Lesson 12: Take the “Work Out”

Take the work outHooked on drugs

A company called General Electric created a wonder drug.  The wonder drug cuts costs, boosts morale and improves customer service.  The wonder drug is called “work out” because it helps organisations take the work out of the system.

Work out is simply getting a group of people from across an organisation together, giving them a problem to resolve and asking them to find a solution.  Then they implement that solution.  There is nothing particularly clever about work out.  It relies on a 5 really simple principles.  Blindingly simple and obvious principles.

1. The people who do the work know the work

If you want to take work out of an organisation you need to know what that work looks like.  You need to understand it, see it, feel it, touch it.  You need to know the work.  The only people who really know the work are those who are fundamentally embroiled in it every day.  Not the managers, not the accountants, not the process experts, the people who really understand it are the people who do it, the workers.

If you want to remove the work from the shop floor, you need to talk to the shop floor.

2.  Everybody should have two jobs

We all have one job, be that cleaning, cooking, filing or answering the phone.  That is fairly unambiguous.  We also all have a second job.  Not everybody faces into this, in fact few do.

Our second job is to do our job better.  If you believe that it is somebody else’s job to make it better, R&D, Operations Improvement, the Project Management and Change team, you will always be disappointed.

3. Focus on what you can fix, not what you can’t

In his book “The Seven Habits” Steven Covey introduced the concept of circle of concern and circle of influence.

My circle of concern is large.  I am concerned about the melting ice caps, I am concerned about malaria, I am concerned about the UK trade deficit.  The problem is I can be as concerned about these things as I want; there is nothing that I can do about them.  I also have a circle of influence.  My circle of influence extends to not using aerosols, it extends to sending malaria nets to Africa and it extends to buying British Bacon

The funny thing about my circle of influence is that if I nurture it, it grows.  The more I push it out, the closer it gets towards my circle of concern.  It grows and grows.

The more we worry about our circle of concern, the IT system that we can’t have, or the training budget that doesn’t exist, the more it defeats us.  It is better to move some chairs to co-locate a team, than do nothing.  Who knows what you might be able to do next?

4.  Lots of small stuff makes a big difference

This is fairly obvious.  Small stuff only makes a big difference though if you do lots of it.  You have to persevere.  Giving up because it is all a bit tactical and won’t amount to a “whole hill of beans” is not the recipe for success.  As every self-made millionaire will tell you the first sale is always the hardest.

5.  Managers should make decisions

As managers, we insulate ourselves from failure and we avoid risk.  We do this with copious questioning, and analysis.  Unfortunately all of this analysis takes time, lots of time.  We continually second guess, seek another opinion and add another data point.  If you need 10 signatures on a piece of paper before making a decision then chances are it took 10 weeks to make it.

The problem with analysis is that it doesn’t / can’t tell us the whole picture.  It is by its nature based on assumptions and it will be wrong.  The only way to really learn what will happen if we follow a certain course of action is to try it.  Test it out.  It is wise to minimise risk, but there is also a risk that by not deciding we miss the opportunity.  Decide yes or no and try, don’t analyse and debate.

Drug testing

“Work Out” is just facilitated problem solving.  Why don’t you try it?

Set up

Get a group of staff members together, 6 to 10 should do it, but it is possible with more or less.  Ideally this should have staff members from across a number of functional areas.  Different perspectives will make the debate richer.

Finding the problems

Get them to agree what they come to work to do, what is their purpose, their raison d’être? Write it up on a flip chart.

Ask them to list out on post it notes all the things they do: all the tasks, report writing, activities, spread sheet manipulation, phone calls, trips to the photocopier, the whole nine yards.

As individuals get them to split these post it notes into two categories, stuff that contributes to their purpose and stuff that just gets in the way.

Put the two sets of post its up on a wall and force the debate, are they really sure that task doesn’t contribute, that it just gets in the way?  When everybody agrees you have flushed out the problems.

Prioritise the issues; create a group of problems that the team can actively tackle, stuff that is in their control, stuff that they can fix, stuff that their manager has the power to approve.

Fixing the issue

Clarify exactly what the issue is, why is it causing pain, how do they propose to fix it, what help and support do they need?  What needs to be done?

Present it back to their manager or director, the person who can agree or disagree with the proposal.  Get the manager to decide, there and then, a “No” is fine, but procrastination will kill the momentum.

Make it happen, there is nothing like a bit of robust project management.

If you do this you will find out a million and one things that you never knew, all of them stupid, and your employees’ eyes will light up at the thought of doing something about it.

Why it works

Work Out works for four reasons

  • Managers get closer: as organisations grow managers become further and further removed from the work, they don’t see what is going on, they miss the opportunities.  The decision-making process brings managers back to the ground.  They see the issues
  • Functional barriers are broken: people specialise, they worry about their own bit and don’t see the whole picture.  Work out removes these barriers by bringing people into a room to resolve common problems.
  • Bottle necks are removed: in most organisations improvement is done by a specialist function.  That function becomes the rate limiting step.  If you empower people to change their own work a lot more gets done.
  • Employees engage: if you were given the opportunity to improve your work, rather than just dealing with it, wouldn’t you be more engaged?

Side effects

The problem with work out is that like most drugs it has a really nasty side effect; management resistance.  Managers fall into two camps, those who embrace work out and those who loath it.  The latter group will do anything they can to stop it from happening.

  • They will claim they have exhausted all the quick wins
  • They will say it is a waste of time working on small stuff
  • They will be sorry but they can’t afford to release the staff

Why do they hate it?  It is horribly threatening.  If you have always worked in a hierarchical organisation where managers know best, how would it feel to have people who work one, two or three layers down in the organisation point out all the stupid things that happen, all the things that you have no idea about?  Worse still they are pointing them out to your boss.

If you want work out to work for you, you need to overcome the resistance. The alternative is to stick with the status quo, don’t create the change.  Maybe that is a safer place to be.


Schedule four hours with your team and try running a work out, see what comes up.  You may hate it, but if you don’t try you will never ever know.

Send this page to a friend

Share this Squawk Point article with a friend by clicking on the envelope:


Post Script

Did you get here from a link from a friend, Facebook, or Twitter? This lesson is part of a 12-part free e-mail course on the essential pillars of service improvement. Learn more about it and sign up here.