This May Explain Why You’re Working Too Hard


Sunday, 7.45pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A lot of people mistake habit for hard work. Doing something over and over again is not working hard. – Shannon Sharpe

In my last post I looked at twelve common reasons why people make mistakes. There are hundreds more, I’m lead to believe, but we all know things go wrong and people don’t do what they’re supposed to do. Why is that and what can we do to make things better?

I saw a post from an entrepreneur who was talking about how hard they worked. David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done talks about every boss has four times the workload of their direct reports. And then I saw another post about Brian Joiner’s Three Levels of Fix which perhaps explains why this is the case.

Brian Joiner is the author of Fourth Generation Management, which is a few decades old now, and writes about what it really means to fix a problem. Joiner’s work is inspired by that of W. Edwards Deming and you can see that in his Three Levels of Fix method.

Deming wrote that 5% of the problems you see in a business are due to the people and 95% is due to the “system”, the environment they operate in. The only people with power to change the system are the management, the people who make decisions on what to do and what not to do.

I’ve adapted Joiner’s words a bit in the picture above so let’s work through it. Fixing a problem is often the easy bit – a bit like shooting at a target. If there’s a leaking tap or a missing piece of paperwork or a broken part – you can fix it. You probably get this all the time at work – something goes wrong and you have to sort it out. This is just work and people work hard to sort out all the problems that happen every day, just like that entrepreneur above. And at the end of the day you can be happy because you’ve moved 10 or a 100 things on.

But if you’re wondering why you have all those problems the next step is to look at the process that results in the problems. This is a box or a series of boxes that tend to be done by people and somewhere in there something is being done incorrectly. A form isn’t well designed and it’s filled out wrong more often than not. You don’t get the right items in your online shopping order because the staffing rota means that people struggle during changeover times. These kinds of process problems can be fixed by looking at all the steps that happen and focusing on the ones that seem to result in a problem further down the line.

The next level of fix, and this is the one the managers and leaders have to do, is to fix the environment that supported the process that cause the problem. This has to do with fuzzy things like culture and norms and politics and so the container is funny shaped because there isn’t a simple answer most of the time. If you have a boss who is hard to deal with and shouts a lot at everyone then people are scared to speak up. Unless you’re able to change the way in which people are treated, the problems will keep happening and that change might need to start by making the boss more aware of the impact they’re having and helping them to change. And that kind of thing is incredibly hard to do.

Of course, this is where evolution lends a helping hand. Organizations that can learn from their problems and change themselves to avoid those problems in the future will be more likely to survive than ones that don’t. If things work well and you aren’t stressed and people have the right capacities then it’s likely that you’ve got the hard, fuzzy bits right. If you’re maxed out and working very very hard but getting nowhere it’s likely that you’re focusing on targets or on hard edged processes.

The challenge is that this kind of stuff isn’t taught to people in charge. So most people muddle through working hard and wondering why it doesn’t seem to get any better. And that’s because there is no silver bullet, no simple hack, no fast way to fix things.

If you want an easy life you have to be ready to wrestle with the hard questions.


Karthik Suresh

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