An Office Life 11: Acquiring Business Intelligence

One of the first lessons I learned was you need to know where you fit in the machine or your effort may be pointless.
This is aptly demonstrated by the Sandbox experiment when I went to Fielden House Productivity Centre to study a discipline known as Work Study – this was used on the shop floor of C20th factories to examine and analyse all aspects of direct labour. The object of this was to identify the individual actions that went into a process in order to set standard times, to measure worker output and to assess relative worker performance. This was used to develop standard costs and, along the way, define optimal working practise. The two don’t necessarily go hand in hand – a point that will be developed later. The training process was a mixture of theory and practicals. As a matter of policy, to cement learning; I made notes.

Fielden House Work Study notes from course

Fielden House Work Study notes

For practical we studied a sandbox process (with real sand).
The process is a contraption into which beakers of finely ground particulate matter (sand) is poured. Amongst the sand are larger coarse particles (marbles). This mix, sand plus marbles, is manually fed into a shaped receiving tray which, by gravity, feeds the tube to the next operation. The tube is too narrow to pass marbles so once it blocks, the operator ceases other work to remove the blockage. As there is no alternative process, the marble rejoins the flow at the next operation. A further series of operations occur in which the non-conforming items, ie marbles, are removed, graded and sorted and then reintroduced to the process. The very last operation involves filling the original beakers with sand + marbles which, by this point, are mixed together in an unvariegated manner similar to that in which they were introduced. These then form new inputs to the sandbox process. The same operator performs all the processes and in consequence of removing blockages, grading and sorting, there are significant breaks in the overall activity.

A sandbox is a closed system. Like a factory, if there is no regime to abstract and remove non-conforming product, that product must follow a parallel route until it reaches a point where it can rejoin. A river pools temporarily but eventually overflows to follow the route of least resistance.

The ultimate purpose of the activity was to provide an exercise to learn and apply work study skills – note that it served no other function and it is fair to assume some organisations have departments with no other function than as ‘make work’. This can only be determined by considering the outputs in the round:
if there is no process  control, owner variations will emerge in the working standard and should these remain unchecked, it is possible an activity can develop to a point where it undoes the results of a previous stage. By breaking down the elements of work needed for each stage in the production process, it is possible to set standards and in doing so, define the ideal work inputs to produce efficiently. Breaking down work into elements was commonly referred to as Method Study. Method Study + Work Study gives time standards which feeds standard costs
The rule of thumb was:

  • describe the activity precisely and concisely
  • make observations to note variations and capture them
  • ensure you take enough to establish a statistically sound population (knowledge of statistics)
  • note the learning curve involved in using stop watches and develop a reliable method to eliminate consistent bias (premature and retarded activation) as this can have far reaching effects.
  • ensure adequate preparation in the use of the clip board – as a portable mini-desk it is essential to know where paperwork is: observation forms, note sheets and (invariably) general factory literature.

Putting aside general principles, the obvious fact is that the exercises didn’t measure anything meaningful – just sand and marbles as some might say. To focus on the literal is to miss key points

  • the scenarios were based on real life examples – both large and small organisations are just as likely to have small departments, busily beavering away on pointless or counterproductive tasks, adding no value whatsoever.
  • presenting activity as self-perpetuating underlines an important point, tasks expand to fill the time available; the act of doing fills the need for activity no matter how purposeless – this doesn’t become clear unless one steps outside to view it as a whole. It isn’t necessary to be a Work Study practitioner to do this but it does confer benefits.
  • the ingenuity of the workarounds to ensure all material went through illustrates an inherent keenness to apply a consistent system. This, although irrational, has its own logic; failing instructions otherwise, ensure everything gets through.
  • it’s possible to set a time standard that has no practical relevance. How is this, you ask? The key is to understand the relevance of the activity to the greater whole. A function can’t remain completely isolated from reality without becoming unfit for purpose.


While at the Productivity Centre I bumped into people from an various walks of business life including the first professional person to suggest accounting as an optional career path – he was of course an accountant (ICAEW) and was there on an extended appreciation course – the same 5 weeks as me. It was to be five years before I began studying for CIMA (ICMA as it was then).
Gradually it became apparent to me that it was possible for employees, managers and owners to be running around like Capek’s Robots, mechanically spouting chunks of data that were randomly interspersed with slogans, completely at odds with what was actually going on. There were handouts plus other exercises and I duly kept a record.

Fielden House Work Study - questions

Work Study – questions

Fielden House Work Study - study sheet

Work Study – study sheet

Fielden House Work Study - flow process

Work Study – flow process

On my return to Belwoven I discussed the merits of the course at some length with my Boss. He wanted to stick me straight into a Work Study activity in the Cut + Fold department. There was a snag; much of my work including Stock Take valuation had been moth-balled pending my return (Belwoven did monthly stock takes) and, although this wasn’t year end, the Company Secretary, Jeff Spink, was anxious for a full stock values for his accounts. Unlike, many firms (even now!) Belwoven calculated the profit only after validating inventory physically – it was common practise then- outside year end – to deduce stock value as a balancing figure, a methodology which frequently resulted in a nasty surprise when audit came around. Anyhow, I had to catch up on Stock – 2 to 4 days, top priority; then there was the accumulated job cards relating to my 5 weeks away for which a waste calculation was required; also I was keen to check the integrity of loom efficiency records – my Boss had held the fort but being brutally honest, he wasn’t avers to taking a short cut in the face of an intractable problems in the interpretation of Stopped Time Allowances – if I carried the can it was as well to check. There were glitches in the records, nothing serious but that was a weight off my mind.
By the time things were ship shape, the cut and fold department had entered yet another phase of changing staff; the Cut + Fold Manager deferred Work Study observations for the immediate future. The issues in cut and fold didn’t settle for awhile and in the meantime my role in investigating problem contracts grew larger. We discussed the suitability of Work Study to the General Office. Making and keeping offices efficient is a constant battle – man is for the most part a sociable animal – those of us with strong resistance to office chit-chat and a liking for getting things done will note the favourite places for those escaping from work: the photocopying machine, the coffee machine, the sales office and (in earlier years) the general office. It didn’t get work done and was the bane of those ploughing the furrow of concentration, hoping to finish a report, check figures or finish a letter. Sometimes a senior manager passing by would make an acerbic comment (and as soon as he was out of hearing, the tittle-tattle would recommence on the topic of ‘how dare he when they were so overworked’). Ensuring best practise in the office was a constant battle. The General Office at Belwoven was a case in point – in its defence there wasn’t an even flow of work, on the other hand there were predictable elements: distributing internal mail, registering external mail….

The following September, deciding I needed a bit more than a 5 week Work Study course to my CV, I began a HNC (Higher National Certificate) in Business Studies at the Burnley College of Arts and Technology. One of the modules was Organisation and Methods; I got to see first hand the commonalities between Work Study and organising offices more efficiently.

The outputs from Work Study feed into the plan of how a business functions and ultimately became the bible for automation – replacement of labour by mechanised inputs. This was a logical conclusion thus permitting the capitalist mindset to sidestep the side discussion on the value of gainful employment to the working man. The key to economic wealth is efficient production of reliable, goods that people want in an organised way. The fruits of the enterprise go to the providers of capital, thus ignoring the working man. The economic consequences at a local level are generally severe, profound and long lasting and in the UK, the overall pattern of employment has long shifted away from direct labour to indirect staff and admin.

Big changes didn’t emerge in the office until a few decades after the appearance of the desktop PC, leading to outsourcing and off-shore call centres.

Other posts in this series

About Terence Park

Board games, US Comic books, SF Paperbacks, Vinyl records; I've plenty of them all. I write SF (the serious sort). I also do spreadsheets.
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