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From Cogs to Creators: Fueling employee engagement with dynamic work design

Nelson RepenningNelson Repenning, MIT Sloan School of Management Distinguished Professor of System Dynamics and Organizational Studies

Best practices and multilevel organizational charts rule the business world. But in their quest for smart work design, executives typically forget one fact: “In real life, things almost never go as planned,” says MIT Sloan School of Management Distinguished Professor of Systems Dynamics and Organizational Studies Nelson Repenning. His research, instead, has long focused on what happens when employees get bored or frustrated or overwhelmed and deviate from the best-laid plans. Some of the effects he’s documented include skipping steps, hoarding inventory, or otherwise improvising to produce the expected outcome.

Spurred by the 2005 explosion of BP’s Texas City oil refinery, an industrial accident that left 15 people dead because of failed safety protocols, Repenning, also faculty director for MIT Sloan’s executive education program, now focuses on how to design work better. Together with Don Kieffer, a former Harley-Davidson executive who is now a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan, he has developed a new theory called dynamic work design.

At the core of dynamic work design is the assumption that things won’t go as planned; that errors and bottlenecks will occur—but that companies should use every pain point as an opportunity to improve and innovate.

“It’s how organizations respond to the inevitable problems and hiccups that makes all the difference in the world,” he says. Rather than punishing employees for mistakes (and incentivizing them to hide their shortcomings), firms that take a dynamic approach continuously encourage them to find new and better ways to do their jobs. For example, “the job of an assembly line worker is twofold; they’re supposed to do the job the way it’s designed, and they’re always supposed to be looking for the next best way to do it,” says Repenning. The result: Not only does the work become more efficient, but employees also have a greater sense of ownership and are more likely to follow procedure.

As BP’s Texas City accident highlighted, work design can literally be a life-or-death endeavor. Two hundred forty executive education students have graduated so far from Repenning and Kieffer’s joint class, all of whom are tasked with bringing a specific problem at their organization to solve in class. One notable project involved a heart surgeon who was able to free up beds faster for post-surgery patients, rather than forcing them to linger in hallways. One hundred twenty students are enrolled this year.

One of the largest-scale applications of dynamic work design that could have even more profound implications for medicine is occurring at the non-profit Broad Institute, a biomedical and genomic research center in Cambridge, MA. Broad investigates the genetic basis of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, schizophrenia, and infectious disease. Researchers worldwide can use the work to identify potential treatments and cures.

In 2012, Broad was already home to a premium research lab, largely composed of the team that had decoded the very first human genome in 2001. That team enjoyed considerable autonomy over their work, but as demands for genome sequencing grew, productivity suffered. Though scientific advancements allowed the process to become much faster and more scalable, samples that could yield critical insights to scientists routinely took 120 days to process, with a backlog of 60,000 new samples at any given time. Meanwhile, dozens of sequencing machines were operating at only 50 percent capacity. Despite its potential, Broad was facing severe bottlenecks.

Sheila DodgeSheila Dodge, Senior Director, Genomics Platform Operations and Development, Broad Institute

It was at that point that Broad scientist Sheila Dodge—just about to graduate from the MIT Sloan executive education program—was promoted to run a newly combined group of genome sequencing operations. Tasked with a major overhaul of work design, she teamed up with her former professors and brought key members of her team back to MIT Sloan to take a course together. The partnership recently led to a working paper on the resulting transformation.

“It was a crazy lab,” Dodge recalls. “You had people running around looking for samples and a lot of stress.” The challenge was how to create more structure and efficiency without fanning employees’ fears that they would become cogs in a machine.

Dodge’s first task was to understand what everyone in the three groups was working on and how it all fit together. A key part of the solution: Post-it® notes. To help visualize the invisible parts of the workflow that were trapped in spreadsheets or in people’s brains, Dodge and her teams used the sticky paper to track every part of every project, putting them up on a single board so that the big picture was obvious to all.

That exercise alone was transformative, in that it enabled people to see how their work affected others and where some of the bottlenecks were occurring. “Instead of people sitting in a meeting room, all looking at their computers, everyone’s now standing at a wall looking at the same information at the same time,” says Dodge. “That changes how people work.”

The second issue the Post-its illuminated was that people had too much work. “The boards showed us we were probably 300 to 400 percent overcapacity. Everyone was working on 100 different projects, but only making a tiny bit of progress on each one,” says Dodge.

Now, Dodge holds open meetings once a week to review the board and decide on near-term priorities; about 40 employees voluntarily attend. While she and other managers rank the priorities, employees play a key role in shaping how the work gets done, moving around Post-its and revising processes as a team. And when a task is completed, the note goes on a 4-foot spike next to the board as “a subtle reminder of what we’ve accomplished,” says Dodge.

Over several years, the results have been stunning. Broad reduced target workloads by half, yet increased output and produced higher-quality results for researchers to use in the fight against disease. As of the writing of the working paper last year, cycle times had been cut in half and costs reduced by one-third.

The big picture: the improved productivity is “quite literally speeding the search for a cure to cancer and many other diseases,” the working paper notes. And for employees, it’s now “a calm, quiet environment, and the stress level is much lower,” says Dodge.

This semester, Dodge will come back to MIT as a lecturer, working closely with Repenning and Kieffer on teaching some of the visual management techniques she has learned.

And the lessons are not lost on Repenning, who has recently adopted both the Post-it note and spike system to track his own work. “I thought it was just for other people,” he said with a chuckle, “but actually, my productivity has gone up significantly.”