The True Cost and Time of a Process

The time and cost of a process usually defaults to analysis that stems from time study practices of the past. In the good (bad?) old days, Industrial Engineers would flock to the manufacturing floor with funky looking clipboards crowned with stop watches. They would patiently observe the activities of workers, clicking away on their stop watches, timing each activity down to the second.

Their reports would detail the tasks and time each person needed to perform. Workers would get sheets that told them what they were supposed to do and exactly how long it should take them to do the work. I remember those days as I personally experienced this in my first real job – working on the 3208 engine assembly line at Caterpillar Tractor Company.

This was quantitative process analysis in its prime – a scientific approach to calculating robotic work (trust me, it was very robotic!) that is the Prima Donna of modern cost control in large manufacturing (and especially) assembly environments.

Fast forward into the 21st century and we see the emphasis shift to knowledge worker processes. I use this term loosely to describe any work that is not robotic in nature. Let’s compare. Those assembly processes described above are extremely mechanical. They are so mechanical that many of them can be entirely automated with machines (I saw this happening even when I was at Cat). While our ability to design machines that have the flexibility of people may still be limited, as a general rule we can observe that almost all of these robotic processes can be completely automated. The only limitation is the cost and capability of the robots we can produce.

With knowledge worker processes, there are always elements of the process that cannot be automated – things that only people can do. Robots, machines and computers remain dramatically limited in their ability to apply judgment within context, and to adapt to situational conditions. This is why knowledge workers are so important – they do what technology cannot do.

When we assess knowledge worker processes using quantitative methods we miss the impact of judgment, situational conditions, and on-the-scene adaptation. We miss the knock-on effects that occur every day – the detective work, problem-solving, workarounds, and interpersonal interactions that occur all of the time. We miss the work generated by whitespace, work issues, and clumsy process design. We miss the extra work this creates for knowledge workers and the work it creates for others around them – managers, supervisors, peers, domain experts, business partners, and so on. Depending on the process, we can even miss the majority of the cost.

The quantitative analysis provides a perspective, but it is only one perspective that is not complete in and of itself.

If you took the time to carefully trace down all of the impacts of a given knowledge worker process… every touch to every person – every conversation, email, and interaction… every action (speaking, listening, typing, thinking, etc.) the resulting cost and time picture would paint a strikingly different story than how we traditionally view the time and cost of a process. I am not suggesting you should do this (although it’s an interesting learning opportunity you might consider doing a couple of times).

But we do need to be aware of this and keep it in mind. And we need to use the qualitative process perspective to effectively evaluate processes and improve this aspect of them. While we may think we know the time and cost of our processes it is highly likely that we only understand that at a fundamentally robotic level. We forgot about people…

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