Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom DeMarco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The book looks at how making businesses more efficient is impacting businesses.
Where as before a secretary might only be utilised 40% of time time now they are put into pools so that this utilisation can be 100%. The impact of this is that where as a secretary might have previously been very responsive to any needs now there is a buffer of work going which the pool of secretaries will work through. The result of this is that the responsiveness to completing the work is reduced. For those people who are not 100% utilised people reduce their speed so that they fully use their time.
This pooling only works if the resources are fungible between different tasks. The challenge is that context switching between tasks can be up to 20% = mechanics of moving to a new task + reworking because of having to stop and move on to other tasks previously + immersion time + frustration + loss of team binding effect.
Direct communication is key, there should not be a restriction in requiring communication to go via their manager.
Focusing on bussiness not busyness. The benefits of slack include:
- Flexibility for the organisation to reform
- People retention
- Capacity to invest
The cost of staff turn over = Time to get up to speed X (Salary + Overhead) X 0.5 X Number of employees X % Staff turn over
You can optimise for time or cost, not both – you can try to balance the two but if you want things done at the minimum time for the minimum cost this just results in stress.
Ways managers apply pressure:
- Aggressive scheduling
- Loading on extra work
- Getting angry at disappointment
- Praising peoples extraordinary efforts
- Being severe on below average performance
- Expecting great things from all workers
- Railing against apparent waste of time
- Setting an example – when a boss labours so much it does not give slack to others
- Creating incentives to encourage desirable behaviour or results
Lister’s Law – “People under time pressure don’t think faster”
All people can do are:
- Eliminate wasted time
- Defer tasks that are not on the critical path
- Stay late – introducing exhaustion and reducing creativity
Increasing pressure is in three phases.
- Workers respond to increased pressure by trimming any remaining waste by concentrating on the critical path.
- Workers feel tires, pressure from home, and starting to take back some time during the regular day
- Workers are exhausted and are looking to move elsewhere
Aggressive scheduling can cause waste – by having people with particular skills arrive earlier than they can actually start the work. Additionally blame is put on the lowest employees and there is no accountability for the scheduling.
Sprinting can be an effective way to get to the finish line but this should be used sparingly. In contradiction continued overtime has negative consequences:
- Reduced quality
- Personal burnout
- Increased turnover of staff
- Ineffective use of time during the normal working hours
With an extra time, generally, extra work is done however the productivity of each hour is reduced. Regularly accounting uses the contracted hours not worked hours to calculate productivity.
Face saving is not labour saving – such as getting a manager to do clerical tasks (e.g. photocopying, document formatting etc) which could be done by a more junior individual. This would then free the manager up. The challenge is that such a gofer is seen as overhead so is always under pressure to be removed.
Over worked managers are doing things they shouldn’t be doing. It is quite common that these people are actually doing multiple roles – the management role as well as the role of someone in the team. The result is poorly completed lower level tasks and no management at all. The reason people do this is that if people have to look busy then doing doing a subordinate job as well provides job security and management is difficult where as the subordinate role is easier and instantly rewarding.
The culture of fear results in
- People stop saying things which needs to be heard
- Goals are set so aggressively they can’t be achieved
- Power trumps common sense
- Anyone can be abused for failure
- The people who are fired are generally more competent than the people who aren’t
- The people who survive are particularly aggressive
Over-stressed organisations are always understaffed. In fearful cultures people are challenged to deliver more for less and people don’t like to hear things they don’t like to hear.
When third parties are involved fearful companies will prefer to litigate rather than admit internally that they made a mistake. There is never a good outcome for either company from litigation but from an employee perspective in a company of fear blaming another company means that they save face for the manager inside the company.
Process standardisation removed empowerment and people don’t feel ownership for the results.
Quality (both defect free and features) takes time, you can’t have both quality and quantity with the same quantity of people. “Quality” programs can often result in quality reduction, e.g. pushing things to the customer.
Directing an organisation is hard. Seeming to direct and organisation is easy. All you have to do is see the drift and tell people to go that way.
Managing by objectives gives you exactly what you task people to do – however in reality it is rarely what you actually want. As such these objectives regularly turn out to be counter productive. This promotes the idea of the company generally being in stasis and not prepared to take on new challenges which might result in huge growth.
Trust is a difficult thing to earn but it is important for managers to give more trust rather than less, generally in advance of it being earned. There is a risk that as a result the person could fail however without giving sufficient trust there would be no way for the person to learn and grow.
If you have to make a change it is much better to make a change while a company is growing, rather than when it is in decline. In the latter people will already be nervous and scared. When a company is growing people are happier to make a change if these see how this ties in with the company vision, which must be authentic.
The key role of middle management is innovation. If these managers don’t have sufficient slack they will not be able to spend the time innovating and the company will suffer. To achieve this these managers need to work together. “Healthy competition” is never healthy, when people are competing people are not collaborating and are in-fact working against each other.
When people are learning new things you can not expect people to work at the same rate as they were before. There is a natural slow down as people learn new skills and it would be foolish for companies to not take this into consideration when scheduling.
It is usual for people to only consider the earliest date and promise this to the business or clients. The delivery date will always be within a range of time – of which people should be fully clear on the range of possible dates or costs. There can be ways to reduce the potential risk for delay – the work to do this needs to be estimated at the start this way an informed decision can be made to do the risk reduction work as part of the project or not, this work will have an impact on the earliest delivery date but will reduce the latest delivery date.
Is risk management being effective in the organisation if you pass the 9 question test:
- Is there a published list of risks?
- Is there a mechanism to elicit the discovery of new risks?
- Are any of the risks fatal?
- Is each risk quantified by probability, cost and schedule impact?
- Does each risk have a transition indicator to spot if it materialises?
- Is there a single person responsible for risk management?
- Are there tasks on the work breakdown which might not need to be done if the risk does not materialise?
- Is there both a schedule and a goal?
- Is there significant probability of completing before the estimated date?