Picture it: You’re in a warehouse filled to the brim with all kinds of goods. You have a lot of orders that you have to fulfill. You pay attention to the most minute detail when it comes to the packaging of every order you attend, a true demonstration of the protestant work ethic. Because of this, on average, you spend slightly more time (let’s say two minutes) per order than the next colleague. This, of course, adds up. You’re thinking to yourself, surely, your work deserves to be recognized. Surely, that your attention to detail will be rewarded because your boss sees that you go the extra mile. So you do all the extra stuff that most colleagues, if any, are NOT doing.
You make extra-sure that the tape is perfectly straight, and tight. That there are only the natural creases on the paper bag, and that it’s rolled perfectly. That the item always goes in a certain way, even if that way is a little inconvenient (and even if it doesn’t damage the product in any way during transport and delivery…. because that’s just habit). You do extra counts, and take extra trips back and forth because you’ve added certain things to the process, whatever they may be (the use of an equipment or tool, an in-process ritual, etc).
It’s not that these things are bad. It’s that they are unnecessary.
There’s a term known as non-value-added activity, where there are steps in any process or given activity that contribute absolutely no efficiency or speed to that process or activity. For example, walking back and forth in order to use something. Another one is routing a document requiring more eyes than those it actually concerns, which means the document slowly moves through the pipeline. But at times, a non-value-added activity is necessary by the layout of a place, or circumstance; therefore, the layout or circumstance must be changed.
But the keyword here is value. It is why we have programs like Green Belt training (aka process improvement). All those little details I mentioned in the example at the beginning, don’t create a satisfactory experience for the customer. It also doesn’t get the product to the customer in the quickest and most efficient way possible. You need to ask yourself, is the way (the means with which) I’m doing things benefitting the thing (the end result of what) I’m doing? If the answer is no, then ask yourself: can this step, or activity, be eliminated without any adverse long-term consequences?
As a culture, we have an odd obsession with the appearance of productivity. We like to make ourselves look useful, and prefer when others do the same. However, it can drive a culture of stress, dishonesty, and burnout. How well you make everything look flush on the shelf, or how well you sort out a bucket of goodies, or anything else for that matter only to have them disrupted again, is meaningless work. What makes this ironic is that we once pictured a future where machines would do all or most of the work, and free us for more leisure. But when the leisure came, we were afraid to use it for fear of being branded as lazy.
The truth of the matter is that you can work hard, put in tireless effort, sweat like a polar bear in the Sahara desert, and still go unappreciated. What we fail to understand, is that it’s not the exertion of effort that defines our work, but the results. It doesn’t matter how well you scoop ice cream. At some point, the value of your compensation caps out, even if you’re the greatest ice cream scooper on the planet. Unless compelled by capricious law, no one is ever going to pay an ice cream scooper a six-figure income. In such an age of instant gratification, social media, and seemingly overnight celebrities, intrigue with the “process” is at an all-time low. People want what they want, when they want it. They don’t care how you do it. Your ability to deliver it to them on par with, or above, their expectations, is where the value is found.
In his book, Talent is Overrated, a top-five all-time favorite of mine, Geoff Colvin details the things that make an excellent/world-class performer. Deliberate practice is key. It means a training program designed to meet a specific excellence goal. As you must be deliberate with your practice, so you must be deliberate with your work, to ensure optimal results. Such a reality communicates the message that not only do you work with your body, but you work with your mind; you are constantly assessing where improvements can be made, in order to benefit or further profit your organization in whatever capacity. On the other hand, an individual’s habit for the exertion of great effort, or the knack for working long hours, may win them praise from their managers, but it may not necessarily earn them a nod for managerial roles or big promotions. That’s because when it comes to such things as economic advancement and/or promotion, other major qualities are sought for and required.
Your ability to provide value is what excellent firms and individuals are seeking. What do you bring to the table that makes your organization, or immediate office, better-performing and hence more profitable? This is something that the wealthy and successful understand well: It’s not about effort, it’s about value. It just so happens that effort is required to produce value. But in the end, it’s not about just working hard….but working hard DELIBERATELY.