tasks accomplished — say, writing and responding to scores of emails in between other activities — may technically represent higher productivity, but it doesn't necessarily mean adding greater value.

I couldn't agree more.