Is Busy Work Choking your Organization?

Why are people working harder and longer than ever before but accomplishing less?  One hypothesis is that they are victims of a syndrome known as Busy Work (BW).  Simply put, BW is non-essential yet chronic organizational activity that does not link to value creation.    BW is pervasive among individuals and groups regardless of level and department;  it is often visible to casual observers as well as managers. For the individual, examples of BW include regular meeting attendance on an observer-basis only; spending an inordinate amount of time on analytical activities and; producing reports that are not reviewed or acted on.  Worryingly, employees often don’t even realize they are wasting their time and others, instead viewing their efforts as plain (and often frustrating) hard work.  In most cases, their managers are part of the problem.  They encourage and reinforce BW by rewarding its behaviors through political support and positive performance appraisals. 

BW exacts a large cost on organizations.    BW complicates resource allocation, slows down execution speed and generates higher labour costs through reduced productivity.  BW’s more subtle impact includes decreased employee satisfaction, poor strategic alignment and reduced focus on critical tasks.  In my experience, up to 60% of a firm’s junior and senior staff directly undertake BW activities, wasting anywhere from 20-50% of their time on an ongoing basis.

BW is often found in large organizations with high degrees of complexity (product, supply chain, process), geographic dispersion, and an inward-looking or dysfunctional culture.  Typically, these enterprises compete in mature markets with low long planning cycles and low levels of dynamism.  Industries prone to BW include Banking, Healthcare, Communications and Insurance.

How do you know if your organization suffers from BW?  The following are some tell-tale signs:

  • An employee’s work is not consistent with their job descriptions;
  • There are misalignments between corporate strategies & goals and what people do;
  • Email in-boxes are regularly filled at the beginning and end of each day;
  • Widely-attended, unstructured meetings take up a majority of an employee’s time;  
  • People regularly produce reports or memos that are ignored.

The only way to minimize BW is to address the root cause of the problem: namely, work habits, corporate values and measurement systems.  Senior leaders need to take a top-down approach to organizational performance by triaging attention and resources on core activities, streamlining processes and empowering the right employees to make decisions.   Some strategies to accomplish this include:

  1. Drive down decision making and empowerment to the right individual and team;
  2. Utilize standardized communication templates;
  3. Deploy knowledge management tools to foster a free circulation of information;
  4. Mandate individuals who propose change to implement their work;
  5. Reduce the amount of staff activities (read: administration) on key line functions;
  6. Articulate succinct strategies with goals, and cascade them down &  across the organization;

Reducing BW is not easy as any effort would likely would bump up against vested interests, management indifference and overlapping responsibilities.  Yet, in a cost-conscious and competitive economy, can companies afford not to tackle BW’s pernicious waste of time and effort?

For more information on services and work please visit us at Quanta Consulting Inc.


1 comment so far

  1. Kyle McGuffin on

    Thanks Mitch, I worked for a Telco that thrived on BW! They wonder why they are not growing market share and why their industry is dying!?

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