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Office machine mania: The paradox that limits productivity

William Heitman | May 31, 2016
So-called knowledge work hasn’t exactly led to a modern-day Industrial Revolution when it comes to how basic, everyday business gets done.

Purchasing this sexy technology might prove a pleasant diversion, but it is overkill. More than two-thirds of knowledge work is mundane, similar and repetitive, as our first-hand research in hundreds of companies reveals. Merely implementing a basic 1920s era inventory control capability — something simpler than is currently used for office furniture — would be a more effective and valuable investment.

For example, the finance group at one of the world’s largest securities firms generates more than 40,000 routinely produced management reports, almost one for each employee. There are no standards. Virtually anyone in the business can request and design a report. The names of the reports vary: Some have descriptive titles, but others may list only the report producer’s name and a date. There is no central warehouse or catalog of available reports. Users have no choice but to request a new, costly, custom report.

Personal workflows: Want to make each knowledge worker individually more productive? The time-tested method is to create a collaborative assembly line, or workflow, and specialize the tasks of each worker so that they all complement one another. But technology is emerging now that can enable each knowledge worker to continue to avoid such standardized collaboration. Developers are creating adaptive technology that configures itself to the individual worker’s activities, whether these are full of inconsistencies and rework or not. Individual employees can design their own assembly lines, or silos. They can perform activities as they see fit and further solidify the status quo.

Before you rush to purchase any of these dubiously complex breakthroughs, a thorough study of your knowledge work activities would deliver a much greater, near-term return. That’s because roughly 40 percent of knowledge work activity is avoidable: error correction, rework, customer overservice and similar low-value efforts.

Industrial revolutions result from eliminating unnecessary variation, especially among that which hides in plain sight. Consider the humble craft of bricklaying. Bricks and mortar had been in use for almost 8,000 years when, in the early 1900s, Frank Gilbreth set about eliminating wasted motion in the personal workflows of individual bricklayers. Productivity skyrocketed from about 300 bricks per day to more than 2,500. Today, after decades of development, robotic bricklaying technology is inching closer to feasibility.

Over the past century, competitors forced manufacturers to revolutionize disruptively. During that same period, however, knowledge workers have preferred to purchase technology from vendors who promise an alternative to the heavy lifting of simplification and standardization. Silicon Valley’s latest offerings again propose to elegantly automate the status quo. These represent next-generation technologies to pave today’s labyrinthine cow paths of knowledge work operations.

Office machine mania continues. And the paradoxical dream of productivity without disruption endures.

 

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