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Interruptions and Lean

A recent study on interruptions in emergency rooms had a surprising finding. (See the full article on CNN here)

I wasn’t surprised at how often doctors were interrupted: 11% of all tasks. In fact, that might be low for any given office worker. Shop floor workers tend to be more insulated from disturbances than the folks at desks, but 11% sounds like it would be in the ballpark for say, a welder or an assembly line worker.

I wasn’t even surprised that interrupted tasks took less time to finish than if they hadn’t been interrupted. People race to catch up or skip steps when they fall behind. In the 210 hour study, the observers saw no evidence of harm to patients, but in the workspace, we have all been victims of quality fallout from process shortcuts.

What I was surprised at was that 18.5% of the time, the doctors did not return to the task. Either that means that the task wasn’t all that important to begin with, that the doctor chose to skip something, or that he or she forgot to finish the work.

Interruptions corrupt quality, reduce productivity, and destroy job satisfaction.

Of course, you can’t just say “No interruptions!” The interruption is related to another task that will likely fail if it is not complete.

Instead, view each interruption as a symptom of a failed process. Track where the interruptions are coming from. You can use my Interruption Log to gather information about the disturbances. The Pareto Chart will help you figure out where most of the interruptions are coming from. (The link takes you to a webpage where you can download a 7-page PDF on Pareto Charts.)

Once you know what the biggest interruption is, use your continuous improvement skills to eliminate the source of the problem. You don’t have to live with interruptions.


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Share Your Thoughts    |2 comments|


  • Jeff Hajek says:


    I’ve got a special place in my heart for order entry teams. I managed a great team a few years back, and they made some impressive gains. We found the same thing about interruptions, and took almost the same remedy of making a ‘point person’ that handled all the questions.
    We also found that many of the computers were old, and replacing them sped up acccess to the system–a 9% productivity boost for one person that we tested.
    Once we got our house in order, it was much easier to push for upstream process improvement to reduce the root causes of the interruptions.

    Thanks for the comments. It is always nice to hear about the gains a team made using Lean.


  • Paul Harbath says:


    Last week I completed a office Kaizen where we found that the people at the order entry desk (which was the constraint) were interuppted about 50% of their day.
    Our countermeasure was to set a dedicated time schedule where their supervisor made sure everyone knew they could not be interrupted. Of course we had to be sure there was another person available to answer the normal questions people had.
    The sales associates expected to get 50% more orders through the process by doing this.
    Your findings above about doctors are probably conservative…
    Thanks for the great post…

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