Workers aren't lazy...


. . . at least, not the ones I know. Although I can't really speak for the specific ants mentioned in today's Wall Street Journal, which reports that Japanese researchers have found that 20 to 30% of ants in a colony remain inactive while other ants work. The Journal extrapolates from this study to suggest (humorously, I suppose) that a reservoir of lazy workers may be key to an organization's long-term survival. 

Sounds to me that the ant world knows that slack is valuable in any system -- from highways, to coffee shops, to your accounting department. When utilization crosses a certain threshold, the time required to get essential business done increases exponentially. 

Most companies understand this concept as it applies to machines and manufacturing processes, but it's often ignored when considering the workload on people. In a misguided quest for increased "efficiency," we overload people with work, eliminating their slack time -- and thereby cross the utilization threshold beyond which response time plummets. On an individual level, that overload appears as calendars packed with meetings, projects, and tasks, guaranteeing that the inevitable glitch (a meeting that runs long, a software snag, an unexpected problem with a customer, etc.) will create a cascade of failures in our ability to meet deadlines and deliver on time.

More importantly, the absence of slack makes it nearly impossible to implement lean. Think about the principles that Jeff Liker wrote about in The Toyota Way. Principle #5 is "Build a culture of stopping to fix problems." Good luck doing that if there's no slack in the organization. Or Principle #14: "Become a learning organization through relentless reflection and continuous improvement." If you have no time for reflection, you can't possible become a learning organization. Even Principle #13 ("Go and see for yourself") requires time -- and slack -- to get out of the office or the conference room.Without slack, you just can't build a culture of continuous improvement. 

What's happening in your product development team, your finance group, your organization? Do you have enough extra workers -- or more to the point, do they have enough slack in their workdays -- to accommodate new demands, respond to emergencies, or reflect and innovate? Or are you running the team with so few people, or have overloaded them with so many initiatives that there's no slack in their schedules?

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