By Liz Ryan
We're coming up on the 25th anniversary of Kenneth Blanchard's and Spencer Johnson's opus, The One Minute Manager. This slim, terrific volume taught many a businessperson to set goals for staffers, communicate expectations, and hold people to high standards.
As widely read and praised as this book has been, it's a mystery why so many post-millennium managers seem to be whistling a different tune than Blanchard and Johnson did -- more akin to what I'd call "The Every Minute Manager." The mantra of modern managers seems more like: "Pay attention to what every employee is doing every minute, lest a picosecond be wasted." Some employers, in fact, view this "every move you make" style of shadowing staff as a recipe for managerial success. It must be -- or why would so many people be doing it?
With productivity rising every year in U.S. workplaces, it may be that the only place managers can find to squeeze out an extra nickel is the stray minutes and seconds their teams may be spending on nonessential duties. Or it may be that the post-One Minute Manager generation of leaders doesn't trust itself to hire great people, set them to weighty tasks, and step out of the way. Or maybe we've just created a generation of management voyeurs.
What makes me say that? Three things. No. 1 is the resurgence, in companies large and small, of '60s-era "time-use" policies and reminders. These include things like the recommended amount of time for a meeting (not more than one hour) or a coffee break (10 minutes seems to be the average). There are also admonitions against 31-minute lunches -- since, after all, time is money! I see this stuff in handbooks, new-employee orientation materials, supervisory training sessions, and company announcements.
No. 2 is an obsession with employee Internet usage that goes far beyond the original concern about improper workplace activities or visits to unwholesome Web sites. Today, you can receive an automated message that tells you flat-out that the 16 minutes you've spent on eBay is six minutes too long, and that questions whether potterybarn.com is really a place you should be visiting from the office.
It's not just the general appropriateness of your Internet usage that's an issue now. It's where you spend every single online minute, and whether, for instance, a humble accounting clerk like you has anything to gain from browsing CFO.com. First things first, young man -- let's get those monthly reports out the door, and then you can dream about the office with the big window.
The third sign that the Every Minute Manager is on the loose: my in-box, which is brimming with correspondence on this issue. "My boss listens to my phone calls in order to tell me that I don't need to chat up the customers so much -- just take the order and move on," reads one message. And another: "My manager advised our group that it doesn't take 14 minutes to walk to the soda machines and back, and that we needed to pick up the pace."
Here's the pity: If you're watching the minutes as though they're precious gems, you're not doing what a real manager would do, which has much greater impact. Blanchard and Johnson would have put a terrific team in place, showed its members what the promised land looked like, and sent them off to find it. No manager who is totally focused on the minute-to-minute activities of the staff can lead the team to greatness. It's just not gonna happen.
Indeed, Every Minute Managers employ what I call the taxi-driver theory of productivity. All city-cab fleets follow some variation of this arrangement. Unless you own a cab, you show up at the garage and get a car to drive for the day, and you pay for it -- a specified amount, known as "the nut." You spend the first few hours of your working day earning fares to cover that nut, after which you're earning money for yourself. You drive as many people around as you can, allowing the cab to be empty for as little time as possible.
Some special add-ons are required for tolls and heavy baggage and out-of-region trips and so on, but other things being equal, the hourly fare rate for your cab times the number of hours you're driving is your maximum potential take for the day.
So you calculate that total, and shoot for the goal. Most days, of course, you won't make it. And once you achieve your maximum theoretical return, the only way to make more money is to buy a cab (or a fleet) and make sure that someone is driving every cab 24x7.
This is how Every Minute Managers handle their staffs. "I own these guys for 8 (or 10, or whatever) hours per day, and by gum, I'm going to make sure they're working -- not strolling to the soda machine or picking out drapes on the Web." In this view of the world, your golden day is the day when every employee works without eating lunch (and, consequently, without visiting the bathroom).
The problem is, taxi-driver productivity only works in taxicabs! In the white-collar world, our upside isn't limited by government-imposed cab fares. Your team can blow out productivity and profit goals with one great idea, one innovation, one crisis averted. So why would you treat team members like cab drivers?
If you think about it, stopping a person from wasting a minute (or more likely, causing them to waste minutes worrying about you) is the worst way to raise productivity. Most likely, when your back is turned, your vassal will waste a few minutes for the fun of it -- or for spite.
To my mind, if you have a problem with the way employees are spending their time, you have a much bigger problem than too many soda machine visits or excessive Internet usage. You've got the wrong team, the wrong motivation for the team, or possibly -- just be open-minded here for a second -- the wrong kind of management.
It may be that the Every Minute management style is appealing because it's the laziest way to manage. It's hard to figure out what makes for a really great trade show, a successful product launch, or a killer industrial design, and evaluate people on delivering those high-impact results. It's much easier to watch over people -- to ding them for feeding the meter twice a day.
Moreover, a raft of management tools, from Internet usage snoopers to time-tracking software, make it simple to measure what doesn't matter. I call these products "bad-management enablers." We wouldn't enable an alcoholic by giving that person a drink, but we encourage bad management by purchasing tools to count work minutes instead of output.
It's true that on some jobs employees know from the start that their minutes aren't their own. When I was a waitress in college, I was well aware that anything I might do besides waiting on tables was likely to get me reprimanded. As much as I might have believed that the occasional New York Times crossword puzzle would refresh my brain for the busy dinner hour ahead, I also knew that there were salt shakers to be filled and that I was, as Every Minute Managers love to say, "stealing time" when I wasn't filling them. Then as now, jobs existed where your results and your time usage were inseparable.
White-collar work isn't supposed to operate that way, however. Knowledge work means your brain is engaged. Your fingers may be doodling (my favorite pastime in meetings) or tapping nervously on the table. Your brain is engaged when you're taking that slow stroll to the soda machines -- the same walk during which you devised that brilliant billing scheme last quarter -- and while you're browsing the Chinese pottery on eBay.
"LIKE A LUMP."
Of course, if you're stressed about the Every Minute Manager breathing down your neck, the great ideas will never come, not until you're out of that stifling environment and more happily employed elsewhere. But the Every Minute Manager won't be sorry to see you go. The manager will be busy counting keystrokes or stopping your co-worker from asking that customer on the phone about her lovely, lilting accent.
It's hard to break the Every Minute Manager habit. My dad told me a story about the day he was cured. It was the day the head office sent around a report of phone usage, employee by employee. A senior telemarketer named Jane showed up on my dad's report with a daily phone call to her home in the suburbs. "Say, Jane..." said my father, after summoning her to his office. "I've got this report here...."
"And then she let me have it," recalls my dad, "and I sat there like a lump. And I felt like an idiot. Jane had a family member who was ill, and of course she was calling once a day to check in. Here's a great employee who kills herself every day for the company, and I was responding to a silly phone call roster." He didn't make that mistake again.
As Blanchard and Johnson knew, some of the best managerial tools are judgment, warmth, communication skills, and intuition. Most of those aren't hard to develop: You just have to remember that your team is made up of people, not keystroke-production units. You, too, can drop that every-minute mania and focus on the things that matter. That may even earn you enough extra time to drop in on some nifty Web sites yourself.
Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT