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July 23, 2014 Volume 14, Issue 30
 
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Unnecessary Boring Work: Part I

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Work can be boring. Some of us must endure the occasional boring task, but for many, everything about work is boring. It doesn't have to be this way.
Industrial robots assembling automobiles

KUKA industrial robots assembling automobiles. Industrial robots have taken over much of the boring and dangerous work in factories. They have done so, in part, because the human labor they replaced was visible in the manufacturers' accounting systems, which made the decision to automate much easier. Desk work is different. Automating desk work also results in savings, but because the automation doesn't replace everything the human does, the accounting system is unable to easily display the savings. Photo (cc) Mixabest, courtesy Wikimedia.

If you know anyone younger than 20 years old, you know first-hand how engrossing digital devices are. And if you work at a desk, among others who work at desks, you probably know how bored some of them are. They work at computers (when they aren't in meetings), doing whatever, and they're bored. The under-20s are so involved in the virtual world that they lose track of time; the desk workers are so bored that they watch that digital clock in the corner of the screen, just waiting for the thrill that comes when one of the clock's digits changes.

How can this be? The under-20s are doing something that's fun. The desk workers aren't. But why is what we do at work boring? Here are some reasons why there's so much boring work.

Insufficient automation
Although much of the boring work can be automated, deciding to invest in automation is very difficult for most organizations.
Someone would have to write, test, document, and maintain the tools that carry out the automation. And (probably) the users would have to be trained. The company would have to invest first, before it could reap rewards later in the form of higher productivity. Although the investment would be visible in the chart of accounts, the return on investment is enhanced productivity, which doesn't appear in the chart of accounts in any clearly recognizable form. But worse, the return on investment would not necessarily appear in the accounts controlled by the part of the organization that would be making the investment. This makes the politics of internal investment even more problematic.
The result is that what computers could easily do automatically must instead by done by people.
Unnecessary tasks
Eliminating unnecessary tasks is difficult because the mechanisms that create them can be complex. For example, consider policies that limit the total volume of a user's Although much of the boring work
can be automated, deciding to
invest in automation is very
difficult for most organizations
mailboxes. These policies are usually intended to save money on storage equipment. Users who approach these limits must trim the volume of their stored mail. That's work, much of it boring, necessary only because of the mailbox size policy.
Limiting mailbox size seems cheap (or even free) because the cost of compliance isn't accounted for directly. But when viewed from a more global perspective, acquiring the equipment necessary to store more mail, while sponsoring the training necessary to show employees how to reduce the bulk of their mail, is actually cheaper. Both of these tactics appear to be more expensive than mailbox size limits, because we don't account for the cost of complying with policies governing mailbox size limits.
Imposing a ceiling on stored mail volume eliminates the need to buy more storage equipment, but it does so by creating mounds of boring work, which is not accounted for. Most organizations have many tasks like this. They seem to be sensible, but they aren't.

We'll continue next time with more sources of boring work. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Unnecessary Boring Work: Part II  Next Issue
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To be "down in the weeds," in one of its senses, is to be lost in discussion at a level of detail inappropriate to the current situation. Here's Part II of our exploration of methods for dealing with this frustrating pattern so common in group discussions. Available here and by RSS on July 29.
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