Ambiguity: The enemy of workplace efficiency

Aug. 15, 2012
Tom Moriarty says improve organizational effectiveness by removing ambiguity.

When your teenage son heads out the front door and says over his shoulder, “I’ll see you later,” or when your wife says, “I need to pick up a couple of things at the store,” there may be a certain amount of ambiguity. In your son’s case, he may be thinking that he clearly communicated his intention to stay at a friend’s house overnight, probably because the friend’s parents are out of town. Your wife may feel as though she has properly informed you that she intends to spend $1,400 on a stainless steel vacuum cleaner with four-on-the-floor manual transmission and a reverse gear, along with a cappuccino attachment, because “we need one.”


Ambiguity” is defined in the Encarta Dictionary as a situation in which something can be understood in more than one way and it is not clear which meaning is intended. It’s like not having sights on your hunting rifle; you’ll put a round down range, but it’s hard to have confidence where exactly it’ll end up. Nor will you be able to measure and tweak azimuth and elevation to move your grouping.

In the workplace this happens all the time. A shop supervisor will hand off a bundle of work orders to a craftsman with the understanding that the craftsman will complete the work orders efficiently, over some period of time. The craftsman then will walk down each job, coordinate the work with operations, obtain the parts needed, return to the job site, begin the work, deal with unanticipated work that was not noticed during the walk down, handle interruptions because they get tapped on the shoulder, return to the work, complete the work, and then move to the next work order. Often the craftsman feels that chasing parts, coordinating with operations, and other non-wrench-time tasks are barriers to their having time to do the work properly, with precision, instead of having to run from one task to the next.

Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP, is a former Coast Guardsman, having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years; earned a commission through Officer Candidate School; and retired as a Lt. Commander. During his final year of service, 2003, Tom was selected as the U.S. Coast Guard’s Federal Engineer of the Year; an award sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). He is a member of the Society of Maintenance and Reliability professionals, the past Chair of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Canaveral Florida Section, and a member of the ASME Plant Engineering and Maintenance (PEM) Division. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Western New England College, and an MBA from Florida Institute of Technology; Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in Florida and Virginia, Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional, various credentials in management and reliability fields. He can be reached at [email protected].
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The obvious ambiguity between the supervisor and craftsman is that the supervisor believes that either the craftsman best understands the work or it is up to the craftsman to make that determination without further guidance because the craftsman knows best. The craftsman’s understanding is that either he is free to attack the assigned work as he would like or he is doing the supervisor’s job. Either way, when craftsmen have to spend time on activities that could be done for them, there is a loss of labor effectiveness; between 15% and 25% of total labor evaporates on non-craft activities.

The not-so-obvious ambiguity is at the level above the supervisor — at the maintenance manager level. The maintenance manager is fully loaded with budget projections, preparing for the next planned turnaround, helping to resolve a production quality issue, and interviewing potential hires. The ambiguity is that the manager believes that the supervisor knows best on how to deploy the available craftsman hours. The supervisor believes that in the absence of detailed instructions, he is free to manage people as he sees fit. Or perhaps that the maintenance manager is not providing support the supervisor needs to attain control and stability.

The result of the ambiguities is organizational effectiveness levels well below what is achievable. Between 60% and 90% of organizations, depending on industry, are in a reactive mode, what I refer to as being in chaos. Chaos typically achieves labor effectiveness (wrench time) in the 20% to 25% range, while control and stability achieves performance above 50% labor effectiveness. Moving from 25% to 50% labor effectiveness is equivalent to doubling your effective workforce, getting twice as much work done by the same sized workforce.

Ambiguity must be minimized to move from chaos to control and stability. The first step to move from chaos to control and stability is to attain knowledge. Understand the concept of control and stability, and then design improved work management processes. Define the activities, accountabilities/responsibilities, and ways to measure performance. The process design emphasizes prioritization and removing non-craftsmen type activities from craftsmen responsibilities.

Non-craftsmen tasks can be done by either the supervisor (for small shops) or by establishing a planner/scheduler position. Educate managers, supervisors, and the workforce on labor effectiveness losses, train people for their accountabilities and responsibilities, actively monitor performance, and then lead and manage toward high performance.

Be unmistakably clear, so that there is only one way to interpret the meaning of what needs to be done. Then measure performance and adjust your guidance, like adjusting your sights to keep on target.