“Quiet Time” and “No Email Day”: Eliminating the Waste of Interruptions

The seven wastes defined by lean concepts – defects, overproduction, transportation, waiting, inventory, motion and processing – are all problems in the production process.

However, I was recently thinking about another type of waste, one that stops production completely. That is the waste of interruption. This may have more relevance to non-manufacturing processes.

What got me thinking about this was an item
posted on a blog at Intel. Apparently the chipmaker recognizes the waste of interruptions and is testing ways to address it. (My thanks to an Industry Week newsletter for alerting me to this.)

Intel recently piloted a “Quiet Time” program at two U.S. locations (in Texas and Arizona). For seven months, 300 engineers and managers at the sites adopted “quiet time” once a week. For four hours every Tuesday morning, they set their email and IM clients to "offline", forwarded their phones to voice mail, avoided setting up meetings, and isolated themselves from visitors by putting up "Do not disturb" signs at their doorways. (Interruptions were allowed for genuine emergencies.)

According to Intel, the results were positive:

It has been successful in improving employee effectiveness, efficiency and quality of life for numerous employees in diverse job roles. 45% of post-pilot survey respondents had found it effective as is, and 71% recommended we consider extending it to other groups, possibly after applying some modifications.

As expected, this is not a matter where "one size fits all": not all people found this a desirable practice, depending also on their specific job roles. But an interesting finding is that Quiet Time is useful to different people for different reasons. Some people need it to concentrate on creative tasks, as we had predicted, but even people whose work involves ongoing interaction with others found the periodic "breathing space" beneficial in restoring balance and getting back in control of an otherwise hectic work routine. One should, we learned, let each person decide how to use the quiet hours to best effect.

Intel also piloted a “No Email Day” on Fridays, which was not actually a ban on all email, but an attempt to have employees who are physically near each other communicate face-to-face or by phone rather than email.

Fewer employees were positive about that program, partly because many of the people in the pilot group (150 engineers and managers) were frequently away from their desks, making it difficult to communicate in real time. Intel hasn’t abandoned the idea, but may look for a group where people spend more time at their desks.

How much of your time is wasted by interruptions?