Probing the Limits: Long Work Hours and Quality of Life

May 1, 2005
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By re-engineering our time management at work, we can achieve higher quality parts with a higher quality of life.

As a business professional with a young family, I'm constantly struggling with the work and family quality of life balance. I often tap into my training as a quality professional to try to help find the right balance. There isn't any reason that quality methods effective at producing quality parts shouldn't be applied in an even more important way to produce quality lives.

"Quality time" is a phrase often used to describe time spent with family engaging in constructive, bonding activities that enhance the family's quality of life. I'm not a believer in the quality time concept. I think any time spent interacting with family members is quality time. Visiting a museum is quality time. Picking-up the house is quality time. The more time you spend doing anything together, the better-for you, your spouse and especially your kids.

While I'm a strong believer in spending quality time with the family, I'm also a strong believer in hard work. Hard-working employees represent a true strategic advantage for a company and certainly can make the difference in a company succeeding or failing. I admire hard work.

While hard work is admirable, most quality professionals realize that hard work does not necessarily equate to high output. We all know very hard working people who get very little done. Getting a lot done is as much about the process, system or method as it is about working hard. When you combine a refined and optimized process with hard work, you achieve a combination that is hard to beat.

My admiration for the 12-hour day has changed. To explain this, think of a day where you were highly productive-when you were working at your highest intellectual level possible. Most people only can work at this level for four to six hours a day. People working at their peak level usually are exhausted after about six hours. The only way people can work a 12-hour day is either work way below their skill level or spend lots of time during that 12-hour period doing low-value work. Managers who demand extensive hours are either asking their employees to do work that is suboptimal for their skill level or asking their employees to fill their day with activities that don't make progress on a given task. In either case, a 12-hour day is a poor management of resources.

Over the years, I've seen various studies that indicate that about half of the work day is wasted. Think about how much more competitive a business could be and how much more time we could spend with our families if we applied continual improvement techniques to our time management. Our quality of life would be significantly better.

Scott Adams sets aside his satirical look at business to make some serious suggestions about improving time utilization in the last chapter of The Dilbert Principle. I believe his suggestions could take us to the next level of higher productive businesses and a higher quality of life by giving us more time with family.

Adams suggests that companies develop an "Out at Five (o'clock)" mentality where it's the culture to leave at 5:00 p.m. but with all the work done. An underlying principle is that it is acceptable to openly admit that we would all rather be with our family than with our co-workers-and our time is managed that way. In this culture, people work only on tasks fundamental to the business; as such, people respect one another's time at work, meetings are minimized and well run, and pleasant social chitchat is minimal.

Making this dramatic positive change in a company would be very difficult-but isn't that what the quality profession is all about? Higher quality products and higher quality of life sounds possible and doable to me if a re-engineering of our time management at work were to be undertaken. It's a huge task to try to make this kind of change but I'm trying to take an evolutionary approach to this vs. a revolutionary approach. There are many low-hanging fruit in which time utilization can easily be improved. I put many of these time utilization projects high on my task list.

What do you think? Are your 12-hour days productive? Do time utilization improvement projects result in the same priority as product improvement projects?

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