Tuesday, March 26, 2013
An area related to time wasting is those situations where overzealous cost cutting eliminates too many support staff with the result that extra administrative work is forced back on highly paid knowledge workers. These cases are not always clear cut. I can describe the boundaries but I can’t give you foolproof answers because there are human factors involved that are unknowable. A few examples best illustrate what is involved.
My favorite is secretarial support. Before personal computers, knowledge workers either had personal secretaries or access to a pool of secretaries who had the typewriters. The knowledge worker either wrote drafts in longhand or dictated to a secretary versed in shorthand or to a dictating machine and the secretary did the typing. With the availability of personal computers and good word processing software many knowledge workers prefer to do their own typing because they now have access to typing equipment and because they are spared from having to organize their thinking as required for dictation. This has led to fewer and fewer secretaries. Is this cost effective? A knowledge worker typically types at 20 to 40 words per minute at best. A secretary types at 60 to 80 words per minute and is paid 1/4 to 1/3 that of a knowledge worker. If only the direct typing time and cost were involved it is clear that having secretaries do the typing is about ten times cheaper than allowing workers to do their own typing.
Other factors affecting the cost comparison include the cost of dictation time, editing time and time to get the product finished. Experience and experimental data has shown that it is about three times faster to dictate something than it is to write or type it so; at most, the time for dictation cuts the advantage of secretarial typing to about a factor of three. My experience indicates that editing is faster if done using standard journalism techniques on paper copies, which again favors the dictation/typist approach. However, not all knowledge workers take the time to learn these editing techniques and some secretaries aren’t familiar with them so I will call the editing cost equal. I will also ignore the advantage dictation has in that less editing is usually required. This is because most people outline a document before they dictate whereas those who do their own typing typically just start typing without an outline.
That leaves only the cost of time to get to a finished product. This cost is the cost of information latency and depends on the product involved, the dictation process in use and the worker involved. Information latency cost is very high for situations where knowledge workers are exchanging vital task information because the latency time translates directly to delays in other work products and thereby to increased costs. If the product is small then it is more cost effective for the worker to type and send an email. If the product is so large that it must be typed, reviewed, edited and then distributed it is more cost effective to dictate the work and have a skilled typist type and distribute the work. In these examples the most cost effective approach is the one that gets the data to users quickest.
Most emails are small and it isn’t convenient or cost effective to dictate and have a secretary type and send them. At the other extreme are reports and similar paperwork that have deadlines days or weeks away. In these cases the information latency cost is negligible and the dictation/typist approach is about a factor of three cheaper. Thus the most cost effective balance of what should be directly typed by the worker and what should be dictated and then typed by a typist depends on the mix of products and the dictation process. The product mix varies from organization to organization and likely from time to time.
However, if the product mix was the only factor remaining in determining the cost effective solution then it could be worked out by a diligent manager. The problem is there is also a human factors issue that is worker dependent. Some workers want to do all their own typing no matter how costly it is and they present all kinds of spurious arguments to defend their position. Others are more than happy to use the secretaries as much as possible and perhaps even for things they should do themselves. I believe this human factors issue makes it too hard to get the exact right answer because the most cost effective balance includes some disgruntled workers and it’s not possible to accurately estimate the resulting cost of the inefficiency due to their being disgruntled.
I believe that modern electronic tools, including personal computers, the intra/inter nets and recording devices so small they are embedded in cell phones and MP3 players, make dictation even more cost effective than in the past. E-mail, fixed and portable, and cell phones have greatly reduced information latency but expensive knowledge workers spend a lot of time inefficiently typing. Sound files recorded on personal computers, or portable devices can be sent almost instantly to typists anywhere and text documents, with corrected grammar and punctuation, can be typed and returned about as fast as a slow typing knowledge worker can type a document. This modern technology has the capability to reduce information latency for most work requiring typing but it doesn’t seem to have caught on for two reasons. First, workers wanting to do the typing themselves, even though they are inefficient typists and second, overzealous cost cutting leading to reducing the availability of skilled typists.
Given all these factors what should the effective leader do? My advice is, if you have access to secretarial support use it as much as possible. Experiment with the various new technologies for dictation and collect data on how much of your time is saved and how long it takes to get data to users for the various work products in your organization. Keep it up long enough that you are comfortable dictating and have adequate data to make decisions. The experience and the data will help you determine what is best for you and your work. When you have the results share them with your workers and encourage them to use the best practices you have determined. But be prepared for all kinds of arguments why they can’t effectively use dictation.
The personal computer has complicated the issue of administrative support even further. Take for example, travel arrangements and expense reporting. In the past workers submitted a travel request and a secretary or administrative assistant made the travel arrangements. At the end of the travel the worker gave the travel expense data to the secretary or administrative assistant who then filled out an expense report for the worker to sign before it was submitted to the financial system. Now it is likely that the worker goes on line and makes travel arrangements and fills out an on line expense report upon return. Here again the worker is doing work that a less costly secretary or administrator can do much faster. This example and many others like it aren’t so easy to analyze. There is no question that having an expensive knowledge worker do such work in place of a support person isn’t cost effective in the simplest analysis. However, here again human factors are involved.
If the knowledge worker completes all the work scheduled or expected of them in a given time period and also does the administrative work then clearly it is cheaper to layoff the support people. I am convinced that in many cases this happens. The knowledge workers absorb this extra work and put in the extra time to get it done without an increase in compensation. On paper it looks like the organization has gained in cost effectiveness in such cases. My opinion and it is only an opinion as I have no data to back it up, is that the organization does gain up to a point but loses after that. I think the knowledge worker can absorb some administrative tasks but at some point the administrative tasks begin to interfere with the workers ability to focus on the tasks they were hired to do. When knowledge workers are continually interrupted from their main work they become inefficient because they have to spend time revisiting thought processes, and they make more mistakes because they are distracted. I believe some organizations today are fooling themselves. They are employing extra knowledge workers to cover for the inefficiencies of existing knowledge workers brought on by pushing more and more administrative tasks onto these workers in the guise of being more cost effective by laying off administrative personnel.
Having made the case that determining the optimum number of administrative workers is complex and involves factors that are unknowable what should the effective leader do? My advice is to make your mistakes on the side of having too many administrative workers rather than too few. First because having too few leads to having to hire additional knowledge workers and the optimum number of knowledge workers is the minimum number required to get work done with no administrative overhead assigned to the knowledge workers. This is because of the costs of data latency and the hidden costs of extra communications between workers incurred when there is more than the minimum number of knowledge workers. It is also less costly to err by having one or two extra administrative workers than to have even one extra knowledge worker due to the large difference in salaries between knowledge workers and administrative workers.
Treat support people with respect
Before leaving this topic I must remind you of a couple of things that can undermine the effectiveness of your organization. First, never ask a secretary or an administrative person to do something for you while you wait for it that you could do yourself. Besides the fact that it is simply rude behavior it takes two people’s time instead of one. It is important to treat secretaries and administrative people as professionals and to give them as much responsibility as each one’s skills and experience allows. Think of them as knowledge workers just like the rest of your workers. Then you realize that the more work they do at their relatively low salary is less work you have to pay for at the higher salary of other workers. Second, when you are assembling a team to solve a crisis don’t forget to include secretaries or administrative workers that have responsibilities for portions of the process that is in crisis. Very often such workers have more intimate knowledge of process problems than others that have less day to day involvement in the processes. I have worked in organizations whose culture just won’t allow them to include secretaries or admin people in process improvement teams. If your organization’s culture includes such thinking you need to work to change the culture in order to gain the benefit of all the skills and all the experience in the organization.
The objective of this exercise is to determine the size of the largest document that you can type more cost effectively than you can dictate and have typed for you. For documents larger than this size dictation is more efficient than typing and for smaller documents typing the document yourself is more efficient. Although this takes some time it is well worth knowing in the long term. If you have software that translates dictation to text you can modify this exercise to compare the time to type and edit something to the time to dictate and edit the software transcription.
1. Pick two similar, but unrelated topics, e.g. a recent sports event you watched and a recent repair job you did around the house or yard. Start with either topic and write 250 to 300 words, i.e. about a page, about it. If it is your habit to outline work before you type it then do that. If you don’t normally outline then just begin typing. Time yourself and record the time it takes you to outline and type, or just to type a page, edit it, save the file and email it to yourself. The word count and the time will give you an effective typing speed. For example, if you actually type 30 words per minute it should take you ten minutes to type 300 words plus the time it takes to think about what to write, edit, save and email, say another four to five minutes so that the task overall takes about 15 minutes for an effective speed of 20 words per minute. If you outline first it should be about the same overall time since you are likely to spend three to four minutes outlining but you won’t have to spend as much time thinking during the typing and there is less editing of the draft.
2. If you have a pc with a microphone set it up so you can record a sound file. If not use the recording capability on your MP3 players, PDA or cell phone and transfer the sound file into your pc. Next determine the time it takes to outline and then dictate about 250 or 300 words on the second topic, save the sound file and email it to yourself. If you can’t stand outlining then you can skip that step and just dictate the sound file directly. If you are somewhat used to outlining and dictating you will have accomplished the outlining, dictating, saving and emailing in about seven or perhaps eight minutes. Record your own time but for now assume it is eight minutes.
3. Account for the time a typist would take in opening your file, transcribing it, checking it, saving it and emailing it back to you. Assume you dictated at about 80 words per minute and the typist transcribes at the same speed. Thus it takes about 3.75 minutes to transcribe your 300 words. Suppose it takes about the same time to check the work and an additional half minute for corrections, saving and emailing for a total of eight minutes.
4. Now you have the data needed to estimate the size of document above which it saves you time to dictate the document and the size above which it is more cost effective to dictate. For the example discussed so far it took 15 minutes of your time to type a 300 word document and only eight minutes to dictate 300 words. Assuming the typist makes about 1/3 your salary the cost of dictating is only 71% of the cost of typing it yourself for this example.
By now you have figured out that I have gamed you. There is no size of document beyond a small paragraph that is faster for you to type or cheaper for you to type unless you assumed some unreasonably large overhead times relating to dictation. The important factor is information latency. If you can get critical data faster by typing yourself, e.g. via email, then it is more effective and cost effective. Otherwise it is always more efficient and cost effective to dictate rather than type unless you are the rare manager that can type at 100 words per minute. The point of this exercise was to get you to try dictation so that you would see it is relatively easy. It gets easier as you get used to it.
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