Process, Pace and the Work Sweet Spot
I often get told this by operations managers when I start working with a new client, and they aren't lying to me. Typically their staff are "fully engaged" - they are continually working and often doing a good job at what they do - but the managers completely miss the point.
It's all about pace. Here's an example why:
At a previous client I ran a series of process improvement workshops. In the morning I would have to set up the workshop room to be ready for the workshop starting at 9am. I estimated that it would take myself and 1 other person 15 minutes to set up the room - plug in laptop, switch on screens, stick up brown paper, etc. Easy. I could probably have done it all myself in 15 minutes, but it would have been a push and would have left me a bit flustered.
However, my boss was unfortunately a micro-managing control freak (yes they do still exist!) and insisted on there being 4 people to set up the room an hour before the workshop was due to start. All totally unnecessary, but like most micro-managing control freaks she was unable to change her mind and insisted that it was "absolutely necessary".
When it came to set up the room it did indeed take 4 people an hour to do so. This was of great delight to the MMCF who took pains to point it out to me. What she failed to understand and which was quite evident to me was that if you give 4 people an hour to do something it will take 4 people an hour to do it. This is beacuse of our old friend PACE. What happens is that each person tasked with doing the work slows down. They don't race to get it done in 15 minutes, they take their time. If we had 8 people it would still have taken an hour.
This is what happens within organisations - if they are overstaffed the pace drops to the point where they are all still "being busy" doing work - they just do less volume. But the appearance remains that they are "fully engaged". It's an illusion and there is typically a massive amount of capacity to be utilised to do more work, or staff that can enjoy a career elsewhere...
But the converse is true also - staff can't be 100% utilised or they crack - they burn out, have breakdowns, treat customers badly or simply leave the organisation altogether. The trick is to find the sweet spot where staff are productive, but they can still enjoy being there. This balance is hard to find but certainly not impossible.
A starting point is establishing some SLA's and metrics around what they do. This needs to be done very carefully to ensure that the right metrics are in place and that they can cope with the service levels. Go too far and staff will rebel.
So when you hear staff saying they are "all busy" take it with a pinch of salt. Look instead at quantifying specifically how much work they are performing. Quantify the pace - don't walk, don't sprint but aim for a jog.