Get Back to Work!
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Get Back to Work! by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine September 2005

Now that the summer is over, we can get back to work.  Maybe I am hypersensitive towards management productivity, or the relative lack thereof, but in a lot of ways I am really glad that the summer is over so that the daily work performance playing field can return to a little more balanced state.  That’s right – I believe that office people take a good portion of the summer off, even though they still show up for work during most of these days.  If we really had good measures of front office productivity, I think my theory would be proven as valid.  Since we don’t however in most organizations, I feel pretty comfortable stating that the three months of June, July, and August are the least productive months out of the twelve in any calendar year.

Why should I be concerned with this?  Well, to begin with, these monthly articles are intended to promote performance improvement in the workplace.  We pay our managers, supervisors, and engineers more per hour than we do those people whose work is paced by daily production schedules, conveyor belts, or incoming customer phone calls, and yet we seem to be content to let them work at their own pace, trusting that they will do the right things and remain self motivated.  Since I believe the fact that people are people much more than the possibility that four years of post-high school education can somehow instill a heightened level of self responsibility and focus, I think we are missing out on the chance to get a much bigger bang for the daily bucks we spend on management.  What have you witnessed in your workplace?  Are your managers providing just as much daily value as your front line people?

I also see the difference in human behavior that exists during the summer months.  The e-mail traffic on the list services I am a member of has been noticeably lower these past three months.  Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday traffic has slowed to typical Monday and Friday levels, and the traffic on what is often the slowest two days of the work week has neared the snail’s pace volume of the weekends.  People are more difficult to reach in their offices, and the average response rate to phone calls and e-mail requests appears to be significantly longer.  To me, it appears that since the kids and some of our peers are on vacation, some of us are thinking that we might as well take an ‘at work’ vacation as well.  How many dollars a day are we losing to this lost productivity waste stream?  Am I off base, or are more people taking a summer vacation than the electronic out box indicates?

This is a cost issue, but it is also an issue of fairness and consistency.  When I made the transition from an office job to a front line management job, I noticed a significant difference in the pace of daily work I needed to perform.  It was more difficult to take a break, lunch, or vacation when I wanted to, and the ability to find a few hours of quiet time at my desk all but disappeared unless I came in before my people started to show up for work.  Long lunch hours and hanging around for an extra fifteen minutes in the conference room after the meeting ended were a management luxury that I had to give up, even if I did not make it a habit to do those things that much any way in my former role.

Even though I was not responsible for keeping a machine running or meeting an hourly production quota, my job changed.  My perspective on fairness at work also changed however.  It really bothered me that some people in the company had the ability to plan their own work days, come and go from their work areas as they pleased, and retreat to a quiet place when things got a little crazy, but others did not.  It became more and more difficult to understand why some people got these work benefits and other people did not.  I just could not justify in my mind how four or more additional years of education could entitle someone to be less focused on their personal productivity and ability to add value to the customer, especially in light of the fact that they were making more money per hour on average.

Some of you may challenge my opinion with the fact that some managers have to work unpaid overtime and weekends, or that a supervisor has a harder time leaving their job at the workplace each day then a front line employee does.  You might point out that management jobs can be much more stressful, and that the negative impact on the company for failing to do that job correctly can be much greater.  If you do, I won’t totally discount your arguments, but I will counter by asking you if all front office people have these differences in their jobs.  I will also challenge you to show me how the extra hours our managers do put in are not simply a by-product of ineffective meetings, unfocused strategic plans, poorly designed support processes, and non-value added e-mails.

Because front office people waste a lot of time, they have to put in extra time to make up the difference.  We simply have not applied the same techniques to improve our management processes as we have our front line processes.  We have not come up with better ways to measure meeting or training effectiveness.  We don’t question or measure the value of an offsite meeting or training session with the same rigor as we challenge that $500 expenditure for new equipment on the front lines.  I think we have let elitism and our egos get the best of us, and the summer months offer us the best laboratory setting for validating this belief.  Were the past three months in your company, plant, or work group just as productive as the three months that preceded the dismissal of school for the summer, or is it possible that a front office productivity falloff took place in your organization as well?

Perhaps focusing on the lean enterprise as opposed to simply lean manufacturing will reduce this discrepancy in personal performance on the job.  Maybe someone will invent a PDA-based productivity tracker that will allow us to measure front office productivity to the same degree as we currently measure front line jobs.  I am not an advocate of measuring people by the hour – I prefer to measure hourly or daily process performance – but something has to be done to stop this productivity loss and make the expectations for workplace performance more consistent.  Our front line people see and talk about what their front office peers are doing. They have as much trouble reaching these people in the summer months as I do.  This lack of fairness, perceived or otherwise, affects attitudes, which in turn affects product and service quality.  If things aren’t this way in your organization, I applaud you.  I would also ask you however to take a meaningful look at how you are measuring front office value and defining value itself.

We won’t have to wait until next summer to see if my theory exists and can be validated in real life.  The holiday season is coming soon, and in my opinion, the front office performance drain is just as significant during this month and a half of the year as it is during the summer.  Don’t you think it is time we got back to work and stayed there?

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