Repaying the Happiness Debt—with Interest

The pace of production depends on the capability of those at work. When an increase in profit is desired, production is sped up. Yet those forced to work faster aren't necessarily more productive. Unhappily experienced at being forced to work harder and faster resulting in less productivity, Clarke Ching found a way to slow down expectations and increase productivity.

There's an episode of I Love Lucy in which Lucy and Ethel have a job wrapping individual chocolates traveling one-by-one along the assembly line. They'll be fired if a piece reaches the packing room unwrapped. Their supervisor leaves them alone in the room, and the assembly line starts moving. At first, the candies travel at a sustainable rate ("This is easy." "Yeah, we can handle this OK."), but then the line speeds up and within moments the two are overwhelmed. They don't want to lose their jobs, so they eat some of the chocolates to avoid sending unwrapped candies into the packing room. But, the line speeds up again, and the ladies are unable to fit any more candy in their mouths. They take chocolates off the line and leave them on the bench, presumably hoping they can catch up later. The line stops, and they hear their supervisor coming, so they grab the unwrapped candy and hide it under their big white hats, in their mouths, and in their uniforms. The supervisor enters the room and sees no candies on the belt. She assumes that the two women kept up, so she shouts to someone to "speed up the line!"

Here's Lucy and Ethel's problem summed up: The conveyor belt has more capacity than the wrapping department. When it pushes work to Lucy and Ethel, it pushes faster than they can process it. Rather than slowing down to a sustainable pace, the two women behave in ways that waste a lot of product and productivity. They do less work than they would if the conveyer belt moved slowly, and they never have any slack time to think about how to wrap faster.

At least it only lasts three minutes and they get to eat some chocolate.

Funny? Yes. Realistic? Yes. Familiar? Oh, yes.

The first time I saw a similar situation was in my teens when my sister and I worked on a berry picking machine. The machine was built to straddle a row of berry plants and shake the berries off the vines as it drove past them. It had a conveyor belt on each side, a driver up top, and a "worker" on each side whose job was to remove debris (twigs, leaves, bugs, baby birds) and let only the good berries through into the big plastic containers at the far end of each conveyer. These good berries were turned into jams and ice creams. The problem was that each machine was expensive to rent, and the job had to be done quickly to avoid the berries' getting overripe, so the drivers were told to drive as fast as they could without damaging the vines. On high-yield rows, that pace was just too fast for us "workers" to keep up. We complained, but they wouldn't slow the machines down. I've never eaten a commercially produced fruit product since. You wouldn't either if you saw what ended up in the plastic containers.

Does this scenario sound familiar in your job? Are you overloaded and forced to work long hours or cut corners just to keep up? Do your customers have more capacity to request work than you do to deliver it? Do you wish you could say, "No, stop," but are afraid that might not be seen as customer friendly? Or, are you afraid that you won't be taken seriously and will be told to work harder? Would you like to do something about it?

I've been in this situation a number of times during my career. In the half-dozen years I've worked as a consultant, I've come to realize that it's a widespread phenomenon. In the early days, I didn't know what to do about it other than moan. But, as I've gotten older and (hopefully) wiser, I've learned that the way to get your life back is to help your customers and bosses realize that they're losing out by working this way. Then, sell them on the benefits they'll get from changing. A key part of selling any idea is to talk not about what's in it for you but what's in it for them.

The first step is to build yourself a little breathing space so that you can figure out how to tackle the problem. That's going to be tricky, because one problem with being the bottleneck is that you don't have time to do your day job, let alone think about your day job. Find time. Start with the three minutes it takes to watch the I Love Lucy clip. Then, show it to some colleagues with whom you get along, and ask whether Lucy and Ethel's situation is the same as yours. If they confirm your observation, then you're on to something and can move on to other coworkers.

Once you've got a good number in your coalition, do two things: First, take a rough shot at listing the resulting negative effectspoorer quality product, lost time due to interruptions, and unhappy work environments. Second, take a shot at quantifying them. Don't use precise-sounding numbers, just ballparks. Since they're estimates, express your guesses as a range between two numbers. Two examples: "We have a lot of interruptions each day, and each developer loses between one to two hours daily due to context switching"; and "We're guessing that about two to six significant defects escape to the customers in each release. We estimate that handling those costs the support team between two to four weeks' worth of extra work. Fixing these defects costs us about two to six weeks' worth of lost productivity per quarter-all because we're forced to cut corners."

Now, find a friendly customer and show him the video. Compare it to working in your department, and tell him that he's not getting as much out of you because you lose a lot of productivity due to cutting corners and being constantly exhausted. Then, ask if he suffers any consequencesother than getting less work out of your teamfrom the way things are now. You may need to help him out here, because it's not a question he's used to answering. Finally, ask him to do two things: mull over ways to slow down the pace of work so that you can give him more work; and arrange for a temporary slow down so that your team has a little more breathing space to figure out how to improve and work faster. When you get that free time, look at areas where you feel like you're wasting your timefor instance, unnecessary rework, cumbersome tools, developers and testers duplicating work, unclear specifications, knowingly cutting corners, or frequent interruptions. Pick just one or two low-hanging fruits in this list to fix, so that you can quickly make a concrete improvement.

The key here is that this is a win-win situation, but it won't be obvious to your customers or your colleagues. You will have to gently sell it. Start with the video. And, even though you're not at fault, it might help if you bring a box of chocolates along to the conversation as a peace offering.

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