True Work, Apparent Work and Busywork

By Jon Miller Published on May 9th, 2008

Thanks everybody who posted comments, questions and answers to the takt time competition. We are happy to say that you are all winners. Originally the idea was that only couple of people would win a copy of The Illustrated Toyota Production System, but I have changed my mind and we’ll send each person a copy. Please send us a note to [email protected] with “illustrated TPS” in the subject line if you are a winner, and let us know where you would like the book shipped.
Mark Nagai is a Gemba consultant who is also the translator for this new book from Gemba Press. We had a review session for book 2 of “The Illustrated…” series which is focused on kaizen techniques, IE methods and other practical aspects of TPS. As we were checking the wording of the various chapter titles, we had an interesting discussion around phrase true work, apparent work and busywork.
In several sections of the text Mark is translating in book 2, the author encourages the reader to develop eyes to tell apart “apparent work” from “true work”. This is very similar to the notion of non-value added work versus value added work, and indeed the author uses these terms also. But it is another level of distinction. True work is of course the small amount of work in any process which changes form, fit or function as the customer desires. The author is in fact denying that certain types of activity are work at all. This is reminiscent of Taiichi Ohno’s saying “wasted motion is not work”. Seeing the apparent work is perhaps the first step to recognizing non value added work and waste.
So apparent work is effort, but not something that adds value. It could be an assembly process that requires a person to turn the part around several times to attach and fasten all components, straining each time it is lifted and manipulated. This is indeed hard work for the assembler, but much of this effort is “apparent work”. In other words it appears that work is being done but in fact energy is being expended needlessly as a result of poor product design or poor process design such as a lack of fixtures to secure the workpiece or a poorly though out work sequence.
In contrast to this is busywork, which has a more critical and intentional component to it. People perform busywork in general when they are either idle and do not want to appear so, or when they are trying to fill the time so that it appears that the work should take longer than it does, in order to manipulate standard times and build in some slack.
The former type of busywork is a fairly innocent response by people who want to be busy, and when there is not work they want to appear busy. Perhaps they clean or check parts more than is necessary, or rearrange or stack items while they wait. The correct approach in lean management terms is to instruct the worker to wait when there is nothing to do so that this problem condition becomes immediately visible to supervisors or managers walking the floor. The root cause of the waiting then needs to be addressed so that the work can be rebalanced or improved. The latter type of busywork is more malicious and reflects a lack of trust between the workers and those who manage and supervise them. In both cases, when busywork is spotted this is an indicator that leadership is not performing their job of shop floor management as well as they should.
It is very easy to say “get rid of the waste and non value added” but learning to recognize true work, apparent work and busywork is an important step in accomplishing this.

  1. Anonymous

    May 12, 2008 - 4:49 am

    Busy work happens in Toyota office too as I observed in TMC. Some Japanese pace their work, they go slow in the morning and be very busy during middle afternoon to get into overtime. Smoking rooms are always filled during these times. I wonder if this is also part of their work culture. It is also to my surprise that multi-skilled workers are non-existent in the office. Most engineers are not capable to do related jobs since they are confined to one aspect of the total work. If you ask them about some related issues they would always say they do not know. It is up to the toyota-gaijin to devise ways for himself.

  2. Lester Sutherland

    May 12, 2008 - 6:16 am

    So it sounds like you are just repeating Value Added (What the customer wants), Type 1 Muda (activities that are waste but may be necessary now), and Type 2 Muda (activities that can and should be eliminated immediately. The difference is that busywork as you define it is caused by nervous energy of the workers who do not know what should be done because they are not managed and load balanced correctly.

  3. Jon Miller

    May 12, 2008 - 10:18 am

    I edited one work in your comment rather than delete it. The Japanese work culture has been traditionally been built around working long hours in the office (whether needed or not, you can’t leave until the boss leaves) and then going out drinking until the trains no longer run. So the Japanese at Toyota may still be working off their drinking if this habit holds true.
    The lack of multi-skilled workers is a surprise. I wonder if this is true in Japan or more for Japanese working overseas as specialists on assignment?
    You could say that. Somehow it seems important to separate “apparent work” from non-value added work and waste. I can’t explain exactly why, it just seems like a broader category that includes those two and busywork.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.