Friday, 17 May 2013

The great mistake of chasing and three ways to get more more for less: continuous flow, batch production, and multi-tasking

Human beings have an innate tendency towards efficiency. Achieving maximum gains with minimum effort is in our genes. Even children, as soon as they can verbalize their thoughts, begin to show entrepreneurial traits. Their behaviour progressively evolves from the passivity of babies to the search of short-term benefits typical of adolescence.
What works in a certain environment often delivers poor results elsewhere

Once we reach adulthood, most of our attempts to increase productivity take place in the realm of work. Industrial management researchers have been studying successful companies during the last forty years, trying to identify the keys to great performance. What conclusions have they drawn?

From the very beginning, the principles to be formulated by those studies were intended to have general application. Otherwise, it is clear that few would be willing to adopt them. Before accepting a lesson as scientific truth, we must prove the universal validity of its underlying propositions.

The problem with the main three recommendations in the field of productivity is that, to a certain extent, they are contradictory. What works in a certain environment often delivers poor results when transplanted to a different industry. In a sense, modern management has become the art of playing with these three formulas:

1.- CONTINUOUS FLOW. Car manufacturers have made this productivity approach their standard a long time ago. As long as the demand for cars is stable, just-in-time production works wonderfully. The trick is to keep the factory going at a steady pace. Other industries, like package-holidays retailers, are trying to implement similar techniques. The idea in that case is to use price incentives to spread the demand for package-holidays more evenly throughout the year. Continuous flow requires lots of preparation before production starts, but then, it frequently leads to spectacular results at enormous speed.

2.- BATCH PRODUCTION. This method of streamlining production is the one that comes most easily and naturally to human beings. When children have to do homework consisting of several A, B, and C activities, they soon figure out for themselves that the fastest way to complete their assignment is to perform first all A tasks, then all B tasks, and finally all C tasks. Cooks in well-frequented restaurants usually keep a ready-made stock of the main ingredients that they will be needing for soups, sauces, and the like. Office cleaners tend empty all waste-baskets before they begin to vacuum the floor.

3.- MULTI-TASKING. This approach seems to be part of the image of the contemporary professional. Accountants, lawyers, salesmen, or advertising executives speak on their headphones while they read e-mails. They exercise while they watch the news on television. They listen to audio-books while they commute to work. Indeed, performing two tasks at once gives the impression of high efficiency, but are the results in line with the image? High stress is, on many occasions, the dark side of multi-tasking. This is a method to be used with caution

Choose your method wisely in accordance with the situation

Productivity experts agree on which is the worst possible system of work. They call this method, or rather the lack of it, "chasing." It simply means that you are performing your tasks on the defensive, being forced to run from point A to B and then back to A in order to comply with a certain deadline. This way of working can lead to physical and business exhaustion.

Whether you employ continuous flow, batch techniques, or multi-tasking will depend on your objectives and on which resources you have available at a given time. Choose your method wisely in accordance with the situation, but become conscious of the advantages and limitations of each approach. By combining those techniques and through trial and error, you can grow into a better manager.

For more information about rational living and personal development, I refer you to my book The 10 Principles of Rational Living


[Image by skyseeker under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]

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