the balancing act

, and January 25, 2016 0 comments

556-1multitasking: only when done right

Think of a craftsman. The craftsman that built the Taj Mahal, Konark Sun Temple, Pyramids of Egypt, etc. What attributes do you associate with this craftsman?

The craftsman understood customer needs; translated these needs into design; benchmarked design features to be best-in-class; defined the process/activities/tasks to achieve this design; and finally delivered outputs that delighted the customer.

According to me, the craftsman is ‘the’ icon for quality.

So what happened to the craftsman? Industrialization happened. Work that delivered delight to customers got divided into silos. These silos were given names such as: purchasing, finance, manufacturing, marketing, etc. The aim of industrialization was quantity. What happened to quality? It deteriorated. As a result, waste and customer dissatisfaction increased. This gave birth to the inspector…the first cost of poor quality!

Then came the First World War. Factory workers were called to the battlefront. With the kind of weapons of war prevailing in those times, most of the factory workers did not return. The elders who did not go to
war had to now run factories with widows and children who were not well educated. Work got further divided where the elders did the ‘planning’ and the widows and children did the ‘doing’. In modern parlance, this is known as ‘staff’ and ‘line’. What happened to quality? It went further down. Waste and customer dissatisfaction spiraled further up.

Post the Second World War, Japan was a devastated nation. As we all know, at that time it had no resources and no buying power. Only broken and burnt factories. On the other hand, it had a great desire to survive and succeed. So the Emperor of Japan invited industry leaders to explore the options available to them. The solution lay in exporting 80% of what they produced, and competing in the British colonies with quality as the differentiator.

In order to accomplish this, the focus was on work processes that delivered products free from deficiencies. In other words, they had to eliminate the chronic waste in their processes. Chronic waste was over one-third their total costs. The Japanese leaders and managers had to become adept at problem solving: problem definition; problem diagnosis; problem remedy; locking the improvement.

The problems these leaders and managers addressed were on the fences of functions. Cross-functional teams were required to diagnose and remedy these problems. The improvements were locked in systems that articulated processes, activities, and tasks. They assigned ownership of processes, activities, and tasks. The fewer the owners the better. Multitasking was a norm for reducing waste and, therefore, improving productivity.

Consequently, in the mid-1960s, unknown brand names in entertainment electronics emerged from Japan. They took on the world heavyweights. These brands—Sony and Panasonic—won the trust of customers. They were produced ‘better, faster, cheaper’ than prevailing established brands.

In the 1970s, post the OPEC crisis, when the cost per barrel of oil grew multifold, the Japanese quickly realized that customer behavior had changed. Customers no longer wished to purchase in bulk quantities. They needed to reduce their own costs by reducing inventories. They wished to purchase one of a kind, in multiple combinations. They expected suppliers to be as flexible as the craftsman.

Although deeply impacted by the oil crisis, the Japanese manufacturers saw this as an opportunity. They engaged with their suppliers to solve their chronic problems and improve their efficiencies. They also solved chronic problems relating to set-up time of machines. Further, they worked on fuel efficiency of products. They now produced ‘better, faster, cheaper, and different’. The science of just-in-time was born. Multitasking evolved to a new level.

As a result, in the late 1970s, fuel efficient sub-compact cars emerged from Japan, namely, Toyota Corolla and Datsun 510. The rest is history. Detroit was the hardest hit. Remember, the auto industry was the backbone of the US economy!

Desperate, the auto industry in the US approached the Secretary of Commerce, Malcolm Baldrige, to save their economy from Japanese economic aggression. As a result, the criteria for business excellence were born… where quality was non-negotiable:

  • Quality is the responsibility of executive leadership
  • Quality is an integral component of strategic planning
  • Quality is defined by the customer, who has a right to change his/her mind
  • Quality management depends on data, information
    and knowledge
  • Quality is made by people
  • Quality is delivered through effective and efficient processes
  • Business and operational results are a function of: customer/people/societal satisfaction.

This meant a total paradigm shift. Businesses needed to adopt a holistic understanding of the criteria. It involved understanding the interdependencies of processes: manufacturing/operations, support services, supplier.

Consequently, multitasking is in the DNA of all business excellence models—Baldrige, EFQM, Deming, etc. In India, the corresponding models are: IMC Ramkrishna Bajaj National Quality Award and CII-EXIM award for Business Excellence.

In essence, these models seek effectiveness and efficiency of processes across functions; and, since education levels between staff and line are not different, the line people should do their own planning. QED.

Is this the craftsman-like skills on scale?

Over the past decade we have experienced numerous disruptive approaches to businesses. Virtually, everything is available at your doorstep ‘much faster and much cheaper’ without compromising on quality and innovative design. Multitasking is the name of the game.

Multitasking is now on steroids.

– Suresh Lulla

avoid the risk of multifailing

Did Beethoven multitask while he composed his music? Did Sachin sign autographs while he practiced his batting? Did not Roald Dahl shut himself in a room while he wrote?

Well, you might say creative people or sportspersons need to have fierce focus. To achieve mastery, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in Outliers, you need 10,000 hours of practice. However, for our mundane corporate jobs, is not that an overkill? Do we need to have such intense focus to achieve mastery in writing emails, giving corporate presentations, and attending appraisal meetings? As most of us do not have one great skill like music or cricket, can we afford not to multitask?

Multitasking is a modern-day phenomenon—it is a product of the frenetic pace of life in the post-scientific revolution era. In the agrarian economies of the past, life moved slowly. One’s destiny was determined by birth. There seemed to be no justice in the ovarian lottery or nature’s whims and fancies. As a result, many cultures found solace in the afterlife. There was no hurry to get anywhere, if one could not achieve something in this life there was always the next life.

Scientific revolution changed all that. Man had greater control over his immediate surroundings. It seemed possible to change one’s destiny in a lifetime. Suddenly, everything had to be achieved in this side of life—hence the need to multitask. True, most of us do not achieve, or even aspire to achieve, Beethoven’s or Tendulkar’s level of mastery in anything. We just want to get by.

And just to get by, we need to juggle many balls. We need to respond to that urgent email from our boss while our children tell us stories of what happened in the school today. We cannot resist the temptation to log on to netbanking to pay the electricity bill while on a conference call with the client.

However, we must differentiate between lasting impact and frenetic activity. To survive, we must multitask. To achieve lasting impact, we must not. The trick is probably to separate the idea of multitasking over a period of time versus multitasking at a point of time.

During our day, we must do several activities. Most are mundane in nature. Even a writer will not be able to survive without paying bills or picking up grocery. But he may not mix those activities with his writing. We must also engage in many activities throughout our day, some routine, some high-impact. But we must not mix them. We must give them our attention when we perform them.

In the modern world, we cannot survive without multitasking. However, if we do many tasks at the same time, that can only result in multifailing.

– Arghya Banerjee

it reduces dependency on one set of people

Modern-day organizations are becoming increasingly productivity focused and this has led to an elusive search for magic fixes and solutions. One of the most common approaches has been to emphasize specialization and the expertise arising out of it. This means that we develop a breed of specialists who could do a certain task most efficiently, thus adding to productivity per se. This would mean that a professional who does market research would not be involved in advertising or in sales coordination. This led to a bouquet of super specialists in the organization who were experts in any one set of tasks and responsibilities and could not or would not do anything else. In a turbulent market scenario such as today’s, with increasing pressure on reducing costs and expenditure, many are questioning this approach. An alternative approach that is widely gaining popularity is that of multitasking as a means to increase productivity. This approach means that we ensure that professionals develop more than one skill set and hence can operate in more than one sphere of work.

This approach has the following advantages:

  • We reduce dependency on one set of people and create a more broad-based talent pool.
  • People in different teams become less indispensable and hence overall efficiency improves.
  • Teamwork as a way of life becomes a habit in the organization as individuals support each other to make the team perform better.
  • An individual in any team or department is given more than one opportunity to check out his/her aptitude and skills, and narrow down his area of expertise.

However, one has to also remember some of the disadvantages:

  • We may end up having more of generalists and less of specialists and this could adversely affect productivity. Thus, we have a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ situation.
  • We may end up facing situations wherein professionals may pass the buck and not own responsibility for completion of a task due to insufficient expertise in the area. Hence the scope for office politics increases significantly.
  • Employees may start feeling insecure as they may perceive that the organization does not value them enough as they have a backup employee in case of a contingency.
  • This could lead to a scenario of situational leadership wherein the leader would change when tasks change, based on expertise. Though this concept sounds great, the implementation is never too easy.
  • At times, companies tend to take undue advantage of this situation by not filling up vacancies that arise out of resignations, and get existing employees to take additional workloads in the name of multitasking.
    This may work best for the company but not for the individual.

To summarize, I feel that this is an excellent concept, ‘but’ needs to be handled with care. Its biggest plus point is the good intent of developing a more talented and robust set of employees. This contributes to an individual’s career progression as well as enriching the talent pool of the organization. But organizations must ensure that this concept is not stretched beyond need as it may be misunderstood by the employees. They should be able to generate the faith in employees that multitasking is to ensure better skilling and thus better opportunities for their growth and career progression. If this is accepted as the culture and ethos of the company, then this is a robust concept that can contribute significantly to organizational development.

– Prof RSS Mani

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