Wrench time: The secret to performance improvement

carpedia-lessons-learned-3As a recent college graduate, one of our partners had asked an experienced consultant what to look for when working in a maintenance area. The veteran said, “The same thing you look for in every area, ‘wrench time’.” He went on to explain that the business world was full of people with titles. The titles represented special skills they had learned, but they didn’t use their skills enough. Sales people didn’t spend much time actually “selling,” managers didn’t spend much time “managing,” and mechanics didn’t spend much time with a wrench in their hands, or what he referred to as “wrench time.” He said the secret to performance improvement was to always figure out how you can increase wrench time, no matter what the functional area.

Although a little confusing for a recent graduate, this turned out to be a key insight and a very helpful way to think about how to improve any functional area. It’s often shocking to actually calculate how much time people spend at their core task. When we work with companies we analyze this distribution of time and it’s not uncommon for us to observe the following:

  • Mechanics spend less than 10% of their time physically doing maintenance (e.g. turning a wrench on a piece of equipment)
  • Sales reps spend less than 15% of their time advancing a sale
  • Managers spend less than 5% of their day actively managing others

The task for a consultant, or manager, is to identify the obstacles that prevent a person from using their skill more frequently through the course of the day. A mechanic may lose a lot of potential wrench time waiting for assignments, bringing the wrong supplies, and traveling around the plant or building. Different assignment methods, tool preparation or layout changes could free up valuable wrench time. The sales person may simply not have enough leads. Or he or she may spend too much time on administration or traveling due to how meetings are arranged. Managers often spend little time actively managing their staff because they lack effective scheduling and follow up tools and spend too much time fire-fighting. But in every case, if you can figure out how to free up or capture time and convert it into “wrench time,” performance will almost always improve.