Steve Fenton

Working hard vs thinking hard

Working hard verses thinking hard: Why weak management always falls back to measuring hours above all else.

I measure a lot of things in my job, but I am very careful about introducing measurements and metrics because they are prone to abuse and can be damaging to the overall efforts of an organisation. I will think a great deal about what I am trying to achieve by measuring something and what possible side-effects may occur before I start recording anything. I think even harder about publishing numbers, because a number that is passive at the team level can become active or even volatile if it is used outside of the team.

It is also common to generate numbers that cause localised optimisations that worsen the end-to-end activities the organisation is engaged in.

So I prefer numbers with the following characteristics:

  • They contribute to the end-to-end flow of work
  • They can be used to change how we work to make it better
  • They have no damaging side-effects
  • They can be easily discarded when they are no longer useful
  • They are kept as local as possible

… and I like to keep the smallest possible number active, which means considering dropping metrics before adding any new ones.

Now let’s look at measuring hours. How does it stack up against this list?

When hours are used as a measure, people tend to work more hours (either to be the hero who spends most time at the office, or just to avoid being the victim in the bottom 10%). Working more hours does not correlate to an increase in productivity, or quality. It results in burn-out, poor decision making, and the certainty that tasks that could be eliminated as waste are maintained as padding. Working zero hours may mean nothing gets done, but working working 70 hours does not mean you get twice as much done.

Because people don’t want to sit around doing nothing, people who might normally complete their work in 7 hours will hold some back or slow down to ensure they can hit their hours. This is why bureaucracy attracts Parkinson’s Law (as an aside, work does not naturally attract this law – you have to provide a dysfunctional environment within which you can cultivate it). I have worked in consultancy where clients are billed by the hour – so you have to track the hours for billing purposes, but even in this environment you will notice that the client will soon complain when they think something took too long – hinting at the fact that they are not really interested in hours but in the cost of the work, which they compare to an anticipated benefit.

It is also impossible to limit the spread of the numbers. When you measure hours in an organisation where hours equates to presence, people can casually collect their own version of the truth by watching the clock. This is a particularly poisonous practice when undertaken by someone who has no knowledge of actual productivity. The usual result of this kind of surveillance based management is wilful compliance (sometimes called work to rule). People will arrive promptly at 9am, take exactly 60 minutes for lunch, and leave promptly at 5pm – thus exactly satisfying the conditions being imposed. Of course, they won’t be particularly motivated to do very much when they realise that people get rewarded for hours rather than productivity… and they certainly won’t eliminate waste if it means it will be harder to fill the required hours.

And this is what truly makes a bureaucracy… find a company fixating on hours and you’ll also be surprised by the number of people required to deliver a small amount of output. The surprise will lessen when you find that people are in meetings almost all the time – there isn’t really the work to keep them occupied, but meetings can fill a lot of hours and are therefore the choice of those working to rule.

I am repelled by these organisations; not because of the waste they choose for themselves – as that is well deserved – but for the wasted hours of human life that could have been put to good use for the organisation and for society, but was instead wasted pointlessly.

As I see it, all the things that can be meaningfully measured in hours, and meaningfully compared between different people in hours, are targets for elimination in terms of human effort.

To be more precise, if it would take me one hour, or it would take you one hour, or it would take Fred one hour… maybe a human shouldn’t be doing it at all because the human aspect makes no difference to the task. If the task cannot be shortened by hard thinking, why is a person doing it?

Written by Steve Fenton on