Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Productivity: Not About Making Every Minute Count

My very first job, outside of our own barn, was as a soda jerk. Or more specifically, a waitress/cook at an old fashioned pharmacy lunch counter.

It was summer in a college town, so the store side of the business was not that busy, and the pharmacist tended to use up his time micromanaging the waitresses. Not in a nasty way, just giving excessive "encouragement", pushing everybody to work faster and better. And he was always riding me to the point where I finally went into his office and tearfully gave him my two-week notice.

He was sorry. He was just trying to help me be a better waitress. He didn't mean to create stress.

During that last two weeks of employment, he left us all completely alone. We didn't hear a peep from him. But he would always be watching from his high pharmacy desk, and every hour or so he'd sneak out (this tall gangling guy in a white coat, tippy-toeing like a cartoon character) and grab up the used orders from the spindle.

Then, when those last two weeks were almost up, he called me into the office and showed me two piles of order slips. There was one pile which was about four inches high, and another that was maybe an inch and a half. The four inch high stack was mine, the short pile was both of the other waitresses combined.

Which was a surprise to both of us. See, I'm not a fast worker. I don't hurry. I'm very relaxed by nature. I also have trouble learning things by rote, so I can't just do things automatically. I pay attention to what I'm doing. If something doesn't need my attention now, I don't fuss at it. I leave it be. Which means I have mindspace to be alert to other things -- which in turn means I notice the customer who needs something first.

I learned two things from this: A) working in a relaxed manner beats the heck out of looking busy every time in terms of productivity, and B) if you work in a relaxed manner, you have to protect yourself via documentation.

(That second lesson came in handy when I was in a hostile work environment. The back-stabbing co-worker who instigated the situation learned a lesson too. If you are the sort of person who spends your effort looking busy, documentation is your enemy.)

In the many years since then, I have seen it over and over again. Slowing down to speed up. What's interesting is that people who use the motto "Work Smarter, Not Harder" get a screwed up as those who are scrambling around looking busy. Just working smarter doesn't help -- at least not if you are in the "make every minute count" mindset.

The reason, I think, that the Work Smarter crowd also get themselves into trouble is that they are still too hyped on efficiency -- on making every minute count. What they fail to realize is that real efficiency depends on margin. You've heard of "margin for error"? That's what we're talking about here. If you book up every minute, you don't leave any elbow room to maneuver. It's the silences that make a symphony work. It's the dark that makes the light standout. It's the runway that allows the plane to get into the air.

If you don't have downtime, you can't do the exact right thing at the exact right time.

I'll finish off with one more story, which Steinbeck used to tell about how a relative of his used to bitch endlessly about those lazy, shiftless ditch diggers employed by the WPA. "Every time you look at them, you see most of them leaning on a shovel," said the guy.

"Hey, when you're doing that kind of work, you have to pause to rest," said Steinbeck, and when the man scoffed, he challenged him to spend fifteen minutes straight digging a hole without pausing to rest.

Steinbeck won his bet within five minutes.

When you pause to rest, you might gain benefits other than resting -- you might see things to be done, or a better way of doing things, for instance -- but here is the kicker, if you try to USE that rest time for other things, if you schedule it up tight... it no longer works as rest.

So leave time to lean on a shovel. It will improve your productivity.

(Tomorrow I'll take on another topic in Productivity: "Necessary Is Not The Same as Productive.")

See you in the funny papers.


David Michael said...

I learned "Look busy" while working at McDonald's in the 1980's. I found it useful over the years. I don't do that so much these days (I work at home).

In my last year at my last full-time job, I moved into "bullet-point productivity". That is, every day I worked on a bullet point in the current project. If it took all day (or several days), that was fine. Kept me from being bored. If it took 15 minutes, that was fine too. I'd spend the rest of the day doing whatever. Either way, I could point to the bullet point I was working on, or just completed.

Over the past 15 years or so, I've gotten more mileage out of "a little progress every day beats none". A variation on (I think it's called) "kaizen".

Lately, I've been adding the phrase "Slow is smooth and smooth is fast" to my repetoire.

Some of which is somewhat tangential to your post. :)


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'm one of those who tries to squeeze as much out of my day as possible. And I *do* need that margin for error in there. Got to build in some buffer time, for sure.

The Daring Novelist said...

If you only have one thing to do all this productivity stuff is easier. You still have to experiment and find better ways to do things, but it's still nothing like having a million competing priorities.

And unfortunately, most of us have a million competing priorities. So it's essential to step back and take a big picture look regularly.

Kirkus MacGowan said...

Great post Camille. I feel a little better about my Bartending/Waiter career now. :)

I try to live by the quote, "Work smarter, not harder" and I think it would work here. By prioritizing you were able to get more done.

Now I need to take this ideal into my writing!

The Daring Novelist said...

Except I didn't prioritize, exactly. I've always done more of a "mind like water" thing -- very zen.

Even today, I get a lot more done by only prioritizing emergency stuff. I'll talk about that on Friday, actually.

And speaking of reacting only as things need to be done, I just realized I forgot to get tonight's post ready....