Excuse my interuption? Actually – I’d rather not.

“The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance.”

I wish I’d said that. I forget who did. But it knocked me for a loop. Because it is so true.

The speaker at the time was making a point about how we take one concept and use it as a metaphor to explore another new concept. We do this all the time. Because it works. Especially when we are talking about things that are unfamiliar to us. Or if we want to see something we already know in a new way.

We are working on new deal that merges several companies. We use the “marriage” metaphor a lot. It helps us a lot. Or you’ll hear the line “fences make good neighbours” — you get my drift. We’d be lost without metaphors.

Where metaphors become dangerous is where we start to think of them beyond their ability to illustrate. We confuse the two. A business partnership is LIKE a marriage in many ways. It is NOT a marriage. I have had many successful and long term business partnerships with people I didn’t even like. I can’t imagine I would have been married for 27 years in similar circumstances. It would have been laughable if our marriage prep would have talked about the rules under which we could invest in other companies. In the metaphor that is relationships, my wife didn’t want me buying shares in any other company — if you get my drift.

Sometime ago, everyone got on the genetics bandwagon. We talked about DNA of everything. We had “organizational DNA” as a metaphor for corporate culture. It works to illustrate, but it can easily lead you to some bad decisions.

Wisely used, metaphors are valuable to explain or illustrate. Badly used, they promote logical fallacies and lead to some very, very bad conclusions. This is so frequent that logicians even have a term for it. It’s called “faulty analogy.”

A case in point — multi-tasking.

Somebody the other day brought out that old chestnut — I’m more efficient when I’m multi-tasking. The truth is, no, you are not. Full stop.

The faulty analogy in this case? Everyone likes to think that multi-tasking is like parallel processing. We can somehow split our attention between many different things and do a number of things simultaneously, paying enough attention to each and thus getting many things done at the same time.

When this helps someone juggle several quick task like doing work while riding on the subway it’s useful. When you think that you can translate that into doing your email while “listening” at a meeting – no. The human brain can do several things at once, but only when operating on a subconscious level. You are enough like a computer that you can do batch and online at the same time. But two online processes — doesn’t really work well.

The fact that it feels good only reinforces the fallacy. I won’t debate the causes (others have done it) but I don’t think anyone has seriously argued that attention spans are getting longer. So staying on one thought or task from beginning to end is hard. It takes a lot of discipline for some people. In those cases, we have a perfect storm – faulty analogy meets the shortened attention span.

How do I know this? I’ve spent a lot of time adapting LEAN principles to white collar environments. For anyone who doesn’t know LEAN it’s the gold standard in process transformation. It’s the reason why Toyota overtook General Motors well before the auto meltdown.

LEAN has a concept of uninterrupted flow. A task that moves from beginning to end without interruption is more efficient. It uses less resources and time for the amount of end benefit it generates. Someone out there is madly saying — no, batch processing is faster, better, cheaper. Great. Only the true facts get in the way. Even in this down economy, who’s shares would you rather have bought 6 months ago – Toyota or GM?

If you are still resistant, don’t worry. It took me a long time to figure it out. I try to find exercises to illustrate what is a simple point:

Whenever you interupt a process you pay a penalty for setup. Setup means that
you have to stop what you are doing, put it away somewhere and then when you come back to it, you have to reorient yourself, get back up to speed and then — and only then — do you get back to performance.

How much setup time depends on the person, the task and a lot of factors. The reason why I write my blog at 3 in the morning? There are no interruptions. I can go from start to finish.

But we still claim that multi-tasking works. My son tells me he can watch TV and do homework and be on Facebook. So why did his grades improve so radically when he fell behind and we cut off his computer and TV privileges until he caught up? Coincidence?

I thought about this last night when we were in a meeting and I watched someone “listening” while they did their email. If I’d have called them on it, they would have said they were multi-tasking.

That’s the problem with the faulty analogy. You see, a computer can have several threaded processes running at once — though even on a computer there is a bottleneck where the tasks are sequentially organized in stops and starts. The big difference with a computer? The setup costs can be minimized because it can recreate the exact state that it was in before an interruption and get back up to speed in milliseconds. Even then, run enough of these interruptions and you will swamp even a big processor as we all have experienced from time to time. That “not enough system resources” message is the setup charge catching up with you.

When analogies become mythologized, they are even harder to deal with. We all think – Henry Ford, mass production, batch process … good. Even though it’s not true. So I look for examples like Toyota. I’ve found others and I keep searching for them. Why? Because most people don’t let the facts get in the way of a strongly held belief.

I find most of them by luck. For example I was trying to explain LEAN to the head of a refinery in Acton, near London U.K. I was worried because a lot of refining is batch by design. I explained the batch “myth” and waited for the usual counter argument. He didn’t make one. Instead, he took me to another area of the plant and showed me his pet project – a continuous flow refining process – one that that was many times more efficient than the old batch process. I thanked him profusely. I wanted to see a mechanical process prove that uninterrupted flow was superior — if only so I could use it to dispel the myths and faulty analogy.

But people are not machines or mechanical creations. Our setup costs are much larger. When interupted, we need time to be reoriented. The amount depends on the person and the complexity of the task. How many times have you been at a meeting and paid the “setup cost” for someone else whose attention was distracted? Or how many times have you come back to a task and had to get back “up to speed”?

We’ve cut days, literally days out of business processes by moving to an uninterrupted flow. Even IT has caught up. No one seriously does batch processes for systems anymore unless you have a legacy or you absolutely have to. And my son’s marks improved. How much more proof do you need?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not out to tell everyone what they have to do. I do resist when I or my team have to pay the setup cost for someone else.

It’s a modern world. The shortened attention span is real. The addiction to busy work versus thought and planning is real. Proof in point? I ask people this all the time. If you saw someone on the phone talking would you interrupt them? Hardly. But if you saw them sitting quietly at their desk, staring into space, would you interrupt them? For most people it’s a no-brainer. And yet, why would we assume that the phone was work and thinking wasn’t? It says something profound about our culture.

People will wax profoundly about how they are more effective when multi-tasking. So would you like it if the pilot of your plane was doing his taxes? Or if your surgeon was doing a crossword during the operation? I don’t even even like it when other people are talking on their cell phone while driving. It’s okay for me, however — I can multi-task.

Or can I? So why is that when I get to the end of a day and I felt like I hadn’t gotten anything done I would explain it as having fallen victim to the dreaded “got a minute?”

We aren’t going to stop the interrupt driven nature of our lives because I write a blog about it or even if I’ve held a workshop. But I can help reduce it, even a little, it’s worth it. if we could improve by 10 percent – what would that do? The results would be significant. LEAN thinking puts cycle efficiency (the amount of real value in a process) at between 5 and 25 percent. Increase it by a small factor and you get amazing results.

But the first step is admitting there is a problem. I have my own private 12 step program for low attention spans. Because I suffer from it too. That might be the REAL reason I write this at 3 in the morning. Maybe I paid so much setup cost this week that I have to work harder than I want to.

But if I can break this faulty analogy and make more of my tasks into uninterrupted flows, I could gain back some of that efficiency. If I did it enough times it might become a habit. Heck, it could even become part of our organizational DNA.

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Filed under Lean, People, Process, Strategy

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