Industrial Engineering Applies to Life

My long and occasionally-storied career began as an industrial engineer, where I had drilled into my brain one of my most useful life lessons.

Here is the secret to mastering your life, reducing your stress by a good 50% —

Learn the difference between standard hours and actual hours

The business dictionary laughably defines a standard hour as the hours that the average worker would take to complete a job under normal conditions.

I would not say that is exactly correct. A standard hour is based on time and motion studies. If it takes 2 minutes for you to walk from Point A to Point B to pick up the raw material for a widget, 7 minutes for you to mount the material on the Widget-Maker 1000 machine and have it processed to come out the other end, and 3 minutes for you to take the completed widget off, put it in a stack and be ready  to re-start the process than in a standard hour you could make 5 widgets (60 minutes in an hour divided by 12 minutes).

If I were an idiot, I would then say that a reasonable number of widgets to be made by you would be 12*40*52 = 24,960. Twelve widgets an hour, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks out of the year.

tree made from shopping carts

Here is the problem – you need to go to the bathroom, go to lunch, take union-mandated breaks. The union is correct to mandate those breaks, by the way, to reduce fatigue and possible related accidents. Some days, you get sick and don’t come in. Some days are holidays.

On top of all of that, there are material problems – the raw material of widgets is not delivered in time and you are sitting there with no widget-making stuff.

Then there are machine problems – the Widget-Maker 1000 breaks down and it takes you three days to get spare parts and another day to fix it.

In short – the NORMAL condition is that you don’t take anywhere near an hour to make five widgets.

As a rule of thumb, I would double the standard hours to get actual hours – how long it would, on the average, actually take. This isn’t based on time and motion studies but on actual experience. You count up the number of widgets made, divide by hours and that gives you the actual hours it really took.

Now apply this to life. If you are traveling –  which I do A LOT – don’t plan on an arriving an hour early because the airline suggests that. Assume that the security line will be slow, there will be a convention of all of the dentists in the world going to Hawaii and they will all be in front of you. Give yourself an extra thirty minutes or more. Make sure your connections when you need to go through customs are at least two hours apart. I don’t care WHAT Delta Airlines tells you. Trust me.

If you’re in LA and have an important meeting that is 15 minutes away, leave 30 minutes early assuming there will be traffic because – hey, you live in LA, there’s always traffic.

This doesn’t just apply to transportation. I start on anything – a grant, a conference presentation, final report or coding part of a computer game – long before it is due. To those of you who say that you work best to a deadline – well, I doubt it.

I had three children under age five while getting a PhD and working. At the last minute, someone would come down with chicken pox or the nanny would have a family emergency and need a week off. Because I had started far in advance, when the deadline came up, I was done, or nearly so, and things that could have been a catastrophe were merely inconvenient.

Anyone who ever planned a factory based on the assumption that work could be accomplished in standard hours  – material would always arrive on time, machines would never break, people would never get sick – is an idiot.

Yet, people plan their lives that way, assuming there will be no traffic accidents, snowstorms, sick children.

I can hear the objections already –

Sure, YOU can say that. You have a nanny. You have the luxury of setting your own schedule, so you can afford to plan that way.

Well, let me tell you this — all of those things that keep your standard hours from being actual — they are going to happen whether you plan for them or not. Making any plans that don’t take that fact into account is just deluding yourself.


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  1. Ah, but does doubling the standard hours encourage Parkinson’s Law?

    “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

    (as an unrelated aside, darling daughter #3 just flipped off Miesha Tate at the press conference … did she get that from you? :P)

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