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)
RenÃ© 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.
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