The use of standard times – the time a service worker should take to complete a task – is common in service organisations. Call centre agents are given standard times for handling calls, back-office workers have standard times for completing tasks, home-repair tradesmen and car-repair shop technicians have standard times for repairs.

Any deviation from working to the standard times gets attention from management. And management thinks any deviation from standard times is the fault of the worker. A mistake. When they study their system, managers will find that the majority of deviations are due to the work, not the worker.

Behaving in this way managers are tampering with their system, increasing variation and lowering capability.

This tampering is institutionalised. A veritable factory of activity sits around standard-setting, monitoring, reporting and resource-planning. When leaders learn how dysfunctional it is to work to standard times the management factory is radically reduced and re-shaped. And the key is to switch from standard times, which are arbitrary, to actual times, which are real.