Most of us have learned that cross-shared, maximally loaded production resources are less efficient than dedicated resources running at 80% capacity, or so. Move the same standard into the office for even more output.
Operating at 100% capacity is a myth. It doesn’t happen. Even machines can’t do it; they must have time to re-tune tools, perform machine maintenance, or simply adjust calibrations. People are no different.
Many of us, particularly those who have adopted and incorporated Lean principles successfully, have learned that when we plan for our production resources, machines and people, to operate around 80% capacity, reserving near 100% capacity for bottlenecks only, we get better performance out of the entire production system.
We ensure that the bottlenecks are not stretched across many product lines, causing delays in all of them at once. We try to the best of our ability to dedicate those bottlenecks to a single value stream. We accept that other machines and processes will experience some level of lesser output than our bottlenecks. It’s OK because we use that slow time or “waiting” time to perform our 5S efforts or to plan.
So why, then, is it so common to find organizations striving to do what I described in the production functions, but so resistant to doing the same in the office functions? In fact, in my experience, in every case, I have seen that load leveling (Lean philosophy driven or otherwise) is a big effort in production systems, but in the office, the behavior is just the opposite.
In the office we tend to assign our personnel multiple tasks and projects at the same time to a degree where our personnel are loaded to 100% or 120% in our resource allocation systems. Often, we do it deliberately! In fact, every one of the software-driven resource management systems I’ve witnessed has been configured to indicate resource load levels between 90% and 110% or even 120% a green color for optimal.
Why? Many, many reasons are offered. Most of them boil down to a belief that overloaded office personnel are more efficient, that pressure is good, and that multitasking is the only way to get the most from our resources. It’s a strange paradox or oxymoron that we believe one thing on the production floor and something else in the office.
As much as the work we do in an office is much less consistent and unpredictable in terms of demand or timing, as opposed to the relative predictability and pace-ability of production processes, the overload of resources still drives inefficiency. I’ve proven it to myself and to a few others bold enough to experiment. I challenge the reader to find the proof too.
By way of making the case, I offer the following arguments and observations. First, let’s just test the logic. Do we really believe that if we have a team of people working on a project that they will get it done faster if their individual time allocations are split between the one project and other projects? Does that make any sense to any logical person?
It seems logically obvious that a team dedicated to a single task will get that task done quicker, and probably better, than a team that is split in multiple directions. Yet, we deliberately don’t do this. The reason is that we hate to wait.
We know that not everyone on the team can be working at capacity all the time and that inevitably someone will wait for someone else before they can continue to contribute. Additionally, we know that certain members of the team will be consistently highly engaged (bottlenecks) while others will be only occasionally or sporadically necessary.
Given the professional angst that accompanies underutilization, we avoid it, or we fill down time. Understanding this is good. However, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to address it.
Before I offer my proposal, let me add a little more evidence for you to accept it. I’ll describe a specific occasion by way of example.
I volunteered to take over the leadership of a corporate-level project that was failing. The project was supposed to be completed in 1-year (typical corporate timeline). Seven months into the project, when I took over, almost no progress had been made.
I asked my leadership to allow me to be dedicated to the project. That meant that the project would be my one and only priority. The other tasks and projects I had on my plate I delegated or reduced in priority such that I could address them if and when I found myself waiting and would drop them the moment the wait ended. Any expectation of progress on those efforts, according to some timeline, had to be dismissed.
Because of the importance of the corporate project, my leadership agreed and dropped expectations for other efforts until the corporate project was finished. The rest of the team and I completed the project, essentially from start-to-finish, between September and December; in 3 months.
I had other team members increase their allocation of time to the project as well. And, as much as resource loading wasn’t the only issue with the project’s progress, I believe it was the primary contributor. The previous leader invested very little time to the effort for various reasons.
In this example’s case, the bottleneck was the coordinator or project manager, the role I assumed. By dedicating that resource, the whole project moved at a highly accelerated pace than when that resource was shared and other resources were shared more widely.
Since that experience, I have played the dedicated-resource card with personnel that reported to me many times and achieved the same results. Dedicated resources get the job done faster than shared or multi-tasked resources. My evidence was enough for a few others to experiment as well. They too achieved the same results.
With the simple logic and my example as evidence, I offer the following proposal and challenge. Identify the primary resources in your office teams and dedicate them to a single, important effort. Give them other ways to invest their time on the occasions that they are waiting, but do not put time-lines or deadlines to these efforts. Make the subordinate efforts meaningful, but not time-bounded.
Other personnel on a team will be secondary players, meaning that their time demands by the project are intermittent, occasional, or sporadic. For these resources, assign one project as the priority. They should have the lead role of their function for that priority project.
For other efforts requiring their time and expertise, make them play a supporting role only to another functional person with the lead responsibility (when possible). Fill in the rest of their time with non-time-bounded, but meaningful, efforts that can be picked up or dropped on a whim.
Here is an example that I know works. The engineers on a product development project are generally the primary resources for the effort. They are in the middle of most, if not all, tasks required to complete the project. Dedicate the engineers to the project, with no other assignments. That means none other! Do the same for project managers. One project manager gets one project.
For personnel such as sourcing representatives or quality representatives, assign one representative of each to the project. The project is their primary responsibility. Their “idle” time on the project may be spent helping or mentoring others with lead roles on other projects, but they may not work on other projects when their primary project needs them.
For engineers and supporting personnel alike, “waiting” time can be spent helping other team members accelerate their work, improving the process so that they don’t wait so much, so often, or so long, or exploring new ideas or innovations for future projects. These are all things that we all wish we had time to do, but never seem to get done. They are also important. So, get them done in this way.
We all hate to wait. In fact, we hate it so much that planning against it has become a habit. Thus, we plan multiple assignments for our resources and load them above 100% capacity to prevent anyone from having any excuse to wait.
Unfortunately, overloaded resources cause waiting; they don’t cure it. When we have more than one thing to do at the same time, something waits. Therefore, someone waits, and while they wait, they work on something else and might not switch back on demand, so more waiting occurs. Overload is the cause of waiting in both production and the office!
Use the waiting to accelerate output. Remember, we all hate to wait. If we are waiting, we will find something else to do with our time. If we have a menu of meaningful things to do while we wait, we will gladly do them. We will either make every effort to reduce or eliminate the wait, or we will use it constructively. Either way, management and the business win.
The best part about the above proposal is that it makes resource planning very simple, which makes life very simple for management. That means that our managers are also more available to do more other meaningful things like mentoring, coaching, and planning (all those things we never seem to find enough time for).
I “double-dirty-dog” dare you to try my proposal. Everyone who has answered the challenge so far has discovered substantial improvement in team and project performance, and also morale.
Take a step back and think about it and you will probably see the possibility without the experiment. An engineer that has two projects cannot do them faster that one project. Overloaded resources create waiting; they don’t prevent it. Waiting is an incentive to work more efficiently, not a problem to be avoided. See for yourself.
Stay wise, friends.