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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Want a Quick way to improve productivity: Stop Multi-tasking!

Multi-tasking is so pervasive in organizations, and modern life in general, that we often don’t even think about how damaging it is to productivity. Even worse many people claim to be great multi-taskers whose productivity doesn’t suffer from switching between tasks. Unfortunately all the research now being done fully supports, what even a simple exercise in multi-tasking shows—it’s not only damaging to individual productivity its devastating to organizational productivity. This is particularly true when the work being done is only one activity in a large process or project—as most work in organizations is.
Let’s define multi-tasking as stopping one task, before it is either complete or has reached a logical stopping point to go and do something else. This seemingly benign behavior creates two significant problems. First it drains the efficiency of the individual, because every time a task is set aside to go do something else the person must spend time “getting back up to speed” when s/he returns to the task. For most of what I call “knowledge work” this time can be considerable, and in many instances this re-starting is also the source of errors or bugs as things are missed. If a resource has to re-start a task several times, the amount of time spent repeatedly preparing to do the work, can easily exceed the time spent doing the task. Additionally, because people are always busy, either working on a task or getting back up to speed on one, it appears that there is no spare capacity anywhere, no efficiency to be gained. And many organizations find themselves having to add staff, even though in reality there is substantial hidden capacity, on top of the frustration and quality problems stemming from multi-tasking.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the larger, and less well understood, issue is what it does to organizational efficiency. When people are forced to multi-task, that task gets interrupted and set aside, unfinished. But the clock on the work doesn’t stop, it just keeps ticking; so that customer’s project, application, product, claim, or whatever is not moving, but it’s eating up time, waiting for the person to come back to finish it and move it to the next step in the process. Each interruption delays the completion of the task and extends the lead time. Since multi-tasking is likely to happen at each step of a process these delays multiply quickly. Lead times and backlogs can grow quickly this way and jeopardize the performance of the company, eroding customer satisfaction. It’s not easy to precisely quantify how much lead times are inflated, but it’s typically far more than one would think.
I typically use a simple game to illustrate just how much multi-tasking impacts organizational performance. If you like you can do it on your own in just a minute. I ask people to perform three tasks: write all the numbers 1-20 in the first column, all the letters A-T in the second, and then to draw twenty shapes in the third in the sequence circle-square-triangle. I then give people two options for how to accomplish the work. They can either complete it by working one task at a time, start to finish, (all the letters first then the numbers and finally the shapes), or they can multi-task doing one number, one letter, one shape and then repeating, as in 1, A, Circle, 2, B, square, etc. Not surprisingly everyone wants to work the tasks start to finish. At the same time they all readily agree that the second way, multi-tasking, is more like how they have to work in their organization. To play the game do the activities each way, timing each run separately. When you’re ready, turn the page to continue the discussion.
I always find it best to do the game in a group because you are assured to get a range of results, and a measure of statistical validity. Having done this with several thousand people over the years, the average times to complete the three projects is typically:
Multi-tasking:                    85 seconds
Without Multi-tasking:  45 seconds

While it’s a simple game, it’s a very powerful illustration of the impact of multi-tasking:
·         If you multi-task, it takes twice as long to complete the tasks
·         If you don’t multi-task, you can do almost twice as many projects in the same time
·         Everyone agrees its easier and probably produces better quality without multi-tasking—so you’re not getting more by “working harder”
In the multi-tasking iteration all three of the tasks finish at virtually the same time, about 85 seconds. But when they work each task start to finish, the projects don’t finish in a big wave, they finish one at a time staggered about every 15 seconds (15-30-45 sec. for the three projects), meaning that the first two projects finish dramatically earlier than with multi-tasking. It’s not hard to extrapolate the results further if we imagine that each of the three tasks was just one step in a larger process within an organization. If we assume there were 10 sequential steps in the project, the three projects would take 850 seconds to complete under multi-tasking mode, since each step takes 85 seconds to complete the three projects. However, working start to finish on each task the first task would be done and passed on after just 15 seconds, the second after 30 and the last one after 45 seconds. Each successive step, working the same way, would complete its stage in 15 seconds and pass it on. So for a 10 step project the first project would finish after just 150 seconds, with the second one at 165, and the third 15 seconds later and 180 seconds. Compared to 850 seconds under multi-tasking, this translates into a lead time reduction of more than 75%.
To be sure, reducing multi-tasking is difficult, and eliminating it entirely is probably impossible. It requires a shift in a number of common practices and some very common beliefs people have about how to work and what it means to provide good service to customers and colleagues. But what about the alternative? Continuing high levels of multi-tasking reduces efficiency, produces lower output, extends customer lead times, threatens quality, and makes everyone work harder for lower results. Personally I don’t know many faster, more effective ways of improving productivity, profits, and service than reducing multi-tasking.
Here’s a final thought to highlight just how much multi-tasking is impacting your business and its productivity: Do you or your colleagues ever come to work early, stay late, work from home, or work on weekends? People tell me these are some of their most productive hours…when they aren’t getting multi-tasked!  
Links to Press on Multi-tasking:
Also check NPR, they did a couple of interesting segments on the radio this year and several years ago.

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