Are the Sprouts On? ‘Busy’ and ‘productive’ are not the same thing!

June 6th, 2019

It is often reckoned that the biggest challenge in cooking is that of producing Christmas dinner. This is not because the cooking is difficult:

Rule 1: Apply heat to foodstuffs;

Rule 2: Remove from heat before foodstuffs turn black……

…………. but because delivering all the not-blackened foodstuffs onto multiple plates simultaneously requires a well planned and timed process.

I was reminded of this during a recent visit to a café when, despite a very small number of customers, it took the assistant nearly 35 minutes to produce two sandwiches. A bit irritated, but in company so not expressing that irritation, after the first ten minutes my mind focused on ‘why has the sandwich not arrived?’

What did I observe:

The materials for the sandwiches were held in a variety of separate containers, in separate locations (albeit in a small kitchen) – but there was no economy of movement;

The sandwiches were not being prepared in parallel but in series – so the bread was opened and closed twice, the butter taken from the fridge and put back twice and so on;

Incomplete tasks were suspended when the process was interrupted by the next customer to appear at the counter, (six orders at random intervals over the 35 minutes), each order requiring some degree of preparation – and another part-process was started;

The assistant, by 15 minutes in, was juggling with 4 part-completed tasks, had apparently lost all sense of the order in which orders had been received and was giving priority (and excess attention) to the ‘known’ customers and the next arrival over the existing orders.

The whole process was a shambles; the assistant was apparently very busy but not very productive. I suspect a conversation with the Boss would have revolved around the need for additional labour to cope with the rush…………..

Thinking about what was going on, each task was in itself quite short, the delays ALL arose in the failure to manage either the availability of materials or the perturbations caused by the random arrival of new customers, i.e. failure to manage the process. Presumably guided to ‘customer service is king’ the assistant was very responsive to the new arrivals while simultaneously failing to deliver to the existing customers. A friendly ‘hello, with you in two minutes when I have finished this task’ would probably have been good enough for most customers, each task could have been completed promptly and the total amount of time taken substantially reduced. The quantity of work done probably added up to 15 minutes (for ALL orders), the total elapsed time, 35 minutes, the unproductive busy time – 20 minutes – rather more than half!

The drive to increase productivity seems, under various guises, to have been with us for ever and as yet, not been solved. Whether self-employed, a farmer, a blacksmith, a lawyer or a dentist or worker in a mass production environment, the silver bullet of economic growth has always been seen as rooted in an increase in productivity by the individual worker. More bangs for less bucks.

The phenomenon of “busyness” not productivity can be observed in many organisations – some where it matters rather more than it did in the café. It is often driven by poor process, poor performance evaluation or measurement, always by poor management of time and task – either at the individual or corporate level.