The Trouble With Too Much Information

Companies that pursue a number of improvement initiatives at once risk creating information overload for employees.

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Image courtesy of Flickr user Steve Snodgrass.

Is too much information causing your employees to make mistakes? That was the case in a number of Six Sigma improvement initiatives that I studied in aircraft manufacturing and repair companies. I discovered that the companies’ use of sophisticated Six Sigma tools often created information overload for their factory workers. These workers faced hundreds of pages of training material to review and were expected to do extensive data interpretation and analysis. This, in many cases, created “brain overload” for many of the workers involved — particularly because they also had to deal simultaneously with complex daily operations. Over time, the employees became overwhelmed and started making stupid mistakes. As production performance slipped and safety issues surfaced, they simply opted out of Six Sigma and steadily regressed to the old ways of working.

And the problem isn’t just Six Sigma. In a number of companies that I have observed in recent years, countless ongoing improvement activities resulted in a massive amount of information being made available to employees. For example, at one company, new product designs had replaced many existing parts with new materials. These benign changes generated more than 47 pages of instructions and engineering drawings that could cover an entire office floor. At the same time, the maintenance department was implementing a total productive maintenance (TPM) program, so the machine maintenance schedule varied greatly from month to month. The TPM program was well organized, and all activities related to implementation were meticulously described in 69 pages of text. Meanwhile, the human resources department had updated its 23-page safety program manual. A newly formed sustainability program to make the manufacturing process environmentally friendly developed a detailed 42-page plan and a 31-slide PowerPoint training program. And the information technology group was finishing up an enterprise resource planning implementation manual with more than 200 pages of instructions and reports. But the legacy system was running in parallel, and the duplicate reports caused many problems. The production schedule was often erratic or wrong, part numbers were incorrect and many orders had insufficient information.


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Comments (17)
Rajah Kumar
If I want to be a little bit more radical all this information overload should be stopped immediately. From my experience in running businesses I find the entire organization is focusing on unnecessary paper work and documentation even forgetting to call on customers. This is especially true in matrix organizations where people who serve customers are kept busy by their local SBU manager on things that can wait and the utmost priority is business and customer. In my job as a country CEO, I have asked these people to stop doing these things for some one in a regional office and get out to see customers - who bring ultimate value.This is where leadership has to play a role and empowerment is all about what needs to be done in the market closer to customers.

Dr Rajah Kumar
I totally agree with this article. Effective communication is an active process and need to be targeted rather than random and passive.
Jordan Silver
There is no doubt that employees should be aware of procedures, instructions, and recent events happening within their company. However, an individual can only take in so much information at one time. Emails are usually only scanned and employees may spend no more than a few seconds reading internal documents.  Information overload can bog down productivity by not only overwhelming us with information, but by causing the important information not to "stick." Managers need to get the point across and set guidelines in as few words as possible. The less employees have to take in, the more they can be "on the ball" and understand what their organization needs them to do.

J Silver
Dave Kunz
While continuous process improvement is necessary to keep a firm competitive, those who implement improvement projects must keep in mind that a person performs better when they have only the relevant information necessary to implement the change. I remember a manager of mine always tried to use the K.I.S.S. rule and that seemed to work well for him. Keep It Simple Stupid – If things get too complicated, people get caught up with the small details and lose focus on the real goal that they are trying to achieve. Keeping an improvement project in its simplest form can help keep those participating stay on track.
Divya Mishra
After reading this article, the first thing that comes to my mind is the stress I had to deal with information overload, while working in an IT department of a private bank in India, we were responsible for  implementing a new customer relation management software, pan India for the bank. As I joined the team, I was provided with whole bunch of documents (on my very first day of job), around 500 page document file for six different functional areas, where we were to implement our software in the first phase.
In order to implement this, it was important for me to understand the functionality of all the required areas. Initially I got overwhelmed with the load of information provided to me at once, but later when we did everything in a step by step manner, things got much simpler. Also, later I realized that it was not important for me to go entire document as only 20- 30% was required from the technical perspective. It would have been a lot easier for me if only required information was provided in a user-friendly manner.
B Barlow
Information overload is absolutely something to be concerned with for companies initiating or continuouing process improvement programs. The source of the problem however is the exectutives and managers that do not realize what they are doing to their production employees. As more and more implementations take place, more and more information rolls "down hill" to the people responsible for the actual production. This information overload can seriously impact moral and overall production output. Upper management must be aware of how to control the frequency of the new implementation programs or information to minimize loss of the big picture by the production employees and maximize interest in the long term.
M Taylor
As technology ‘improves’ we in the workplace have become victims of ‘information overload.’ The belief that increased communication is the basic necessity of improving the work environment is properly questioned in this article. The notion of quality over quantity of communication is very powerful and should be regularly examined in every company.

It is interesting that machines can produce an immeasurable amount of output and also take in just as much. Unfortunately their human co-workers and creators have not been able to attain the same level of input/output of which they created! In some respects we create our own malady and then wonder why we are sick.

The author’s ideas of simplifying and targeting specific areas of improvement would definitely prove useful in the short and long run with most companies. 
M. Taylor
Katy Fuhrman
This concept is intriguing to me, so much so, that I have not stopped thinking about since I initially read it last week. I have gone through my daily tasks at work and noticed, more than I was even aware, how true this is. It is very much the cause of mistakes because our minds are so preoccupied that we do not focus on our task but instead we are concerned with the details. The same rule goes for emails that people spend time writing, but really are not read by a majority of the recipients. It was interesting the share this concept with co-workers and hear them agree as well. I would like to read more on this topic as it is so applicable in business world of today.
Claudia Cordoba
Managers also needs to analyze that Information overload can lead teams to perform poorly doing the work the way they used to do it before having the training, because at some point things need to be done fast in order to get the expected results.
Matthew Dibling
I think information overload applies to many aspects of an organization, not just with process improvement! Take for example the NFL draft. Professional football teams have potential players perform numerous physical and mental tests at the Combine, perform another round of testing at the player's Pro Day, and then watch hours of footage of the player from their college days. And what does all this data provide? What kind of success rate do professional teams have? Almost 50% of first round draft picks are out of the NFL by year three! When leaders of organizations begin to focus on obtaining too much data, the important data and correlations often go unnoticed.
C Chang
I agree with the writer that there is a need for companies to consolidate improvement initiatives and to also consolidate the amount of detailed information and instructions given to employees.  Although it is important to be detailed when giving direction on new processes, it is more important to be precise.  One can easily get lost in details and discouraged from the big picture.
Information overload is common problem in today's work place.  It reduces day to day productivity as well as process improvement initiatives.  The department I work in receives 8 to 10 emails a day that 13 different people have to review to see if they are relevant to them, and most of them are not.  It is to a point where the information gained in the email doesn't add value because of the amount of time wasted by looking for it.  I completely agree that digital information needs to be managed tightly to reduce information overload in the workplace.
Kathy Wilson
I agree that implementing too many sweeping changes all at once has to be overwhelming to a company.  And who has time to read all those training manuals, statistical reports, meeting summaries and emails? Employees have a hard enough time getting their regular work done, which is why management decided to bring in a consultant in the first place. It seems to me that it makes more sense to tackle one department or one problem area at a time, let the employees get used to the changes and then implement the next improvement program. The goal is to have problem solving that results in overall improvement of company efficiency, productivity and ultimately profitability. This has to be done in a way that the average worker can understand and not feel like he is drowning in a sea of training manuals.
Tor G. Syvertsen
A very simple analogy: too much food makes you fat and immobile, too much information makes you dumb and non-reflective.
N Siddiqui
Having it experienced myself I couldn't agree more with this article.  My own company went through an integration project where more than 50 processes were changed within a period of 6 months.  The consultants, who were creating the documentation, were least worried about whether or not the employees are able to understand the new process.  They just completed the new documents, loaded them to the sharepoint and forwarded everyone a link.  When employees clicked on the new process document they had to sift through 20 pages in order get to one page worth information….I think simplification of instructions is an art that has been lost in an effort to being pompous.
M Steinmetz
And what's more, the massive amount of information that employees have to sift through is oftentimes written/developed by high-paid consultants.  The cost alone to generate what is sometimes ad nauseaum data, is only part of the equation--losses in employee productivity as Chakravorty outlines. may be even more costly.  Other culprits stealing our productivity in corporate world are the countless back-to-back meetings, like school is in session with everyone scurrying to get to their next meeting.  When does an employee get their work done?  Hopefully, that will be a future topic that this writer would consider tackling...
Jacqueline Duncan
It seems that what is lacking in many companies today is a coordinated effort in managing improvement projects in order to see the "big picture".  This would include a review of all proposed projects and prioritization of their implementation so as not to overload employees with change and ensure that resources are not stretched too thin.