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Pushing People

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Time for another war story.  When I was in the Air Force…..

I worked for a Wing Commander, who’s mantra was “push people”.  He felt it was OK that you could make crews work overtime or work weekends etc.  Of course we never pushed the aircraft.  The machines were always given appropriate down time for maintenance, refueling, reloading, etc.  The commander had “stars” in his eyes (in this case general’s stars).  It was an accident waiting to happen.  Unfortunately it did happen – taking 6 lives including a high-ranking government official.  It wasn’t until the accident investigation that his “management style” was revealed and ultimately identified as a major contributing factor – crew fatigue.  It took an accident investigation and the lives of 6 people for the “leadership” to see there was a problem.  They could have asked me 3 months before the crash.

Sometime later I read an article on productivity.  I wish I would have saved it because it has had a huge impact on me ever since.  Essentially, the article stated that people can only be pushed so far before productivity begins to suffer.  When you push them beyond their full capacity, you will see some short-term gains in productivity, but over the long haul productivity will decline – significantly.  So if you have air crews and maintenance crews working 3, 8-hour shifts, you will see some short-term gains when going to 2, 12-hours shifts.  At some point, however, things begin to break down.  Maintenance gets sloppy, minor (but necessary) procedures will get over looked, and accidents happen.  We saw it every time we would go into any long-term or frequent war game, or as we called them – exercise. 

We used to practice going to war all the time.  There would typically be one or two “exercises” a year.  However in the event of a pending major inspection – the exercise schedule would be increased.  Colonels become Generals based on these exercise results.  So twice a year became once a month.  By the time the actual inspection arrived we were exhausted.  We made stupid mistakes – mostly minor – but mistakes none the less.  We passed – barely.  Oh – and we were responsible for handling nuclear weapons.

Back to the article.  The author studied and tracked productivity as workers were stretched from full capacity to beyond full capacity.  The study found that in the short-term, productivity levels did increase – slightly.  Then as time went by productivity dropped dramatically to levels below full capacity.  The bottom line – crews were more productive, over the long-term, if allowed to work normally.  Well not more productive exactly, but productivity did not decrease.  I showed the article to the new commander but he blew me off.  Never confuse a military leader with facts!

In addition to the loss in productivity, there were other negative factors.  The most obvious (now anyway, we didn’t see it at the time) was that personal quality evaluation (Task Evaluation) scores began to decrease.  Periodically, Quality Control inspectors would watch various crew members perform their daily job tasks and complete an evaluation of their performance.  When pushed beyond capacity – they made mistakes – which were ultimately reflected in the evaluation results.  Maintenance crews would take short cuts, not follow instructions, read an indicator incorrectly, etc.  They were tired and exhausted.

There were other indirect signs as well.  Domestic violence incidents increased.  Alcohol related incidents increased.  There were more driving violations.  Family members were getting in trouble – the list goes on.

Sadly, we’re seeing this today.  Military troops are being pushed way beyond capacity and we’re seeing the results.  Minimum tours have been increased from 12 to 15 months.  Enlistments have been involuntarily extended.  Troops may get to spend a year with their families before being deployed for another 15 months.  The result:  Drinking and drug use are on the rise.  Domestic violence has increased.  Divorce rates among troops is up.  Worst of all – suicide rates for military members is at an all time high.  Is it worth it?

So when you are estimating project length – keep all of this in mind.  You can only push people so far.  Will it be as drastic as I described…probably not.  But there is a downside.  You can’t push people.  They will break!

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1 Comment

  1. Jim Hazen says:

    Very well said. Very well indeed.

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