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Bruce Hamilton


About Time

Is it time to reconsider the time clock?

Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2020 - 13:02

This year marks the 35th anniversary of a remarkable and unfortunately also singular event in my career: In 1985, my employer, United Electric Controls (UE), elected to remove time clocks from the factory.

At the time of this unusual decision, I had already been employed at UE for 14 years in a variety of office jobs. I worked in a building a couple blocks away from the factory, and “punching the clock” had never been a part of my day. From my first day of employment, my attendance was tracked by exception—sickness, personal time, or vacations—pretty much on the honor system. But in 1985, coincidentally around the time I transferred into manufacturing, the idea to remove the time clocks was floated. I weighed in as member of the management team on this idea, but I was pretty much a bystander, a new kid on the block, still unaware of significance of the change.

The proposal raised concerns with many managers and supervisors that some workers would cheat the company by fudging their hours or simply not showing up for work. From factory workers there were suspicions that without the clock they might be coerced to work extra hours without pay. Both of these concerns were, as I understand, the historical reasons for the implementing time clocks as a common factory practice. Time clocks have been fixtures in factories since the turn the 20th century, installed to provide an objective measure of attendance. They persist today as a management system example of “the way we’ve always done things” as well as a symbol of mutual distrust between management and labor.   

Back in 1985, a business owner reflected on the time-clock proposal and listened to the concerns raised by others in the company. Ultimately, he decided, hourly employees should be no less trusted than office workers. (Thanks, Dave.) Forty hours of attendance would be assumed except as noted by each employee. No more double standard: A 20-year factory employee no longer had to prove she was present while an office worker hired last week did not.

The most obvious result of this system change was the absence of lines at time clocks. Subtler yet more significant was the change in working relationships. More of us, less of them. In 1990, UE was recognized by the Shingo Prize for Enterprise Excellence, a coveted award based largely on the engagement in continuous improvement by employees, but arguably influenced by a singular management decision made years before. (And, by the way, attendance actually improved.)

Today, whenever I visit factories and witness the stampedes of employees to time clocks and hear the complaints of time lost to waiting in line to punch in out, I wonder why no one questions the practice. On the contrary, during the last 50 years an entire industry has grown up around punching the clock, even adding software to automatically track an employee’s whereabouts as well as his attendance.  

Is this an improvement, or are we, as Shigeo Shingo liked to say, just automating a waste—the eighth waste—and taking mutual distrust to a new level?   

A quote from Peter Drucker is ringing in my ears: “There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.”

What do you think? Is it about time to reconsider time clocks? 


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change; and he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an on-going reflection on lean philosophy and practices with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.


Time Clocks

At one time, I worked for a company (name withheld to protect the guilty, the innocent, and the naive) which used, and probably still does use, time clocks. A beautiful system, employees punching in and out (with lines), clerks scurrying around to collect, tablulate, record hours, and return cards. Unfortunately, the clocks were maintained by maintenance workers who also punched in and out. By judicious inflating of parts orders, they had soon built their own time clock and could replicate any scenarion of clock in/clock outs. No one could truly ascertain how long this activity had gone on before being exposed by a fluke coincidence. I should note at this point that, had there been no time clocks, the coincidence would have still revealed the cheating.

The cards are being replaced by computerized systems but, human nature being what it is, there are those who will attempt to hack the system just for the fun of it, and some small percntage that will take advantage of it.