Six Sigma and more:
If time is money, why is so much of it wasted?
One of the student teams in my ethics class recently reported on employee theft. They noted that U.S. companies lose more than $50 billion annually because of employee theft and dishonesty, according to J. Walsh (“Employee Theft,” International Foundation for Protection Officers, August, 2000, cited at http://www.ifpo.org/articlebank/employee_theft.html (19 April, 2009)). They also casually mentioned that stealing time was one of the major elements of this theft. That got my attention.
Their assertions about stealing time reminded me of W. Edwards Deming’s obligations of management to “Eliminate numerical quotas for the workforce and numerical goals for management” (Out of the Crisis, MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Study, Cambridge, MA, 1986). His admonition was so important to me because, as a young engineer at General Motors, I had to create an algorithm for deciding how much new production equipment to buy when we had to increase production.
As I researched my task, I found that there was a corporate policy about this decision process that required using work standards (numerical quotas) for each operation. That made sense until I tried using the corporate method and found out that it didn’t work. Upon further investigation, I found that the method didn’t work because the work standards were generally far afield from the actual production rates. This occurred because they were negotiated between the union and the management and, of course, neither side trusted the other. The other thing I learned was the great skill that the operators had at disguising the actual production process and rate from the industrial engineers assigned to set the standards. I guess I would call that system-designed time theft.
Their assertions also reminded me of a manufacturing plant I used to manage. I would need to talk to the company owner from time to time. Whenever I found him in his office, he was playing solitaire on his computer. Although we never discussed his behavior, I assumed that he thought that he should be on site and that he did not exactly know what he was supposed to do when he was there. The company lost most of its business not long after I left. I guess I would call this kind of not knowing what the job is a kind of time theft.
These two anecdotes lead me to explore what causes time theft. Although I’m sure sometimes time theft comes from unethical individuals, I want to take Dr. Deming at his word…that the vast number of times, a problem or an opportunity lies with the system instead of the individual. My students pointed out that sometimes employees steal time because they are so underpaid that they need time to look for other or additional employment. They also sometimes feel that they are being treated so unfairly that stealing time is their only way to get even. Although I agree with my students, I want to focus on a more subtle, but, I believe, pervasive cause. The cause was coined “discretionary effort” by Daniel Yankelovich and John Immerwahr in 1983 (Putting the Work Ethic to Work, Public Agenda Foundation, NY, NY: 1983).
Yankelovich and Immerwahr defined discretionary effort as the voluntary effort employees provide beyond what’s required. They noticed that employees in their study applied as little as 30% of their available effort to their jobs. The idea that employees can do what is required on the job in 30% of their time is not inconsistent with my own experience. Other researchers have taken the concept forward. In 1996, a follow-up study noted that only 39% of the organizations studied did a good job of encouraging voluntary effort (Linda Morris, “Employees not Encouraged to go the Extra Mile,” Training & Development, Alexandria, VA: April, 1996). In 2008, Blessing White changed the language somewhat and conducted a worldwide survey that showed only 29% of U.S. employees to be fully engaged. It looks as though, from any perspective, most of our employees are underemployed or stealing time.
Why is such a large proportion of employees’ time being underutilized? If we go back to my work standards story, I believe that some employees do just enough to get by because they fear that their management will, given the opportunity, create unbearable quotas. There is a lack of trust.
I believe that playing solitaire offers even more insight. When employees, like my boss, find themselves with time on their hands, they frequently find a way to look busy or find a place to hide. I remember, again at General Motors, being told to do that by my peers. It was part of the culture. Beyond the lack of trust discussed above, my students tell me they are afraid to tell their boss they are not busy for fear that their boss will assume that others are in that same situation and they can, therefore, be laid off with no loss in productivity. There is, of course, some truth to that, given the indiscriminant downsizing that occurs in some firms with little or no apparent loss in productivity. So what can we do to redirect that discretionary effort toward the good of our Six Sigma effort and the good of our organization?
Dean Black at graduate school used to say that the job of a manager is to make congruent the goals of the organization and goals of the employees. Although I think there may be a little more to it, I think that’s a good place to start. We could begin by getting clear about, not our current goals, but the larger mission and vision of the organization. While we’re at it, we must remember to make that mission and vision big enough to honor us all. That gives our employees a little room to maneuver. Then we can talk to our employees about how they think they might more fully contribute to that mission and vision. This may mean changing job descriptions and even jobs. We may need to provide training and other resources to help our employees make those new contributions. Then we can co-develop goals, measures, and consequences while remembering Dr. Deming’s warnings about traditional ways of setting goals and measures and defining consequences. The evidence is pretty clear: Give most people a chance to safely contribute and they will.
As always, I welcome your comments and questions. I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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