MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

If you think process improvement only works on the factory floor, think again

Dynamic Work Design

If you’ve attempted to apply process improvement techniques in your workplace, only to see it fail, you’re not alone. Attempts to drive more order and productivity in the office often use process-focused improvement techniques such as Lean or the Toyota Production System that were originally developed to improve the physical, highly repetitive work found in factories. Unfortunately, such interventions are often resisted and rarely produce significant gains.

“When we work with doctors, lawyers, finance professionals, engineers, and designers, we often hear statements like, ‘my work is different from what happens in a factory, you can’t standardize it,’” says Don Kieffer, Senior Lecturer in Operations Management at MIT and Managing Partner of ShiftGear Work Design. “Intellectual work is different. But contrary to the argument that process improvement ‘only works in the factory,’ my experience is that, when properly applied, the concepts and principles underpinning Toyota and Lean methods produce more powerful results and far more quickly in the office.”

While engineering, finance, or IT can’t be standardized in the same way as a production operation, Kieffer believes it can be understood and dramatically improved through Dynamic Work Design.ShiftGear’s approach is to understand the work using principles of work design, propose tools and methods that fit that work, and engage the people doing the work to quickly discover the next best way, not impose it upon them from a different kind of work or organization.”

In their MIT Sloan Executive Education program, Visual Management for Competitive Advantage: MIT’s approach to Efficient and Agile Work, Kieffer and ShiftGear Partners Nelson Reppening (an MIT Sloan Professor) and Sheila Dodge present practical tools and methods for sustainable improvement efforts of any scale, in any industry, and in any function. Their method has proven to work in businesses as diverse as oil and gas, DNA sequencing, and engineering, at the scale of discrete problems or enterprise-wide strategic efforts.

The four principles of Dynamic Work Design

More than 20 years of research, consulting, and collaboration has led Keiffer and his colleagues to four principles that, in their view, “raise the game” on how to design and improve work, no matter what type of work it may be:

  1. Reconcile activity and intent: Get crystal clear on the vision, mission, and targets, and then optimize the set of activities needed to accomplish those targets. Work should be designed so every activity is tied together to meet the targets.
  2. Connect the human chain through triggers and checks: Without pre-specified rules, people usually wait too long to ask for help, and leaders don’t check in frequently enough. Good work design incorporates triggers and checks that signal teams and managers to meet to resolve ambiguity and fix problems, often in real time.
  3. Structured problem-solving and creativity: Structured problem-solving methods mitigate our inherent desire to jump to solutions and encourage us to do a proper analysis using both data and investigation.
  4. Optimal Challenge: Systems don’t work if they have too little or too much work in them. Putting the right amount of stress into the work system helps surface problems while allowing enough time to resolve them.

Whether you have 50, 500, or 5,000 employees, these principles can help you connect all of them to the flow of work that meets your organization’s targets.

Hear real-world examples of organizations that have increased adoption of business-improving tools, technologies, and processes in this webinar with MIT Sloan Professor Nelson Repenning. For a more in-depth understanding of process improvement for everyday work, learn more about Visual Management for Competitive Advantage: MIT’s approach to Efficient and Agile Work and the self-paced, online course, Business Process Design for Strategic Management.


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