Deadlines, Work Flows, Task Sorting, and Work Quality

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Author Information : Natarajan Balasubramanian (Whitman School of Management, Syracuse University)
Jeongsik Lee (Drexel University)
Jagadeesh Sivadasan (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

Year of Publication : Management Science (Forthcoming)

Summary of Findings : We examine the impact of deadlines using large-scale patent data, and find clustering of patent applications around month-ends with month-end applications being more complex and that work quality is lower for tasks completed at month-end.

Research Questions : How do deadlines affect work flows, task sorting and work quality?

What we know : Deadlines are everywhere! They are a critical resource-allocation tool for managers, particularly in knowledge-intensive, high-wage sectors, who need to optimally manage the time of valuable human capital. But there are potential tradeoffs between speed and performance associated with such allocation. While increasing speed or limiting time allocated to specific tasks may increase the quantity of output and help better coordinate across tasks, the costs of doing so could include potentially poorer quality or reduced innovativeness of work due to increased time pressure. Notwithstanding their ubiquity in the corporate world, large-sample studies of the effects of deadlines in real-world settings have been limited.

Novel Findings : Focusing on the task of filing a patent application, we find that (i) tasks are clustered at the period-end deadlines (ii) tasks completed at the deadline are, on average, of higher complexity and (iii) work quality is lower for tasks completed at the deadline, more so for work process measures than for outcome measures.

Novel Methodology : The key value of this research lies in being able to examine work flows, task complexity and work quality at a level of detail that has not been possible in prior studies of deadlines and time pressure (which have typically focused on a single company). Because the data cover millions of patents and patent applications, we observe work flows for millions of fairly comparable tasks spread over several decades and across thousands of different firms. Our data also allow us to form a number of alternative measures for task complexity so that we can study how deadlines affect some of the tasks to be prioritized over others before the deadlines. Perhaps most importantly, the data allow us to construct numerous measures of different aspects of work quality, permitting a detailed and nuanced examination of the effects of time pressure close to deadlines.

Implications for Practice : Deadlines are used pervasively in all types of businesses to manage allocation of time resources and coordinate across different activities. Our work presents novel evidence for the effect of deadlines on job-flows, and is one of the first to quantify negative effects on work quality. Our results suggest that managers need to be vigilant about negative work quality effects of using deadlines, and careful about comparing any negative effects against work acceleration gains, to understand if their use of deadlines is indeed improving overall productivity (adjusting for work quality).

Full Citations : Balasubramanian N., Lee, J., and Sivadasan J. Deadlines, Work Flows, Task Sorting, and Work Quality. Management Science, Forthcoming

Abstract : Deadlines are often used to manage the time of valuable human capital. In this multi-method paper, we propose a theoretical framework grounded in a formal model that encapsulates the key drivers and consequences of deadline-related time pressures on work flows, task sorting and work quality. We use large-scale data on patent filings along with insights from primary data collection to test our hypotheses. In line with our predictions, we find clustering of patent filings around month-ends, with month-end applications being more complex than those filed on other days. Consistent with time pressure reducing work quality, we find that work quality is lower for tasks completed at month-ends, more so for process measures of quality than for outcome measures. Calibrating our model to the data allows us to shed light on the benefits of deadlines, and suggests small levels of task acceleration but potentially larger working capital–related benefits for law firms.

New management research shows when deadlines are in place workers, tend to complete their tasks at the last minute, often leading to lower quality outcomes.

Natarajan Balasubramanian

Natarajan Balasubramanian

Professor Balasubramanian is an associate professor of management whose research interests are in competitive analysis, organizational learning and innovation.
Natarajan Balasubramanian
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