Saturday, July 25, 2009

Slack by Tom DeMarco

I checked out Tom DeMarco's a new book from our company library and started reading last night. I'm about half way through, and I've already had to put it down a couple of times to either nod in affirmation, "Amen, Brother!" or to vent when reminded of workplace ineffectiveness.

Slack : getting past burnout, busywork and the myth of total efficiency is aimed at busy people meant to be "read[able] cover-to-cover on a flight from NY to Chicago." Don't let the slenderness of this 200 page paperback fool you, there is substance contained within. This mirrors the message of smarter work, and avoiding busyness for busyness's sake.

What is Slack? In the prelude, Tom defines for us, "Slack: The unfortunate tradeoff between efficiency and flexibility." Later we expand to "time slack" and "control slack", available looseness in the time or control model that enables the knowledge worker to improve their work, prepare for coming work and generally be more effective and responsive. We can get more efficient in the near term by squeezing out slack but we lose the ability to react and change. In essence helping the bottom-line this year by killing our ability to meet the bottom-line next year.

Squeezing out slack in the name of efficiency is another in line of short-term optimizations that improve short term efficiency but don't improve effectiveness. The thesis here is that if we over-optimize in the short term, we lose the ability to think, plan and prepare.

So far, we've already seen: why overtime is bad for the employee and for the company, why a "hurry up, be busier" mantra can lead people to work slower, the operational cost of turnover, how to recognize and avoid a culture of fear, the costs associated with made-up/over-aggressive schedules, and the myth of the fungible resource. And that's just in the first hundred pages!

More coming once I finish part II, and move on to parts III and IV.

Part I: Slack
Part II: Lost, but making good time
  (The effect of stress on organizations)
Part III: Change and Growth
  (The difference between companies that can learn and those that can't)
Part IV: Risk and Risk Management
  (Why running away from risk is a no-win strategy)

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