Drowning in busy work? So were Jersey Standard Oil executives…in 1923

Drowning in busy work? So were Jersey Standard Oil executives...in1923I have a few rhetorical questions for you:

  • Do you feel like your company wastes too much time on meaningless tasks?
  • Do you feel like reports are created and then sent around, just so people can broadcast that they’re busy?
  • Do you feel like different departments basically just talk past each other, rather than truly cooperating and compromising?

So did Jersey Standard Oil executives, circa 1923. (Jersey Standard Oil became Exxon in 1973.) Frank Howard was in charge of research and development at Jersey. He was frustrated by the company’s inability to standardize, and modernize, its refining processes. 

Refining belonged to the “Manufacturing Department”, which was managed by the “Manufacturing Committee”. Here’s how Mr. Howard described Jersey’s problem, in a 1923 report, as per Alfred D. Chandler’s Strategy and Structure (p. 182–183):

1. All responsible executives are badly overburdened with work. This is the real root of most of the troubles met with.

2. There is a very large and unnecessary amount of paper work — mere passing on of letters and reports through various hands — which takes time very needed from true management functions without accomplishing in itself any useful purpose.

3. In very many matters the Manufacturing Department does not function as a unit, either within itself or in its dealings with outside departments or with the Board of Directors. It functions rather as a loose federation.

4. The mere effort to secure the desired uniformity of policy and of methods requires an undue proportion of the Committee’s time.

5. Maximum use is not made of the advice and experience of the technical and operating staffs in aiding one another, and there is in some instances unnecessary friction and resulting waste of energy and time in reconciling conflicting views on technical matters.

With only a little generalization, can’t this describe the vast majority of nonsense we all see in our jobs, day-to-day? People like us have been facing problems like this for 100 years.

I don’t just share this as a way to complain. I see two important lessons here:

  1. We think we’re in a unique age of information overload. It turns out, every human being who has ever held a corporate job has felt like they’re facing information overload. We’re not special.
  2. These problems have existed so long, across so many different organizations, that the human condition has to be responsible. Our need to feel important, and our distrust of the work of others, are at play. We meddle unnecessarily, at considerable cost to the business.

We’re not special

While we may interface with larger volumes of data today, we also have much better tools for data handling. Think about what data management looked like in 1923. Everything was manual. You had filing cabinets full of spreadsheets. Need an old report? Better hope your filing system was on point.

Computers make our lives much, much easier. Yes, it’s easier to generate reams of useless data. But at least we have ways of sorting, filtering, and finding what we need.

The cost of believing we’re special is that we under-appreciate the challenge at hand. Employees have felt overwhelmed for as long as corporations have existed. It’s a problem that the smartest corporate minds have tried to tackle for over 100 years. And clearly we haven’t made as much progress as we would have liked.

If we falsely believe this problem is unique to the present day, we won’t seek the wisdom of the past. Tons of interesting things have been written about efficiently managing workloads. That’s one of the many interesting discussions in Strategy and Structure. The more honestly we recognize overwhelm as a fundamental problem, the more honestly we can pursue the necessary solution(s).

The human condition leads us to busy work

We need to feel important and productive. As a result, we pull ourselves into work where our contribution ultimately means little.

We feel better writing reports, or building spreadsheets, or designing slide decks. We can point to these deliverables as proof of our “productivity” during our performance review process.

How many of these deliverables help our company better serve its customers? How many improve our compliance with rules and regulations? How many help us meet our obligations to vendors or other stakeholders? And how many get shown once in a meeting, or are sent once in an email, and then vanish into the ether?

We also create non-value added work for ourselves by not trusting the work of others. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been burned by relying on the work of someone else, only to find out later there was a mistake somewhere. We look bad, when the root cause was bad input.

So what happens? We review and deconstruct every piece of work that comes across our desk. What a waste. The company is paying an enormous price for our peace of mind.

The point of the human condition argument is that we need to be self-aware. We need to recognize that we bring a portion, maybe a large portion, of this busy work on ourselves. And again, that has happened for as long as corporations have existed.

Corporations routinely under-utilize their most important asset: employee brainpower

Busy work imposes some nefarious costs. It erodes morale. It reduces the throughput of meaningful work. It drains the mental energy of employees.

Busy work brings with it an enormous opportunity cost. What if we trusted the work of everyone around us? What if we trusted that we could safely pursue only the work that matters? What if we trusted that other people would do the same?

We could redirect our wasted mental capacity and help the company solve consequential problems. We could design more clever processes and more robust procedures. We could take the time to articulate and implement proper strategy, rather than the vacuous nonsense that we see today.

Chandler writes about this topic extensively in Strategy and Structure. It was a difficult leap, to get senior executives to trust other employees with day to day execution of the business. The senior executives needed to focus on long range planning and resource allocation. They had to trust employees to perform, without micromanaging the details. It seems like an obvious conclusion, but the world’s most recognizable companies took years, sometimes decades, to learn these lessons.

We face these same challenges on a personal level. False measures of productivity, and unsubstantiated mistrust of the people around us, lead us into the busy work we so loudly complain about. But it’s worse than that. Unnecessary busy work imposes costs that keep businesses from realizing their potential.

This is as good of a time as any to trot out the well-known George Santayana quote:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

It’s time we break this 100 year old chain. We deserve much better.

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