Saving Motion, Time and Your Business

Recently I came across a used copy of Ralph M. Barnes' classic book Motion and Time Study for sale for a couple of dollars. Since it retails on Amazon for around $131.95, I didn't take long to get it to the register. Even though the first edition was written nearly seventy years ago, it's still one of the best books ever written on the subject.

However, despite its excellence, in terms of sales ranking Motion and Time Study comes in at #444,617 at Amazon. Not exactly a best seller, and no wonder. There's been a general consensus in the American business community that motion and time study wasn't applicable for non-manufacturing industries. This is proving to be a mistake. The Indians are using motion and time study to increase efficiency in their tech industry, and it's working very well.

This is turning out to be another case of an expertise developed in America that is rejected here but becomes widely used in other countries, much like Peter Drucker's theories on management, or Deming's processes for quality assurance. Motion and time study, pioneered by Frederick W. Taylor and the Gilbreaths, has been popular in America since the thirties, but mostly with manufacturing related industries.

Frederick W. Taylor developed ways to study the time it took to make things that could be used to improve manufacturing efficiency and profits. Frank and Lillian Gilbreath studied the motions involved in manufacturing things and optimized them, also to improve efficiency and profits. (One of Frank Gibreath's ideas was for doctors to be handed the instruments they need during an operation by an assistant nurse, who has all the instruments organized on a separate table, for easy and immediate access.)

When manufacturers combined study of both motion and time, the combination proved even more effective than either methodology alone. Unlike approaches which just tried to force workers to work faster, motion and time studies were popular with workers because they actually made work easier. Managers liked the results because productivity and profits went up.

Outside of the manufacturing industry, the cost benefits of motion and time study were not as well understood. Part of this has been due to the fact that in non-manufacturing industries it's harder to quantify the improvements motion and time study produces, but the profits are there, as one Indian company proved.

A show on PBS that explored Indian call centers had a segment with an Indian manager explaining how they used motion and time study to constantly find new ways to make the hundreds of call center representatives they employed more efficient.

One recent finding the Indian manager mentioned was that they had determined that each time an employee left his or her work station for a glass of water, it took them about ten minutes to really focus on their work again. So, each call representative was provided with water at their work station, and not surprisingly, productivity increased. Profitability also went up, because the cost of the study, and water for everyone, was more than offset by the increase in productivity.

In another case, at one point I worked for a major search engine company that only had two printers for each floor of its rather large office buildings. Most employees sat somewhere between 20 to 75 feet from their printer, and the waiting line at the printer sometimes was three deep, with people talking about where their printout might be, or people just talking.

This case is even worse when you consider that a printer just 20 feet or more from each employee can cost several man hours a year, at minimum. On average, a person seated 20 feet from a printer will take about one minute to get to the printer, find theirs pages in a stack of several people's printouts, and return to their chair. One minute a day adds up to 250 minutes a year, or about four man hours a year. In a 20 man department, this would add up to 80 man hours, or two man weeks, lost per year, and this is assuming each employee only prints one printout a day.

The moral of this story is that failure to consciously plan for things to work efficiently will usually prove identical to consciously planning for things to work inefficiently.

Unfortunately, many tech companies have yet to understand this, in part because tech companies mainly have salaried employees, not hourly employees like Ford or GM. Inefficiency has a less obvious cost with salaried employees.

Still, it's possible to start using motion and time study in your business, especially if you use one of Gilbreath's approaches. Frank Gilbreath divided work into thaerbligs (his name spelled backwards), meaning separate discrete sub-processes required to complete some kind of work. Each thaerblig would be analyzed for ways to improve its efficiency.

No matter what kind of e-commerce you're involved in, your work consists of a set tasks that must be performed, and if you study how these tasks are actually done, you will be able to improve the efficiency and profitably of these tasks, and your business.

It's not magic, just common sense. With a little imagination, motion and time study can be adapted to nearly all industries. The only question is which countries will use it, and which countries won't.

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Author:. For over 14 years I've written a monthly column, "Advertising and the Internet" for the Colorado trade magazine Advertising & Marketing Review exploring the uses and consequences of Internet technology. During that time I also worked on the development teams of the Apple Web Server, VideoVision (the first broadcast quality digital video production system), the WebMD context sensitive content publishing system, and I was the Product Manager for Adobe's first PostScript 3 release. Previously I was... Go Deeper | Website