Like many consumer electronics organizations, HP Digital Camera saw that its people were working hard, but they also knew that they were not meeting deadlines and were not as productive as they needed to be. In the year before implementing the steps necessary to eliminate organizational multitasking, HP Digital Camera had released six different models of digital cameras, only one of which was released on time during the all important spring window. To compete effectively in a very crowded marketplace, HP Digital Camera needed to release eight to 10 different models each year because consumers require a broad array of products at different price points. In addition, at least half of the new models needed to be released in the spring to ensure that their products would find shelf space in stores.

Of course, developing digital cameras is no simple task. The group operated out of four sites in three countries and it also used several ODM (original design manufacturer) partners in Taiwan and China. Portfolio planning took place in Colorado, California and Singapore. Communications between sites needed to be smooth. The goal was to increase the number of cameras with the same or fewer resources, and to release half during in the spring window.

Prior to systematically cutting multitasking from the engineering organization, there was no mechanism for setting global priorities. Each program manager used his or her own system, from bubble charts, to spreadsheets and Microsoft Project. When management decided to reduce organizational multitasking, they first established a single software solution that would be used throughout the organization. This way, management could track progress and set global priorities. In tandem, they sharply reduced the amount of work in process.

The results were tremendous. In the course of a year, HP Digital Camera went from introducing six unique models, to releasing 15. Seven of these models were released in the spring, and 15 out of 15 met their release target, compared to just a single model the year before.

Product launches were cleaner with fewer stops and starts, and, for the first time in the history of the unit, HP Digital Camera delivered its new models ahead of schedule. They improved significantly in meeting their cost and quality commitments, and, throughout the organization, morale improved sharply because there was so much less thrashing and firefighting.

Organizational multitasking is the hidden killer of engineering productivity. Few recognize that it’s a problem, because everyone is working hard and feels very busy, but employees are often just spinning their wheels. By taking simple steps to eliminate organizational multitasking, engineering can unlock previously unimaginable productivity, boosting morale, output and profitability.

Sanjeev Gupta is CEO of Realization Technologies in San Jose, Calif.