Working Harder, Accomplishing Less


Alex Pollock

Many of us feel like we’re on a treadmill that’s increasing in speed and we can’t get off. Often we don’t even know who has the remote control. I ask you this: Why are people feeling like they are working harder than ever but accomplishing less? In my search for answers I recently read “A Sense of Urgency,” by John Kotter and “Fake Work,” by Brent Peterson and Gaylan Neilson. Kotter reminds us that “true urgency focuses on critical issues, not agendas overstuffed with the important and the trivial.” “Critically important means” challenges that are central to success or survival, winning or losing.” Therefore doing something incredibly well that doesn’t need to be done at all is a huge waste of organizational energy.

Without a clear vision of where we’re going and a clear roadmap to get there we can be dispensing great amounts of perspiration and still be “lost”.  A map of Des Moines doesn’t help much in Detroit. How can we avoid doing “fake work”…that is work that fails miserably to add value and advance our organizations sustainability?

Please build on these ideas for actions to avoid from Peterson and Neilson:

  • Holding meetings without a clear agenda and inviting people to share in the waste of time
  • Sending emails to a huge distribution list of coworkers without considering whether they need the information
  • Holding off-site meetings that provide distraction not value
  • Not following through on plans to implement needed changes
  • Assigning work then ignoring it when completed
  • Running training programs that don’t make a real difference

According to these authors, fake work thrives where outdated cultures and work processes hang on. Do you feel like this phenomenon of “fake work” is prevalent at your organization? Is it something you can route out of your EHS and Sustainability programs? I’d love to hear some examples of how you have or are applying the ideas of Peterson and Neilson to cut down on the fake work in your EHS function!

About Alex Pollock

Alex Pollock has been studying leadership effectiveness for more than 30 years. A former leader in environment, health and safety, and public affairs at The Dow Chemical Co., he learned that we all have leadership roles to play. He enjoys discussing new ideas and sharing practical ways we can all become better leaders.

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  1. David Williams

    February 17, 2009

    Fake work and low value work are very common at all but the smallest of enterprises. The larger the entity the more fake work since the “buffer” to pay for it (in terms of $ and people’s time) increases with size.

    My first rule to get rid of fake work: spend money like it was my own (this includes internal resource time since that has a cost as well). Would you have a contractor come into your house on a time and materials job with no clear scope of work, specifications, budget and timeline? Don’t like what he did with the tile in the bathroom so you have him tear it out for the third time and try something else? Not likely. Yet that happens all the time with projects and initiatives.

    Second rule: use “Voice of the Customer” perspective to determine the needs. First question is “Who is your customer?” It isn’t always who you think it is. Second question is “What do they really care about and why?” That will get you the “critical to quality” (CTQ) requirements – these are the primary things you should focus on doing well. It is the only thing the customer really cares about.

    Third rule: understand Value and Waste. In Lean the elimination of waste requires value to be defined as – a) the activity physically changes the work product or adds important information; b) activity must not be rework; and c) the customer must be willing to pay for it. (from Rath and Strong’s Lean Pocket Guide)

    So you end up with 3 classifications for activities: 1) Value Added (generally only a small portion of the total); 2) Business Value – required by the business but not the customer (e.g., time spent for a business to pay taxes on a sale); and 3) Pure Waste (e.g., rework).

    Fourth rule: don’t ever name a project or initiative. Those clever acronyms and project logos are the kiss of death. Once that happens then the project takes on a life of its own and ceases to be about solving a problem or capitalizing on an opportunity.

  2. Fred Rubel, M.S., QEP

    February 17, 2009

    We are in an increasingly competative global economy. We need to promote efficency and effectiveness. Organizations hold meetings between headquarters managers and those “in the field,” and fail to truly ask for, or retain the kernels of truth spoken by those on the front line. This too often leads to failure, and repeating mistakes.

  3. Stephen Evanoff

    February 19, 2009

    Alex points out a set of timeless principles that can be applied to any enterprise and any endeavor.

    I think there’s great benefit in periodically looking at how one spends ones time using the three categories of activities Alex identifies at the end of his blog.

    A bit beside the point, but related, is a phenomenon that I’ve noticed since cell phones, laptops, and e-mail have become commonplace, is people purposefully promoting a sense of urgency and creating “fake work” as a means of controlling events and establishing an aura of importance and productivity, i.e., the old 80’s quip, “I’ve got people to meet, places to go, and things to do.” Is it just me, or is this counterproductive behavior becoming normalized?

  4. Alex Pollock

    February 19, 2009

    Thanks David, Fred and Stephen for taking time to share. You remind me of the importance of knowing the “unwritten rules of the game”..those behaviours that our company cultures encourage often without really meaning to. Without discernment flapping and flurry can be mistaken for a valuable contribution. A good question to ask after an activity is..”was the view really worth the climb?”

  5. David Williams

    February 20, 2009

    Great thoughts being exchanged. With re to Stephen’s thought on “people purposefully promoting a sense of urgency” let me share an anectdote. I spent 3 years in a “business partner” role serving as the EHS management representative on the leadership team for a multi-billion dollar manufacturing division. I was always amazed at the quarterly leadership meetings when virtually none of the leadership team could make it through a 1 or 2 hour session without stepping out multiple times to talk on their cell or text message. I sat there thinking “Don’t these folks have teams of people who are supposed to be running the day-to-day operations?”

    Alex – you suggest we stop and ask the question ”was the view really worth the climb?” Great thought. I would also suggest that before any expedition leaves the basecamp that they ask one last time “Do we really need to or want to make this climb?”

  6. Barbara Carson

    October 15, 2009

    I agree with you on all counts. I have been in manufacturing since 1979 and have seen the changes some good, but most a large waste of time. Whenever anyone came up with a new manufacturing plan, companies would jump in full force spending an enormous amount of money and time and eventually scrap the plan all together.

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