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OM in the News: Andons Move to the Office?

May 25, 2017

“Interruptions are the bane of workers in open-plan offices,” writes The Wall Street Journal (May 20-21, 2017), “with some resorting to headphones, busy lights and other paraphernalia to ward off chatty co-workers.” At the engineering giant ABB, a few have even set out small orange road cones to keep visitors at bay. But deciding when to put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign can itself amount to an interruption. People may be reluctant to appear unhelpful, uncollegial or unfriendly.

So ABB developed an automated solution: an andon light that turns red, green or yellow to indicate when interruptions are OK and when they aren’t. The system, known as FlowLight, reduced interruptions by 46%. In general, employees reported becoming more conscious of how disruptive interruptions can be and more motivated to focus.

FlowLight is modeled on Skype’s user-status indicators and consists of a light mounted on a cubicle wall or outside an office. If the light is green, a worker is available. A red light means busy, suggesting that interrupters stay away. A more intimidating, pulsing red means, essentially: Do not disturb except for something crucial. Yellow means that the staffer is away.

The lights are triggered by a worker’s sustained computer activity, based on software that tracks typing and mousing. Algorithms smooth out the data to avoid turning on a red light during a brief burst of feverish activity. For those who want it, the system includes a switch to turn the different lights on manually. But to avoid making red lights into status symbols, they are limited to going on for 9% of the workday, since research suggests that most workers are only truly productive for some fraction of the day.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Compare these lights to the andons used in manufacturing and described in Chapter 16.
  2. Do you think ABB’s system will spread to other firms? Why?
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One Comment leave one →
  1. Jeff Heyl permalink
    May 25, 2017 10:23 pm

    I was sitting in a SC Risk presentation this morning and had a clear view of a very nice andon light display. The thought occurred to me, this would be very handy outside my office door.

    I genuinely laughed out loud when I got back to the office and saw your latest OM Blog. Thanks for that.

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