Matt's Articles

Routine Work or Improvement Work?

The pull of our daily life is strong. The alarm goes off in the morning, the dog must be fed, the kids must get to school, and we have to get ready for work. At work there is a constant stream of tasks, meetings, phone calls etc.. You feel this constant pull. As draining as it may be, in a way, it is also easy. You know what to do because it’s part of your routine or someone else is putting the demand on you. You don’t have to think too deeply about why, what, or how. It’s all baked into the daily, albeit grinding, routine. You don’t have to think about why it is grinding or if it should be grinding or if some other way might be easier. You just keep doing what you are doing. This is the problem. When we don’t stop and look at the routine we can forget its purpose and miss the opportunity to make it better.

I like to ask leaders how much time they set aside for employees to do improvement work. The responses range from “I don’t know.” to “Very little.” or “Less than 5%.” As a business owner I understand the issue. I work so hard just to establish a useful routine. With my routine in place, I want to get the most out of it. There is a ton of work to do, why in world would I want to stop and think about how I am doing it? By pausing to think about how to do the work, I’m taking precious time away from actually doing the work! The fundamental problem with this way of thinking is it assumes that we have found the ultimate best way to do something and it can’t get any better. The reality is that things change, people change, tools change, needs change, abilities change, and so on. If we aren’t constantly reassessing the purpose and thinking about how we achieve the purpose we eventually find ourselves stagnating and confused as to why we are falling behind. The business doesn’t grow, the margins start to drop, the employees are frustrated, and the customers are dissatisfied. I hear these problems all the time and the common issue is the organization is just not spending the necessary time on improvement work. The opportunities are there but they aren’t stopping long enough to see them. These are opportunities to serve our customers, our peers, and our families better. Seeing any of these opportunities requires a time investment.

Many thanks to the creators of this cartoon for explaining the problem so perfectly. Early in my career I would occasionally meet executives that really did not see value in providing time for improvement. They saw it as a distraction from the “real” work or a waste of precious time, resources, and money. If I was lucky they saw the value in bringing in an expert to redesign the process, but there again, they didn’t understand the need for employee involvement. The expert will have all the answers, right? From my experience this type of thinking is rare nowadays. The executives I talk with understand this challenge, at least in concept. They really want to give their people time for improvement, but there are two common issues that hold them back:

  1. There is no time. People are already overloaded.
  2. People don’t know how to coordinate and leverage the opportunities.

One solution that I find effective is the 15 minute daily standup. Companies that use 15 minute daily standups or quality circles have established a structured method for identifying, discussing, and implementing changes to routine work. They have blocked out time everyday for all employees to participate in improvement work. It works, but supervisors are often hesitant to employ the method. I once had a supervisor tell me, “but we don’t have time to take 15 minutes out of our schedule everyday.” The next day I had the supervisor watch shift change with me. We observed people searching for their work, asking questions about what they are suppose to do, idly chatting. As we observed the shift the change I asked the supervisor, “are you sure you don’t have time?” It was effective in convincing him of the opportunity and after the first implementation the method quickly spread across operations.

When done properly this is a powerful activity. It engages a deeper part of our brain. It allows us to question why we are doing what we are doing. It gives us a chance to align our routine with the purpose of our work in collaboration with our peers.  We can eliminate the unnecessary, identify bad habits, and ensure we are using our precious time efficiently. In my opinion, the 15 minute daily standup is a foundational method for getting the organization pulled out of the daily grind an into daily improvement. This is just one method. There are other methods that will resolve both of the issues I mentioned above. The important part is that management sees the value and creates the environment for these methods to flourish.

We have to consciously make room for improvement work. Unfortunately, unlike routine work, improvement work does not have much pull. Modern neuroscience seems to support this statement. Deep thinking requires a greater number of calories. In an effort to conserve energy our bodies prefer we stick to simple habits. Our morning routines, turning wrenches, and playing Candy Crush. Without specific structure to pull us out and think of the value of these routines we become slaves to habit.

To close I am going to bring this home, quite literally. What does dinner time look like at your house? Is it a mad rush to microwave a frozen dinner, ingest, and get the kids to practice, or back to doing homework, or to that evening call that you scheduled? In the idyllic image of years ago dinner was a family event. Before discounting this as an outdated tradition think of it in context of what I have been discussing. A family is an organization that has the same needs of the workplace and of course, many more. Dinner time is the family’s “quality circle.” It is the opportunity to reflect on the day. What went well? What didn’t go well? What needs to change? A family needs to set, change, and improve on routines just like any other organization. Ignoring this need leads to all the problems I described earlier. It is as important to make time for this at home as it is to make time for it at work.