Workplace 'Waste' May Be More Useful Than You Think
Too many managers are like my old co-worker Sergei.
He had successfully escaped the Soviet Union in the early '70s, worked hard, saved his money and bought his first car, an old beater Datsun 510 that was baboon-butt ugly.
Among other major drawbacks, it had a paint job pitted from being downwind from a DuPont chemical factory the first two years of its life. The car was in great operating condition, though; it was worth probably $1700.
Sergei loved that car for its utility, but mostly for its meta-meaning, its symbolismit represented freedom and success.
He loved it so much, he put around $2,500 worth of electronic and mechanical security gear on it.
That excess is a prime symptom of what I call the Soviet Syndrome, a disease that affects way too many managers who have fixated on two ultimately unproductive ideas.
The first idea is that there can never be too much security on an important resource regardless of the benefit/cost ratio.
It made sense to Sergeiand makes sense to many control-addicted managersto install systems for security or supervision that cost significantly more than the value of the thing being secured.
The second idea is that if someone who reports to you does something you haven't specifically assigned, that action is either a waste of time or a method of undermining departmental objectives.
I'll guess that about 15 percent of all managers share this dysfunctional mindset.
There aren't many of them, but they can be expensive, especially if others don't push aside their addiction to overhead and supervision. But few higher-level managers, and even fewer employees, push back.
The most recent evidence of the existence of Soviet Syndrome in corporate America is a survey released a few weeks ago, by Salary.com and America Online.
The study suggested U.S. personnel "waste" $759 billion a year in work time, basing that estimate on specific activities respondents acknowledged in themselves.
But "waste" is in the eye of the beholder. The list of time-wasters, for example, includes non-task internet surfing (45 percent of workers do this), and socializing with co-workers (23 percent).
People reported spending 2.1 hours a day on things that didn't qualify as being related to a specific tasks ("wasting time").
Depending on the individual, this could be a problem, a neutral investment of time, or even be a benefit.
Work Styles, Waste Styles
People work different ways, with different rhythms. Some people produce consistently, plodding along at an average pace like little machines.
Some people have a very productive afternoon but can't make anything worthwhile in the morning, and some have the reverse.
Some work in burst mode, creaking out an hour's worth of work in 20 or 40 minutes and then need to take 10 or 15 minutes off to cool down.
Recognizing the difference in individual staffers' work patterns is a critical precursor to figuring out who is wasting time, and how.
It's vital to note also that neither socializing nor Internet surfing are inherently wasteful; they could be, but either could also be productive, depending on the individuals, the workgroup and the way people applied that time.
Large organizations often need staffers to invest time in informal communication and unstructured research because the organizations' knowledge-sharing is typically so endemically flawed.
Don't believe office nattering can be useful? Monitor a workplace kitchen conversation sometime.
There will be the usual drivel about the office football pool, "trouble talk," about work or personal difficulties, and the like. None of this is explicitly productive, though they do promote cohesion within a workgroup, which is productive.
But not all that conversation is extraneous; a lot of core work information is passed along this way. Casual conversations often circumvent blockages in formal information-sharing procedures.
Socializing may not address those issues as rigorously as would be the case in a problem-solving session, but people learn a lot about what's going on around them, the flow of the very kinds of insight that makes small organizations so much more productive than larger ones in the same line of work.
Knowledge management is just a natural byproduct of working in a healthy small organization; when you try to recreate that process in a large organization, the diseconomies of scale enervate that useful flow.
Only a clueless manager would think socializing at work is a "waste."
Some of it may be, some of it will not, but a blanket Soviet Syndrome sense that all non-task-related conversation is "waste" really disserves productivity.
I'm not suggesting sluggards who camp out in the kitchen with kugel and kava should be encouraged to invest unlimited time there.
I'm only promising that in and of itself, socializing is not a waste.
I'm also promising that managers who spend an extraordinary amount of time keeping staffers from spending anything but minimal time talking to each other will end up with a staff that is incohesive and more ignorant of their jobs than they would otherwise be.
Internet surfing is another activity that could qualify as "waste" or work, depending on the person, what they use it for and what they look at.
For some, Web-surfing is a decompression routine before taking on the next slug of work. Others like to surf subjects related to their work that aren't specifically related to the task at hand.
To the Soviet Syndrome sufferer, however, Web surfing is "waste." In the U.S., we call this activity "education. "
Finally, it's worth noting that in the survey 33 percent of respondents said they did these other things when they didn't have any work to do, which weakens the whole definition of "waste."
As I mentioned when I introduced the Soviet Syndrome, one of the emotions that sucks managers into this operational behavior is triggered by the fear that staff will do work not assigned to them, making the "manager " feel like she's not in control.
Managers like this usually fear making a mistake more than they fear doing nothing at all.
So, frequently, the reason the person has nothing to do is that the manager is dithering, or is just afraid to make any decision at all.
Frequently, of course, large organizations reinforce this behavior by rewarding a lack of mistakes, rather than evidence of success, with promotions or job security.
So by asserting more control, Soviet Syndrome managers lose control of work resources to hours spent doing things they consider "waste."
Ironic but true: That impulse, in all its incarnations, is what brought down the Soviet Union.
You can join them in the rubble of organizational history if you just follow the hearts of those Soviet Syndrome managers dotted around your shop.
My advice? Don't waste your time.
Jeff Angus is a management consultant and has been working with IT since 1974. He has held IT management positions in user interface design, marketing, operations and testing/analysis. Look for his book, "Management by Baseball: A Pocket Reader." Jeff's columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Baltimore Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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