(Mark’s note: I saw this article and instantly thought of Dan, re: Lean in an office environment. The dynamics in this article reminded me of the typical dynamics in a non-Lean factory, where lots of expediting takes place, orders are given false due dates, and we even sometimes expedite some of the orders on the expedite list. Hospitals are similar, where many lab orders are “STAT” and octors routinely abuse the “STAT” guidelines because their orders/patients are obviously most important. Seems like basic human dynamics and human nature… and we think Lean can have a positive impact in breaking that cycle of expediting).
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Jared Sandberg writes about the prevalence of false deadlines in the workplace. He cites egregious examples of deadlines that create havoc in workflow for absolutely no reason — among them, a molecular biologist who was given a do-or-die deadline for a Thursday, only to find that her boss had taken off both Friday and the following Monday. As Sandberg eloquently puts it,
The most nettlesome of false deadlines are those imposed by a manager whose next breath appears to depend on the deadline being met but who, once it has been, behaves as though the work was less important than the office’s NCAA betting pool.
This sort of behavior is not just irksome or irritating — though it certainly is that. More importantly, these false deadlines are anathema to lean. They create turbulence in the value stream, undermine efforts at heijunka (leveling the flow of work), and most importantly, lead to the 3M’s — mura, muri and muda.
Workflow on a physical production line is well-planned out of necessity, because the cycle time is fixed. (In the short term, anyway. The factory can certainly make manufacturing improvements in the long term, but not when responding to a sudden and unexpected request. In the short term, the factory can only add or extend shifts in response to a sudden increase in demand.)
Workflow for tasks and projects in the office environment are a bit fuzzier, because the cycle times are unclear. How long does it really take to compile a budget spreadsheet? A marketing plan? A speech for the CEO? But whether workers are building spacecraft assemblies or budget spreadsheets, they must know their production schedule in order to level the flow of their work. And that means knowing what they’re going to produce and what the deadline is. It’s the manager’s job to provide this information. Accurately.
False deadlines make it unnecessarily difficult to plan work, even with the more uncertain production time for knowledge workers. Just like factory workers, knowledge workers must scramble to meet tight deadlines, staying at the office late or working on weekends (leading to mura and muri). And since these false deadlines are always shorter than they need to be, they often result in lower-quality work and unnecessary expenses (muda).
To be fair, multiple value streams flow through knowledge workers and managers, making it difficult for them to move value forward smoothly. In addition to their primary jobs, they sit on committees, get roped into meetings, manage special projects, and must always be available to handle the inevitable crisis. Moreover, as Sandberg points out,
this era of high-velocity communications doesn’t grant the breathing space that the sluggish postal service once did, and interruptions can easily obliterate daily agendas.
But with an increasing amount of work to do and a finite amount of time in which to do it, better planning and accurate deadlines are not a luxury; they’re a necessity. A production line can’t run smoothly without a clear production and delivery schedule, and neither can a business process.
Hidden within the catchy term “3M’s” is an awful lot of human stress — late nights, lack of sleep, strained family relations. Managers need to recognize the burden that false deadlines place on their staff.
Either that, or they can play Captain Kirk to their employee’s Scotty on Star Trek. Scotty regularly padded his repair time (fourfold!) so that he could be seen as a miracle worker when he finished the job ahead of schedule.
And that may be a decent way to run a starship. But not your company.
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