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The Down to Earth Woodworker
By Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Work Expands To Fill The Time Allotted (Part 1)

Business, management, and efficiency consultants have made billions of dollars plying the time-worn but absolutely accurate adage, "Work expands to fill the time allotted." Whether in a business setting, or amplified ten-fold, in a governmental setting, the old truism is, well, true.

Exactly what does "Work expands to fill the time allotted" mean? It means, simply, that no matter how much work a person has to do, or not do, human nature dictates that they will stretch the work out, slow down, find "busy work," or do nothing until the end of the day/shift, and complain the whole time that they are overworked and cannot get everything done. Okay, that sounds a little pessimistic, cynical, maybe jaded, and probably a bit harsh, but for the most part it is true.

Figure 2 - Mr. Parkinson's original book which
includes his now widely-taught "Parkinson's Law."
The effect of "Work Expands" was first propounded by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a long-time British Civil Service employee (he should know, right?). In an essay written for The Economist and published in 1955, and later reprinted with other essays in the book "Parkinson's Law: The Pursuit of Progress" Parkinson actually said "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." The quote has been shortened and modernized since, but the dictum has not changed. In fact, in B-school, the "Work expands" phenomenon is referred to as "Parkinson's Law."

In his work, Parkinson gave as example a tired and overworked middle-aged bureaucrat who got not one, but two, additional employees to help with his workload. Adding just one helper would have elevated that helper to his level… unthinkable. But adding two allowed him to divide his work between them, rendering both individuals beneath him in the hierarchy and therefore no threat. The story continues, and the staff additions continue. With a subsequently bloated bureaucracy the original middle-aged bureaucrat asked for a specific report and all of his team worked on it through repeated drafts for several days. Eventually the report came back to him for approval, at which time he changed everything to a version he likely would have, and could have, written himself, thereby saving the British government thousands of dollars… err, pounds… and countless hours. None of the middle-aged bureaucrat's employees had done anything wrong, and they all had worked hard, filling their days with writes and rewrites of the report… it was the bloated system that failed.

Consider this: Even the most average of average people, doing the most mundane of mundane jobs, will eventually get better at doing any job with countless repetition. Simply, he or she will become more efficient. They could do more, but unless goaded (managed) into doing more, they will not, or cannot. "Will not" if they are not self-motivated to excel, "cannot" if their specific function is dependent on jobs before and after in the process. A worker might be able to assemble a single component on an assembly line 25 percent faster after a few weeks on the job, but unless the entire assembly line speeds up, their faster and more efficient work capability will be pointless, wasted, and ultimately stunted. This is an example of a systemic failure.

Exacerbating the problem is that supervisors and managers always want more people on their team. Whether it is the ego of having a bigger staff, or a mistaken sense that more people is the only answer to more productivity, they will always seek more people and bigger budgets. More people may be able to do more, but most of these additional people will eventually let their work "expand to fill the time allotted." Busy-work, dawdling, time-wasting… but all of these additional people will "look" busy. No one wants to be the person on a bloated team that appears not to be busy.

And human nature seems to dictate that no matter how poor or how good a worker an individual might be, and totally unrelated to the quality and volume of work output, most individuals will always complain of being "tired," "overworked," and "underappreciated." I would love to go into a workplace somewhere and talk to employees and hear how "energized" and "appreciated" they feel… let alone just have one… just one employee… tell me they feel "underutilized" or that they could do more. With the overwhelming majority of employees telling their bosses they are overextended, cannot do more, and are working as hard (and fast) as they can, managers soon start to believe the hyperbole, hire more people, and those people will soon let their work expand to fill the time allotted, and the vicious cycle continues.

Consultants make hundreds of millions of dollars every year attempting to coach companies through this most basic problem. Business leaders try to instill entrepreneurism in employees, try to energize and excite employees, and sometimes even make staff cuts to force remaining workers to work to full capacity. It is an interesting phenomenon.

How is it then, in our woodworking shops, we never let the work expand to fill the time allotted? Woodworking is, at least for most of us, a pastime or hobby, free of the pressures of business competitiveness, productivity measurements, and efficiency experts. We can relax and enjoy our work without any pressure to produce more with less, to out-produce a competitor (either a competing employee or a competing business), and without a manager or supervisor constantly watching. So again, I will ask, how is it that in our woodworking shops we work efficiently, produce a lot, have fun, feel energized by what we are doing, rarely complain, and, if at the end of the day we feel "tired," it is a good, joyous kind of "tired?"

I suspect this phenomenon might be true for other hobbies and pastimes. We all know people that complain on Friday night that they are "exhausted" from their week, barely able to move, barely able to summon the energy for a smile or a laugh, but on Saturday play 36 holes of golf, spend 12 hours working in the yard, or jog 6 miles then spend the rest of the day gloriously… and energetically… working at their favorite pastime. Funny how their energy is suddenly, and miraculously, restored as of Saturday morning.

This is not a new thing. In ancient Egypt workers slaved away all day shaping stones to build pyramids for their Pharaoh, then in their humble abodes at night carved beautiful pieces of art, made intricate jewelry, and laboriously shaped stone into images of their gods to adorn their future burial crypts. Evidence abounds of their "off-time" activities, so these tortured workers that supposedly shaped 10-ton stones and moved them in the hot desert sun still had the end-of-day energy and enthusiasm for doing something besides their primary line of work.

Think about your own experience. Do you often feel "wrung out," exhausted," "spent" after a day at work, but "energized," "enthusiastic," and "excited" when you walk into your shop? If you could figure out how to transfer that feeling to workers in a business, you could well wind up being the richest consultant alive. All businesses would flock to you for advice.

Next month we will explore this phenomenon a little further. The answer to the conundrum of "tired worker" and "energized woodworker" may not be as elusive as it at first seems.

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Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life). Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson@downtoearthwoodworking.com

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