The opportunity that hides in plain sight

opportunity-6More than half a century ago an English gentleman named Cyril Parkinson wrote a humorous essay for The Economist magazine, in part drawing from his experience working in the British Civil Service. He observed that work tends to fill the time available for its completion. Most people have experienced this phenomenon. We observe it in organizations all the time when we do work studies. We call this opportunity, “pacing,” as in pacing the work to fill the time. It’s particularly present in repetitive task environments where people can consciously or unconsciously work to different cadences (e.g. setting tables, producing similar reports, processing basic claims). It is however, also present in “knowledge-based” environments where people have a high degree of control of the tasks and activities required. There may be templates for a report for example, but there is a high degree of variability and choice involved in what ends up in the report.

The difficult part about pacing is that it hides in plain sight. You can be watching someone perform tasks over and over and miss the gradual seepage of time. The only way to identify this opportunity is to understand the work-to-time relationships and study the variances in output. Pacing is quite common at the end of the day or shift where fatigue plays a part. Another key driver of pacing is backlog, something we discussed in Opportunity #5 “When being more productive doesn’t make you more productive. People start pacing when they perceive that their work backlog is drying up. This can be conscious self-preservation or unconscious workload balancing. This is the opportunity that has a great deal to do with how a manager assigns work and corresponding expectations to staff. Assigning work with a time-based expectation can significantly impact the pace at which someone’s works, but it’s not as common a practice as one might expect, and one we will discuss in the next Opportunity.