Most of you have at some point or another encountered the term “lean” in relation to business processes or management. One of the ideas in lean management is that you should focus on flow efficiency (how efficiently something moves through your process) instead of resource efficiency (how much time a person spends actually doing something instead of twiddling their thumbs in a given work day). The idea behind this reasoning is that resource efficiency oriented processes will generate a lot of unnecessary work by their very nature, and due to how they quantify “efficiency”, these processes can’t even tell that they are doing pointless work instead of productive work. I’ll not go into the details of why this is so, but the reasoning behind this argument is very good.
Another law in lean management is called Kingman’s equation, which states that as resource efficiency grows, the process completion time grows exponentially. This means that as you approach 100% efficiency (I.e. no thumb-twiddling whatsoever), the time it takes for an task to be completed goes through the roof. This sounds quite insane, but it’s exactly what happens. The reasons why are a bit too complex and therefore outside the scope of this article (all this lean talk is just to give people a short primer before I jump to my main point), but if you’d like to see a future article about it, tell me in the comments below!
So, what has this got to do with Google’s ideas on HR policy? As most of you probably know, Google is sort of famous for allowing their employees to spend a large chunk of their workday on pet projects, i.e. stuff that interests the individual employee but might be a complete waste of time in the eyes of the employer. The common argument given for this strange concept is that the pet projects might turn into a major product for the employer at some point, and the unorthodox practice basically creates mini-skunkworks that can operate small projects without managerial interference. PostIt notes are actually a very good example for such a hobby-project-turned-major-product.
Another argument is that it allows employees to take a break from routine work while still doing something productive, and thus keeping their brains in the right headspace to easily continue with “real” work when the break is over.
And these reasons are very legitimate in my opinion, and are probably some of the core ideas behind Google’s move in this direction. But I’d like to argue that there’s another reason behind this that might not be very obvious, until you look at the concept from a lean perspective.
Remember Kingman’s equation that I talked about earlier? The one that stated that if you always have stuff to do, you’ll get nothing done? Well, some clever boffin at Google might have thought about this, and decided that if you by design only demand 80% of your employees, this problem becomes an impossibility! But hold on, won’t that just lower the maximum efficiency point to 80% and you’d have all the same problems but even less is getting done (how you calculate 80% of nothing will be left as an home exercise in futility)?
Well, that would be a reality if all your workers were perfect and did exactly what you told them, but luckily, humans are wonderfully bad at doing anything exactly. What do you guys think happens, if a worker at Google starts to feel overworked? Do you actually think that she would take a 2 hour break to play with a new cool micro controller when she has a lot of stuff she needs to get done before that big meeting tomorrow? Of course not! So what Google has designed is basically an overflow buffer to make sure that sudden peaks in demand doesn’t cripple their workforce until somebody higher up can be arsed to get some more warm bodies to the department, while formatting it in such a way that they a) get their employees to see it as a perk, b) get additional exotic skill sets to spontaneously materialize inside the company at no extra cost and finally c) get a long shot at somebody developing something truly revolutionary that they can late sell for huge profits!
This is nothing short of pure brilliance when it comes to HR management, and in my opinion it also sounds a bit too good to be just happy chance. But then again, that wouldn’t be the first, or even the 57th, time that Google did something that people thought was completely bonkers that later turned out to be extremely smart.
What a shame that Google wasn’t the first to think of this. At least not the underlaying concept. Kenneth E. Knight introduced the term “bootlegging” in 1967, which in business administration means projects that your boss might not actually know about. The practice is quite old infact, the Germans did this already 100 years ago, and even have a term for it, U-Boot-Forschung (which translates to “submarine research”). But it was first in the states during the ’60s that Hewlett-Packard and 3M started the concept of “permitted bootlegging”, with clear cut policy that you could spend x percent of your workday on said bootleg projects. Google just took if further with allotting a whooping 20% to bootlegging, as long as it has something to do with the company’s interests.
But nowhere can I find any reference to how this idea makes your employees more efficient. This might be due to the fact that bootlegging is an age old concept, while lean management is an 90’s idea.
So, there you have it, the conclusion is that Germans are a lot smarter than the rest of the world combined, and we should just do as they say all the time. If you have any ideas for new articles, or think that I’m completely off my rocker, put it in the comments below!
(I’ll be adding pictures and links and all sorts of other goodies soon, so watch this space)