When Saving Time Wastes Time

When Saving Time Wastes Time

People are busy and want to save time.  Being frantically busy has become a lifestyle. But if you’re working to shift a work system toward health, saving time up front can ultimately waste time.

It’s tempting to act before we fully understand the foundations of healthy work systems.  People hear about Herzberg’s or Maslach’s work and want to immediately act on it.  There’s pressure to save time by jumping into action and implementing something.

I can see the temptation.  It feels good to take action.  Some of the concepts seem straightforward. When we implement we can point to the number of initiatives we’re working on and feel like we’re making a difference.  

But are we, really?  Or are the shortcuts to action actually wasting time in the long run? How many of the projects will actually make a meaningful difference?

A friend recently shared a Harvard Business Review piece, Burnout is About Your Workplace, Not Your People (Moss, 2019).

I agree with the title and intention of the article.  Burnout is not an individual phenomenon.  It has everything to do with the design of our work systems.  My only surprise, at first, was that this basic premise is seen as new enough to publish.

Moss refers to a few researchers who have been researching the causes and costs of burnout (from the 1960s through 2018).  So far so good on making a case that has been made many times but ignored, for the most part.

But things fall apart when Moss starts to explain her understanding of how to remedy poor job design.  She lifts Herzberg’s work out of its job design context and ends up focusing on the wrong path(s) forward.  She is advocating that leaders waste their time on approaches that cannot shift a system toward health because they are surface-level interventions.  None of her recommendations is meant to change the work system itself.

Moss advises leaders to “ask better questions.”  Employees have been over-surveyed for years.  How much more data do we need about what’s wrong before we do something about it? What we need is a systematic response to the stressors employees are identifying.  We can already do that based on the research. Why waste time with more surveying?

Moss suggests using “small, micro-pilots” where people in small groups vote on how to best use resources.  She’s focusing on reducing Herzberg’s dis-satisfiers, which is ok, but at best, a partial solution.  The troubling side to her recommendation is that this path will feel like a substantial investment of time (having people vote to assign local resources can take time), but it will yield little results.  This technique might also have some negative side-effects.  What if there isn’t a clear majority on how to use funds?  How will people feel when they vote and do not see an impact? And it is unlikely to encourage leaders to question the culture they’ve established which is disconnected from local needs, which is a systems issue.

Moss also recommends the use “management by walking around” which is a 1980s concept.  I’m not aware of any connection between anecdotal management approaches and positive shifts in job design and employee health.  Random patterns of talking with employees might feel good to the leader – like they are ‘out there’ connecting with their people, but they are unlikely to lead to system reform.  At best, I’d expect this approach to educate the leader on surface level issues – issues which have likely already been identified on the annual engagement surveys.

Moss then concludes by recommending that wellness programs be preserved.  I’m neutral on this topic.  I love yoga and have a personal meditation practice.  I’m pro-wellness.  But people are so varied that it seems like an expensive approach to organizational health to try to accommodate the majority of employees within a workplace.  A work system approach would be to ensure that employees have the resources (e.g., time, energy, salary) to make good use of their own wellness approaches.

This author has misunderstood the research.  She is leading readers down paths that cannot prevent or heal burnout.   

When people cite Herzberg and Maslach and don’t end up talking about the structures and processes of work systems, take their advice with a truckload of salt.  

Acting from incorrect understandings leads to initiatives that waste everyone’s time.  Learn the research first, then use the research.  Putting in the time up front increases the likelihood of successful implementation.

blood mon by greg sellek

Eclipsing Expertise: How Do We Honor the Knowledge of the Professions?

blood mon by greg sellek

My Facebook news feed showed me that a good many of us were outside watching the lunar eclipse the other night. I’m astounded by the expertise, skill (and technology!) of some of my colleagues.The photos they posted of the rare blood moon sure beat my view from the porch – which was actually still pretty cool!

In the midst of these images, my dear friend, colleague and fellow human factors engineer, Karen Dettinger, posted this article in The Federalist on “The Death of Expertise.” The author, Tom Nichols (who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College and in the Harvard Extension School), does a great job describing how the rise of social media has changed our collective view on what expertise is, and who has the right to be heard.

This morning I’m thinking about timelines, the distance we’ve traveled since I graduated from high school in 1982. I think that was the last time we saw a lunar eclipse while at perigee (aka a super moon – thanks for teaching me that Greg!). And I’m even more sure that, just I was entering college, there was still an easy distinction to make between the world’s experts and non-experts:

Experts spoke and non-experts listened.

Over the last few decades we have all witnessed the political and technological shifts that make it possible for many more people to have their say. For the most part, I am a big fan of more people finding their voices and being able to express themselves and their truths.

But I have been surprised by the way this access has altered public and professional discourse. Instead of more information, it seems we have more misinformation, and much less rigorous thinking.

That plays out on a regular basis in my professional life. I’ve worked with a number of project teams in which team members felt comfortable calling themselves “engineers” and “work systems experts” even though their credentials had nothing to do with, well, engineering or work systems.

In reality, they confused their qualifications with their experiences: many had worked in jobs where they observed what they considered inefficiencies. They had ideas about whom or what was to blame. And they had strongly held opinions about what others should be doing differently.

Often these folks say that they can just feel the right approach – which is, of course, the right or natural approach for them. It is their truth, with a little “t.” Whether or not these approaches are in the best interests of a larger population, or even the rest of their working group, however, is another matter.

I’ve learned over the years that there is little point in arguing with people who claim expertise they don’t have.

If someone feels they can be an engineer with no education, or with just a few hours of exposure to basic concepts, then I think they should have at it! Do engineering. See what you create. Live the consequences. Then, if things don’t go as you hope, go find and hire an actual engineer.

This topic takes me back to what I learned about multiple truths while writing my dissertation in UW-Madison’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering in the early ‘90s. To be sure, there was no talk about “worldviews” in my department – I learned about it from colleagues outside of the College of Engineering. Specifically, I remember talking with Professor of Higher Education Clif Conrad, a faculty member in the School of Education, who had written a lot about postmodernism. I asked him about relativism and how to make use of it in my work with organizations. He said:

“There are many truths, but some are more compelling than others.”

In “The Death of Expertise,” Nichols does a great job of explaining just this: how some truths are more compelling than others. Professionals who have spent a career exploring an area render an expert opinion. Lay people who want to contribute their thoughts should be considered just that – people with opinions based upon their own experiences, but having little to do with the topic area.

As someone who really believes in the beauty and relevance of the professions, and of education itself,

I want to recall and honor the expertise embedded in each profession.

I want to bring professionals into collaboration with one another. I don’t want to negate people’s individuality, but rather help them to appreciate the depth in other professionals’ work. If we can co-create to integrate the depth of knowledge across professions, then we’re on to something BIG!

But to negate expertise in another profession does us no collective good. Just because you’re a brilliant physicist doesn’t mean you’re also a brilliant organization psychologist just because you have opinions about why people behave in certain ways at work.

We have everything to learn from each other and from our educational worldviews.

blood moon by greg sellek

Our perspectives, whether from the back porch or through a telescope, are valuable. But they are not equivalent.

There is no benefit to eclipsing another’s specialization. We need to respect expertise that is different than our own, and work together to create something better than we could alone.

Katherine Sanders, PhD

Systems engineer, Katherine Sanders, helps leaders make informed decisions based on organizational research. She has a BS, MS and PhD in industrial and systems engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializing in human factors and sociotechnical systems. Katherine focuses on the design and leadership of work systems that are not only effective and efficient, but also healthy for those who work within them.

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Katherine Sanders, systems engineer

I’ll be speaking at the InBusiness Expo on October 21, 2015!

I’ve happily accepted an invitation to speak at the InBusiness Expo & Conference on October 21, 2015 at 3:30PM at the Alliant Energy Center. I’ve got 25 minutes to talk about “occupational stress, job design and health with evidence from the research and what business people can do to create healthier workplaces.”  

It will be a fun challenge to address all those topics in a meaningful way in such a short session!  I’ve got my fingers crossed there will be some fun folks there willing to start a conversation about Healthy Work. I’m thinking about including my “Worst Practices” list… We all know what makes people want to quit. The tricky part seems to be doing the opposite consistently.  🙂

You can find more info about the Expo and speakers here.