Multitasking and Bottlenecks: Why Limit Your WIP III

A Stanford study recently suggested that multi-taskers made very poor multi-taskers.

Does that not make sense?

Well, the study found that self-identified multi-taskers ended up people who were merely justifying a scattered lifestyle. Perhaps they felt productive because during a day they touched so many different tasks – but when actually tested against people who focused on one thing at a time, the multi-taskers lost and lost big.

Why was this? Well, it was the Zeigarnik Effect writ large.

Eval Ophir, one of the Stanford researchers, puts it like this in a Stanford News interview:

“They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”

The researchers are still studying whether chronic media multitaskers are born with an inability to concentrate or are damaging their cognitive control by willingly taking in so much at once. But they’re convinced the minds of multitaskers are not working as well as they could.

“When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” said Wagner, an associate professor of psychology. “That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”

The Right Environment for Success

Our environment directly impacts our ability to think. Just like our movie example, when we are overstimulated we lose focus on particular things and place it instead on the transitions between the things.

We are constantly in a state of processing change. “Now is different than a few minutes ago.” That’s an expensive transaction that we’ll cover in the context switching section.

When people talk about multi-tasking, they head for context switching first, but here let’s focus on some societal costs for multi-tasking. Let’s talk about a high multi-tasking environment and what that looks like socially.

In fact, let’s talk a little more about Eldred from yesterday’s post.  Here’s Eldred’s calendar.

Project A – 10% time – Project Manager: Glenn

Project B – 15% time – Project Manager: Iggy

Project C – 25% time – Project Manager: Crazy Larry

Project D – 10% time – Project Manager: Lucy

Project E – 10% time – Project Manager: Armin

With 25% slack time, Eldred should be on easy street. If only Glenn, Iggy, Crazy Larry, Lucy, and Armin all lined up and just needed things from Eldred in succession. But with each project having project demands, we can now bet that Eldred is spending a lot of time in meetings. We can further bet that some of the meetings are unproductive status meetings so people can know where Eldred is in his work.

While Eldred is actually working, everyone working all five projects is now a tactical nuclear missile aimed directly at Eldred’s productivity. In one project, where we have a team of 10 people, there is a certain percentage of Eldred’s time that would be spent talking to team members, coordinating, and just answering questions. Now, Eldred has 5 times the team members, 5 times the bosses, 5 times the products, and 5 times the customers.

Now, I’m not going too far out on a limb and saying that time is finite. Eldred only has so many hours in the day.

These interruptions and meetings are not neatly scheduled. Eldred will be fielding questions from projects A and C at the same time. Crazy Larry will pull rank from time to time, saying that Eldred’s not giving his full 25%. The other project managers will feel like Crazy Larry’s project is getting attention at their expense. This will cause more meetings to figure out “resource utilization.”

In the end, the company will start to hire contractors or temp workers to fill the apparent short staffing needs. Yet, since Eldred is now the guy with vital information for all five projects he stays on all five projects.

Tastes Like Eldred-berry Wine

Eldred is not only overburdened, Eldred is a bottleneck. Our over-stretching Eldred has caused the slow down of all five projects. Hiring more people, just put even more pressure on the bottleneck – without addressing the root cause. Eldred has even more people to interact with now.

Again, Eldred is a Bottleneck because he is multi-tasking.

When we multi-task, we reduce our capacity. When there is an element of reduced capacity in a system, the rest of the system slows down.

In manufacturing there is a concept called “Takt Time” this is the minutes of work necessary to complete a unit of value. When we overburden Eldred, he slows down. Then, the teams he is on slow down as well. The overall takt time decreases – the project slows down. Value production slows down. Frustration mounts.

Solving Eldred’s Dilemma

This particular issue is easily solved. Take Eldred off at least two of those projects.

Does that have impacts on the rest of the company? Yes.

Does it mean that Eldred may have more slack time than we’d like? Maybe, but I doubt it. It more likely means that Eldred will be more focused on the remaining projects. Their budget may need to go up as a result, but the projects are more likely to be completed sooner and with higher quality.

This is post 3 in a 10 part series on Why Limit Your WIP.  Read post 4 Context Switching: Why Limit Your WIP IV in the Why Limit Your WIP Series.  Also see the index for a list of all of them.

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5 Responses to Multitasking and Bottlenecks: Why Limit Your WIP III

  1. Sunish says:

    Hi Jim,

    Can you please elaborate on how did you manage to come up with the solution that Eldred needs to be taken off at least two of those projects. Even then, he would be doing multi-tasking for the rest of the projects, correct? As I understand, it can be a guess to determine the no. of projects, he need to be pulled from, which is similar to the concept of coming up with WIP limit numbers while starting with Kanban/Personal Kanban.

    Regards,
    Sunish

  2. Pingback: Why Limit Your WIP: A PK Info Series | Personal Kanban

  3. Trent says:

    I find it fascinating that so many of our “productivity tools” have an inherent ability to be a source of distraction. Our cell phones get emails, texts, posts, and tweets and have the potential to almost constantly buzz. Our computer desktops are alive with popups and live feeds. We live in a distracted world.

    Are there any studies you can recommend that pursue this question and whether or not the new technologies we’re embracing in the workplace encourage the kind of multi-tasking you associate with reduced flow?

  4. Jim Benson says:

    Sunish,

    Because if I started out saying that Eldred needed to be taken off all but one project – no one would read further. 🙂

    Trent,

    I’d start here: http://arstechnica.com/uncategorized/2007/03/study-says-leave-the-multitasking-to-your-computer/

    There have been a bunch of them. But this was the easiest one at my disposal right now.

    We really should compile a list of such articles.

  5. Pingback: Completion: Limiting WIP Post II | Personal Kanban

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