Cut Us Some Slack

Cut Us Some Slack

Unless you're careful, you could end up using technology to increase your employees' efficiency while hurting productivity.

Don't look now, but your organization is slacking off. You shouldn't be too surprised; it's a battle information technology has been waging for the past half-century. IT has been fighting against many kinds of slack: excess inventory, time, labor, space and so on. And IT has been winning handily.

By slack I mean the excess over what's absolutely necessary - the extra, the additional, the lagniappe. The very idea of supply chain management, in which slack is eliminated from inventory-intensive production processes, would be a joke without integrated information systems. By and large, it has been a good thing to squeeze slack from inventories, although I once heard an automobile executive complain about the problems caused by "lean production" when he had to deal with a strike. I guess strikes are not that common in Japan, where slackless inventory first arose.

But during the past several years, the war against slack has moved to a new battleground. Now the enemy is no longer physical goods, but slack labor and human time. IT is being used to schedule people's activities to the second and to eliminate any lost moments of productivity in human lives by allowing mobile communications, mobile commerce and mobile computing. I am writing this article, for example, on a fast-moving train in Switzerland. Between occasional glances at the Alps I can bang away on my laptop with electricity thoughtfully supplied by the train.

Again, this battle against human slack is in part a good thing. I really like my laptop and cell phone, and I wouldn't want to give them up. But when it's human slack that's been squeezed, the consequences are more severe than eliminating slack in physical goods. On my train, for example, because I'm typing I'm not sleeping, reading, or looking out the window and thinking - all activities I also enjoy and need. When I talk on my car phone - or, most likely, listen to my voice mail - while commuting I can no longer listen to All Things Considered, my favorite radio program. And when I'm on e-mail at home, I'm not helping my kids with their homework or giving my wife a back rub. For every time savings there is a time cost. In fact, I think that I will turn off my computer for a while and look at the Alps full time (and try to ignore the annoying cell phone conversations of my fellow passengers). I'll resume when the scenery is less worthy of my slack.

OK, I'm back now. A friend once told me an interesting story. Her company was trying to eliminate slack from physical inventory and move to a lean production model, and she was a team member who would implement the approach. In order to get others on the team to understand lean production, my friend proposed that for several days all team members unplug their home refrigerators. "Think of the refrigerator as a warehouse," she said, "and the food in it as in-process inventory." Just as the company wanted to reduce or eliminate inventory slack, the team members should eliminate food slack.

My friend went along with this little game for a day or so. She explained it to her family, who agreed to participate. By the second day, however, her daughter had enough of the simulation. "This is really stupid," she said. "It makes no sense to have to go to the store every day for food. I hope what you're trying to do at work isn't as stupid as this."

The point is that slack can be of real value where human beings are concerned. A little in-process inventory in the service of knowledge workers can be worth whatever it costs. When we're not typing or otherwise visibly working, we might just be thinking. And wasn't that what knowledge workers were supposed to be all about? In fact, it's getting harder and harder to distinguish between human slack and knowledge worker productivity. If you're leaning back in your chair with your feet on the desk, you may appear to be a slacker, but you could easily be thinking about something profound. If you're chatting on the phone or near the coffee machine with a colleague at work, you're probably simultaneously slacking off - talking about vacations, the weather or office gossip - and working hard, addressing why your project will be a little late and what to do about the latest master stroke of your competitor. In fact, if you're not good at slack talk, you'll find it difficult to get people to share important knowledge with you.

Most humans in the workplace seem to realize that slack time is important, no matter how diligently industrial engineers and systems analysts try to remove it. Many of us intuitively know that we get into trouble when we don't have time to think, and we naturally sense that slack is an important lubricant in social relationships. Slack time for thinking and relationships may even be increasing among knowledge workers, simply because they are working longer hours. If you're at the office from dawn to dark, it probably means that you've shifted some "home slack" time to "office slack." The dotcom companies with foosball and pool tables scattered around their offices realize that this shift has taken place.

For knowledge workers, slack involves not only time but also space. Just as we need time to create and socialize ideas, we need spaces in which these things can happen. Many of the recent changes in office environments - for example, telecommuting and hoteling (sharing space) - are attempts to squeeze space slack out of offices. Such space engineering saves a few dollars, but I believe it is probably injurious to the creation and circulation of high-quality knowledge. I suspect that neither the architectural profession nor the office furniture industry understand the interplay between space and effective knowledge work, but it's a good bet that treating people as sardines is not the answer.

Several years ago, my friend and then-colleague Larry Prusak and I went to Japan to observe how pharmaceutical organizations there manage information and knowledge. We were struck by, among other things, the existence of conversation plazas, in which researchers were supposed to exchange ideas and general chitchat at designated times during the day. In the United States, we're probably a little less formal about such things, so every U.S. organization should have a charming café, cappuccino bar or tea room in which people can comfortably share ideas. For that matter, maybe a wine bar would serve the purpose best of all, though it probably should not open until 4 p.m. and should incorporate a designated driver program for commuters.

The key issue is that ubiquitous technologies and overzealous reengineers will combine to take out all slack if we're not careful. We probably could work for 18 hours every day, let our fingers wear out our keyboards and do it all in efficient little cubes, but over time we'd come up with fewer inspired ideas for new businesses and better ways of working and living. Today we all have to make explicit choices about when we will do visible work and when we need some slack. If you're overworked, overstressed, overcommunicated and overcomputed, it's time to put slack back.