Discretionary Effort

How do you incorporate discretionary behavior into a job description? Prescribed duties are easy, but what about the discretionary part?

When I was 17, I dropped out of high school and worked as a dishwasher at a restaurant. I quickly learned something about systems-thinking that stuck. In the middle of the work station sat a huge dishwashing machine. Temperature gauges, auto soap dispensing and a 90 second cycle timer. Whenever I placed a rack of dishes into the machine, there was a minimum 90 second cycle. No matter what I did, I could never go faster than the machine. The machine, in manufacturing terms, was my bottleneck. Herbie. My mantra was to keep Herbie working. Except for a few seconds each cycle, to move one tray out and a new tray in, my focus was to keep Herbie in cycle.

That 90 second period was my discretionary time. I could soak silverware, rack glasses, stack plates. It was my discretionary time that determined my throughput. If I kept trays in the queue, I was most effective. Whenever Herbie sat idle, I was losing ground. It is the discretionary behavior that determines effectiveness. How does a Manager capture that from team members?

2 thoughts on “Discretionary Effort

  1. Justin

    I want to preface this with, prescribing discretionary work in a Job Description is not a net result of the function being completed. It takes training and ongoing development coaching to move an employee into the space of what to accomplish during the “gray times”.

    That being said, language around optimizing efficiencies and performance during lulls and non-conflicting with existing processes is encouraged and expected, seems to work well.

  2. Henry Camp

    Culture is big. If employees desire a good outcome, that helps a lot. To keep them from inadvertently working against the company, it is amazingly helpful to provide them with the information, or the way to find it, that allows them to know how they are helping the whole system. That means supporting the decision the company should have already made to get as much as possible from its current constraint or the factor that limits making more and more money. Therefore, a manager is the one who must see that his or her employees know how they affect the whole. Then, allow them the discretion to do their part in protecting the profit opportunity.

    In this case, it is critically important to use Herbie to produce the plates, silverware and glasses needed for the surge of customers who just descended on the restaurant. On the other hand, it is a waste to be feeding Herbie some more glasses when there are enough for the next seatings in the restaurant.


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