Unnecessary Boring Work: Part II
by Rick Brenner
Workplace boredom can result from poor choices by the person who's bored. More often boredom comes from the design of the job itself. Here's Part II of our little catalog of causes of workplace boredom.
A stretch of the Amazon rain forest showing storm damage. In a study of the forest conducted by NASA and Tulane University, it was found that violent storms from January 16 to 18, 2005, killed approximately half a billion trees. The study is significant not only for its findings, but also because it was the first instance in which researchers calculated how many trees a single thunderstorm can kill, according to Jeffrey Chambers, who is a forest ecologist at Tulane and one of the authors of the paper. In the photo, you can see trunks of trees made visible by the loss of their neighbors. Prior to the study, it was believed that the losses were due to drought. But by combining ground observations, modeling, and LandSat imagery, the researchers were able to calculate tree losses.
An accurate assessment of what happened in the Amazon in 2005 was possible only by combining information about the forest obtained at different scales — both ground and satellite observations were required. In organizational process design, too often we use data from only one scale — either local or global. The result is a process architecture that makes sense at one scale — that at which it was designed — but not at the other scale. Sensible process design requires careful analysis at both local and global scales.
Photo by Jeffrey Chambers, courtesy NASA.
Workplace boredom is to some extent the responsibility of the bored, who sometimes make choices that lead to boredom. For example, by exploiting capabilities already provided in the software we use most, we can eliminate much of the boring work we do. To do so, we must learn to make better use of the tools we have. Some of us are averse to learning, and many feel too pressed for time to learn.
Most employers can help more than they do. The net cost of training is zero or negative for many employers, because productivity increases offset the costs. But employers who use contractors, or who accept high turnover rates resulting from abominable working conditions, get little benefit from training, and therefore find the investment unjustifiable. It's a vicious cycle.
But the most fertile source of workplace boredom is the design of the work itself. Here are three examples.
- Wasteful workflows
- I've actually encountered cases in which people print documents "for the record," file one copy, and attach another to a package to be passed to the next stage of processing in another department, where it's scanned "for the record." We like to believe that such cases are rare, but they do exist. Even when all stages are electronic, the steps don't make sense from a whole-organization perspective. When organizational processes have wasteful steps, the real problem isn't the process or the boring work it creates. Rather, it's a failure of organizational leaders to see the organization as a whole.
- Cost management
- In some organizations, people of proven capability are paid very well on an annual basis. But on an hourly basis, not so much. Often they work 60- or 70-hour weeks. Possibly this happens because cost management measures make hiring enough knowledgeable people difficult. The result is that people who do have knowledge don't have time to transfer what they know to the less knowledgeable. And the less knowledgeable don't have time to learn, because they're loaded down with the more routine, boring work, which might be automated if time permitted. Thus, cost management prevents the knowledge transfer needed to reduce the amount of boring work and increase productivity.
- The illusion of cost control
- Cost control The most fertile source of
workplace boredom is the
design of the work itselfmeasures, such as layers of approvals and positional expenditure limits, are often too stringent. Whether they're actually effective is an open question, for two reasons. First, they create (boring) and costly work both for the people who must seek approvals and for the people whose approvals they seek. Second, they reduce the velocity of work, because the approvers are often busy people who cannot respond to requests in a timely fashion. Reduced velocity leads to delays, which become lost sales, delayed revenue, increased customer frustration, and reduced market share.
Well, enough of this. I don't want to bore anybody. First in this series Top Next Issue
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness
- Become a Tugboat Captain
- If your job responsibilities sometimes require that you tell powerful people that they must do something differently, you could find yourself in danger from time to time. You can learn a lot from tugboat captains.
- FedEx, Flocks, and Frames of Reference
- Your point of view — or reference frame — affects what you see, and how you experience the world around you. By choosing a reference frame consciously, you can see things differently, and open a universe of new choices.
- The True Costs of Indirectness
- Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict. It can be an expensive practice.
- Coping and Hard Lessons
- Ever have the feeling of "Uh-oh, I've made this mistake before"? Some of these oft-repeated mistakes happen not because of obstinacy, or stupidity, or foolishness, but because the learning required to avoid them is just plain difficult. Here are some examples of hard lessons.
- Finding Work in Tough Times: Communications
- Finding work in tough times entails presenting yourself to many people. You'll be conversing, interviewing, writing, presenting, and when you're finally successful, negotiating.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Project Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 28: The Limits of Status Reports: Part II
- We are not completely free to specify the content or frequency of status reports from the people who write them. There are limits on both. Here's Part II of an exploration of those limits. Available here and by RSS on January 28
- And on February 4: Bottlenecks: Part I
- Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs? Available here and by RSS on February 4
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- Human-Centered Risk Management
- Most of us can assess technological risks, but risks related to human behavior tend to resist our best efforts. This session provides a framework for evaluating risks related to the behavior of individuals, teams, organizations and people generally. Human-centered risk differs from technological or market risk, because objective evaluation requires acknowledging personal and organizational limitations and failures. Since some of those limitations and failures might apply to the people assessing the risks, or to their superiors, there's a tendency to deny them or to explain them away. Our approach examines capability, organization, context, risk mitigation, and workplace politics. It has tools for guiding the assessment and management of human-centered risk, and we show how to extend these tools to suit your situation. You'll learn how to identify sources of risk in human behavior; recognize systemic and individual barriers to acknowledging risk; assess the effects of organizational turbulence; determine the risk associated with inappropriate internal risk transfer; estimate the effects of team dysfunction, toxic conflict and turnover; and measure the impact of workplace politics. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Decision-Making for Team Leaders
- Effective group decision-making requires far more than knowing how to organize a discussion or take a vote. This program is designed for both new and experienced team leaders or team sponsors, managers, project managers, portfolio managers, program managers, and executives and general managers. It is especially valuable to people who work in organizations that confront fluid environments, in which decisions must be made in the context of uncertainty. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
- Mastery of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: