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July 30, 2014 Volume 14, Issue 31
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Unnecessary Boring Work: Part II


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

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 might not 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 itself
measures, 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  Go to top Top  Next issue: Impasses in Group Decision-Making: Part III  Next Issue
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