January 2003 Cutter Benchmark Review -- Burnout, Organizational Slack, and IT Capability

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January 2003
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At the US automaker where I once worked, assembly plant shifts were scheduled back to back. If one shift finished at 3:00 pm, another was hard at work by 3:30. The plants' managers pushed hard to meet production quotas while minimizing input costs by keeping the line going pretty much all the time. The underlying productivity arithmetic is basic to any manager's: maximize output (cars), minimize inputs (labor, electricity to run the machines, etc.).

Interestingly, the world's reigning champ of manufacturing, Toyota, doesn't follow this logic. At Toyota plants, shifts are often scheduled two hours apart. Employees remain after production has ceased, to communicate, figure things out, and solve problems. Built-in "slack" is a fundamental part of the Toyota Production System (TPS), which calls for solving problems as close as possible in time and space to when and where they arise. TPS abhors deferring the fix, living with it so you can keep the line moving and avoid disrupting your productivity equation. Toyota experiences short-term inefficiencies; they stop the line sometimes to fix a problem, then have to pay workers overtime to make up for the lost production. In the long term, though, they have many fewer problems in production, which translates into higher-quality products and greater efficiency than US companies can achieve.

This is just one more example of a somewhat obvious truth that we in American business, and to a greater extent in IT, seem to have forgotten: building organizational capabilities depends on giving people room -- slack if you will -- to do the job right. This month's CBR could scarcely sound this message any more clearly.

In our first piece, Cutter Business Technology Council Fellow Ed Yourdon uses statistics to paint a dismal picture of IT workers as stressed out, overworked, demoralized, and cynical from being forced to do bad work. In the second piece, Cutter Consortium Fellow Bob Charette adds more statistics and interprets them in light of Cutter Business Technology Council Fellow Tom DeMarco's important book Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busy Work, and the Myth of Total Efficiency (Broadway Books, 2001). DeMarco's ideas align with the general point that workers need slack to develop and sustain organizational capabilities. Finally, Cutter Consortium Senior Consultant Rob Thomsett offers actionable advice; the first line of his article frames the entire subject: "In more than 30 years of IT and business consulting, I have never encountered a more mean-spirited managerial environment than the one facing the survivors of the post-dot-com, post-Enron work world."

My own research has been suggestive on these points. In trying to understand differences between physical work and knowledge work, and how we should therefore manage them differently, I've focused on three characteristics of knowledge work that are less salient in physical work:

  1. Knowledge asymmetries. In modern knowledge, work managers often lack the specialized expertise to do what a worker is doing and therefore can't judge his or her performance very well.

  2. Reliably intrinsic motivation. IT and other knowledge workers choose their professions because they are interested in the work and want to do well at it, almost regardless of traditional incentive systems.

  3. Skill differentials make a big difference. Differences in acquired skills and rates of learning matter more in knowledge work than how hard people are working to produce output; working smart is more important than working hard.

Managing the short-term productivity equation does violence on all three of these dimensions. Thomsett lays this out nicely. It's insulting when senior managers provide negative feedback that reveals their ignorance of the work (knowledge asymmetries). More than anything else, IT workers want opportunities to do great work (intrinsic motivation). They want the time, equipment, and support necessary to improve their work, to learn (skill differentials). Imposing traditional frameworks that drive out slack are a mismatch with knowledge work. They force knowledge workers to do the work badly, and knowledge workers hate that. The resulting burnout and cynicism reduces the organization's long-term capabilities.

I once witnessed the oppressive logic of productivity maximization in compact action back in the assembly plants. While I was standing nearby, the door of a partially assembled car drifted open and caught against a beam holding up the plant's roof. The line jammed; door metal groaned, bending. An alarm sounded. Fortunately, four burly autoworkers knew exactly what they were expected to do. They rushed down the line to the distressed car, physically lifted it, and cleared the door past the beam, then shoved the car back onto the line, forcing the damaged door into place. They watched with satisfaction as the car moved back into the sea of cars moving toward meeting the daily quota. I wondered who would ultimately buy this car, what their ownership experiences would be, and how that would translate into long-term success for the company.

It's pretty silly when we do this in industrial settings. Must we transfer this flawed logic into the information age as well? You'll help decide. Enjoy this edition of CBR . I sincerely hope it makes a difference in your company.

Robert D. Austin
Cutter Benchmark Review
Fellow, Cutter Business Technology Council