How firms waste time: Lax managers, not lazy staff

By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/11/2003

So you're feeling harried after a busy work week, and you’re wondering where the time went. Well, if one recent study is anything to go by, you might have really worked just three days last week. Well, not just you, perhaps, but your entire company.

According to the study by Proudfoot Consulting of London, England, workers and businesses are, on average, productive just 59 per cent of the time. That means two whole days out of every working week are spent wasting time.

According to the consulting firm’s calculation, this wasted time adds up to 92 days per person per company per year.

“Now this study does not say that people are lazy or avoiding work or a bunch of deadbeats hiding in the background. But is the work they are doing adding to the value of the company?” said Linas Kaknevicius, director of marketing for Proudfoot Consulting’s American division.

“Is it something that they’re supposed to be doing? If somebody takes time out of their day to plan a luncheon or help someone else out who’s not up to speed, it’s all well and good and people stay busy. But are they doing the function that they were assigned to do and adding value to their organization?”

The report, called

Untapped Potential

, is a compilation of 1,357 studies that Proudfoot consultants have conducted in seven industrialized countries over the course of their work in the past year. For each study, a consultant would be observing between 50 to 100 individuals at work, for four to eight hours each. Interviews with 2,700 CEOs were also taken into consideration.

Insufficient planning and control account for 43 per cent of unproductive time. Inadequate management, according to the study, is the cause of another 23 per cent of lost time.

Poor working morale is blamed for 12 per cent of the unproductive time. The last three causes — IT-related problems, ineffective communication, and inappropriately qualified workforce — are identified as the problem in eight per cent, seven per cent, and seven per cent of the cases respectively.

Productive time is defined as time spent by members of staff that is relevant to their job and is of value. Unproductive time can fall into two categories: business and personal time. Personal time is time spent on personal phone calls or e-mails, while unproductive business time can include time wasted by waiting for meetings to start or duplicating tasks that have already been done.

Managers don’t understand that they have to plan their work, and work according to the plan, said Kaknevicius. “There are bottlenecks at any company. You have people waiting around for parts, you have people waiting around for a bill of lading. Stuff like that, where you don’t look at the whole process and there are gaps in between that are stopping a flow. People don’t have to work harder, they just have to work smarter.”

Inadequate management is another reason so much time is wasted, he added. “If you’re a manager, you need to be able to confront your people. You need to know what your people are doing. We don’t expect supervisors to be standing over anybody, but just be cognizant. You check up on them during the day just to make sure that the results you’re expecting are getting done.”

As for IT-related unproductive time, Kaknevicius wonders whether time is wasted when employees correspond to each other by e-mail instead of picking up the phone or walking a few steps to their colleagues’ desks. Downsizing and restructuring have also resulted in workers either tasked with too much work to complete or placed in posts that don’t make use of their qualifications, said Kaknevicius.

“When workers are either over-burdened or under-burdened, they’re not motivated to perform to their maximum capacity. They’re just there to pick up the cheque every two weeks.”

Kaknevicius notes that it would be unrealistic to expect workers to be productive every minute of the day. But the optimal productivity level, the study noted, should be 85 per cent of the time.

Kaknevicius conceded that he has never seen any company reach that level of productivity, “but we’ve seen departments being productive at 85 per cent of the work time.”

While there’s still debate as to how productivity can and should be measured, the factors for unproductive time identified in the study are generally accepted by consultants in the field of performance improvement.

One such consultant, Miki Lane of MVM Communications, said bad management is consistently a problem when it comes to productivity. “The biggest stumbling block as far as workers being productive is the inability of managers to do what they’re supposed to do,” said Lane.

“I’m not saying put more levels of management in there. I’m a firm believer in moving the decision making down to the worker. It’s a question of making sure that management knows what they’re supposed to do and get out of the way and allow the workers to do what they’re charged to do.”

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