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Speed Matters


Do you like speed?  Do you yearn to be sitting behind the wheel of a Ferrari on an lonely winding road pushing the car and you to its limit?  Or, how about amusement park rides that thrust you up, down and all around putting your body through various g-forces?  Do those two examples get you pumped up or make you cringe?  Personally they get me pumped up.  Speed may be very fun in leisure activities but what about at work?  Is speed a priority at your company?  Is there always a push (stated or unstated) to go faster?  In today’s business climate the need and/or desire for speed is nearly constant.  A recent experience confirmed just that.  I was speaking to a bunch of operations managers and I asked the following question:  How many of you are tasked to find a way to do things faster?  Every hand in the room went up.  Surprising?  Not at all.  Speed matters—being able to get more done in less time with money and/or people are something that is praised in every boardroom.  Why?  Because speed equates with time and time equates with money.  Less time means less cost; more time means more cost.  


However, there is often a paradox to speed as demonstrated by my next question to that manager group.  I asked them this follow up question:  How many of you have been able to go faster without suffering any other consequence?  This time no hands went up.  Surpising?  Again, not at all.  It seems that when we push for speed there is a consequence in doing so.  So, the question then becomes what is an acceptable trade off?  Do we push production at the expense of safety or quality?   Should there be a speed limit or “restrictor plate” in business operations to protect the end user (think GM’s recent recall of cars)?  Let’s take a quick look at speed from the two major points of view:  the human and business system. 


Human Speed

Unfortunately we are all not blessed with the speed of Usain Bolt the current world record holder in the 100m with a time of 9.58 seconds.  During that run it was calculated he reached the speed of 27.3 mph!  Most of us are doing good just to do 6-7mph.  Luckily most work these days does not rely on body speed. Actually most job tasks today push our minds, not our bodies, to the limit.  We try so hard to multi-task—doing two+ things at once such as conference calls while working on our computers or  texting and driving, which no one will admit to but obviously many of us do it otherwise it wouldn’t be an issue.  We also push our limits by how long we work.  A normal work day could easily be 10, 12, 14+ hour days where we sit behind our computers or operate machines with hand controls that more and more resemble gaming controls.  We are pushing ourselves all in the attempt to get more done in less time.  But…what are the consequences?  Do we ever hit the wrong button?  Do we ever “miss” something we normally would see because we are physically or mentally tired, or distracted by juggling too many things at once?  We’d be lying to ourselves if we said no.  But yet we still push—ourselves or others to go faster.  As an ergonomist I know a great deal about human factors and what our bodies and minds are capable of and when/how breakdowns are likely to occur.  Pushing humans “to do and go fast” without providing them the right tools and processes will inevitably lead to errors and/or injuries.  So what’s the answer?...


Business System Speed

How quickly does the work flow through your company as whole and within your area specifically?  Do you know the total time it takes from the beginning to end for “the work” to get done, i.e. inputs, throughputs, outputs and final delivery to your customer?  If you’re in manufacturing or in a distribution/warehouse environment you definitely know the time.  However, time is also measured in other areas as well such as patient care, product development, management initiatives and various office “paper pushing” tasks.   I have found that the greatest speed killer resides in what is classified as “work in progress” (WIP), meaning the work has started but not ended.  How many projects languish in the “working on” stage? How many times have your asked someone “Are you done with that yet?” or have your been asked the same question?  It seems there is so much work just sitting there waiting to be done despite everyone working as quickly as they can to get tasks done.  No matter how you look at it, WIP sucks up resources. It doesn't matter what industry you are in or what area within a company you are in.  Improvement-work-that-should-be-in-progress sucks up resources too. Anything that takes twice as long as it should—aimless & wandering meetings, slow decisions, and work groups operating at half the speed of their peers are just a few examples.  Can you add up the cost (time) of those?  If it exists it is eating up money, space and time.  At what cost per day?


The Answer

Let’s face it, not all humans are created a like.  Some of us naturally work faster than others.  Some of us can handle certain conditions better than others.  Telling someone to “speed up” most likely won’t result in faster, effective work.  In fact, it would probably lead to the very opposite.  So the answer lies in improving the business system—looking at the structure, processes and environment that produce the “slowness”.  Modifying and adapting the system to fit the human brain and body as well as the group dynamics brain is key.


Let me end this with a story about real company who shall remain nameless.  ABC Company had a seemingly continual problem between its sales and production units in which either sales continually out sold what production could produce.  This led to costly overtime for production employees and disgruntled sales people who sales commissions because they had to purposely not sell in order let production could catch up.  Production was given the mandate to “speed up!”  Changes included reducing the time and frequency of team meetings, less time for job prep and new faster/better tools and equipment were purchased.  The result was more work got done quicker—but with a cost: still some overtime, greater quality issues, lower customer satisfaction, more employee injuries and infighting/disdain between the production and sales employees.  The company pushed speed while overlooking effectiveness and structure.  After over 3 years of doing this “insanity” the company finally decided to hire outside eyes for help.  The consultant was able to see huge process gaps within the operations of sales and production units individually as well as combined.  Once the gaps were identified real fixes were able to be implemented that stressed effectiveness and efficiency while at minimum maintaining quality, safety and delivery.  The work got done faster but it wasn’t due to increasing the speed of production, it was due to eliminating all of the wasteful processes and politics that held everyone back.



Speed matters. Resources are finite. Life is short. Time is passing. Process is everything. Ka-ching!