So, how do a former union factory worker turned Vice President of Operational Excellence at Harley Davidson and a Ph.D. in Operations Management and System Dynamics from MIT connect? Very well it turns out. Through their mutual dedication to the culture of improvement, the unlikely pairing of Donald Kieffer and Nelson Repenning have found the perfect balance between theory and practice to deliver superlative insights in their MIT Sloan Executive Education program Implementing Improvement Strategies: Dynamic Work Design. After Kieffer’s energetic opening statements about the practical elements of digging in and engaging with both the work and the workers, Professor Repenning stood up and said in a relatively deadpan voice, “it works in practice, but does it work in theory?” I was hooked.
Nelson’s early work focused on system dynamics and understanding the inability of organizations to leverage well established tools and practices. He asked the question, “are we getting the right results for the right reasons, or for the wrong reasons?” The concept behind Dynamic Work Design and their consulting practice, ShiftGear, is to establish systems where there are built in triggers to identify problems so that we can quickly address those problems and escalate them, if necessary, to the right combination of decision makers and data owners. The two met while Kieffer was running the Twin Cam 88 Engine Project for Harley in the mid 90s and they decided to focus on office and intellectual work, which resulted in the biggest contribution to their method. The system is designed to wire together the humans involved, solve problems, and make decisions in real time, instead of following established ritualistic systems, even if they no longer make sense within the context of what we are trying to accomplish, and to transfer the thinking to intellectual work directly so that it can be addressed uniquely versus trying to adapt tools from physical work.
In order to achieve results and to identify issues, the work needs to be designed somewhere between too hard and too easy. When a concert violinist pulls the bow across the string the best result are produced when the right amount of tension is applied. Great violinists spend thousands of hours practicing and trying to find the sweet spot between not enough tension and too much tension. If the bow attacks with too much tension, the sound is harsh and the energy is wasted. If there is not enough tension on the string, the sound is shrill and produces anemic results.
There are many theories of business process and many theoreticians who expound on those theories, but few of those experts have ever been in the trenches. That is not the case with Don “The Axeman” Kieffer. Typically, when you hear a person referred to as “an axeman” you imagine either a ruthless corporate raider or a horror film character not a Senior Lecturer in Operations Management at MIT Sloan. One of the things that sets Don Kieffer apart from the crowd and what makes him so interesting and worth listening to, is that he began his career working in a union machine shop on a lathe - not just for a summer while attending college, but well into his twenties. I was chatting with him about his early days in the factory, and he told me a funny story that has affected his whole career.
After only a few days on the job, the union went on strike and young Donald was instructed to stand at the entrance of the facility, and to stop anyone attempting to cross the picket line. There was a steel drum with lots of assorted pieces of wood burning nearby, so he pulled out an axe handle from the pile and stood at the entrance with the thing slung over his shoulder like a batter waiting on deck. Several years later, after winning the respect of his fellow workers and being dubbed “The Axeman” by them, he was offered the chance to move to management, which after much deliberation, he accepted.
When he moved to management he figured out an early lesson, which later evolved into one of the cornerstones of what has become Dynamic Work Design: People don’t like to be told what to do, and work problems and processes are really about humans. He observed the specific problems that were happening on the shop floor, and after listening to the complaints of the workers, started solving problems one at a time. There was a guy operating a certain piece of machinery who couldn’t finish his work properly because he didn’t have the right wrench. “The Axeman” went and found the right wrench for him. The mission is to get rid of waste and redesign non-value added activity—to do the right thing, and then do things right.