The Task and Temporal Microstructure of Productivity: Evidence from Japanese Financial Services

by Bradley R. Staats & Francesca Gino

Overview — Boredom and fatigue often hamper the productivity of workers whose jobs consist of repeating the same tasks. This paper explores ways in which companies can combat this problem, introducing the idea of the "restart effect" - a deliberate disruption that kindles productivity. Research, which focused on a loan-application processing line at a Japanese bank, was conducted by HBS professor Francesca Gino and Kenan-Flagler Business School assistant professor Bradley R. Staats. Key concepts include:

  • Even taking acclimation into account, a worker's productivity will improve immediately after switching from one task to another, so it behooves managers to introduce a variety of tasks into the workday.
  • All else being equal, workers perform better during the first half of the day than the second half.
  • Productivity improves markedly when workers are given the incentive of leaving as soon as the day's tasks are completed. (The researchers found that workers performed 13.1% better on Saturdays, when they had the option of leaving early, than on Mondays, when they were required to work a nine-hour day.)

Author Abstract

Sustaining workers' productivity is critical to organizations' operational success. Yet, comparatively little attention has been given to how managers can effectively allocate work across tasks and time to improve workers' performance. In this paper, we use the learning curve framework to investigate how productivity varies within task and within time (i.e., over the course of a day) in contexts where work is repetitive in nature. We introduce the concept of a restart effect-task and temporal disruptions that stimulate worker productivity-as a means of addressing challenges of repetitive work. For our empirical analyses, we use two and a half years of transaction data from a Japanese bank's home loan application processing line, totaling nearly 600,000 observations of individuals completing work at a given step in the process. We find that productivity on the current task is most impacted by experience on the same day, but the benefits of such experience decrease with time. Additionally, we find evidence for beneficial effects of both task change and start-of-day restarts on worker productivity. Together, these results offer insight into the underlying structure of productivity and suggest new ways to improve performance through the effective allocation of work.

Paper Information