When managers don’t assign work

opportunity-8A lot of productivity is lost due to how work is assigned, or in this case, when it’s not assigned. What we often see is that the manager plays the role of a work collator, someone who creates a backlog of tasks that an employee can draw from. Work is “loaded” as opposed to “assigned.” This is perhaps particularly true in knowledge-based work environments. Work backlogs can be in the form of a sequence of work or some kind of project list. In these cases it’s actually the employee who then self-assigns the work and then the manager follows up on progress periodically. In some cases this can lead to the wrong work being done at the wrong time because the employee creates their own work sequence. “Loading” work isn’t nearly as effective as “assigning” work at least in terms of getting things done productively. The ability of a manager to assign work properly turns out to be a very important lever in managing productivity and schedule attainment.

In the last Opportunity we discussed the concept of SMART work assignments (e.g. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound). As this concept implies, proper work assignment is actually very hard to do well. It involves knowing what specific tasks are required to accomplish an output, some means of measurement, a good understanding of the task itself to ensure the assignment is attainable and realistic, and on top of all that it requires knowledge of the actual time it should take to physically accomplish. Its maybe no wonder work is often “self-assigned”.

There are a number of common reasons for not assigning work. Sometimes the employee is quite experienced and may even understand the task as well if not better than the manager, which may make the manager feel uncomfortable putting a specific volume or time to an activity. Other times the manager is very knowledgeable but assumes that the employee is quite capable of understanding what needs to be done and working at an appropriate pace. Without clear assignments however, the employee can run into obstacles that the manager never knows about. Employees are resilient and figure out ways to get work done, but those “work-arounds” can become the basis for embedded operating problems. Over time a surprising amount of “lost time” gets buried in the normal operating practices of a department.