Featured Product
This Week in Quality Digest Live
Quality Insider Features
Yosef Ayzencot
Develop and implement a solid company culture
Tracking changes in fluorescence from ultracold atoms is a super-sensitive indicator of pressure
Seb Murray
Switching to a circular economy could protect the environment and help companies generate more value
Jennifer Chu
Stamp-sized ultrasound adhesives produce clear images of heart, lungs, and other internal organs
Grant Ramaley
FDA seeks to align Part 820 with ISO 13485:2016; why that may not be enough.

More Features

Quality Insider News
Increases Xcelerator capabilities for climate-neutral aviation
Gantry designs feature enhanced performance
Precision manufacturers can monitor Universal Robots in real time and over time
New technology will allow customers to grow capacity, improve profit margins and gain efficiencies
Demonstrating a commitment to keeping people safe and organizations running
Making the new material freely available to testing laboratories and manufacturers worldwide
Virtual reality training curriculum prepares organizations for rapid transformation
Meet the latest generation of LC xx6 encoders

More News

Mike Micklewright

Quality Insider

The Greatest Waste

Processes or work habits?

Published: Monday, March 24, 2008 - 22:00

Question:What do you call it when a quality manager is caught cheating on a quality exam?


Several months ago, I taught a three-day internal-audit class to about 15 people. On the morning of the first day, Joe, the quality manager, gave me an Excel spreadsheet of the lunch orders of every participant for each day of class, including special orders. Joe had previously e-mailed menus to each participant, and they had e-mailed their orders back. He had taken the time to input every order and detail (e.g., extra mayo, no ice, etc.) and had color-coded the lines for ease of reading.

I looked at it, looked at him, looked at it again, and then looked at him to see if he was serious. He was. He was proud of his work, and he thought that I would be impressed. I couldn’t help laughing, even as I tried not to.

You see, Joe doesn’t excel when it comes to Excel, and he’s a very slow typist. He types with one index finger at a time. (Even I’ve even mastered three fingers at a time—middle left, index right, and middle right.) My guess is that it took him two to four hours to organize the lunch, send and review e-mails, and develop the spreadsheet. Meanwhile, several corrective actions assigned to him were late.

No one would argue though that he wasn’t working. Developing a complex lunch menu was a work-related activity. He wasn’t playing on the computer or talking to his wife on the phone. He was supporting a training effort. It just happened to be wasteful, not lean.

When we work, we perform a lot of wasteful tasks, and therefore much of the time we spend at work we aren’t really working. In fact, we can probably categorize the time we spend at work in three categories:

      1) Not working

      2) Working uselessly (like Joe)

      3) Working

How much time do we spend:

1) Not working
The following is from the Chicago SunTimesof August 6, 2006.

“Office waste: Workers kill 1.86 hours a day”

There’s a scene in the 1999 movie Office Spacewhen unmotivated employee Peter Gibbons admits he generally comes in late, spaces out for about an hour, takes lunch, and then spaces out for another hour. “I’d say in a given week I probably only do about 15 minutes of real, actual work,” he tells a pair of consultants.

Peter, you’re not alone.

A new survey by Salary.com and America Online found the average U.S. worker fritters away 1.86 hours per 8-hour workday—not including lunch and scheduled breaks. Top time-wasting activities:

      • Surfing internet (personal use)

      • Socializing with co-workers

      • Running errands off-premises

      • Personal phone calls

      • Spacing out

      • Arriving late

      • Applying for other jobs

      Source: Salary.com, America Online survey

Unrealistic? Not in your workplace? Not you?

These numbers came from the workers themselves. I was once asked by a client to be there during the company’s first ISO 9001 surveillance audit to support them in case anything came up with which I could help. They were buying insurance, although insurance is always questionable when it comes to value added. Was my time there really value-added? Probably not, but I was being paid. I got away with it, because it was what they wanted. Does this not happen in your office environment? Don’t we all get paid, to some extent, while not adding value? Yes, and some masters at it do it for a living.

There with the registrar auditor, I felt like I was in an episode of “Seinfeld,” because there was a lot of talk about nothing. So I decided to perform a time study on how the registrar auditor spent her time. The results: She spent 3 hours of an 8-hour day actually auditing. She spent five hours talking about the Cubs, the White Sox, the toll-way system, poison ivy, Tiger Woods, babies, family, and “American Idol.”

If you don’t believe that nearly 25 percent of the typical office worker’s day is spent on nonwork-related activities, you’re probably taking denial enhancers.

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake (whatever that means), that 25 percent of the common office worker’s work day is spent in the “not-working” category, since that’s what the survey tells us, after all.

If we can figure out how much time is spent working uselessly, then we can calculate how efficient office workers really are.

2) Working uselessly
In the article titled, “5S Isn’t Just for Hammers”the following was written:

      “According to a

Wall Street Journal

      article, Chevron and Credit-Suisse are taking a new approach to data storage. Chevron noticed that digital files (including e-mails) stored on their servers were growing at 60 percent per year, with negative effects on the business:

      “Besides the cost of buying new storage systems, Chevron’s employees were spending between one and a half and three days a month just searching for the correct information they needed to do their jobs, taking a toll on productivity, the company found. . . . (For those of you who need help with the math, that’s from 35 to 70 minutes per day looking for critical information.)”

On average, that’s 0.9 hours per day looking for electronic stuff.

Other activities in the office that fall into the “working uselessly” category include:

        1) Looking for paper or physical stuff

        2) Attending meetings in which you aren’t learning anything that you will use

        3) Doing extra tasks to protect yourself against that idiot in your company who is out to get you (i.e., covering your assets)

        4) Proving others wrong

        5) Protecting your kingdom (department)

        6) Gossiping about co-workers

        7) Recording the same notes in a meeting for the fifth time in a row instead of using the same time to actually do the work

        8) Walking blocks with a batch full of paperwork to the centralized copier/fax/scanner/printer that was going to save a boat load of cash

        9) Walking more blocks to the centralized cafeteria, coffee machine, etc.

      10) Talking to people along the route or near the copier/coffee machine and/or as you are waiting to use the copier/coffee machine and getting into deep conversations abut the election, Tiger Woods, and how global warming seems to be causing the next ice age this year

      11) Doing things that aren’t necessary anymore (e.g., making copies and manually filing)

      12) Approving over and over again

      13) Buying the next big thing (e.g., Six Sigma, lean, ISO 9001) without understanding it or committing to it personally

      14) Politicking

      15) Waiting—for approvals, for the computer to fire up, for people to show up, etc.

3) Working
I estimate that 50 percent of one’s day on average is spent working uselessly, which leaves two hours or 25 percent of one’s day actually working, on average, much more than Peter Gibbon’s 15 minutes of work per week.

What about lean?
There’s been a tremendous focus on eliminating waste in work processes, including office processes. This is great. However, lean is about eliminating all waste, not just waste in processes that we can document. Only a small percentage of an office worker’s work is standard and can be documented in the form of standard work. As one moves up the ladder, a smaller and smaller percentage of work is standardized so it’s inevitable that a greater and greater percentage of time spent will be wasted.

We have barely tapped the benefits of eliminating waste in the office workplace. If we were to reduce the time spent not working by only half, from two hours to one hour, we would be 12.5 percent more efficient. Perhaps then we could keep more jobs in the United States, instead of outsourcing them at alarming rates. Leaders must develop the structure, the standard work at all levels, the discipline, and the accountability to minimize the not working and working uselessly parts of our work day.

Leaders must develop systems to ensure that employees do more real value-added work while at work. If this doesn’t happen soon, we may soon have to outsource leadership as well.


About The Author

Mike Micklewright’s picture

Mike Micklewright

Mike Micklewright has been teaching and facilitating quality and lean principles worldwide for more than 25 years. He specializes in creating lean and continuous improvement cultures, and has implemented continuous improvement systems and facilitated kaizen/Six Sigma events in hundreds of organizations in the aerospace, automotive, entertainment, manufacturing, food, healthcare, and warehousing industries. Micklewright is the U.S. director and senior consultant for Kaizen Institute. He has an engineering degree from the University of Illinois, and he is ASQ-certified as a Six Sigma Black Belt, quality auditor, quality engineer, manager of quality/operational excellence, and supply chain analyst.

Micklewright hosts a video training series by Kaizen Institute on integrating lean and quality management systems in order to reduce waste.