Few things warm an entrepreneur's heart more than walking around your business and seeing your whole team busily working away. You're paying your employees to get stuff done, after all. But according to experts, if your people always look busy, you might have a problem. 

First, visible busyness is often productivity theater, not productivity. If everyone is always in a flurry when you're around, that's likely a sign they're putting on a show for you. Knowledge work has a natural rhythm of activity and idleness. Our brains need periods of incubation to be creative (no less of an authority than Einstein attests to this). So if you never see employees slacking, either they are not doing their best work or they are wasting energy play-acting busyness. 

But there is another reason you should worry if your people are always running to do the next thing and the next, according to Cal Newport, author of the best-selling book Deep Work. Constant busyness, he explained on his blog recently, is often a sign a business has an outdated factory mentality that actually kills productivity.

Push vs. pull

"In the 1980s, American factory managers believed that keeping every machine and worker perpetually busy was the key to productivity: If everybody was busy, the thinking went, the plant would produce more," Newport notes. The idea that the best way to keep people productive is to overload them with more work than they can possibly handle spread to other sectors. 

Manufacturing has moved on since then, but many white-collar companies haven't. Few factories operate on a "push" model anymore. Many offices still do. 

"A traditional way to build things is with a push system in which you move something along a production process to the next step as soon as you're done with it," Newport writes. But constantly pushing work along in this way creates bottlenecks and makes it difficult to prioritize tasks. "The manufacturing sector eventually realized there were great advantages to instead move to a pull system in which you pull work to your step in the process only when you're ready for it."

Offices where workers are always running to finish endless tasks pushed on them by supervisors or emails are still operating under the old push model. Employees run around like headless chickens. Stuff gets done, yes, but is it the right stuff? 

How one team made the switch 

Instead, Newport advises managers to consider devising a pull system, with workers requesting tasks when they're ready for them, and describes in detail how one MIT research group made the switch.

"The R&D group mounted on the wall a flow chart that captured the steps required to move an idea from conception to deployment. They then represented projects as post-it notes on this flowchart, affixed to their current step in the process," he writes. 

Not only did this help eliminate bottlenecks, but the status of all the group's various projects was suddenly crystal clear as well, allowing the team to have frank conversations about priorities. Efficiency shot up. Frantic, visible busyness, however, likely decreased. 

This exact model might not be a great fit for your business, but the overall lesson probably applies -- overloaded employees constantly running to keep up with an avalanche of tasks isn't a sign of hard work. It's a sign you need to help your team organize their work better.