Episode 13

Multi-tasking – A myth?

Category :  High Variability Operations

Multitasking is considered an important skill to achieve more in less time. But is it really the most effective way to get more output? The episode takes a deep dive into this topic and includes an interesting DIY activity to help you check if multi-tasking does or does not work.

Another example of how multi-tasking can ruin your output: https://www.vectorconsulting.in/research-publications/engineering-industry-insights/stop-digging-if-you-are-already-in-a-hole-2/


I am going to talk about an extremely interesting topic today, Multi-tasking. It is something almost all of us do and take pride in. In fact we believe that more tasks we are able to juggle, more efficient we are. How about we present a counterpoint, since that’s what we call the podcast too and prove to you through a short exercise during the course of our discussion that it’s actually less productive to multi-task and that you can actually release up-to 80% capacity from your daily output if you stop multi-tasking. Would you be surprised? (pause)
Before getting into more details about this, I want to invite you to listen in on a typical conversation between the CEO of an organisation and few of his managers about the progress of some of the tasks the managers were assigned by him earlier.

what’s the status of the Six Sigma initiative we started

I’m sorry sir but it has been stalled because of a requirement pending with another department for the last two months

then why didn’t you escalate the matter immediately

we did sir but then the GM had come visiting last month and we diverted all our resources towards the DDD I mean the desk decoration drives her

so you got one task and forgot about the others

no sir we have also been working on the NX s and the IBY initiatives

what but the NXs was three months ago it should have been done by now

yes sir but we haven’t heard from the other branches yet and we cannot proceed without a consensus from our branch heads and I saw on the IBY initiative we have finished collecting and analyzing the data

oh then what are you waiting for

we have made you the presentation sir and have been waiting for further directions from you but Sir you were abroad for the seminar so we thought we would

nothing happens here without me I leave the office for one week and everything seems to have come to a standstill you guys don’t work hard enough and always have excuses to cover up for your inefficiency even with the four of you you couldn’t complete these simple tasks

but sir we overloaded with too many tasks

nonsense you should have to be able to multitask and deliver more

“ you should have multi-tasked more and delivered more” – This is a typical refrain that you hear from many senior managers. It does seem logical to think that if we take on more work at the same time and stretch ourselves, there will be more output. But is this really true?

Let’s do a quick exercise and analyse this for ourselves. Please find a piece of paper, a pen and a stopwatch. If you don’t have access to these materials, I urge you to close your eyes and try to imagine doing this exercise.

The task is very simple, you have to write down letters A to T and numbers 1 to 20 sequentially, as in ABCD…..up to T and then 1234….. up to 20. Start the timer right before starting and stop as soon as you finish. Be as fast as you can be. You can pause the audio here, to quickly complete this task. This is Step 1.
Are you done? If yes, Let’s go to the next step. In this Step, you have to again write down letters from A to T and numbers from 1 to 20. But this time alternatively, as in first A then 1, B 2, C 3 etc,… up to T and 20. Again, note down the time that you took to complete this activity. You can again pause the audio here. Once you are done, we’ll compare the results.

I hope you have completed step 2 as well. Now, most of you would have noted, that the first task was without any multi-tasking and the second was with multi-tasking. That is, in the second step, when you were writing alphabets and numbers, you were doing two things together at the same time, switching between the two every now and then.

Now, let’s compare the total task times you got for step 1 and for step 2. Since I also did this exercise, I can tell you that I took 28 seconds for the first task and 1minute 2seconds or 62 seconds for the second one. That’s more than twice the time I took in the first round, when I was not multi-tasking. What’s more, in the second round, in my hurry, I made a couple of mistakes as well.

These were just two plain simple uncomplicated tasks but I clearly failed to improve output by multi-tasking. Let’s take a closer look at both the approaches and analyse why. What do you think happened? I will tell you what I felt. Well the first time I started my task of writing the numbers only after finishing the alphabets. Though I started the second task later, I finished both of them much earlier compared to the second turn. I started both the tasks early in the second time, and made progress on them simultaneously but it took much longer to finish them and the quality was poor too. Moreover, I had to work so much harder the second time trying to figure which alphabet or number goes next. And yet despite all that hard work, the overall task took much longer.

I have shared a graph to compare progress on each task in the details to this episode, please have a look at that. However, even without the graph, you may have realized what is going on. In the first round one could work without interruptions, while in the second round, some effort to think was needed every time to switch from the number or alphabet being written down to the next. This time is known as set up time or set down time and is part of all tasks, activities or work we do daily. Every time you get interrupted in an ongoing task, there is an associated set up and set down time in order to catch up to where the task was left at or to make preparations to continue the task. This consumes time. But the bigger cause of lead time expansion of a task is the fact that, while resource was busy, the tasks themselves spent most of the time waiting to be worked upon. So when we do not work continuously on one task avoiding multiple set ups and waiting times, the time taken for the task goes up. At the same time, by limiting this set up set down time to only once per task and avoiding waiting time as you did in round one, you can free up enough capacity to do more tasks within the same time.

Clearly multitasking in this particular example causes loss of capacity, expands lead time on every task, creates stress and generates rework. But this was an experiment with couple of tasks for a single individual. However, in our real work lives, most projects are handled by a group of people who might also be involved in other projects at the same time; with every project requiring some input at multiple stages. In such an environment, if a task is stuck somewhere else, it would be a sheer waste of capacity if resources sit idle until the task comes back to their desk. Logically, in that waiting time, one has to take up another task to maintain optimum use of resources. So, some amount of multi-taking is unavoidable. However, imagine what would happen if I had kept on adding tasks. At some point I would be multi-taking so much, a lot of capacity would be wasted in set ups and set downs, priority conflicts, poor synchronization and rework. This would result in multiple open tasks and slow progress all tasks. In other words poor overall output.

that it is because of urge of managers to react to problems are solve them immediately. Which causes them to launch tasks without any control

The main issues arise because of starting too many tasks at once despite limited resources. Managers seek instant solutions and thus every time a problem presents itself, an immediate response is to launch a new task to resolve that, thus eventually ending up with too many tasks and an overloaded system.

But how to resolve this, the solution really is to:
drastically reduce and limit the number of open projects in the system to ensure that a new project is started only after an ongoing one is complete
Use the free capacity to review the WIP regularly to identify and eliminate roadblocks timely for prioritizing the waiting projects
Ensure that required inputs are ready beforehand

This is what is called flow management. The result of good flow management is that projects get completed on time, there is better synchronization between teams, lesser errors, lesser rework and better overall output. What more, teams will have continuous output rather than having a bunch of tasks completing together creating difficulties for a downstream department. Put together, this makes for a stress free and happier workplace.


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