Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Reason to Smoke?

I eat breakfast at our local fast food restaurants more often than is good for my battle with the bulge, but that is a story for another day. Most of them are just ordinary fast food restaurants. The service and food are both predictable. One of them is different. Sometimes the service is surprisingly efficient. Sometimes it is painfully slow. Service speed did not seem to be dependent on the number of employees or the number of customers. Something else seemed to be at work, so I decided to watch what was going on behind the counter.

The difference seems to be the presence or absence of a particular kind of employee. The presence of employees who are capable of multi-tasking leads to rapid service, no matter what the work load. Employees who prefer to perform tasks in serial rather than parallel tend to gum up the works. The better employees are never still and their motions are not wasted. If they are waiting for one order, they take the next order, or fill the fry basket with tater tots, or do something to keep all the processes necessary to deliver my tasty grease bomb in a timely manner moving in the right direction. The mono-task employees frequently stand and wait for an order to be filled before undertaking the next task. When circumstances force them to undertake more than one task at a time they seem to freeze like a deer caught in a headlight. When they try to do more than one thing at a time it leads to mistakes in filling orders or spills that require cleanup time.

As I know some of the mono-task employees have been around for a while, it doesn’t seem to be so much an issue of training as an issue of personality or personal preference. I expect they might be better able to focus on a single task than some of their multi-tasking brethren. That might make them better at assembly work where focus on a single task is a valuable skill. Of course, in some professions like engineering, focus is everything. Creating a computer design tool might well require months of intense focus without interruptions or distractions of any sort. Even writing blog articles requires focus. I generally write these things while my wife is asleep. I play ambient background music to minimize auditory distractions. There is nothing but a bare wall behind my computer monitor; nothing interesting to look at back there.

There are times when the best way to go forward is to sit perfectly still, taking some time to clear my mind of all the comedy and drama that tends to go on in there. When I am overwhelmed with multi-tasking or frustrated beyond belief by a mono-task that refuses to be budged, it is good to call time out. I just try to sit still and breathe, say a prayer, or go outside and look at the mountain. Once I have calmed down, I can return to the task at hand.

In my parents’ day, the cigarette break was an almost universally accepted way to take a time out. This practice continued to be accepted through most of my working life. When an employee was overwhelmed he could lean back in his chair or if the risk of fire was a consideration he could go to the smoking area and enjoy a cigarette. Breathe in. Breathe out. Sound familiar? Of course I don’t recommend this practice for reasons of both physical and fiscal health, but I certainly understand why people continue to smoke. It is more than a physical addiction. It is a deeply ingrained habit that can be a meditative practice.

So, before beginning a job determine whether it will require serial or parallel action. If you can plan actions in parallel, that will lead to greater efficiency. Sometimes we are not granted the luxury of planning time. We have to react to multiple challenges at the same time. This can be difficult. There are certain jobs that have to be treated as a mono-task. If you need to isolate yourself for a period of time so be it. Then there is a time to just stop. Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax those shoulders. The arms. The legs.

Relax. Breathe in. Breathe out.

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