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©All materials copyrighted 1998, 1999, and 2000 by Ron Turner and Linda Turner.
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October, 2000
Reducing Interruptions

Our apologies for being off-line for the last few months. Unfortunately I had a stroke in May, but I am now fully recovered. Back in April when I last wrote a column, I had started a discussion of simple design principles for improving any system. The principle described in that column was "Reducing Memorization" This month I want to talk about "Reducing Interruptions."

Everyone is plagued by interruptions. All of us acknowledge that interruptions increase our error rate as well as our time for completing tasks. For the most part, we put up with the interruptions as a fact of life, and "try harder" not to let the interruptions bother us.

The number of interruptions a person suffers is the result of how work is designed. By redesigning processes, we can significantly reduce our problems.

Example #1: Specialization increases interruptions. When there is only one person who knows how to do something, then that person is more likely to be interrupted. If others can do the same task, then it is less likely that an individual will have to be interrupted. This is one of the arguments for having more generalists and fewer specialists. Standardization also helps reduce the need for specialists.

Example #2: Empowerment reduces interruptions. This is really a correllary to the first example. When workers are not empowered, then the supervisor will have to continually be interrupted to deal with exingencies as they arise. This causes workers and customers to sit around waiting for a decision. It also makes mistakes more likely as interrupted supervisors have to continually re-start a task after each interruption.

Example #3: Don't permit interruptions during the "slow" periods. Track when your interruptions occur. Usually there will be certain periods when interruptions are more likely. During these periods, simply stop trying to do other things and make yourself available to the people who need you. During the slow periods, tell people to use the 100 mile rule, "Interrupt me only if you would call me about this if I was 100 miles away." During these periods, do those tasks which require concentration and attention to detail.

Example #4: Create alternatives to interruptions. Have people use e-mail, faxes, and bulletin boards to leave you messages when you have made yourself "off-line" and not available for interruptions. Use your phone system to route calls to someone else when you are off-line.

Example #5: When assigning dual-responsible roles, make sure each task is short-term. Reduce the level of multi-tasking. It is very common for people answering phones or greeting customers to be assigned other tasks to keep them busy during down-times. It is these tasks which then start to feel as if they are being interrupted by ringing phones or people asking for assistance. Make sure these "in-between" tasks are ones which can be completed very quickly so that it is less likely that an interruption will catch someone mid-task. When possible, stop assigning too many tasks to be completed at once. In medical offices, for instance, it is better to separate the tasks of answering phones from greeting patients as they arrive.

Example #6: Reduce set-up time required for jobs. Set-up times refer to the time needed to prepare for doing a job. Examples would include the time needed for setting up printers with special forms, time for clearing off working space, time needed for pulling out appropriate files and records, and the time required for gathering tools for a particular task. These are easy to identify by asking yourself, "What is it that I do only when enough work has piled up?" The reasons why we save work in batches is that we want to avoid repeating the set-up times which would be required each time we do the task. The longer the set-up time, typically the larger the batch of work we will save. For instance, if it takes me two hours to set-up for a job, then I will save a bigger batch than I would if it only takes five minutes to set-up a job. Long set-up times make interruptions far more costly since we may have to repeat much of the set-up following the interruption.

Example #7: Reducing memorization will reduce the problems caused by interruptions. Last column I talked about methods for reducing memorization. This will also make it easier to "recover" from an interruption. The less you have to remember, the quicker you will complete a task and the more likely you will do so without errors.

Once you get in the spirit of this principle, you will discover many ways to apply it on an ongoing basis. Please share with us how you have applied this principle. We will pass on your good ideas so others can use them as well. We can be reached at ronaldturner@endsoftheearth.com.

Past Columns


April, 2000
Reducing Memorization

Pretty much most people accept the notion that 85% to 90% of errors are due to the system. Unfortunately, knowing that statistic doesn't help if all you know how to do is to fix something that is broken. When nothing obvious is in need of repair, it is time to use some basic systems principles to improve things. The next seversl columns will talk about these principles.

One of the easiest systems principles to apply is the principle of Reducing Memorization. This principle will reduce errors and rework, while increasing the speed of your processes. Just think of how long it takes to correct a single memory error which will require s task to be redone.

All jobs have an incredible array of tasks, names, jargon, and details to memorize. As the memory burden grows, the number of errors will grow as well. For instance, if you try to memorize a set of five four letter word groupings, you will make significantly fewer errors than if you try to memorize a set of ten four letter word groups. More onerously, as memory burden increases, the new tasks to be remembered may very well "stick," while older tasks will start to fade. Thus mistakes may not be associated with the newest memorized items even though the reason for losing the memory of older memorized items is in fact due to the memory overload of the newest materials. As a teacher, I was constantly astounded that my mind would "dump" the names of students from the previous semester as I started learning the names of all my new students.

Any system can be improved by reducing memorization. Look for opportunities. For instance, put up printed directions for copiers, computers, printers, and other machines. Too often, organizations trust that a single training session will make everyone competent. It rarely does. Instead, reduce memory burdens by including clear user-friendly directions on all equipment.

On paperwork, give instructions as to whom the paperwork will go. Name the offices, any deadlines, and/or phone numbers if necessary. When that office completes its work on the forms, include directions for them as to where it will go in the next step.

Banish acronyms and abbreviations whenever possible. Spell words out. Use smaller font size if you have to. On paperwork, never leave blank lines and spaces which people are supposed to remember how to fill in. You can count on many more errors when the directions are unclear or missing.

Every now and then, I visit a New England town which, in the name of quaintness, has refused to put up street names. Inevitably I get lost. Most organizations do the same thing in their buildings, and don't put up signs telling visitors and staff how to get to different places in the building. Too many doors are unmarked except perhaps for a room number. Too many drawers and cabinets are unlabeled leaving users to guess or remember where to find things. Too many shelves fail to have markings to indicate what is supposed to be stored on them, later leading to griping about others "putting things in the wrong place" and/or losing track both of what we have and what we have run out of.

Computers are wonderful tools for helping us develop alarms and flags to remind us about meetings, appointments, and deadlines. Similarly having written questions and checklists help insure that we remember to follow processes identically each time we do them.

Once you get in the spirit of this principle, you will discover many ways to apply it on an ongoing basis. Please share with us how you have applied this principle. We will pass on your good ideas so others can use them as well. We can be reached at ronaldturner@endsoftheearth.com.

Past Columns


March, 2000
The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

In the newspaper the other day, I noticed that a large local company was sold to an out-of-state firm. The President of the company had for weeks denied any rumors of an eminent sale. Later, when customers, unions, and supplier "partners" complained that the President had lied about the sale, he held a news conference and explained that he had never lied, he had simply been misleading. He assured everyone that if they went back and looked at videotapes, they would discover that whenever he was asked about the sale, he had "artfully" shifted people to other topics.

The company President also explained that investors do not have any obligations to customers, workers, or suppliers even though the investors had been supposedly pursuing a Total Quality approach to management. The President lectured that investors take risks, and thereby deserve the rewards when they can sell their stock for higher prices. If this might hurt customers, workers, or suppliers, that is too bad. This President is correct, legally. The rules of the game have always been, "Look out for Number One!" That's why the phrase, "caveat emptor" was first developed. It is the reason unions formed, and governments started regulating businesses. Unfortunately it is also one of the reasons that Total Quality approaches were supposed to be different. We were all supposed to be in this together. "Trust me" and "I'll trust you." Together we will create a bigger pie than we could ever create when we are willing to mislead each other for invidiual gain.

I mention all this because Total Quality approaches are built on honest trusting joint efforts. Being misleadingó even if no lies are toldó does not build trust. In fact, even though this President brought great profits to his investors, he undermined not just his company's Total Quality efforts, but many others as well. Who can trust American business when business leaders believe that it is ethically okay to mislead people?

We have seen major companies announce with great fanfare that they are pursuing long term partnering relationships with their suppliers by signing five year contracts with the "partners" who give them the lowest price. These relationships are doomed from the start. True partners want to insure that both sides of the partnership prosper. True partners work together to improve processes and take risks. Seeking long term relationships in which results (both gains and losses) are NOT shared leads to an impossible dream. Instead of building a common vision, the old win-lose "caveat emptor" game will be acted out with pretensions that something has changed. "Buying" a relationship by looking for lowest price will lead to all the deceptions, short-cuts, and poor value which W. Edwards Deming first identified.

Total Quality is not a pipe-dream, but when Total Quality concepts are used in misleading ways, the words "Total Quality" start to mean the opposite of their original definitions. Ultimately honest companies with open honest relationships should have lower costs since they won't find it necessary to constantly inspect, audit, and "lawyer". The beginning of trust must be led by the leaders at the top who commit to "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Leaders need to start practicing ethical behavior which is a model for everyone else. Otherwise, people will not be able to give up the suspicions which have made real partnerships an impossible dream in the past.


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©All materials copyrighted 1998 by Ron Turner and Linda Turner. All rights reserved.

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