It's 2011: Resolve to do less

January 10, 2011: 10:17 AM ET

Working more doesn't mean you care more or get more done. It just means you work more. It's time to do away with the busywork that hinders workplace growth and productivity.

By Daniel Debow, contributor

In with the new year, out with the long list of useless resolutions.

I'm not against resolutions per se. Indeed, there's one that I think would help all managers: Resolve to do less.

I'm not encouraging managers to goof off. I'm urging them to do away with the busywork that hinders workplace growth and productivity.

Let's start with the 80-20 rule, also known as the Pareto principle after the Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto. The 80-20 rule has been applied to a wide range of disciplines. In the sales world, the rule suggests that 80% of a company's sales comes from 20% of its clients. In product design, it recommends that engineers focus most of their development effort (80%) on the most important (20%) product features. In other words, by avoiding feature creep, you can create elegant, simple products that people love -- Dropbox and iPhone, for example. When talking about workplace productivity, the 80-20 idea is that 80% of an employee's workday is delivering little or no value to the company or its customers.

That greater efficiency leads to better quality should be a no-brainer. Management consultant Joseph Juran applied the 80-20 rule to manufacturing. Juran's work led to the development of Total Quality Management, Six Sigma and other popular business methodologies. These approaches helped manufacturers eliminate waste and error from the production process; they also helped tap the unused creativity of employees.

How did Japan become a powerhouse in the automobile industry? Juran introduced the principles of lean manufacturing to Toyota (TM) and other Japanese manufacturers, companies went on to become renowned global leaders.

But how can this concept be extrapolated to any workplace?

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson are founders of 37Signals, a software company whose tools, including Basecamp, help businesses become more productive. The two wrote a book called ReWork, for those who want to run lean businesses.

"Our culture celebrates the idea of the workaholic. Not only is this workaholism unnecessary, it's stupid. Working more doesn't mean you care more or get more done. It just means you work more," write Fried and Hansson in ReWork.

Author Timothy Ferris also discusses the difference between busywork and productivity in The Four Hour Workweek, where focuses on core strengths: "Being busy is not the same as being productive. Invest in duplicating your few strong areas instead of fixing all of your weaknesses."

A workplace with lots of rules and regulations is a morale and budget killer. Corporate bureaucracy stifles innovation. It undermines quality and decreases productivity. It denies everyone the chance to contribute. It tells everyone they can't be trusted. And a company with lots of rules can easily lose focus on what it does best.

Think of the countless staff hours wasted in unnecessary meetings. The verbose staff reviews that result in little useful feedback and insight. The far-reaching, ambiguous goal-setting that does little to help workers deal with vital, near-term tasks. The pressure and distraction of having to reply to every email, track every work hour and record every sick and vacation day.

How much time do you and your employees spend on this busywork? And how much time does everyone spend on stuff that is valuable to the company and its customers? I would bet that 20% of their time -- and yours -- produces 80% of the value.

I recently wrote about how Netflix (NFLX) did away with vacation tracking and how that policy change conveyed its trust in its employers. IBM (IBM) and Motley Fool have also done away with vacation tracking, and retail giant Best Buy (BBY) is experimenting with flexible work arrangements that don't require employees to report hours. These innovations have led to a reduction in employee turnover and administrative costs.

Eliminating vacation tracking was just one simple thing that those companies did so they could concentrate on doing valuable work. What is one thing you can do to make your business more efficient? What is one simple, pointless rule you can abolish and make people more productive and energized?

For one thing, you can begin by focusing on one project at a time.  Even if you don't use productivity software, resolve to do away with one process that isn't vital to your business. Assign yourself and your work team just one new task a week that will both increase value and decrease work hours.

And beware of busywork.  If you want to see a prime example of two busybodies in action, check this out:

Daniel Debow is co-CEO of Rypple, a social software company that allows people to stay on track, share continuous feedback and coach each other at work.

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