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Operations Q&A: Is Multitasking Really the Answer?

Operations Q&A: Is Multitasking Really the Answer?

November 19, 2014

Question: When are you better off multitasking?

Answer: Most of us beat our chests with pride for being able to perform more than one activity at a time. Watching TV while writing this blog; answering e-mails in the midst of populating that Excel spreadsheet; replenishing inventory while pulling orders. Oh, how delusional we all are. Yes, including me.

Almost every study conducted on multitasking's impact on productivity paints a dreary picture. Multitasking interferes with productivity, making one less efficient rather than more so. It actually slows us down and leads to more mistakes.

A client of mine wanted to improve productivity in his packaging area. We talked about the steps taken by the employees packing. They were responsible for preparing orders to be shipped but also responsible for making sure that they had enough supplies – boxes, packing material, tape, labels, etc. – to complete their assigned tasks. What happens when supplies are used up? These people were responsible for replenishing them.

What would happen, I asked, if someone else were responsible for ensuring that each packer had an uninterrupted supply of packing materials? After some additional conversation, and although the client strongly believed that their staff would (figuratively) throw a fit, they decided to make a change.

The client evaluated their personnel and respective responsibilities and assigned someone other than the packers to replenish dwindling supplies. Guess what happened? Productivity increased. And the packers are happy campers because they know they are accomplishing more today than before the change.

Bottom Line: Do not be lured into a false sense of comfort believing multitasking is productive. If you are still not in agreement, try this simple exercise, shared with me by an expert in this area Daniel Markovitz.

Write the sentence “Multitasking is a lie.” on one line, and the numbers 1-18 on a line below that. In round 1, have people alternate between writing a letter and a number (M-1, U-2, L-3, etc.). In round 2, have them write all the letters and then all the numbers.

Time each round and compare. Time after time, you'll find that round 2 is the quicker route. Let me know if you see something different.

Lee Schwartz, former CEO and president of distribution and manufacturing companies, is principal of the Schwartz Profitability Group (SPG) that, for almost 13 years, has uncorked the operational bottlenecks of distribution and manufacturing companies, boosting their bottom line results. His consulting and operational turnaround work helps clients find solutions related to process improvement, supply chain management, inventory control, workflow design, and operational performance.

If you have questions regarding operations for Schwartz, please email him at

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