Do you pretend to do pretend work?


Is this work?

No, it’s art. It’s the minimum wage machine!

The minimum wage machine allows anybody to work for minimum wage. Turning the crank will yield one penny every 4.97 seconds, for $7.25 an hour (NY state minimum wage). If the participant stops turning the crank, they stop receiving money. [link]

So, it’s art more than it’s work. But if you weren’t in an art gallery, instead in a normal office doing something similarly as futile as turning a crank, would you be doing work?

Science says YES! In physics, work is defined as when a force (your hand) does work that results in movement (the crank). So when the crank turns, hey presto, there’s the work.  The tinkle of one penny falling down the chute every 4.97 seconds rewards the worker for the work, hey presto, there’s the pay. Work done, worker rewarded.

Most organisations haven’t progressed beyond this approach. If you do what is asked, turning a crank or turning out a report, then that’s considered work. A fellow Onion-patch dweller writes about their place of [cough] work:

“I am fairly sure that my current ‘meh’ attitude to (some of) my work is interpreted by my management as boredom or beneath-me-ness, when really it’s a quiet protest about how utterly pointless and valueless it is.
Knitting fog doesn’t even begin to describe its meaningless futility… however it does still pay the mortgage, and if it’s worthless then it’s certainly a) not my fault, and b) not seen that way by the bosses. (This is both the problem, and the salve).”

What if work isn’t defined by what is presented as work, but as what actually adds value to the end (real) customer. This moves work from being something that is subjectively defined by people, plans, policies or prats, to something that can objectively be evaluated as either actual work or mere activity.

When I first learned about this I thought it revolutionary. With the idea of the customers needs defining value, it moves work from turning cranks for pennies every 4.97 seconds to an exciting race of discovery. What actually adds value? If you work on a core process that begins and ends with the customer, this continuous excavation of value is exciting enough, but if you don’t then what are you? What is the work that you do?  If support work then that is whatever is needed to enable the core work to be done, or to be done better. So if filling in pot holes needs asphalt, then procurement is pulled as an activity to buy asphalt.  There it is. Still objective, no guessing needed.

Problem is this is not how organisations think.  Work is still considered to be mainly “work to be done“, not “value to be added“. According to this here:

Typically […] you will find that only 5% of activities add value, this can rise to 45% in a service environment. [link]

The Japanese word Muda covers it nicely.

Muda is a Japanese word meaning “futility; uselessness; idleness; superfluity; waste; wastage; wastefulness”

Anything that doesn’t add value, yet is done at a place of work, is not work it is Muda.

Or better still, it is


Pretend work is bad enough, but if you KNOW it is…


…and you continue to do it, pretending to do pretend work, that is double the…


As the lovely statistic above stated, only about 5% of activity in an organisation is work, the other 95% is what pretends to be work. This handily is a nice law…

This is a controversial position to take in most organisations. People like to feel valuable and identify with their activity. “Doing” is the currency of success, and questioning the fundamental values of people doesn’t make you any friends, but I would like to be the Queen of Sheba idly eating grapes and I’m not.

The reality is that work is activity that adds value to the end customer, that waste activity is not work, that E really does equal mc² and that…


This entry was posted in customer, systems thinking, thinking and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Do you pretend to do pretend work?

  1. ThinkPurpose says:

    Reblogged this on thinkpurpose and commented:

    ANOTHER oldie but goldie from the archives.
    Are YOU plate-spinning today? Or value-adding?


  2. the cubicle philosopher says:

    Yes, I see the ‘value’ of this post. Another piece I think is how we feel about the work we do, our perception of our own work. For example, I receive several ‘thank-you’ cards from people every year which reminds me that I made an impact. These reminders are important to me and help for me to see that my ‘work’ has ‘purpose’ but often I get pulled back to the ‘drudgery’ of the admin tasks which cause me to feel resentful of the organization. This then can lead me to feeling ‘under-valued’ at my organization. Good post!


  3. Pingback: How to have an organisational detox! | thinkpurpose

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