How Operators Hide the True Workload

Poker cards and chipsEmployment is an exchange of work for money. As with most negotiations, both sides would like to keep their cards hidden, so employers and employees use different tricks in an attempt to hide the true facts from the other.

This post looks at the tricks of employees, whereas the next post will look at those of employers. As employees have more control over the work than they do over the salary, this post shows how to keep management in the dark about the true workload.

The Daily Quota

Normal Distribution Daily Quota
A normal distribution of the daily production quantity

In most workshops, there are targets for the daily production quota – in other words, how many goods should come off a line every day. Normally, this is expected to fluctuate around a mean value. The image here shows a normal distribution, although it can be argued that the tail on the left should be bigger than on the right. In any case, there should be some fluctuations on the left and on the right.

Production Distribution Daily Quota + TargetHowever, in reality the distribution often looks very different. Often, the distribution is cut off sharply on the right side whenever the daily quota is reached. In many factories, it is extremely rare to exceed the daily production quota, even though the actual quota is reached quite frequently.

If you ask the workers, they will tell you that they can reach the daily quota with maximum effort and skill, but it is impossible to produce more (i.e., this is the maximum limit they can produce). You could believe that. Or you could not. While the daily quota is sometimes truly a demanding limit, usually it is not.

The Curious Case of the Overachieving Student Temps (on Their First Day)

Teacher helping student in woodwork class
And not one piece more than the quota. I dare you!

The effort needed to achieve the daily quota can often be seen when observing student temps doing a holiday job or similar. Quite commonly, a student worker on his or her first day will easily exceed the daily quota limit.  Mind you, that student is still at the beginning of the learning curve, and could be even faster with a bit more experience.

However, in most cases the student will fall back after the first day. Normally, this would be puzzling. People should become better with experience, yet often these temps become worse. The explanation is simple: the other operators had a stern talk with the temp, and warned him or her to never ever exceed the daily quota again.

Intentional Slow Downs

Tortoise and Hare
Which one is it?

The example above details workers trying not to exceed the daily quota. However, workers are also very skilled when influencing the daily quota.

There are two basic ways to determine target speeds of manual tasks: you measure, or you use a system of predetermined motions (with Methods-Time Measurement [MTM] being the most popular one). MTM is more difficult to manipulate, and is mostly influenced through the regulations.

Measuring times, on the other hand, are easier to manipulate. First of all, in many plants you cannot take a stopwatch to the shop floor without the permission of the employee representatives. Even with permission, it is difficult to measure accurate times, because the operators often … start … to slow … down … while appearing … to work … at full … speed.

Since nobody knows the workplace as good as the operator, he or she can easily look tremendously busy while adding lots of unnecessary little tasks or slowing down the process.

Trained time takers are aware of this behavior, and often adjust their measurements using an efficiency or performance level. Nevertheless, I would still say the advantage lies with the operator when it comes to manually measured times.

Another Example: Machines

Horizontal milling machineYet another example I’ve heard of is not a manual process but a CNC machine. The foreman set up the machine, which was then able to produce one part every ten minutes. Yet, according to an external expert on cutting tools, all cutting speeds were only half of what they could have been with the given material and tools.

Now, to be frank, I do not know the exact details on this. It could have been an error, or it could have been that there was another technical reason that was not obvious to the external expert. Or, the foreman wanted to intentionally slow down the machine. Again, I am not saying that it was intentional manipulation, but I would not rule it out either.

Why Do They Do That?

This behavior of operators is as old as the process of hiring operators. It was one of the main problems Frederick Taylor had to fight. Back then it was known as soldering.

Business and finance concept. Image of dollars in the man's hand, the other hand shows gesture ok. Isolated on white background
Work for money

Employment at its core is an exchange of work for money. The amount of work and the amount of money are hence two major issues to negotiate. Employers want to get the work for as little money as possible. Employees want to get the money for as little work as possible. In this negotiation, both sides would like to keep some true facts hidden. The workers are better at hiding the work speeds, whereas the managers are better at hiding the true value of the work.

Now I don’t want to accuse operators of dishonesty! Please don’t get me wrong. While the process is not pretty, it is part of a normal healthy negotiation: keep your cards hidden! And again, the employers do the same with their data. While it would be nice to have a world (or at least a company) where everybody trusts everybody else, this is usually not the case. There are a few companies where it works, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Anyway, it is more important to work together and to have a good, respectful relationship, even though neither side is putting all the information on the table.

This post looked more at employees, but employers also play this game. My next post will look more at how employers way to keep their data hidden. In the meantime, go out and organize your industry!


4 thoughts on “How Operators Hide the True Workload

  1. Some years ago the series ‘When BMW met Rover’ (1990s) had fine examples of new employees at Longbridge being told to slow down & take it easy. At a more -er- progressive auto plant which set new standards in the 1980s, there wasn’t a quota / target there was a daily build schedule. Ex Rover managers related their embarrassment at Rover when German customer’s orders were rarely delivered on time. That market shrank for this reason, not, as one might expect for Rover’s quality.

  2. …sorry… I forgot to mention, that the build schedule was met. If not met by end of shift, the shift extended as necessary!

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