Recognizing the negative impact of multi-tasking on the management of multi-projects is an important insight. But, we better go deeper into the issue of when multi-tasking starts to be damaging.
Multi-tasking means jumping between tasks before they are completed. There are several possible causes for multi-tasking:
- A task with higher priority appears – forcing to switch to that task until it is completed.
- Being stuck with a task without much progress, leading to putting it aside and do something else.
- Being expected to do several tasks at the same time with a clear need to show progress on every one of them.
The potential damage of multi-tasking comes from the third type. The problem is that when an individual faces several tasks one option is to start with one and on completion go to the other. Let’s call that the “queue-process”. The other way is doing a little of this and a little of that, which is the essence of multi-tasking. Individuals vary with how they cope with several tasks at the same time. Managers have to be good in multi-tasking as a necessary skill. The true damage from multi-tasking is caused to the organization. The individual is less negatively impacted by long delays of projects and initiatives. The delays are caused by the long time it takes to complete a task and only then the next tasks, performed by other resources, are able to start.
In Manufacturing multi-tasking is virtually unknown! The “queue process” is the common approach, because in manufacturing saving setups and ensuring good utilization of expensive equipment are important values. Multi-tasking generates many more setups, because every time one goes back to a task he needs to come-to-speed with the task.
Multi-tasking is found in multi-project environments. The value of a typical project is usually considered to be very high, so the project is expected to finish as early as possible. Thus, the project should progress continuously along its critical chain. Stopping the project because a human resource, not a particularly expensive resource, is busy in another task, is intolerable. Maintaining clear priorities for key human resources makes it even more problematic. It is tricky to tell a project manager that his project has lower priority than others and still maintain acceptable harmony within the organization.
The damage of multi-tasking to projects is causing two different undesired effects:
- Wasted capacity due to many “setups”.
- Very long delays in many projects due to resources moving between different tasks for different projects putting many projects on hold. The assumption is that only when a task is complete can the next task starts, usually with another resource(s). By forcing delays in the start of the next tasks the completion time of the whole project is likely to be significantly delayed.
The second undesired-effect, the domino-effect of stretching the time of one task is by far the more damaging effect for the lead-time of projects.
Are multi-tasking so damaging also to regular initiatives?
There is a subtle difference between a project and an initiative. Projects are planned to be executed as soon as possible. Initiatives also contain a group of tasks to achieve an objective, but they are not planned to be executed continuously. The due-dates of regular initiatives are not pre-determined and they are not expected to finish as soon as possible. Initiatives do not have the urgency of projects!
However, when too many initiatives are open it could be that some managers run out of their capacity!!!
When this happen the damage of the wasted capacity is huge. Remember the two causes for capacity to be wasted:
- Capacity wasted on low value initiatives.
- Frequent switching back and force between required initiatives (multi-tasking) causing waste of time on becoming updated on the current state of the initiative.
In such a case management attention, the capacity of managers to do their job properly, turns to be a wild bottleneck, and the organization becomes stagnated, in spite of the efforts to design a better future. When the management constraint hurts also the current flow of value then the company might even fall apart.
Identifying the state when management attention is a bottleneck is far from being trivial.
The capacity of human resources is very tricky to measure. People like to be busy, or at the very least, be viewed as busy. It is the impact of the efficiency syndrome, but it is also caused by a personal need of many people to be active all the time.
It is easy for a manager to keep himself active as he can always find something to do, for instance, check the performance of subordinate, call a meeting that is not truly required or come up with an idea to improve something that does not need improvement.
How can we know whether the manager is overloaded or just being active the way he likes it?
When a human being is truly overloaded the people around him get certain signals. Sometimes the quality of work goes dramatically down. Other overloaded managers become impatient with their subordinates, even aggressive, without achieving any added value. Other managers try to focus on few initiatives based on personal priority that could be different than the focus of their colleagues.
Instituting the right focus all over the organization should become the decisive competitive edge of the TOC approach!
The organizational focus has two different time frames to consider:
- In the short-term the focus is defined by the constraint, the exploitation plan and the subordination processes.
- In the medium and longer term the focus has to be carefully defined by the Strategy (the plan to achieve more in the future). All the important initiatives have to be included in the Strategy.
On top of that the organization has to actively look for signals that point to potential threats, one of which could be running out of managerial capacity, the ultimate constraint for the medium and long term. What TOC teaches us to do is to exploit the management attention capacity properly without turning it into a bottleneck. This is why the detailed planning of Strategy, clearly outlining the truly required initiatives (tactics) to achieve specific objectives (strategies), which lead to accomplish more of the goal, is so important. The format of the S&T is a good match for this formidable mission.