Looking Busy—The Enemy of Process Improvement

I can remember the first lesson I ever learned when I started my first job. It came from my father, and his lesson was simple: "Work hard and always look busy." His advice has served me well throughout my 20+ years of work experience. It helped me move through the ranks rapidly in the military and past employment.

But Does "Looking Busy" Actually Hurt Process Improvement Efforts?

Unfortunately, this philosophy has also caused problems in my current position as Continuous Improvement Manager for a major manufacturing company. Many of you currently working as industrial engineers or process engineers no doubt can sympathize with my position. My father’s advice is a sentiment that has been engrained in most of us who work in the United States. It’s a common trait that many Baby Boomers are known for. And while working hard is definitely a valuable trait to any employer, "looking busy" in my mind is just the opposite.

In a time when removing waste from processes is paramount, looking busy hides that waste. Anyone who has been tasked with balancing work content on a manufacturing line knows that rarely is work content completely balanced. In layman’s terms this means that workers theoretically should never always be busy. Wait time and specifically excessive wait time can serve a valuable function on the shop floor as an indicator that something is wrong. "Looking busy" masks wait time, hides problems and prevents process improvement opportunities from surfacing. Yet our front line supervisors often indirectly promote "looking busy" by reprimanding workers who are idle. This forces workers to create inefficiencies such as overproduction and other non-value added tasks to help maintain the appearance of being busy to avoid repercussions.

Let "Idleness" Alert You to Opportunities for Process Improvement

Next time you see workers idle, ask yourself why. Why don’t they have anything to work on? More times than not, it will point to a problem upstream—a problem that could be holding you back from reaching your process improvement goals.