Multitasking is NOT Part of Standard Work

By Dan Markovitz

The New York Times ran an article this weekend exposing the myth of multitasking. Despite the common belief that we have to multi-task to get our work done, and despite the presence of technology that encourages us to do more than one thing at a time, the reality is that we’re undermining our own ability to do a good job when we try to do two things at once. (click photo for larger view)

René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University, says

A core limitation [of the human brain] is an inability to concentrate on two things at once.

The brain’s limitations are important when you consider the implementation of lean in your office. Office workers are essentially monument machines: multiple value streams flow through them, and as a result, they have to continually switch from task to task. When you multitask (and you’re not really multitasking, of course; you’re actually doing serial processing, with rapid switching between tasks), you’re reducing your efficiency and quality.

The article quotes David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, who explains that

Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes. Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.

So, how does this tie into lean and the concept of standard work? Consider: the goal in creating standard work on a factory line is to improve quality by reducing variation. Standard work in an office environment has the same goal. And standard work for both operators on a production line and operators in an office requires doing one (and only one) thing at a time.

Therefore, multitasking is antithetical to the concept of standard work. Whether it’s building a spreadsheet, doing a performance review, writing an email, or answering a colleague’s question, people need to focus on one task to do it efficiently. That’s the rule in the factory. Ignore the siren call of multitasking, and make that the rule in the office, too.

(Read more of my comments on multitasking here and here.)

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Dan Markovitz

Dan Markovitz is president of Markovitz Consulting, a firm that radically improves operational speed and efficiency by applying lean concepts to knowledge work. He is a faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute and teaches at the Stanford University Continuing Studies Program. He also lectures on A3 thinking at the Ohio State University’s Fisher School of Business. Dan is a frequent speaker and presenter at conferences, and has consulted to organizations as diverse as Camelbak, Clif Bar, Abbott Vascular, WL Gore & Associates, Intel, the City of Menlo Park, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. His book, A Factory of One, was honored with a Shingo Research Award in 2013. Dan has also published articles in the Harvard Business Review blog, Quality Progress, Industry Week magazine, Reliable Plant magazine, and Management Services Journal, among other magazines. All of these articles are available for download on the Resources page. Earlier in his career, he held management positions in product marketing at Sierra Designs, Adidas, CNET and Asics Tiger, where he worked in sales, product marketing, and product development. He also has experience as an entrepreneur, having founded his own skateboarding footwear company. Dan lived in Japan for four years and is fluent in Japanese. He holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

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5 Comments on "Multitasking is NOT Part of Standard Work"

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  1. Mark Graban says:

    Great stuff Dan. This applies outside the office, also. We don’t want manufacturing production cell workers to be interrupted with other tasks, such as material handling. In hospital labs, people say they are “multi-tasking” when they’re really just being interrupted constantly, which hampers the flow of patient specimens and test results.

    Using lean and standard work principles can go a long way toward fixing that. We define roles and responsibilities so people doing the core value-added testing can work without interruptions, then we define the standard work for each of those different roles.

  2. Mark Edmondson, Lean Affiliates says:

    On target Dan – thanks for the eloquent post on multi-tasking.

    We sometimes look at a client’s personal workflow – the flow of work in and out of individual knowledge workers. And we try to deliver the same lesson: multi-tasking leads to less throughput, more stress, and more WIP (taller inboxes), and longer lead times.

    It’s also a serious safety issue in our personal lives, as evidenced by drivers using phones, text messaging, and reading while driving. (An aside: The WSJ reported today that New Delhi forbade drivers from smoking for this reason.)

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think about the only “two things” at once example I can think of is a person monitoring multiple automatic walk-away machines. But, then again, they are still doing “one” task…. monitoring. But what if there’s a siren/bell/buzzer when there is a problem, the person could be doing two things at once? Or does that still have risk for distraction?

  4. David says:

    Some jobs require multitasking. A pilot, for example, may be in the middle of adjusting the power settings when ATC calls and directs him to switch to a new frequency. The controller himself will have a great deal of multitasking to deal with.

    But there is unquestionably wasted effort when switching tasks, and in general, jobs should be designed to reduce it–certainly not to maximize it!

  5. Dan Markovitz says:

    Anonymous, David:

    You’re right that some jobs require multitasking. That’s the nature of the beast, whether you’re a pilot, an operator monitoring two machines, or a home cook, boiling water for pasta while sauteeing mushrooms for the sauce.

    Unfortunately, life doesn’t always allow us to do one task at a time to completion. But just as we can’t completely eliminate waste from a manufacturing process and instead have to settle for waste reduction, if we can just eliminate the self-inflicted multitasking scenarios, we’ll be much better off — more efficient, more productive, and less stressed.

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