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Parkinson’s Law (+ 5-Page Lean PDF +MP3)

Cyril Northcote Parkinson first published this idea in The Economist in 1955. In essence, the concept says that work expands to fill the time available.

This is a particular problem in continuous improvement. By definition, there is always something more to do after the task that you are on. If you create an artificial timeline, and then fill it with incremental work or allow delays to set in, another task will not be started. That new task may deliver a higher return on effort than the incremental return on the task at hand. That, of course, slows down progress.

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So, why does Parkinson’s Law exist? It is simple psychology: people tend to slow down when they feel like they have a lot of time, and speed up when they feel pressure.

When a task has some extra buffer time in it, most people will either take it easy along the way, or try to add in bells and whistles to make it perfect.  When that is the case, teams start trying to spit and polish every chart, and they try to squeeze another half of a percent on top of a 17% productivity gain. The problem is not that people are shooting for quality work. The problem is that those incremental gains take a lot of time—time that would be better spent trying to solve another problem instead. Perfection is expensive.

The best way to counter Parkinson’s Law is through the continuous improvement mantra better, not perfect.

Parkinson’s Law is heavily influenced by the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule.  For example, when you are given a task, you will probably accomplish 80% of the work fairly quickly and easily. The last 20%, though, always seems to take forever to complete. Instead, if the time was spent getting that easy 80% gain on another project, the company would be better off.

The truth is that most companies are buried in improvement opportunities. Falling victim to Parkinson’s Law dampens progress.

Combatting Parkinson’s Law

One of the biggest contributors to Parkinson’s Law is the act of adding buffer time to individual tasks. It creates an artificially long deadline, and people tend to creep into that project time.

Instead, create a shared buffer at the end of the project. People will be more reluctant to tap into it if they know it is from a community pool.

Unclear goals also contribute to the effect of Parkinson’s Law. People may have hit the expectation long ago, but not realize it. They continue to apply resources to go far beyond a goal. Don’t start a project without a clear understanding of what the specific deliverables are.

Scope creep also adds to the problem. As improvements are made, they open up new opportunities to build on them for further gains. Resist the urge unless the add-ons will yield a significant return. In most cases, these sorts of gains will be incremental.

Pay attention to the following to avoid spending more time than necessary on tasks.

  • Watch out for scope creep. That is when you take on a little extra because you have time available. For example, you might go out to cut the lawn, and plan on doing it in an hour. It goes faster than expected, so you decide to do some edging with the 15 minutes you have left over. In effect, the project grows to fill the available time.

Now, edging might sound like it is going above and beyond, but there is a problem with this. It might not be the most important thing you have to do. Perhaps there is a more pressing priority that you left unfinished.

  • Team members will always ask for more time. If you are in charge, don’t give in. Instead, provide coaching along the way to help keep people on track.
  • If the details are important to a project don’t cut corners. But if they aren’t, don’t get too wrapped up in them. This is especially true early on in a project. In many cases, when projects are just getting started it is easy to spend time on minor, unimportant things. For example, don’t spend too much time fiddling with formatting to ‘pretty up’ a spreadsheet early in a project. That time you waste selecting fonts and color schemes now might be better used at the crunch time towards the end of the project.
  • Try not to let meetings or training events go on just because there is time in the schedule. Sometimes a team just ‘gets it’ during training, or a blitzes through a meeting. Move on and adjourn the meeting. Schedules are not set in stone. The fact is, many meetings run longer than they should simply because Parkinson’s Law takes over and fills up the time.

Spend a few of your valuable minutes planning before you start a project. Set checkpoints so that you don’t let yourself fall behind. Enlist your leader’s support to get back on track if you do happen to find yourself behind schedule.

Leaders—don’t be afraid to tell people to wrap things up when they start moving towards that point of diminishing returns. Be careful not to send mixed signals, though. You don’t want to discourage people doing quality work; you just want to keep them from using time just because it is available.

One trick is to set aggressive deadlines. Be accommodating when people come to you early on in the project and let you know of problems, but be firm if you only hear about delays late in the project. You will likely have to provide strong mentorship to people to help them keep projects on track if you don’t grant extensions. This might include substantial problem solving and time management coaching.

  • Work expands to fill the time available.
  • Leaders should help set challenging goals and keep people on track.
  • Keep the big picture in mind to prevent scope creep.

A PDF of this term is included in our Phase 3 Information Series.

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