Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bok #50 - Slack

This was a very interesting book for me in a number of ways. The idea that companies are not necessarily run the best way they could and that the pursuit of efficiency above all else is problematic are themes I believe in. Too often I think the “Office Space” mentality that many people have adopted in running an efficient organization is a problem.
Slack talks about the issues of being too efficient and too controlling in a corporate environment. The picture is best illustrated with this look at workflow, which seems applicable to many of the technological systems I’ve worked on.
We move work from person A to person B to Person C and so on. It’s similar to the way we do this with data, statuses, etc. At each stage, if the next person is ready to work on the informaiton, we are perfectly efficient. However if the person must wait on work, then they are slack, they have unused time. However if we look to eliminate this slack, what we end up with is work being delayed. It piles up, however slightly, in order to be ready until the next person is ready to move forward on it.
If you think about it, either you have work moving through the system as quickly as it can, which implies slack on the side of workers (or systems), or it moves through less efficiently and you have no slack.
The idea the book presents is that we need some level of slack in our systems (and people) in order for work to move through efficiently. It’s possible that during this slack time people can perform other tasks, or catch up on things, or more importantly, think about their jobs and perhaps find ways to do them better, perform better analysis, etc. It’s a philosophy that I subscribe to. 
People aren’t resources, and they aren’t interchangeable. It we want to take advantage of the skills people have, we can’t box them into a very small set of tasks and expect them to be done by rote, or with perfect efficiency. Without some level of slack time to work on side projects, or think, or re-examine their job, they can’t change or adapt to situations.
This is an interesting book, and while it’s a few years old, I think it provides a great way of looking at the way in which businesses can perhaps operate better. Not by being more efficient, but by being less efficient with people’s time, and more efficient with work. There’s a lot more to building a better business, but having some slack time built into people’s jobs, or some level of under utilization, in my humble opinion, means that you can get people to do a better job.
Worth the read.

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