Lesson 12: Take the “Work Out”

Take the work outThe Wonder Drug

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

Work Out is a simple problem solving method. It gets groups of people together, gives them a problem to solve and asks them to find a solution.  Then they implement that solution.  There is nothing particularly clever about Work Out, it relies on a 5 simple 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, to see it, to feel it and touch it.  You need to know the work.  The only people who really know the work are those who are embroiled in it every day.  They are not the managers, the accountants or the process experts.  The only people who really understand the work are the workers.

If you want to remove the work from the shop floor, you must talk to the people on 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, but not everybody realises.

Our second job is to do our job better.  If you believe that it is somebody else’s job to make things better; R&D, Operations Improvement or 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 idea of the circle of concern and circle of influence.

My personal circle of concern is large.  Amongst other things, I am concerned about the melting ice caps, infant malaria deaths and the UK trade deficit.  Unfortunately I can be as concerned about these things as I want; there is not much that I can do about them.

I also have a circle of influence.  My circle of influence is smaller, but I have much more power over it.  It includes the aerosols I buy, the money I give to Save the Children and the British bacon in my fridge.

Worrying about my circle of concern is pointless. I will spin my wheels forever complaining about the IT system or lack of training budget. It is self-defeating.  My circle of influence, however, is different. The more I nurture it the more it grows. The more I push it out, the closer it gets towards my circle of concern.  It expands. It is better to move some chairs to co-locate a team, than do nothing.  Who knows what I may be able to do next.

4.  Small stuff can make a big difference

On the whole, small stuff only makes a small difference.  If you want the small stuff to make a big difference you have to do lots of it.  You must 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.

Great works are performed not by strength, but by perseverance ~ Samuel Johnson

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 this analysis takes up a lot of time.  We second guess, seek another opinion and add another data point.  If your organisation needs 10 signatures on a piece of paper before making a decision then chances are you won’t make it.

The problem with analysis is that it does not and can not 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 is to try things.  Test them out.  It is wise to reduce risk, but there is also a risk that by not deciding we miss the opportunity.  Decide on the proposal, yes or no and then try it, don’t analyse and debate.

Try the Drug

Work Out is facilitated problem solving.  Why not give it a go?

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 group 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 every day. Everything; report writing, spread sheet manipulation, phone calls, and trips to the photocopier, the whole nine yards.  Then ask the group to split these post it notes into two categories, stuff that contributes to their purpose and stuff that gets in the way.  Put the two sets of post it notes up on a wall and force the debate. When everybody agrees what gets in the way then you have flushed out the problems.

Next prioritise these problems. Create a group of issues that the team can tackle. They need to be things that are in their control, things that they can fix or things that their manager has the power to approve.

Fixing the issue

Decide what should be done:

  • Clarify exactly what the issue is. Get to the heart of the matter.
  • Explain why it is causing pain and show how much it is costing the organisation.
  • Show how it can be fixed. Identify the help and support that will be needed.

Get the team to present the problem and solution back to their manager or director. Chose the person who can agree or disagree with the proposal.  Get that manager to decide, there and then, a “No” is fine provided there is an explanation, but procrastination will kill the momentum.

Finally, make it happen.  There is nothing like a bit of robust project management.

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

Why it Works

Work Out works for four reasons

  • Managers get closer to the action. As organisations grow managers become further and further removed from the work. Consequently they don’t see what is going on, they miss the opportunities.  The decision-making process inherent in Work Out brings managers back to the ground.  They see the issues
  • Functional barriers are broken. As organisations grow they form specialised departments. These worry about their own bit of the action and don’t see the whole picture.  Work Out removes these barriers by bringing people into a room to resolve common problems.
  • The improvement bottle neck is 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 your boss gave you the opportunity to improve your work, and not just deal with it, wouldn’t you be more engaged?

Side Effects

The problem with Work Out is that like many drugs it has a nasty side effect; management resistance.  Managers fall into two camps, those who embrace the process 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?  Because it is threatening.  If you have always worked in a hierarchical organisation where managers know best it is hard to have “underlings” point out what doesn’t work. This is particularly true if you, the manager, were the person who instigated the rule that caused the problems. Worse still the Work Out team may well be airing your dirty laundry in-front of your boss.

If you want Work Out to work for you, you need to overcome this resistance. The alternative is to stick with the status quo and not create the change.  That is a safer, but far less productive 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.  If you would like to learn more try the book below.  It provides a step by step guide.

Post Script

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