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Operations Management

How dynamic work design can prevent overload


In the early days of GPS, systems often sent drivers into rush-hour traffic simply because that was the most direct route. While it was possible to write rules to avoid downtown areas in the afternoon, systems also needed exceptions for holidays and weekends, and then exceptions to exceptions if there were parades or sporting events.

Adding rules helped but made the systems more complicated and never really solved the problem, according to professor of system dynamics and organization studies at MIT Sloan. The systems remained static and were simply incapable of reacting in real time to traffic, weather, or construction.

Today, companies run the risk of behaving the same way, he said. They spend six months creating budgets, aiming to forecast every possible scenario — only for the budget to be rendered obsolete within weeks.  

“Organizations live in very rapidly changing, complex environments. The static plan that you make is never going to accommodate all the hiccups, changes, new technologies, and market moves that happen during the course of the year,” Repenning said during a recent webinar hosted by MIT Sloan Executive Education.

Instead of acting like old-school GPS systems, he said, organizations should try to emulate modern traffic apps by using real-time information to adjust budgets, strategic plans, and day-to-day business processes. This concept, which Repenning has been refining for about 30 years, is called dynamic work design.

“I want to put you in a place where you are better able to react to the changing world rather than creating this thicket of rules, one on top of each other,” Repenning said.

How overload costs organizations

The first step to making an organization more agile is ensuring that employees aren’t overloaded with projects, objectives, or mundane tasks. When workers must perform under stress, performance declines.

Overload costs organizations in three ways, said Repenning, who teaches an MIT Executive Education course on efficient and agile work. One is the overhead associated with switching tasks. Whenever an employee puts down one project to work on another, it takes time to shift focus.

The second cost is an emphasis on short-term fixes as opposed to long-term investments. “Workers will focus on making the next sale or getting the next product out the door,” Repenning said. “They’re not investing in the sales pipeline or in the underlying capabilities needed to develop new products.”

The third is reduced capacity to respond to variation. Highways reach a standstill when they’re full of cars, waiting rooms get crowded when each appointment takes longer than planned, and production schedules grind to a halt when orders pile up.

In many cases, overload happens because senior managers lack an understanding of general job functions or don’t know the root cause of issues on the shop floor. Executives may see business software or process automation as a solution without realizing that the workflow is the underlying problem. “They make decisions that make the daily operations worse in material ways,” Repenning said.

Pull, don’t push, to overcome overload

Organizations often exacerbate overload by relying on a push method of scheduling: As an order comes in, it’s pushed into the queue.

The process makes sense on the surface, but because it relies on a simple rule — that all orders are to be completed in the order in which they’re received — it descends into chaos due to exception after exception.

Working through a pile of orders is a slow process. Some tasks take priority, but everyone triages their to-do lists differently. To emphasize a job’s importance, workers hand-carry them through the process to make sure they get done, Repenning said, perhaps by sending an email and then following it up with a text message, phone call, or quick conversation in the hallway.

“Essentially, you’re working around the process,” he said. “Before you know it, expediting is the only way that work ever gets done.”

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Repenning compared the push method to an airline deciding that its planes will return to the gate to pick up tardy high-profile business travelers so they won’t have to wait in the terminal for the next flight. “Before you know it, we’re never going to get anywhere because we’re constantly bringing the flight back to get those last few important people,” he said.

The remedy is a pull method, which is based on two principles. First, the amount of work that flows into the system is restricted — the pile of orders can’t accumulate infinitely. Second, organizations can prioritize their to-do lists to their heart’s content — but once a job begins, it’s hands-off.

It seems like the pull method will reduce flexibility, but Repenning said the opposite is true. Restricting the amount of work makes it easy to see which steps or individuals in the process produce a bottleneck. Meanwhile, finishing tasks once they’ve started can cut cycle times by as much as 90%.

“A core operational improvement can turn out to have huge strategic implications,” Repenning said. “Once you can do things faster, it opens up an enormous new opportunity for business that wouldn’t have been available without operational improvements.”

The power of visual representation — and connection

Getting traditionally static organizations to do things dynamically is no small feat. Many leaders hold off-site meetings, complete with custom coffee mugs and T-shirts emblazoned with new slogans, only to see no material change, Repenning said.

The fix is far simpler: visual representations of the work that needs to be done across a team, such as sticky notes or an online management tool. This pulls the work out of individual email inboxes and to-do lists and lets the team set priorities, direct resources, and assign tasks accordingly.

Repenning said leaders need to emphasize human connections and make sure teams don’t lean too heavily on the shared process map.

“The magic of visual management is not the Post-its or the digital cards,” he said. “It’s the conversation that you and your team have in front of the board about why the work is moving and not moving.” 

For more info Sara Brown Senior News Editor and Writer