The Overtime Barrier to Lean Six Sigma

I recently spent a couple of days training people in Lean Six Sigma at a company where the red badge of courage was to work excessive overtime. The message was clear: If you want to advance, you've got to put in more hours than anyone else.

I mentioned this to the participants in the training. I suggested that with Lean Six Sigma, they could work their way out of the endless overtime everyone seemed to be working. One of the participants said: "That's all well and good, but the leadership team will just find more things to load us down with."

That's when it hit me, a culture of endless overtime and skipped vacations can be a barrier to Lean Six Sigma.

Brilliant flash of the obvious: employees need to benefit from the improvements in ways that create more balance in their lives. If it won't lighten their load, what incentive do they have to make improvements if the company will get better, but their lives won't?

The Harmful Effects of Task Saturation
In James Murphy's book, Flawless Execution about applying air warfare tactics to business, he argues that task saturation (too much to do) kills your chances of success. Murphy says: "The surprising thing is that most people are proud that they're overworked...but it's not good for the company. What fighter pilots know about task saturation should worry every CEO. As task saturation increases, performance decreases; as task saturation increases, executional errors increase. Task saturation is a silent killer."

Murphy says there are three responses to task saturation:

  1. People shut down. They quit. They go blank.
  2. Some people start making lists, organizing and shuffling things around "as if the list making and the shuffling are akin to doing the work." The people look busy, but they aren't productive.
  3. Most people narrow their focus to a single thing. Pilots call it target fixation--you can fly the plane into the ground if you focus on the target but lose the big picture.

When you're task saturated, you don't feel like you have time for Lean Six Sigma. When you're overworked, you can't see how Lean Six Sigma can dig you out and even if it does help, you'll only get buried by something else.

Here's My Point
Lean Six Sigma has to be good for the company and the employee. Otherwise, it doesn't have a prayer. Maybe they don't want more money; maybe they want more time with their family or more leisure time or whatever. Lean Six Sigma has to be good for the bottom line and the invisible line between work and life or employees won't embrace it.

You can start getting results with Lean Six Sigma quickly if you use the crawl-walk-run approach I describe in my books and training systems. But you have to be willing to change the culture from rewarding firefighting and heroism to rewarding boring, consistent, stellar performance.

Wouldn't it be nice to stop working all that overtime and start delighting customers and family?

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, (888) 468-1537,"

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