Lean vs. Employee Utilization in an Upcoming Era of Creative Work

Utilization is different for humans in non-factory line work

Ever since Frederick Taylor made a scientific study of factory worker productivity, we’ve been looking for ways to make our employees more efficient. Many management methodologies have come and gone since, but all have found their origins in the same old “factory work” model. But could the changing nature of work itself in the digital era finally disrupt this?

I recently stumbled across a Gartner/CEB financial services industry report from 2015 (The Post-Lean Agenda for Financial Services: From Waste Elimination to Adaptive Design) indicating Lean was adopted by 86% of financial organizations by 2010. I’m sure the figure is higher today, and I’m also certain that in manufacturing lines of work the interest in and adoption of Lean methods came quite a bit sooner. It’s probably safe to say, as the report noted, most businesses have already implemented Lean and gained its advantages, prompting the question, “What’s next?”

To answer that, one must consider what Lean couldn’t do for our businesses. Specifically, to whom did it not apply? While there are many aspects of Lean we could examine, for this conversation I’d like to narrow in on the aspect of efficiency, specifically utilization.

In addition to literal blue-collar factory work, Lean can be applied to white collar work as well… so long as the worker is still largely performing assembly line, repetitive processes and tasks. In this situation, the employee is still essentially a machine, part of the larger factory, and Lean methodology can be applied. The same goal exists for the human resource as actual mechanical resources in a factory: optimal utilization — the most up-time on task, producing output.

But if you overzealously apply factory-based methodology to all white-collar work, you’ve made a critical error in judgment. Some white-collar work is NOT repetitive and assembly-line in nature. It requires human creativity, judgment, and problem solving. In fact, if, as so many articles claim, process automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence begin to take repetitive work away from employees, innate human creative abilities will be even more requisite in the workforce. If you attempt to manage the new breed of employees like machines, expecting them to creatively solve problems and have inspired solutions within your preferred timetables and metrics, you’re going to be disappointed and indefinitely frustrated. According to numerous books and studies, creativity and inspiration don’t work like that. In fact, they often don’t look anything like finely tuned machines running at maximum utilization. At times, creativity requires unfocused “downtime,” which will look an awful lot like not working to the traditional manager of “factory” environments. Why do some of the most creative tech companies have offices with ping pong and foosball tables, scooters, and music rooms? They allow employees to unfocus, which unleashes the creativity and problem solving parts of their brain. The unfocus leads to better solutions and output when back “on task.”

In short, if you expect creativity to look like a factory, you’re going to believe your “machines” are broken and wasting time. One cannot wire a lever to the human mind which when pulled immediately produces “eureka” moments. If you persist in treating employees in those roles like machines, you’re going to undermine their belief in your capacity to understand and lead their work. Employee engagement and morale will plummet, and you’ll drive your best talent away.

This isn’t to say there cannot be methodological approaches to creative problem solving and ideation. (One example is Lee Zlotoff’s MacGyver Method.) It’s reasonable to expect that all commercial work — creativity included — must adhere to some defined time constraints and success measures. It is how you permit your talent to deliver results that will likely make all the difference.

So, Lean is a helpful methodology for factory-era work, but beware of its limitations as the nature of work itself evolves. Painting all work with the same methodological brush might achieve the exact opposite of intended business results.

For some fresh research on the topic of creativity and focus in modern business, be sure to check out this very recent MIT Sloan Management Review article: Managing the Distraction-Focus Paradox.

For more thoughts on business, technology, culture, and human nature, follow Ben Kobulnicky on Medium & LinkedIn and subscribe to his YouTube channel.