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Jan 20, 2022

Designed to Fail or A little Taylorism is OK, really

Let’s say you have a campus with 1200 non-academic staff. You want to launch a process where every one of them submits a form, and you approve it. Even if you think a most cursory review, plus 3-4 clicks, it should be at least 5-10 minutes for each. Assume an average of 7 minutes, although it Is better to pilot just a few and time yourself to see how long it takes in the field. We then have 140 hours of non-stop work. Further, let’s estimate that 10 percent of them forms will be problematic and need some communication, further review, or an email exchange. If you assume none of them will be problematic, you probably do not need a review at all, right? Well, let’s allow 180 hours just to be safe. People take breaks, they have to answer other emails, or take care of left-over business. Do you have five people and time on their hands? Will you make sure their schedules are completely cleared of everything else? If yes, congratulations, you are a good manager! If not, you just created another Designed to Fail (DTF) processes. Hope is not a strategy. You are likely to find yourself burning midnight oil, just frantically clicking through without reading, seething and looking for someone else to blame. If only those damned 10% idiots paid attention!

Or here is another example. You plan an event where about 200 people are expected. So you set up a check-in procedure, with about 5-minute worth of checking in. You know, with finding names on the list, giving some swag, and showing where to go. 5 minutes tops per person. If 50 of them show up at the same time, and you only have two check-in persons, we can expect a two-hour long waiting line. Either have a lot more checkers or cut out something from your check-in sequence. If event is open, let them grab the swag and make better signs. Later during the event, send around the list, and ask to self-check. Do something, don’t hope it will somehow will sort itself out, because it never does.

Here is an example especially for faculty. If you have three sections of undergrads, at 30 students in each, and assign a 10-page final paper, with average of 20 min of grading for each, do your math. It is 30 hours of non-stop work, even without detailed written feedback. Grading is almost impossible to do for more than 8 hours a day; even that can give your brain an inflammation. It is because all papers tend to be similar and concentration eventually becomes very difficult. Even if you add music, wine, frequent breaks, etc. – do the honest, not hopeful math. Do you have four full days free from all earthly cares to do this work? If you, the DTF philosophy will get you to the same midnight oil, deep in regrets about your choice of career and a resolution to quit and go back to your happy barista days. You are not a hero you may think you are. You did not plan well.

Many people think Taylorism was a joke, a pseudo-science. OK, think what you want, but a little bit of it is a good thing. It is not rocket science. Do the honest math, do a realistic estimate of how much time a process takes. It is better to design a less rigorous but done well procedure than to put out some DTF monster. The latter is likely to make you look bad in the end and not accomplish its ambitious goas. Let’s use a little of the scientific management, just enough to keep us out of trouble.

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