The latest HBR Ideacast interview with Erin Reid talks about Why We Pretend to be Workaholics (based on a related HBR article). I enjoyed the discussion, but what really got to me is this idea of "pretending to be busy."
This relates to observations I have made in working with organizations on critical chain project management. I have found an interesting dichotomy with respect to the question how busy people might be. Some project modeling tools allow you to model resources required on project tasks. Taken in aggregate across many projects, this should give a sense of how much (project) work is upcoming for those resources. And this should give a sense of how "busy" they are.
What I often find is that the "busyness" based on the project models and the busyness claimed by the people on these teams is vastly different. Of course, there might be discrepancies because the project models aren't right or because people do a lot of non-project work. This can be checked. But the interesting thing I've found is that there are many situations where it is not possible for team members to admit that they have available capacity. They believe (and it may be true) that they are in an environment where "nothing to do" means they will be punished - even if that "nothing to do" is actually important protective capacity to enable fast response to emerging situations.
Of course, this links back to the HBR Ideacast above. People have figured out how to appear busy, whether or not they truly are. They operate in a system that almost forces them into this pattern of operation. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to help people realize there is extra capacity. And that this extra capacity can help improve the whole organization.