Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency (英語) ペーパーバック – 2002/4/9
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If your company’s goal is to become fast, responsive, and agile, more efficiency is not the answer--you need more slack.
Why is it that today’s superefficient organizations are ailing? Tom DeMarco, a leading management consultant to both Fortune 500 and up-and-coming companies, reveals a counterintuitive principle that explains why efficiency efforts can slow a company down. That principle is the value of slack, the degree of freedom in a company that allows it to change. Implementing slack could be as simple as adding an assistant to a department and letting high-priced talent spend less time at the photocopier and more time making key decisions, or it could mean designing workloads that allow people room to think, innovate, and reinvent themselves. It means embracing risk, eliminating fear, and knowing when to go slow. Slack allows for change, fosters creativity, promotes quality, and, above all, produces growth.
With an approach that works for new- and old-economy companies alike, this revolutionary handbook debunks commonly held assumptions about real-world management, and gives you and your company a brand-new model for achieving and maintaining true effectiveness.
"An irreverent counterpoint to treatises about corporate efficiency. Brisk, compelling, and hard to put down." –Financial Executive
"Tom DeMarco goes after one of the most pervasive and pernicious myths of business--that humans are efficient the same way machines are. Slack will change the way you manage and understand your business." –David Weinberger, author of The Cluetrain Manifesto
"In times of many layoffs, shrinking staffs, vanishing 'think time,' middle managerial heads rolling, and mounting pressure to produce more faster . . . there are few limits on who can get some thoughts from [Slack].” –CNN.com
Madmen in the Halls
THE LEGACY of the nineties has been a dangerous corporate delusion: the idea that organizations are effective only to the extent that all their workers are totally and eternally busy. Anyone who's not overworked (sweating, staying late, racing from one task to the next, working Saturdays, unable to squeeze time for even the briefest meeting till two weeks after next) is looked on with suspicion. People with a little idle time on their hands may not even be safe. As one of my friends at Digital Equipment Corporation told me during the company's darkest days, "There are madmen in the halls, looking for someone to ax." Of course, the ones they were looking to ax were the folks who weren't all that busy.
Crisis of Confidence
Your company may not now have actual ax-wielding crazies roaming the halls, but their specter is almost certainly still with you. This is the remnant of the crisis of confidence we've just come through. Consider: As this is being written, American and western European business is in a period of extraordinary prosperity. The rest of the world is a basket case and we are healthier than we've ever been. And yet just a few short years ago, we were all in an agony of doubt. How could we survive, we wondered, against the competition of the ravenous third world, willing to work for peanuts and liable to undersell us in any market anywhere? How could we stay even with the superbly educated Japanese, or those clever and hungry workers coming out from behind the Iron Curtain, or the Taiwanese and Koreans with their superhuman work ethic and their awesome skills? Acting on our doubts, we went through a purge of excess capacity (i.e., people with homes and families). We trimmed as though our very survival depended on trimming.
Wasn't it reasonable to put our house in order in this fashion? Maybe it was in the short run. It probably contributed at least somewhat to our present strength. Yet the lasting side effect of the purge--the notion that busyness is the essence of business--can only do us long-term harm.
The Price of "Putting Our House in Order"
During the last ten years we have downsized, "right-sized," laid off, and fired people's butts. We have cut payrolls, closed plants, sold off divisions, and generally scared all our remaining employees to death. We nodded in approval as characters like Chainsaw Al (at one time the worst CEO in America) did their dirty work. We bid up the stocks of companies like AT&T who led the trend, i.e., led the retreat.
The principal target of the cuts has been that bugaboo of organizational efficiency: middle management. We asked ourselves, "What are they, after all, those middle managers? What are they but fat? What do they really exist for other than to be cut out in the interest of efficiency?" And so we cut. We surgically removed the middle layers of our organizations, flattening the charts and widening the scope of management at each level.
Was that a good thing to do? I have my doubts.
Maybe middle management exists for some reason above and beyond filling the space between the top and the bottom of the hierarchy. Part of my purpose in this book is to examine what's supposed to happen in the middle of a healthy organization, the critical role of middle management.
The main activity of those managers is reinvention. It is the middle of the organization where reinvention takes place. This is where the dynamic of today's organizational functioning is examined, taken apart, analyzed, resynthesized, and assembled back into new organizational models that allow us to move forward.
What got cut out of the most aggressively purged organizations is the capacity to change. The so-called restructurings have, in most cases, optimized the present steady state, only at the expense of the future.
Does It Matter?
Well, so what? Some companies have always been prone to trade away the future to make the present look a little more rosy. In the short term they prosper, and in the long term they don't. What's different this time? The difference is that today even the companies that didn't cut the heart out of their effective change centers have made it more difficult for those centers to operate. Change and reinvention require a commodity that is absent in our time as it never has been before. That commodity--the catalytic ingredient of all change--is slack. Slack is the time when reinvention happens. It is time when you are not 100 percent busy doing the operational business of your firm. Slack is the time when you are 0 percent busy.
Slack at all levels is necessary to make the organization work effectively and to grow. It is the lubricant of change. Good companies excel in the creative use of slack. And bad ones can only obsess about removing it.
IMAGINE that you took on an assignment to direct a film about happenings inside a hugely successful company. How would you portray the company? How, in particular, would you make it look successful? One tempting answer is to convey its great success by showing everyone who works there to be immensely busy all the time. After all, you might reason, how would the company have become so successful if its people weren't putting in substantial extra effort?
My own experience consulting inside some highly successful companies (Microsoft, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Dupont, to name a few) cannot corroborate a relationship between busyness and success. Very successful companies have never struck me as particularly busy; in fact, they are, as a group, rather laid-back. Energy is evident in the workplace, but it's not the energy tinged with fear that comes from being slightly behind on everything. The companies I have come to admire most show little obvious sense of hurry. They are more like an extended family, embarked upon a project whose goal is only partly expressed in getting something done; the other part of the goal is that all involved learn and grow and enjoy themselves along the way.
Work, particularly knowledge work, can be extremely enjoyable. That's why so many of us become addicted to it. If you take sensual pleasure in your work, and those around you are doing the same thing, if it's clearly okay in your corporate culture to enjoy what you're doing, chances are that yours is a company headed toward success. Sign up for the stock plan.
The Busy Worker
Extreme busyness is injurious to the real work of the organization. I will make that point as carefully as I can in the chapters to follow, stressing the effect in particular on management. But first, I ask you to consider how busyness may hurt the effectiveness of even the lowest-level workers.
Take, for example, the secretary. (You remember secretaries, don't you? A once-common element of corporate life.) A secretary's job may involve document preparation, appointment scheduling, coordinating, and generally facilitating the smooth functioning of one manager's work life--let's say yours. We'll call her Sylvia.
A good secretary is a treasure, as anyone who has ever worked with one knows, and Sylvia is definitely a treasure. With Sylvia around, everything goes more smoothly. When you're away from the office--it never looks this way officially, but whom are we kidding?--Sylvia is effectively in charge. She is the one who coordinates and distributes work to be done. If she ever left, it would set you and your organization back a few months, at least.
But now into this happy scenario drop a consultant with a charter to reduce cost, the "corporate restructuring agent." Whoa, he says, what's this? A secretary? And what's she up to this very minute? He parks himself beside Sylvia's desk with his trusty stopwatch in hand. To no one's surprise, he finds that Sylvia is really only busy 43 percent of the time. The rest of the time she is . . . available. She's available to do stuff that you or your people find you need to have done. That's part of what's so great about Sylvia: When something comes up, she can usually get cracking on it right away.
A look of triumph now comes over the consultant's face. If Sylvia is only busy 43 percent of the time, 57 percent of her cost is potentially savable. Why, all we have to do is dump Sylvia into a "pool" and allocate 43 percent of her time to you and the rest to other people. Or have you share her with some other manager who needs only 57 percent of a full person. Or even get rid of Sylvia entirely and hire a temp for that 43 percent of the time that you really need someone. (You can be sure that the consultant will be checking back later to find out if you really need that much help.)
What an improvement. Sylvia's gone or gone 57 percent of the time, and 57 percent of what she was costing the organization goes directly down to the bottom line. Wow. In place of a person who was idle 57 percent of the time, we now have someone who is busy 100 percent of the time. Talk about efficiency!
The problem, of course, is that the now-slackless secretary or portion thereof is simply not as responsive as Sylvia was. This highly efficient person doesn't get cracking right away on anything new that comes up, because this highly efficient person is too busy.
How We Work Together
Modern organizations are huge networks of interconnected work. The nodes of this network are you and your coworkers. The connections are pieces of work in progress that get passed from one person to another.
As a practical matter it is impossible to keep everyone in the organization 100 percent busy unless we allow for some buffering at each employee's desk. That means there is an in-box where work stacks up.
With enough buffer at each desk, the work flow can now be organized to keep everyone busy all the time.
A side effect of this optimally efficient scheme is that the net time for work to pass through the organization must necessarily increase. Think of it from the work's point of view: The time it takes to move entirely through the network is increased by each pause it has to make in someone's in-basket. If workers were available when the work arrived at their desks, there would be no wait and the total transit time would be reduced. But availability implies at least some inefficiency, and that's what our efficiency program has drummed out of the organization.
Making efficient use of workers in the sense of removing all slack from their day has an attendant cost in responsiveness and results directly in slowing the organization down. This is not an entirely happy tradeoff. As Bill Gates testified in the early proceedings of the Microsoft trial, "In the past, only the fittest would survive. Today, only the fastest will survive."
It's possible to make an organization more efficient without making it better. That's what happens when you drive out slack. It's also possible to make an organization a little less efficient and improve it enormously. In order to do that, you need to reintroduce enough slack to allow the organization to breathe, to reinvent itself, and to make necessary change.
The Myth of Fungible Resource
TYPICAL RESTRUCTURING EFFORTS concentrate on making a company more efficient. I have argued that the potential to do harm in this endeavor is substantial. In other words, improving efficiency may in many cases be countereffective. But that is not to imply that improving efficiency is therefore easy. It isn't. In fact, it takes a huge amount of work and real ingenuity. It's hard to make an organization more efficient because the workers of that organization have been constantly trying to make themselves more efficient. They've been doing that for years, since they are frustrated by waste and bored by idleness. The efficiency expert who now comes into the organization is obliged to plow over terrain that has been plowed over by many thoughtful persons before. Up against this daunting challenge, who can blame him if he takes the odd shortcut from time to time to show a little apparent progress?
The Oddest Shortcut of All
The tendency to shortcut is further encouraged by the sense--almost always present when restructuring is in the air--that apparent progress is every bit as good as actual progress. Dividing Sylvia between two bosses, for example, is only apparent progress, since her improved efficiency is offset by her reduced responsiveness. But if the efficiency expert has only a week to trim the fat . . . Well, you can understand the temptation.
So what's a useful shortcut for an efficiency expert who needs to show some quick organizational "improvement"? The shortcut that is most frequently employed is to assume that individual workers are entirely fungible.
fungible (fu' j bl) adj. (especially of goods) being of such nature or kind as to be freely exchangeable or replaceable, in whole or in part, for another of like nature or kind.
Money is fungible, for example. You can take it out of one pile--say, "Maintenance"--and add it to another pile--say, "Groceries"--without any net loss in the transfer. Dollars out of Maintenance equals dollars into Groceries. The Maintenance dollars you transferred are no different from the Groceries dollars that were there already. They all spend the same. Money is fungible . . . but people aren't.
If you are an efficiency expert under the gun, you can see how appealing it is to assume that people are fungible. That allows you to move people around freely to show an apparent productivity gain in no time at all. (Efficiency experts, after all, have to be efficient.) If a Sylvia can be treated as goods, capable of being divided up and "exchangeable or replaceable, in whole or in part" with other Sylvia-like workers, then assigning her 43 percent to one department and 57 percent to another makes perfect sense. If she's not a fungible resource, this makes no sense at all, so (shudder) just don't worry your little head about that possibility.
The assumption of fungible humans has come into its own in that mainstay of organizational theory called matrix management. In a matrix-managed organization, each worker reports to two bosses. The boss drawn directly above the worker on the org chart is the functionally responsible manager, the person who gives that worker his or her marching orders. And the boss off on the side is the discipline manager, the one who is in charge (in some sense) of all workers with the same or similar skill sets. In the figure, Lamar, a layout artist, reports to Vivian, his project manager, but also reports to Arnold, who manages all the designers and artists. In project-related matters, it's Vivian who is in charge. She decides what Lamar will be doing today and tomorrow. At raise time, though, it's up to Arnold to perform the review, and Arnold is also responsible for Lamar's training and advancement.
Tom DeMarco is an international management consultant with clients in numerous industries. His previous books include The Deadline (a business novel with more than 40,000 copies sold) and Peopleware (nonfiction, with more than 100,000 copies sold). He divides his time between New York City and Camden, Maine.
“You can’t grow if you can’t change at all.” Slack is “the lubricant of change… Slack represents operational capacity sacrificed in the interests of long-term health… Learning to think of it that way (instead of as waste) is what distinguishes organizations that are ‘in business’ from those that are merely busy.”
PRESSURE. “In my experience, projects in which the schedule is commonly termed aggressive or highly aggressive invariably turn out to be fiascoes… When the schedule is wrong, the work goes on anyway, proceeding in some way other than as planned. The result is that the effort is necessarily hurt. Subtasks are taken in a wrong order, or declared done when they’re only half done, all to keep the fiction of the schedule alive as long as possible.”
The author introduces Lister’s Law: “People under time pressure don’t think faster.”
“The difference between the time it takes you to arrive at ‘all prudent speed’ and time it would take you at ‘breakneck speed’ is your slack. Slack is what helps you arrive quickly but with an unbroken neck.”
QUALITY. “An absence of slack makes quality programs seem like a cruel joke. When there is neither time nor staff to cope with work that runs more slowly than expected, then the cost of lateness is paid out of quality. There is no other degree of freedom.”
“Quality takes time. Even quality in the ‘defects only’ sense takes time. So you might assume that a Quality Program for a development effort would, as its most important task, assure the quality of the schedule… What typically happens is that the schedule is set before the quality people come on board. Anything they do in the interests of quality happens after the date (which makes quality either possible or impossible) has been set.”
TIMING OF CHANGE. “Anxiety of any kind can only complicate the task of change introduction. That’s why the period of sudden decline of corporate fortunes is exactly the worst time to introduce a change. People are uneasy about their jobs, worried about lasting corporate health, perhaps shocked by the vitality of the competition. In retrospect, a far better time to introduce the change would have been in the period of healthy growth.”
“Growth always carries with it a certain necessity for change. You may have to hire more people, expand to larger quarters, diversify or centralize, all to accommodate your own burgeoning success. But growth feels good… It even feels good enough to reduce the amount of change resistance.”
RISK. “Risk management is the explicit quantitative declaration of uncertainty… Risk management is… a discipline of planning for failure. Companies that practice risk management make explicit provision for lots of small (but expensive) failures along the way to overall success. Overall success means taking a lot of money off the table at the end.”
“Risk avoidance is flight from opportunity… Without sensible risk management, organizations are prone to become stubbornly risk-averse.”
FEAR AND SAFETY. “The inherent conflict between effectiveness and efficiency is never so evident as when a risky new endeavor is proposed. The nature of risk is that it takes you away from your base of competence and into a new domain where you are effectively an amateur. That’s why it’s risky. Because modern market economies are in such flux, companies have to be aggressive risk-takers to succeed. But the efficiency imperative has the direct result of making them risk-averse.”
In an unsafe environment people will resist change. “Healthy companies know that they have to allow people to fail without assessing blame. They have to do that or else no one will take on anything that’s not a sure bet. Healthy companies know that, but Culture of Fear companies do not.”
“There’s no such thing as ‘healthy’ competition within a knowledge organization; all internal competition is destructive… Knowledge work is by definition collaborative… Those who suggest that ‘a little healthy competition can’t hurt’ are thinking only of the offense part… But the defense component is always injurious. When peer managers play defense against each other (try to stop each other from scoring), they are engaging in anticooperation.”
TRUST. Leaders acquire trust by giving trust. “The giving of trust is an enormously powerful gesture. The recipient gives back loyalty as an almost autonomous response. Gifted leaders know in their bones how to entrust. It is something they do on a daily basis. They give responsibility well before it’s been completely earned… But not too much in advance. You have to have an unerring sense of how much the person is ready for. Setting people up for failure doesn’t make them loyal to you; you have to set them up for success.”
“Empowerment always implies transfer of control to the person empowered and out of the hands of the manager. That doesn’t mean you give up all control, only some. You can’t empower anyone without taking chances. The power you’ve granted is the power to err. If that person messes up, you take the consequences. Looked at from the opposite perspective… It leaves the empowered person thinking ‘Oh my God, if I fail at this, my boss is going to look like a chump for trusting me.’ There is little else in the work experience with so much capacity to motivate… Process standardization from on high is disempowerment.”
MIDDLE MANAGEMENT. “Change, particularly a significant one, involves reinvention… The key role of middle management is reinvention…. This is where the dynamic of today’s organizational functioning is examined, taken apart, analyzed, resynthesized, and assembled back into new organizational models that allow us to move forward.”
“The fact that managers have time on their hands (i.e. their operations tasks use up less than eight hours per day) gives them time for reinvention. The extra time is not waste but slack.”
LEARNING. “Change and learning take place in the white space at the middle of the org chart. Significant organizational learning can’t happen in isolation. It always involves the joint participation of a set of middle managers. This requires that they actually talk to each other and listen to each other, rather than just taking turns talking to and listening to a common boss.”
“The hierarchy lines are paths to authority. They are far too narrowband for all the information that needs to be communicated. Communication in healthy companies takes place in the white space.”
“Training [is] practice by doing a new task much more slowly than an expert would do it… Any so-called training experience that lacks the slow-down characteristic is an exercise in nonlearning.”
There are fundamental differences between a building full of factory workers and a building full of code monkeys, engineers, accountants, etc....duh. DeMarco asserts that current management practices don't really account for this, namely that at crunch time you can push the laborers harder but "thinking" jobs occur at a fixed rate. A little free time, or slack, for all employees is in fact a good thing, because it allows for beneficial change to happen, or certain tasks to occur right away. Standing over a cubicle with a stopwatch won't help the worker or the organization. Laying off a full time secretary and splitting another half-time between two departments because she was timed to be busy only 50% of the day is a bad idea, because then the secretary is then always busy and you then have six-figure salary workers wasting their time making photocopies. The whole idea of slack is also useful when looking at risk analysis and planning, and many other aspects of corporate life.
While I certainly don't agree with everything DeMarco presents, a lot of the ideas do seem very well founded in reality and are just plain all-around good concepts. I think it's worth a read and discussion with your colleagues if you manage people in polo shirts or neckties, but I don't think this is the end-all of management books.
For knowledge work, I generally agree with his main points, and I have gained some inspiration in some other areas as well (for example, some specific cases where matrix management might actually be optimal).
However, some other reviewers have misunderstood DeMarco's main point. Efficiency and flexibility are opposite ends of the spectrum. If you want real agility, you have to give up some efficiency, and the opposite is true too. This isn't a matter of work less and get more done (aside from issues of long-term overtime, where it is a valid point) but rather work a little less and regain some capacity to change direction.
The second point though is that without slack, one cannot adequately manage risks. This slack not only gives you the ability to change direction to avoid risks, but it provides you with extra resources to overcome temporary and unexpected challenges.
In general, I think these are important points and I think that most companies would do well to at least consider these two points.