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4.1 out of 5 stars
Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency
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57 of 62 people found the following review helpful
on February 5, 2005
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This book is very humble both in its size and format but contains some true pearls of wisdom. Here are some of the highlights that I will retain from this easy and pleasant read:

* In our constant quest to make our organizations more efficient (reduction of overhead, standardization of processes, overworking management and resources), we have actually made them less effective. The solution lies in (re)introducing `slack'. Slack is the lubricant required to effect change, it is the degree of freedom that enables reinvention and true effectiveness.

* Multitasking and overtime, thought to be ways of getting the most out of the teams, are actually having a negative impact on productivity. Multitasking, specifically for knowledge workers, causes at least a 15% penalty in productivity. It is much higher for tasks (such as troubleshooting or design for instance) that require complete immersion before the resource can actually make progress. Systematic overtime is also proven to be an ineffective way of improving project cycle-time. While it may provide short term gains, the demands it puts on resources quickly reduces their productivity and effectiveness. An alternative to systematic overtime are well calculated and well timed sprints (focused and value-added, yet handled as exceptions).

* Overworked managers also have a very negative impact on organizational effectiveness. It is indeed managers, and more specifically middle managers, that can the most effectively champion and effect change in organizations. The more overworked they are, the less time they have to reinvent the ways of working. Those same middle managers will be most effective in bringing about positive changes if they can collaborate with each other, which in turns requires that organizations stop fostering destructive internal competition.

* Prescriptive processes, pushed top-down, are a form of disempowerment. They are a result of fearful management that is allergic to failure. These processes succeed in dictate every aspect of how you should do you work but fail in providing guidance in doing the `hard parts'. They are often heavy and form an armor that reduces the mobility and agility of teams, hence resulting in less competitive organizations. The solution is to put the ownership of processes between the hands of those who do the work.

* An effective change manager is a person that can remonstrate, repeat, correct, encourage, cajole, motivate, and has great powers of persuasion. He/she is less of a boss and more of a negotiator. Great change managers have a lot of markers to call in. Markers come from favors done and confidence earned in the past. They have built a reservoir of trust and tap into it to entice their people to embrace change. Change managers have to come from within the organization, a stranger has no markers to call in, just a little `honeymoon capital'.

* The best time to introduce change is in a period of growth. Decline causes anxiety and makes people more resistant to change.
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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2005
Format: Paperback
It's about 100 years since Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced the philosophy of "scientific management", with its offspring such as the time-and-motion study and the mythical man-month. That's about how long it takes for a big idea to soak into the awareness of managers everywhere - especially those who are more committed to looking good than to managing well.

Tom DeMarco, co-author (with Tim Lister) of the magnificent "Peopleware", has done it again. Although "Slack" runs a little over 200 pages, you will probably read it in less than four hours because it is actually quite hard to put down. You will keep on thinking, "Yes, I've seen that!" and "Those words ring a bell".

In the course of his consultancy practice, which has taken him into many organizations including Apple, HP, Lucent and IBM, DeMarco has noticed a lot of counterproductive management behaviour. Many acts and policies that look good in the short term lead to corporate death in the longer term. More specifically, it is always possible to squeeze out a few more percentage points of "efficiency" - but only at the cost of damaging morale, precipitating burnout and losing the flexibility without which sensible decisions cannot be made.

Faster isn't always better. Effectiveness matters more than efficiency. People are not interchangeable "resources". Without challenge and growth, the best employees soon leave. Overheads are not necessarily bad. Consciously or subconsciously, we already know these things. DeMarco just hammers them home so we will never forget them again.

I really have only one quibble with "Slack". DeMarco has no business criticising Dilbert and his fellow engineers for "giving up" on their pointy-haired bosses. Sure, employees have a responsibility to make allowances and go the extra mile - but the PHBs systematically abuse every extra bit of slack that anyone cuts them. That's part of the joke, of course.

This is not just a book that will confirm your suspicions, and reassure you that you are not the one who is going mad. It's a simple, easily-understood message that everyone in business needs to hear. Most of all those right at the top - DeMarco says that many employees have told him, "I wish my boss could be here now to hear you say that".
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
About time someone wrote about human nature and the fact that people are not machines. The myth of "total efficiency" still persists in the workplace.
This book is in sharp contrast to practices that have plagued the workers for decades; women who sewed in sweatshop factories in the early 1900's were carefully monitored on how long they took to make bathroom breaks. Even now software is available that can count every keystroke a worker makes (to check on their efficiency.) The dream that careful monitoring and structuring of the workplace to get the maximum "juice" out of workers is disproved in this book.
This isn't even totally new information; a very old study found that brightening the lights in a factory improved performance. Then another study found that DIMMING the lights also improved performance. In other words, people are not machines. They need downtime, change, meaningful work and mental breaks or they burn out. A very timely and helpful book.
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on May 15, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I just finished reading Slack by Tom DeMarco, and it's not usual for me to agree with consultants. However, DeMarco hits the mark on a lot of points with me, particularly the issue of burnout. The book's major premise is that companies are so preoccupied with making themselves "lean" that they are overworking the middle management layer that is left to pick up the pieces. I think everyone knows that Wall Street loves the restructuring charges and the layoffs that come with it, but DeMarco illustrates effectively how overworking your "knowledge" base can actually decrease productivity in the long haul. Along with the overworking theme is the basic fact that middle management in an office environment is not like an employee in the factory - if you want to maximize the knowledge base, you need to provide enough support for them. Otherwise, without "slack", management is not able to institute change and a positive work environment. I would recommend this book for anyone who works 12 hour days, weekends and/or can't take a vacation because a day away from the office = two days of work when you get back. It is a quick read - the chapters are brief and it is tailored for those who only want the facts. And when your done, give this to your boss right before you ask for additional employees in your department.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Author Tom DeMarco presents a compelling case against total efficiency, which - he explains convincingly - can actually slow down work processes, undermine office morale and corrupt positive change. Leave some slack in your system, he says, so people have a chance to do their best and grow, which will result in a more effective organization. He includes some simple flow charts to help illustrate these ideas, along with examples of management methods that work and some that don't. We [...] particularly like his details about managing knowledge workers. The book is divided into almost three dozen short, to-the-point chapters. Each one highlights a different problem caused by lack of slack time, and suggests a solution. This pleasant read will intrigue both executives and managers. If you don't have time to read it, maybe you're being too efficient.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on August 20, 2001
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
As I read this book, I began to have feelings about my own job (which is production work in a bank). The absence of slack on the job causes changes in the way that information is dealt with. For example, in an effort to keep meetings short, handouts are the way to go which keeps questions and answer meetings from happening. This keeps production workers' thoughts from being heard. I would like to see Mr. DeMarco write a book about slack for the lower level of workers. The last chapters about risk and risk management were not relevant to me as a production worker, although I am sure that they may have been relevant to management. The remainder of the book was interesting, and I felt that it could be useful even to my job.
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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on June 27, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I suppose I was disappointed by this book.
Having read this author's _Peopleware_ (which is extraordinarily good, in my opinion), I had high hopes for this book.
Unfortunately, it simply did not live up to expectations. He makes some good points, and his writing is witty and easy to read. However there simply isn't enough interesting material to justify a book. This material would have been better presented in 30 pages than in this length. Toward the end, it felt like the author was simply reaching for more things to say in order to fill out his page count. The font is large, the margins are wide, and the chapters are still 3-6 pages.
I'd borrow this book, rather than buying it.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 2002
Format: Hardcover
In Slack, I think writer Tom DeMarco delivers a simple and powerful message that bears repeating. The idea that we are actually increasing productivity by driving people in machine-like efficiency is an illusion. The fact is that when we do not give people "slack" in pre-selected areas of a workflow, we may find unplanned "slack" appearing in all the wrong places, at the wrong time and in larger quantities then what the planned "slack" would have been. I found DeMarco's challenge of the theories of Total Efficiency, Management by Objective and Internal Competition especially refreshing. I highly recommend this book especially to people who manage "knowledge workers."
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2004
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Somehow I managed to give this book only three stars...I couldn't have been more wrong. Over the past several years this is the single management book I keep rereading. This is a brilliantly rationalist book arguing that maximizing the busyness of individual knowledge workers minimizes the effectiveness and productivity of the organization as a whole.

This concept is promoted by Eliyahu Goldratt and his Theory of Constraints and in his books like The Goal. Goldratt argued that in in the case of discrete manufacturing-where individual goods are produced in a continual but not continuous process through the discrete application of heterogeneous transformations-as the utilization (or efficiency) of the individual steps approaches their maximum, the productivity (or throughput) of the system as a whole approaches a minimum. Now, knowledge work (like software development - my industry) looks a lot like discrete manufacturing. You have a set of inputs of varying quality: requirements, best practice documents, etc. In a factory, the machines that perform a step in the manufacturing process often differ - they could be different models, have different maintenance histories, have different tolerances with regards to inputs or throughput, or produce at different levels of quality. Tom DeMarco reminds us that knowledge workers are similarly not fungible. Not only does each individual have their own specialties and deficits but people have task switching costs analogous to the set up costs with factory machines.

Anyway, this is my desert island management book - the one that's all depth with none of the fluff, and the one that I study for guidance with each management challenge.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
DeMarco is back again, with another good book in the spirit of Controlling Software Projects and Peopleware. Those books, written in the 1980s, still have a lot to say about software and people today -- read them too. But here in Slack, DeMarco updates his message specifically for the super-efficient, online, always busy 21st century.

As companies streamline to make sure that they're mostly workers (less middle management) and that everyone is always busy, DeMarco suggests that thinking time can get cut out. And that thinking, to be done in the "slack" time that gets cut, is essential for keeping a company agile and inventive.

DeMarco still manages to get many of his basic ideas in, which gives the book variety. Just a sample here.

On schedules: "A bad schedule is [simply] one that sets a date that is subsequently missed .... When the schedule is wrong, the work goes on anyway, proceeding in some way other than as planned. The result is that the effort is necessarily hurt."

On leadership: "Leadership is not restricted to acting only downward along the lines of organizational authority. The bread-and-butter acts of leadership that make companies healthy involve people leading their bosses, leading their peers ... all without ever being granted the official power to do what they're doing. It's enrolling someone who is distinctly outside the scope of your offical power base that constitutes real leadership."

Back on the main topic of the book, time and what to do with it: "People under time pressure don't think faster."

So find a little slack time and read this book.
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