Why bother eliminating work?
All organisations do some work that is unnecessary. This work wastes resources that you could use more effectively to add more value. High added-value work is often rewarding to do and is profitable to clients and the wider organisation.
The time you release, by eliminating low-value activities, is available to improve the way you do things. Otherwise, day to day pressures will prevent you from using your time to think and plan. This happens almost everywhere. A study showed that boards of directors spend very little time in planning for the future. Most of their work is reactive.
What are the causes of unnecessary work?
When people find the culture of their organisation too critical, they work defensively to avoid people criticising them or catching them out. They may even make work to appear busy or useful.
If organisations are too “lean” there is no time to review the effectiveness of systems and improve or eliminate them. Paradoxically, the leanness of resources causes wasted effort. Effective organisations need some slack to allow time to improve.
Managers, who are under stress and time pressure, find it very difficult to listen to ideas on how the organisation could do things better. They may find it hard to hear anything from their staff. This will block the flow of creative ideas from their staff. Then improvements to the way you do things get lost. The old patterns remain and you do unnecessary work.
What form does unnecessary work take?
Anyone can make a mistake. They are clearly unnecessary work in themselves. Mistakes can also make work for other people. The only way to avoid them is never to do anything new and check everything very often. This would lead to the organisation ossifying. All the best people would leave for somewhere a bit more exciting.
The ideal organisation would feel safe enough for people to talk openly about their mistakes without fear of reprisals. Managers and others would work together to learn from the mistake so it was less likely to happen again in the future. Those who made no mistakes might, depending on their jobs, not be taking enough risks.
It is obviously a waste of effort when two people do the same work. They could be two people working on a project simultaneously without communicating closely about what they are each doing. Sometimes people repeat work that someone else did earlier or in a different section or department.
The way to avoid duplication is by excellent communication and teamwork. Perhaps before you start a project you should let everyone in the organisation know what you intend and invite their contribution. You could also look outside.
You can waste effort by doing things badly and having to do them again. People are more likely to do too much work and waste time that way. If someone gives you a job to do then spend a little time to clarify what he/she requires and the standards required. You can say “Do you need a piece of detailed research and a report, which will take at least a week, or will a quick best guess do? I can drop that by this afternoon.”
Doing what is expected
Organisations get into habits just like people. They then defend their habits as though they made sense. The habits probably did make sense once but things have moved on. They result in vast amounts of wasted effort. “I know it doesn’t make sense but we have always done it this way”. If I ask people to suggest to their manager their ideas for doing things better, they often resist. The organisation has another habit, which is to discourage staff from expressing their ideas by not being prepared to listen to them.
You can deal with this by deliberately listening to staff and acknowledging their ideas and creativity. You can avoid too much upward delegation by encouraging the staff to carry out their own ideas.
Lack of feedback
Most people like to feel that their work is useful. This also applies to the detailed work we do every day. So simple appreciative feedback “Thanks for that report, now I know what to do next” makes us feel motivated and positive. More specific feedback can help to eliminate work too. It is usually easier to ask for this than to receive it “out of the blue”.
You could say “How useful is the report I give you every month? Do you need to continue to receive it? If you do, do you have any ideas on how I can simplify it?” You may find that some of the work you do is unnecessary. If you get information or work from someone else that you do not require, you could tell them so, gently.
The systems that organisations use have usually grown organically over the years. There is rarely a master plan. Therefore, the actual systems in use rarely match the needs of the organisation. They do dictate the work of many employees and may cause much of this to be unnecessary.
You could stand back from your system as though you were auditing another company. You would create a map of your present systems with those operating them. The map would show you what you do now and why. The people operating them might have some good ideas for improvement too. The next step would be to build a picture of the minimum systems you need to run the business. These two together could enable you to eliminate some systems, and their associated work, entirely.
Not seeing the whole picture
If people don’t know what happens to their work, then it is hard to make precise judgements about what to do. If you know that the work you do will determine if a product gets to a customer today, tomorrow or not at all, then this is motivating. If you have visited a customer that uses “your” product you will be even clearer about priorities. When you know the context of your work, you can decide what to do and what to drop.
You could encourage people to trace their work across the organisation. What do your internal and external customers do with it? What would happen if it were not done? I suppose it might be possible to create a presentation that shows everyone how their work fits together.
The assumptions that people make strongly influence the work they do. Most managers in the organisation may have a common assumption. For example, they may have the assumption that you cannot influence a tedious and bureaucratic system that is imposed on the organisation from outside. The work reduction caused by a small change might be very large. If you simply accept the assumption without rigorously testing it, then the unnecessary work will continue indefinitely.
Individuals make assumptions too. Someone might assume that he or she has to go on doing the work in a particular way. “We have always done it like this. My manager wouldn’t agree to any shortcuts so there is no point in asking him”.
Assumptions are a cultural issue. Individual managers can encourage their staff to question assumptions by asking for and listening to their radical ideas. “If this was your section or department or organisation, what would you have us do differently?”
Team working and support
Team working and mutual support that runs across the organisation will help with all of the above. These enable people to work cooperatively rather than competitively. When people trust each other and work co-operatively they will help each other proactively. This can lead to a playful atmosphere where you can question anything including whether work is worth doing.
Team working and support grows in settings where people listen to each other. It is essential that the participants set the agenda so they discuss the particular issues that are important to them. Team working can operate across the organisation and between pairs of individuals. Elegant methods exist to handle all the above.
Practical strategies for eliminating work
The strategy you choose has to fit your needs and situation. You may wish to mix elements of the three that follow.
All organisations have standard procedures for creating and managing new projects. Use whatever works in your Organisation. Sometimes you lobby managers and directors to establish that your idea has their support and then put a paper to the Board. If the Board decides that the project has value and priority, then they will provide the resources to support it. This mechanism could establish a project on “Eliminating Work”.
You will expect to make improvements in the way you and your team work routinely. This is part of the job of all managers. You could think about the headings in the note and, for example, seek feedback from your customers. This could lead to you dropping unnecessary work. You could discuss the note with your team and decide together where you could eliminate work. This could involve working cooperatively with other departments to simplify systems. The process of eliminating work would spread across the organisation.
3. Creating awareness
When you attend meetings, courses or informal discussions, you ask questions and make comments that encourage people to think if all the work they do is necessary. As people discuss a new project, you ask about what we can drop to make the time available. When reviewing a piece of work, ask what people have learned so that the next one will be more efficient.
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