Multi-Tasking vs Waiting

What would you say if someone came to you with a proposed work plan for the day that looked something like this:

  1. Work on task A for two hours. Then stop and set it aside (incomplete).
  2. Pick up task B. Work on that for three hours. Then stop and set it aside (incomplete).
  3. Pick up the work on task A for one hour. Then stop and set it aside (incomplete).
  4. Now start task C. Work on that for one hour. Then stop and set it aside (incomplete).
  5. Finish work on task A.

How would you, as a manager, respond to someone who proposed that kind of work plan? Does it seem efficient to you?

Intuitively, at least to me, it would seem that constantly disrupting people’s work like that would be inefficient, would introduce chances for errors and omissions, and generally make it difficult to know what was going to be done, when.

Of course, nobody (I hope) deliberately plans the work day to look like this.

Yet it is commonly tolerated. By “tolerated” I mean “We know this happens, and we choose to do nothing about it.”

Here is what it sounds like in real life:

“Even if there are problems (shortages, etc), our people can just work on something else instead, so there isn’t any real productivity loss. What’s the big deal?”

Put another way, people are already multi-tasking, they have more than one thing to get done, so as long as they are working on something, production isn’t really stopped, is it?

But more important than all of the chaos that gets injected into the process when this happens, is the lost opportunity.

By tolerating work disruptions, simply because there is something else to do, you are also choosing to do nothing about the work disruptions. Perhaps you simply accept that it is part of people’s jobs to work around the failures in your systems and processes. However once that is anchored as the norm, you never even find out about these issues. Each one adds a little more drag on the system, and they accumulate.

Contrast that with the “chatter is signal” message that is at the heart of continuous improvement. With this thinking, each of these work disruptions provides a bit of valuable information that can be acted upon. Yes, you may very well decide to set the work aside and work on something else as a temporary countermeasure, but management takes on two responsibilities by doing that.

  1. You are responsible for resetting the normal pattern as soon as possible – and for monitoring the process closely until that happens. Put another way, you (management) are responsible for clearing the problem.
  2. You are responsible for managing the problem to solution – ensuring that the cause is found and eliminated. This does not mean that you solve the problem personally. Quite the opposite. Nobody learns when you do that, and though the system may improve, the people’s capabilities do not. No, you are responsible for coaching someone who might not be quite capable today through the process of finding the cause and countering it.

So you have a choice.

Tolerate the disruptions and expect people to work around them. Result: The friction in the system slowly by steadily increases until all of the little issues accumulate into a big one like “Late Orders.”

– or –

Treat the disruptions as valuable information telling you something you did not know when you set the system up. Some issue came up that was not countered. You found a weakness, now you can strengthen it the system and your team.

Either way, you decide.

5 Replies to “Multi-Tasking vs Waiting”

  1. Boy.!! This sure hits home with how things are done here where I work. I’m going to share this article and see how far I can take these ideas.

    Thank you.

  2. The simple underpinning of all Lean efforts to process improvement. Most children understand it and yet so many in management seem utterly baffled by it.

  3. Yes, I would like to agree with Colin’s write!
    There is a problem that we know it’s wrong, but we can’t help ourself doing it. What should we do? Maybe there has no definite answer, but at least we realise we should do something to solve this problem! Thank you for sharing!

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