The Arts and The Art of Dynamic Work Design

October 25, 2016

My brother-in-law, Nick Rabkin, is pretty accomplished. He’s run a small theater in Chicago, directed millions of dollars to the arts as a Senior Program Officer at the MacArthur foundation, written brilliantly about arts education, and worked hard to build appreciation for the arts as an essential part of the way we learn and live. He is smart, ethical, only slightly annoying, and therefore, well above average for a relative by marriage.

For decades we’ve shared work stories, always ending with a mutual sense of “I am glad that I don’t do what he does.” I love making things work better; “Designing work that works,” as our tag line says.

Nick on other hand felt that “Efficiency does not have a place in the arts. You can’t play Mozart faster, you have to play it the way it was written. Efficiency and creative work don’t go together at all.”

But ShiftGear was born out of the interaction between creativity and efficiency. Even though the theory and practice of our early work together was firmly rooted in manufacturing, Nelson and I first worked together in product development, which is pretty creative work. I was leading an engine development project at Harley-Davidson and Nelson was studying the effectiveness of R&D processes. Years later, when we began teaching, there was always a bit of hand waving when people would ask us how this stuff worked away from the factory floor. We could describe successes with cases, but we didn’t really have the theory figured out. After more than a decade of focus on non-manufacturing processes and digging ever-deeper into the question of why these techniques work, we developed a set of principles that apply to a much broader array of work, including work that is primarily creative and innovative.

Once we realized that all processes have a mix of repetitive (factory) work and creative (studio) work, we knew we were ready to be promoted out of the factory floor. The magic lies in doing each type of work correctly and knowing when to switch to the other. Dynamic Work Design is not about assembly and manufacturing; it is about understanding both the creative and repetitive nature of any task. It is about building a design of work that integrates both the repetitive and creative elements, capitalizing on our human strengths and offsetting our weaknesses to execute it in a way that is engaging and ever-more effective. We’ve seen stunning results with scientists doing DNA sequencing, doctors performing lung transplants and heart surgery, investors funding new businesses, Head Start teachers working with 3-year old kids…and, finally, I got Nick’s attention. It took 37 years, but I finally set the hook.

Nick and his colleague Kristin Patton, who both consult to arts organizations, came to our recent conference in Guanajuato, Mexico to learn more about Dynamic Work Design and consider its application to the arts. Kristin saw possibilities for Dynamic Work Design that we hadn’t ever contemplated.

Here’s what Kristen wrote us after the meeting:

“There wasn't really any point during the two days of presentations that I thought, "Well, THIS doesn't really apply to my arts organizations client's situations. While their work is more ‘studio’ than ‘factory,’ there is always a mix of each. Both creative and repetitive work processes would benefit from more attention to design.

“For me the biggest surprise was that it took ShiftGear so long to realize that, even on the factory floor, the two modes of work co-exist. That makes me wonder whether one would find a case of similar blindness in an arts organization studio or rehearsal hall with certain repetitive processes not being recognized as such.

“The first place my mind goes as a former stage manager is how information gets communicated from what is learned in rehearsal out to the technical and administrative departments and vice versa. We need to have everyone working in alignment based on most recently available information and have a shared understanding of the challenges that need to be solved. We need timely input from the many areas supporting the artistic process. As questions and conflicting solutions arise, we need appropriate decision makers efficiently brought together to make informed (creative) decisions. That back and forth communication is, at minimum, a daily process with many design considerations for how it best be managed.

“A second example that comes to mind was the task as an opera stage manager (in larger companies the assistant director) of “recording blocking.’ That is the recording of each movement of each individual onstage at all times. This can be particularly challenging in opera where there are so many moving bodies on stage. It's also a rote activity. They move; you record the movement. It's also dynamic. The next time through, the director makes changes and the changes need to be captured.

“One of my proudest moments as a stage manager was applying ‘Garage Sale Post-It’ stickers to this task. These post-its are large enough to write the blocking on using pencil. Different color post-its could identify principals, male chorus, female chorus, dancers, supernumeraries, etc. Many of the changes were timing changes such as ‘cross left two bars earlier.’ Instead of erasing and rewriting in the musical score, as Stage Manager, I could simply move the post-it. It was awesome. I was using Visual Management and didn’t know it.

“I believe the four principles and ShiftGear’s experience in their application could prove profoundly helpful not only for the small arts organizations I’m currently working with, but for larger arts organizations and other nonprofits as well. These are practical principles that can gradually create a system-wide culture of continuous improvement that aligns purpose and core values.

“I also believe that use of these principles may provide a path into the "black box" at the heart of creatively-centered organizations where we could all benefit from better understanding the (often wildly creative and highly-efficient) processes through which artistic leaders harness activity to intention, create brand new work with limited resources, and get the curtain up on time.

“I'm deeply appreciative of the opportunity to meet you all, learn more about your beautiful work, experience how deeply it resonates with my own, and delight in the freedom of owning that I still and always will suck!”

We often joke in class that “… the stuff we teach only works in organizations that have people in them”, but I don’t think even we appreciated the impact good work design can have in the arts, which are fundamentally creative activities. Thanks Kristin!

Don Kieffer

Don applies his significant depth of experience to solving client problems and further developing and bolstering Dynamic Work Design through his work at MIT.

Read Bio