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
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- One of the "truisms" floating around is that "You get what you measure." Belief in this assertion has led many to a metrics-based style of management, but the results have been uneven at best. Why?
- On Virtual Relationships
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- Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part II
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- How to Reject Expert Opinion: Part I
- When groups of decision-makers confront complex problems, they sometimes choose not to consult experts or to reject their advice. How do groups come to make these choices?
- Solutions as Found Art
- Examining the most innovative solutions we've developed for difficult problems, we often find that they aren't purely new. Many contain pieces of familiar ideas and techniques combined together in new ways. Accepting this as a starting point can change our approach to problem solving.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Project Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 4: Virtual Trips to Abilene
- One dysfunction of face-to-face meetings is the Trip to Abilene, which leads groups to make decisions no members actually support. It can afflict virtual meetings, too, even more easily. Available here and by RSS on March 4.
- And on March 11: Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates. Available here and by RSS on March 11.
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