At work, everyone is familiar with the feeling of having too much to do and not enough people to do it. We accept it as a reality we must suffer, when actually there are ways to improve the overload. According to MIT Sloan Professor Nelson Repenning, digital tools for communication and collaboration often can’t fix the root causes: poor work design and entrenched organizational behaviors.
Despite the well-documented costs of work overload, many leaders continue to believe that their organizations thrive under duress. “It’s a popular but pathological approach to management,” writes Repenning in an MIT Sloan Management Review article.
Instead, knowledge-based organizations can benefit greatly from the quality management and lean production approaches that have been mastered in industries like manufacturing. Based on 25 years of award-winning academic research at MIT and 40 years of on-the-job experience from the shop floor to the C-suite, Repenning and his colleagues co-created a foundation of highly adaptable principles and methods called Dynamic Work Design to help change the way leaders think about work. The principles of this approach can be used to engineer improvements in any organization, whether in the public, private, or non-profit sector. In particular, Dynamic Work Design emphasizes the process of visual management as a means to identify the value-added elements of work as well as opportunities for improving it.
Push vs. pull systems at work
While you may associate the workflow terms “push” and “pull” with supply chain management or the factory floor, these words are equally meaningful in knowledge-based work. A push system essentially means that each person “pushes” as much work as they can to the next step in the process, whether or not the next person is ready for it, often creating costly overload and the need for expediting. And expediting is like a drug—the more you use it, the more you need it. When a piece of work is expedited, all the other work-in-progress tasks are deprioritized. Eventually, those tasks will be so late that they also will require expediting, creating a vicious cycle.
In a pull system, in contrast, the amount of work in the system is carefully controlled and labeled, leading to both improved transparency, which enables learning and greater productivity. It’s an approach that could benefit any organization where tasks tend to pile up between steps in a process.
How to apply a pull system in the office
In physical work like manufacturing, it’s visually obvious when excess work-in-progress inventory piles up and production lines stall out. Colleagues can see when someone needs help. But when work on a digital project stops, for example, it doesn’t usually generate a clear signal to the rest of the organization. Visual management makes it easier to see what is moving and what is stuck.
In their two-day MIT Sloan Executive Education program, Visual Management for Competitive Advantage: MIT’s Approach to Efficient and Agile Work, Repenning and his colleagues include an illustrative case study on Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard that demonstrates how two Dynamic Work Design interventions streamlined lab operations and improved the flow of R&D and technology development work.
In one example, technology teams at Broad made their work more tangible by drawing a simple schematic of the development “funnel” on some unused wall space and labeling each step of the process. This allowed them to see what was moving and what wasn’t. Thus, they only began a new project when it was clear that there was enough space to do so, which increased the speed and success of existing projects. By using visual management, the development group freed up resources to create new products and services. Employees reported deeper engagement in their work and more success with cross-functional collaboration (fewer “turf” battles, for instance, and better-integrated goals).
Manufacturing companies using process improvements methods have developed significant capabilities in their operations. But, as Repenning points out, the tools and practices associated with quality management and lean approaches work not because they are better ways of organizing manufacturing activity, but because they are better ways of organizing human activity. In this digital age, visualization of non-visual work may be the solution to workflow overload.
Read more in the MIT Sloan Management Review article Breaking Logjams in Knowledge Work.
Visual Management for Competitive Advantage: MIT’s Approach to Efficient and Agile Work
This program helps executives understand how continuous improvement strategies, sustained over a long period of time, affect core business metrics and business development strategy and contribute to the success of the organization. This course equips managers with a fundamental understanding of how visual management—as well as their own approach to management—can be improved to create competitive advantage.