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18 January 2014

Put Off Blaming Procrastination

Work will always expands to fit the schedule.

Recent posts on the theme of procrastination, or more specifically, finishing work on deadline rather than early, have stepped on my toes. I'd like to speak up on behalf of my fellow "procrastinators."

The theme implies that people have nothing to do besides that One Task. It implies that they sit around playing games and don't have to scramble to meet multiple, simultaneous, arbitrary deadlines and then die inside when people criticize the lack of perfection.

On Time is Late -- Are you sure about that?

Before dealing with "procrastination," one should question the value of beating deadlines rather than meeting them.

The Lean principle of Pull states that early delivery can cause waste. Normally, one thinks of storage costs as waste, but doing work before it's needed presents other costs. For example, racing to complete a task might sacrifice planning, risk management, or quality. It might also cause neglect of lower-priority tasks or accelerated cost of funds.

The real schedule-waster is not procrastination. The great Time Thieves are multitasking and perfectionism.

The assignments will multiply to fill the schedule.

Multitasking eats up time by inserting course changes into the day. Human minds are not like Intel chips with four independent CPUs. It takes time to push task A into the stack, bring up task B, recall where you left off, and start making progress again. Moreover, what manager will forgive neglecting task A, which is due tomorrow, just so task B can be completed a day ahead of its due date one week from now?

The reach for perfection will stretch to the deadline.

Management teaches "procrastination" by forgetting to balance constraints. If you expect perfection in any human endeavor, expect employees to pour every available hour into quality.

Managers who want early deliveries need to increase collaboration with their reports. That means, first, avoiding micromanaging, but still sharing enough involvement to guide energies toward the right balance between progress and quality. It means, second, putting themselves in a position to say, "Stop! That's good enough," when the task reaches sufficient progress and quality.

The prevalence of multitasking and perfectionism make "procrastination" not a performance problem, but a management problem. Sure, when employees fail to adapt, it becomes a performance problem; but I caution against pointing fingers at the effects when the cause lies within Leadership's hands.