The surprising importance of SMART work assignments

opportunity-7We spend a lot of time during our diagnostic phase doing “day-in-the-life” studies. The purpose of these studies is not to watch an individual, it’s to watch the process flow and transfer points at what we call “the point of execution.” This is where people actually perform tasks needed to get information or material through the process. We study this at various positions throughout an organization because it provides so much detail, and inevitably reveals problems that are the cause of valuable time to be lost. The tricky part is that you are often seeing the end result, not the actual cause so you need to try to figure out what happened to create the problems in the first place. A somewhat surprising cause of lost time at the point of execution is how managers actually assign work. It’s not something that you might naturally think about as a root cause of problems. People tend to think of root causes like missing information from an upstream function, or incorrect scheduling or sequencing of material. But the simple notion of work assignment plays a remarkably large role in how productive people are.

The best acronym we’ve come across for work assignments is SMART*, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound. It’s often used for goal-based planning but is equally applicable for how managers assign work. When we observe lost time in a process, one of the causes can often be traced back to what part of the SMART acronym was missing when the work was assigned.

In the next four Opportunities, we will try to provide some real-life examples of how easy it is for managers to fall into this trap. Here are the four common problems with work assignment that we will examine:

*According to Wikipedia: the first known use of the term occurs in the November 1981 issue of Management Review by George T. Doran.