When I worked in book manufacturing, numbers were everything. So we tracked books per hour and job changeover times.
But our manager felt we didn’t pay enough attention to results — much less improving them — so he added a new metric: Line downtime.
Then he realized that we could influence results simply by allocating more time to one metric, and less to another. (Want higher books per hour? Write down longer changeover times than actual and boom: Up go books per hour.) So he kept adding metrics, and before long we were charting seven or eight different performance measures.
Which did nothing to solve the problem; in fact, the more charts he displayed, the less we paid attention.
A University of Virginia study published earlier this year found that people who set out to improve something — an idea, a product, a situation, basically anything — tend to focus on “additive transformations” and ignore “subtractive transformations.”
Or in non researcher-speak, when we try to fix a problem, we typically try to add rather than subtract. Need to improve quality? Add more process checks. Need to improve stability? Add more bracing. Need to improve team cohesion? Add more meetings.
Need to increase employee focus on productivity? Add more metrics — even though, in our case, that didn’t work.
Not to take too much credit (even though I’m about to), but when I became a supervisor I stopped publishing all the old metrics and replaced them with a new metric: Adjusted books per hour (ABH).
Our changeover goal was 20 minutes, so every time a crew performed a changeover they got a 20-minute “credit,” regardless of how long that changeover actually took. If a crew had four changeovers during an 8-hour shift, they were allocated 80 minutes of changeover time. The remaining time was considered “run time,” and was divided into the total books produced.
For example, say a crew had six changeovers and ran 22,000 books during an 8-hour shift. Six changeovers times 20 minutes equals 2 hours of “credited” changeover time. That reduces the total run time to 6 hours. 22,000 divided by 6 equals 3,667 ABH.
The ABH metric gave us a straightforward way to evaluate performance trends — and compare crew-to-crew performance.
If crews performed a changeover faster than 20 minutes, great: They had more run time available and could run more books, which increased their ABH. If their changeovers took longer, their ABH suffered since they had less actual time to run books.
Keep in mind we still measured actual performance on changeovers so we could spot areas for improvement; we just used ABH as an apples-to-apples metric, “one number” metric.
Employee instantly knew which crews were better, and which were worse — and that was something they did care about.
According to the researchers, “Defaulting to searches for additive changes may be one reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules and institutional red tape.” Unless you remind yourself, and your team, to think of ways to solve a problem through subtraction and not just addition.
When participants were reminded that they could remove items or elements from problematic tasks, they were twice as likely to make subtractive changes.
Changes which were more effective than additive changes.
Try it. The next time you try to solve a problem or improve a situation, think about how less could be more. Less buttons — a la Steve Jobs — rather than more. Fewer steps, rather than more.
Fewer calls and meetings and reports, rather than more.
Granted, that might mean sacrificing a few “this is how we’ve always done it” process sacred process. That might mean swallowing your pride, especially if some of the subtractions suggested are things you put in place somewhere along the way.
Because rarely does greater complexity lead to better results.