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Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency Paperback – April 9, 2002
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Another entry in the small but growing management library that suggests purposely slowing down and smelling the roses could actually boost productivity in today's 24/7 world, Tom DeMarco's Slack stands out because it is aimed at "the infernal busyness of the modern workplace." DeMarco writes, "Organizations sometimes become obsessed with efficiency and make themselves so busy that responsiveness and net effectiveness suffer." By intentionally creating downtime, or "slack," management will find a much-needed opportunity to build a "capacity to change" into an otherwise strained enterprise that will help companies respond more successfully to constantly evolving conditions. Focusing specifically on knowledge workers and the environment in which they toil, DeMarco addresses the corporate stress that results from going full-tilt, and offers remedies he thinks will foster growth instead of stagnation. Slack, he contends, is just the thing to nurture the out-of-box thinking required in the 21st century, and within these pages, he makes a strong case for it. --Howard Rothman
From Publishers Weekly
DeMarco (Peopleware), a management consultant, says that in today's competitive, fast-moving economy, managers work far less effectively than before. Responding to restructuring and staff reductions, managers overemphasize deadlines and rush employees, sacrificing quality. Instead, says DeMarco, executives should encourage teamwork, discourage competition and allow training time. Unfortunately, tedious, jargon-heavy writing dulls DeMarco's worthwhile message.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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DeMarco starts out by describing an old puzzle you may remember: a square 2"x2"puzzle with 8 plastic tiles in a 3x3 grid with one space left over. The object was to order the tiles from 1 to 8 by sliding them around and interchanging tiles and spaces. DeMarco proposes a new "optimized" puzzle: 716/483/259. Great! If you like 716/483/259 then the puzzle is already in its final "optimized" configuration. The only problem is that there is no space left over to move the tiles around. Not much of a game, but think of the analogy with today's manufacturing model. All the air is squeezed out of the process. The minimal amount of effort is required to maintain 716/483/259. Everything is great, UNTIL you need to respond to changing market conditions, and then, you can't! There is no slack in the process. All unessential overhead has been cut. Folks are so busy doing their jobs and the jobs of one or two others that have been let go that they can't possibly do anything more.
As far as DeMarco is concerned, optimization may work on the shop floor, but not with knowledge workers because thinking takes time and freedom, the very things that have been squeezed out of the process. Now, no one is available to redirect the process. The best one can hope for is some incremental improvement here or there. No breakthroughs can occur, just the same thing better, faster, and cheaper until better, faster, and cheaper can no longer compete.
My first chemical engineering professor actually worked in a buggy whip factory. How much better do you suppose their buggy whips became before they went broke? How much faster were they produced? How much cheaper did they become? Here is a link to a better, faster, cheaper buggy whip.
Quite a bargain for under 13 dollars, especially when adjusted for inflation. So did a few better, faster, cheaper businesses survive? No. The above company started in 1973, and they do lots of other stuff besides buggy whips. Businesses only survive when they can adapt. Being best in class is important, but the ability to change or create the class is even more important.
Slack is organized into 33 short chapters in four parts. Part One introduces the concept of slack. Part Two: Lost, but Making Good Time resonates with a saying of mine: "When you're headed in the wrong direction, speed is not your ally." Part Three addresses change and growth, and Part Four speaks to risk and risk management.
DeMarco makes many good points; e.g., people are not fungible; transaction costs are almost always underestimated or ignored; invention requires resources; tactics without strategy are disastrous, etc. However, he also makes a few blunders.
In Chapter 5, Managing Eve, DeMarco's worldview gets in the way. According to DeMarco, Eve made the right decision by breaking the rules rather than limiting her "growth as a person." I am no prude, but there are lots of experiences for which we are the poorer, not the better, and sensible policy is designed to limit bad consequences. Do organizations entertain destructive policies. Yes, but our job should be to reform the policy, not to do our own thing.
DeMarco also analogizes blind obedience to management policy as religion, but this is a poor analogy. The Christian religion is responsible for the hospital, the university, and science. Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Blind adherence to anything (including policy) is never a good idea, but that has much more to do with totalitarianism than religion.
Elsewhere (Chapter 28, Change Management) DeMarco decries the family as a poor model for business, especially during the changing times that we find ourselves in. But this is founded on an inadequate and misguided model of family as an authoritarian regime. Good family does have clear structure and authority, but that is not all it has. It also has apprenticeship, nurturing, guidance, training; and it prepares its junior members for succession to greater responsibilities. All in all, I think that is a very good model for business.
Yet and despite my disagreements, the book is a worthy read and a reasonable antidote to the blind dogma that poses for leadership in many organizations. One can only hope that those indicted are up for the challenge.
I have long believed the drive to long hours with people working under the gun and advocating multi-tasking in business is fundamentally flawed. Tom shows good basics and data to clearly illustrate why these practices can get you into trouble if not managed. Kanban usage in software was not in vogue when Tom wrote this book, but it it is a good methodology to help put many of this ideas into practice.
If you manage software teams this is a MUST read in my opinion
There are fundamental differences between a building full of factory workers and a building full of code monkeys, engineers, accountants, etc....duh. DeMarco asserts that current management practices don't really account for this, namely that at crunch time you can push the laborers harder but "thinking" jobs occur at a fixed rate. A little free time, or slack, for all employees is in fact a good thing, because it allows for beneficial change to happen, or certain tasks to occur right away. Standing over a cubicle with a stopwatch won't help the worker or the organization. Laying off a full time secretary and splitting another half-time between two departments because she was timed to be busy only 50% of the day is a bad idea, because then the secretary is then always busy and you then have six-figure salary workers wasting their time making photocopies. The whole idea of slack is also useful when looking at risk analysis and planning, and many other aspects of corporate life.
While I certainly don't agree with everything DeMarco presents, a lot of the ideas do seem very well founded in reality and are just plain all-around good concepts. I think it's worth a read and discussion with your colleagues if you manage people in polo shirts or neckties, but I don't think this is the end-all of management books.