Most overlooked place for efficiency improvement? It's right in front of you!

Dan Morris

For many of us the focus in increasing efficiency has been on tasks and IT support. The gains have proven the value of this focus. Unfortunately we all overlook a simple problem that saps an organization of vitality and is a serious drain on efficiency every day. In fact it is so pervasive and ingrained that for most of us it is simply accepted and ignored. This problem is our work environment. We just accept lousy conditions as a norm. For example, how many meeting rooms have you been in that are set up for PC use? How many places require people to scramble to find electrical outlets before the meeting starts and cause such a jumble of wires on tables and across the aisles to the walls that no one can move?

I once heard a statement that the workplace is where you go to use outdated technology that stands in the way of you doing your job the right way. Think about it. Actually that is a sad statement for us who a long time ago built applications to save time and make people’s lives easier.

The simple fact is that our offices are set up for paper and pen and not the age of the PC, let alone mobile computing or to support the "digital enterprise". Like most, I cannot even begin to count the amount of time spent getting a meeting going looking for electrical outlets, extension cords, ways to link to projectors, and getting internet access so we can share files. And let’s not tell those interested in workplace safety how many of us have tripped over the power cords running from tables to the wall in conference rooms as we go to white boards or flip charts – pulling PCs off tables, spilling drinks, ruining clothes, and feeling like clumsy fools. As we all spend more and more time collaborating (a good thing) this problem is really getting out of control. In many places it has passed the annoyance level and is really getting into the problem area.

How many of you experience delays in meetings because you cannot find or schedule a conference room? How many companies have widely distributed technology that supports collaborative interaction? Actually making it happen is just one of the many challenges that we can blame collaboration for – again collaboration is a good thing, when properly supported. But when it is not well supported, it really just slows everything down. So don’t stop collaborating, just support it.

Are pooly designed workplaces one of the most overlooked efficiency-drains?

Then we come to our people’s work stations. How many are set up to handle easy access to electric outlets? I find myself crawling around on floors in client offices all over the country. Why can’t we give people power access above their desk top in cubes? Why do we limit the number of outlets and force wires all over the place? Why do we overload outlets with power strips? And, aside from the need to limit printers to reduce cost, why do we make people leave their work and walk around to get something printed? It really just doesn’t make sense if you think about it from a productivity standpoint.


Now, let’s consider the quality of the PCs most everyone gets saddled with. How many are even adequate? How many companies have their people "make do" with what they have? Even given replacement rotation cycles, how many people deal with outdated and inadequate PCs?

Now for the embarrassing question for all of us in the transformation industry – how many times have you even addressed these issues in redesigning an operation? If you have, how many times have you considered this as critical?

Even more basic in this look at enabling our workers to become efficient is meeting space. How many times have you looked at meeting space requirements? In most companies, conference rooms must be scheduled way before the meeting. What happened to meeting when you need to? What happened to real time collaboration? What about the wasted time in walking a building away or several floors away just to hold an hour meeting? I know of many people who leave the building and meet at the local Starbucks – just so they can get together to resolve some problem.

Yes, fixing these things all represent cost, but fixing them also provides serious benefit. It is a hidden, but easily accessed area of significant savings when considered from an operational level.

Moving on, let’s look at the places we meet. How many have white boards? How many have enough white board space to allow real collaboration and real idea evolution? I won’t even mention the time saving smart boards that capture what is on them automatically to save people from a need to stay behind or focus on capturing what is on the board instead of concentrating on the topic and the discussion.

How about software tools? They cost money and we often treat them like they were gold, giving them out on an "as needed" basis requiring several levels of approval. OK, good move to control cost. But, bad move to allow innovation, collaboration, spontaneous sharing of files, and moving into the world of knowledge sharing. Here we also ignore a concern for software tool versions – and many times companies have such a plethora of versions on the software their people have that many still cannot share files, designs, or many other things.

Consequently we scramble for ways to cut cost while we look for operational improvement and efficiency. We also set ourselves up to ignore this fundamental part of any process or workflow.

These obstacles do not, however, stop with the physical side of our workplaces. For example, how many of you have had bad interactions with the IT Help Desk. In a lot of companies these guys are knowledgeable, hardworking, and waaaaay overburdened. Too many calls, too few people to help out. And at a fundamental level, when do we all need help? It’s when everything is going to rack and ruin around us. What do we get – often, "all our staff are busy right now, please call back" or "please leave us a message and we will call you back" - translated as some day when we catch up, we will give you a call and if you are still working here, we will help you. Then there is my personal favorite. I call in because my email and internet are down and I get "please go into X system and submit a request for service". Talk about the perfect definition for "Catch 22". I cannot get into the internet, so I cannot get into any system and the help desks answer is to tell me to log in and submit a request for service.

So, what do we do? We ask our neighbors. One of them is always a local expert on what we need to know. They only sit a couple of cubes away and they know all because they have been there long enough to hit all the land mines. But, they don’t always have the right answer and the work-arounds become urban legend as the business is redesigned part by part by Bill.

W. Edwards Deming, the world famous father of performance improvement, wrote as one of his 14 principles – remove all obstacles. He was referring to supporting the customer, but it applies to operational performance as well.

Note: Anyone in business improvement or transformation who is unfamiliar with Deming’s writings should look them up – see Out of the Crisis, W. Edwards Deming, MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1986. Many look at him as the real father of statistical analysis in manufacturing and in business in general. I look at him as the father of modern approaches to Business Transformation.

Smart guy, that Deming! So, why do we ignore the simple and obvious things when we improve?

Some would say cost – we are trying to reduce cost, so why would we consider spending money to reduce cost. Where is the ROI? Where is the study? Well, I cannot find one. I am, of course open to any feedback from people who have looked at this side of performance. But, there is more cost than staff cost and more to improving the operation than cutting staff – especially if you look at staff from a knowledge and experience perspective. These are the things that slow the operation and cause error.

Building on the help desk example, when you think about it, there is a fundamental question around our need for help with using our applications and computer tools – why do people need so much help in using systems and doing their jobs? The first place to look is in Organizational Change Management. Let’s ask "How many of you have received adequate training?" "How many companies test people’s skills on a regular basis and give them training in areas of weakness?"

Ok, enough bashing. I know you all get the point. The simple fact is that our work environments have not kept up with the way we do work and have now become a limiting factor in the quest for productivity. So, the issue is what should we do about it?

Because of cost, this is not an easy fix. The technology to fix it is readily available. It is not a futuristic issue requiring innovation and creativity. The ability to fix meeting space problems and skill issues should be there in any company. The barrier is simply attitude and the drive to cut cost. Modernizing our workplace doesn’t require long studies and external consultants. Just think about how your group can become nimble, how you can support change, and how you can remove the barriers to performance. The problem isn’t always that you have too many people doing the work. The answer isn’t always that you need another application to cut manual work and thus people. That thinking is fine when you are anticipating a financial problem. But is increasing shareholder value always related to cutting cost? Again, I urge you to think about productivity, and above all your ability to compete and gain a competitive advantage.

So, what do you need to do?

The technology available in the market is now revolutionizing the way people live and more importantly for us, their expectations of how they will interact with companies and with one another. People today often do have far more capable hardware devices in their hands outside of work than inside – thank you Apple for your vision. In their personal lives people are getting used to instant access to almost any information and instantly addressing anything they need to deal with. Problem resolution is often just a couple of clicks or touches on their iPads away. And the technology that we look at as business technology has become ubiquitous and is no longer something only available to us in our workplaces. Interestingly we were originally trained to use this stuff in our workplaces and then we brought the skills outside to PCs in our homes. Now with mobile technology and social media, we are being trained outside our workplaces and we will bring these skills inside with us – most of us, especially young people, are ready and waiting for our companies to catch up and move to new technology and new ways of looking at work and workplaces.

But while there is a major move to digital technology coming, the purpose of this column is to look at performance and how we are stifling it with antiquated offices and work concepts. So coming full circle on this discussion, the issue that I urge you all to think about is what impact could reimagining the work environment have on your group’s productivity. You could simply start with conference rooms and put in tables with adequate power. You can simplify PC based projection and you can add video conferencing. You could also look at giving your staff members access to power all over their work spaces and all over your department. Also, how about converting unused space to conference rooms? Simple and inexpensive, but also a real productivity booster.

Look at the way people work and look at how they could work faster and better. Talk to them about what slows them down and what drives them nuts about their workspace. Ask how you could change things to help them work faster, with less error and to produce a better more consistent product, service, or outcome. Then do what is obvious and simple. The cost would be minimal and the benefits great if you take the time to do it right. I suggest you also benchmark the current and then measure the improvement from any change – proof is always a nice thing when spending money.

As always, I welcome your thoughts – my goal is to make you think, so let me know what you are thinking about. Let’s get a dialogue going on the comments space for this column.