How time is used is foundational to understanding and solving many workplace problems. When measuring time use by people, the resources industry often calls this ‘wrench time’ or ‘tool time’. It’s a common focus for improvement. Having performed hundreds of time use observations in workplaces, our team has learned that the benefits go well beyond purely the raw data.

All data collection methods have optimal applications…and risks if not used correctly. There are diverse studies, and views, on the how and why of each method – including workplace observations. Even solid methods can be poorly managed and applied. The selection and execution of methods is important. However, we’re not covering their strengths and limitations here, but rather the value-adding benefits of investing effort in data collection by observation.

The core task – getting the numbers and using them effectively

We regularly perform observations in our work – often over full shifts. Results are commonly displayed as the percentage of a shift where people were working on/progressing planned tasks. Other categories of time usage can also be recorded.

Once the number is determined, we have seen many different reactions by clients. In some cases, the number confirms what a leader suspects and assists in their decision-making. In other cases, people have fixated on the number, arguing whether the context for data collection was correct or relevant, or whether they ‘agree’ with the result, or whether it should be a few percent more or less. These are valid discussion points, but we find the best conversations start at a higher level around learnings. For example, it’s far less important to worry about whether the real number is 22% or 28% when the bigger question is whether it’s okay that only about one quarter of people’s shift time is actually spent on planned tasks.

The hidden value in collecting tool time data via observation

Regardless of how the tool time number is received, conversation inevitably leads to what is stopping people from achieving better use of their time, and the best approaches to improving productivity. This is where we find power in the data collection process itself. If it is set up and executed correctly, workplace observation can provide a wealth of information to answer improvement questions. Here are some headline examples:

  • To strengthen relationships and workplace culture – spending time with people to understand their work, listen to their ideas and experience their frustrations, is a great way to build relationships. Engaging people – especially those who need to make changes to their work to deliver the improvement – is vital to implementation. Observations also build understanding of relationships and culture dynamics between team members, between teams and their supervisors, and from one team to another. This adds rigour to project plans to drive successful implementation of improvement initiatives.
  • To identify practical improvement strategies and tactics – even though the primary purpose of workplace observations is data collection, experienced observers also use them to develop early strategies for executing improvement projects. For example, observing a team continually searching for parts once a job has started may highlight the need for improved planning, parts management, logistics processes or job preparation. Observing high volumes of rework or quality issues may suggest the need for more education and team training. Observing teams losing time waiting for a crane or equipment may show the need for more involvement by the planning department or better communication between teams. There is rarely a silver bullet to improvement. Insights from observations can help define some of the many facets for execution.
  • To close understanding and credibility gaps – time use observations will never provide the knowledge and insight equivalent to those doing the task. They don’t create ‘instant experts’. However, spending a full shift in the field to see the multiple disruptions in someone’s day, or spending part of a cold night shift to see people waste time looking for parts apparently delivered last week, are pictures to the thousand words. People feel listened to and understood, and project leaders can better appreciate a unique operating environment. This, in turn, provides more credibility when working with those teams on defining a problem and developing practical, workable solutions.
  • To streamline business interfaces – interactions and interfaces with other teams become much more tangible and provide insight into how they can impact a team’s ability to execute its work. This can also indicate the potential complexity of planned changes. For example, if a team impacting work execution is in a different department managed by a different leader, workflow changes will be more complex. Assessments can then be made to include or exclude that element of work from an improvement project. If included, project set-up and stakeholder management can be proactively adjusted to account for the increased complexity.

Understanding time use is powerful and there are multiple data collection tools available. We continue to use workplace observations in our toolkit because the raw data is quality and it offers these extended benefits beyond the numbers. The insights gained for setting up and delivering improvement projects tangibly increase the probability of success.

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