Why I don't expect result-oriented work hours to work out

December 8, 2006

A recent Slashdot story pointed to this article on one company's more flexible approach to work hours. It has the line:

The goal at Best Buy is to judge performance on output instead of hours.

My immediate cynical reaction is that this is a marvelous theory but doomed in most practices. The root problem is the same seductive thought in management that leads to excessive overtime: 'if my employee is getting all this done in N hours now, think how much more work she could do in N+Y hours!'

Or in other words, if employees have idle time you're clearly not working them hard enough. ('Giving them enough work' is the more polite but less brutally honest version.)

(I suppose that ultimately this is a variant of Brooks' Law, in that it is management treating all hours of work as equivalent when they aren't. In Brooks' Law the additional hours come from new people instead of existing people, but the core mistake is the same.)

One ultimate end point of this whole idea is a pattern we've already seen: piece-work, where people are paid by the result. Interestingly, I understand that auto mechanics often work this way; there is a fixed charge for many repairs, based on the nominal time it should take, and a skilled mechanic who can do them faster than average can benefit significantly. (Applications to system administration are left as an exercise.)

Written on 08 December 2006.
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Last modified: Fri Dec 8 00:30:39 2006
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