As a part of our working lives, repetition gets mixed reviews. When we repeatedly do our jobs well, we are often rewarded. But increasingly, we are exhorted to do our jobs better. We call it continuous improvement, in which we repeat our efforts to find better, easier ways than yesterday’s best. Repetitive work is thought to be boring. Whether we answering phones, serve food, processing reservation requests or packing boxes, when work is repetitive people can become disengaged and stop caring about customers, quality and productivity.
In the earliest days of the evolution of lean management, Taiichi Ohno realized that simply producing the same product over and over at high quality and low cost was not enough. Why repeat? At the most basic level, we repeat out of necessity because doing something one time is not enough to cover various transaction costs and losses due to changeover, transportation, first pass yield and so forth. Repetitive work can cover up false economies of scale through batching. Ohno’s book about the Toyota Production System was appropriately subtitled, “Beyond Large Scale Production”. One of the aims of continuous improvement efforts within lean management is exposing and removing false economies of repetition, enabling work to flow.
Why repeat? At another level, we repeat in order to build, improve or strengthen habits. The idea of “kata” from martial arts is to learn the correct form through repetition, so that the necessary motions in a combat situation can be made quickly without thought Musicians practice scales for the same reasons, so that their muscles, ears and neurons can find the right note without stopping to think. Practice and repetition of good form lead to mastery.
We repeat mistakes when we fail to get to the root of the problem, or when we become distracted and careless in our work, not present in the moment. Repeating the “why?” question helps us go deeper down the ladder of causation. Coaches ask the same questions repeatedly in order to get people to understand the thinking process behind the questions.
Why the sudden interest in repetition? Last week during the interview portion of the National Public Radio program Dinner Party Download, musician and visual artist Devendra Banhart reflected on his desire to make art and music that was minimal and repetitive, not necessarily popular
Some of that repetition is almost proof of… love, in a way? I’m proving to you how much I… or let’s say “care.” “This is how much I care about this. I’m going to repeat it this many times.”
So here is an artist who presumably does work that is not boring to him, favoring repetitiveness. He uses repetition in his visual art to show that he cares. Repetition is not boring when we do it with intent and purpose, repetition by choice rather than need only. If those of us in so-called “boring” repetitive jobs were encouraged to look at every repetition and interaction with a customer or colleague as an opportunity to not only look for ways to improve, but to show human caring, perhaps this would improve engagement.
Even after we understand how to win, how to solve problems successfully, we need to identify what prevents us from repeating this winning formula, of achieving consistency? It’s difficult to say in a word, but later in the same interview, there is a hint. Banhart describes the music of avant-garde composer Harold Budd as “the most useful of music”, explaining
I mean, it’s one of the few things that I can just have playing throughout the entire day, and I just have the feeling that it’s really augmenting being alive. Because it’s keeping me very, very present. […] So, it really does serve as a meditative tool, and meditation is, obviously, being present.
Why repeat? At a higher level, we can use repetition to help us become meditative, which is to say be more present, allowing us to be more aware. This can help us spot potential errors as well as better methods. It can help us to notice other people, to have empathy, to care. Repetition that is not mindless, but rather meditative, helps us to overcome distractions that prevent us from doing our best.
Repetition, repetition, repetition. Why repeat? It’s a good way to get an idea into our heads.