Walk Our Talk: Updating the Four Principles

March 3, 2017

At ShiftGear and WorkLab@MIT we try to “walk our talk” and design our work so that it always reveals the next problem to be solved.  One of the consequences of ongoing learning is that the way we talk about work design principles continues to evolve. Here are few changes that we recently made to our terminology.


Dynamic Work Design

A few years ago, Don and I were sitting in my office trying to figure out what we should call this “approach” we were developing.  As is often the case, the answer was staring right at us, it just took us a while to see it.  For a while, we used “systematic management,” but that never quite did the trick.  It finally dawned on us that what was really different about our approach was explicitly recognizing that work is an evolving, changing thing and that our approach leverages that dynamism in a way that previous approaches do not.   Having studied organizational dynamics my whole life and being a professor in MIT’s System Dynamics Group, you’d think I would have figured this out sooner….  At any rate, we chose the label Dynamic Work Design to capture our approach to designing effective and engaging work.  As the name hopefully suggests, Dynamic Work Design is built on the idea that work is a living, evolving thing and incorporating that fact into its design leads to ongoing work improvement and engagement.  Treating work as something static and unchanging by, for example, trying to routinize and regulate it is a path to trouble.

Updating the Four Principles

To leverage the basic insight that work is dynamic, we developed four principles that described what effective dynamic work looks like.  The principles have three origins.  They started with Don’s and my early collaborations focused on understanding why key work processes (such as new product development) were often so poorly executed.  In this research we documented all sorts of ways that in which, absent a good design, the dynamics of work can lead to bad outcomes.  The Capability Trap and Firefighting are two related frameworks that describe these dynamics.  My later work investigating and understanding industrial accidents reinforced our view that, left unmanaged, work dynamics can take you to a very bad place.We transitioned from diagnosis to intervention when Don tried to implement Toyota-style ideas in his engine plant at Harley-Davidson.  Watching the Toyota masters work and then trying to explain these ideas to a decidedly non-Japanese workforce suggested that there was something going on that was a lot deeper than having line workers do jumping jacks or manage inventory using kanban cards.  Finally, the principles really started to take shape when we began applying these ideas to work off the factory floor.  Once you strip away the specific manufacturing tools, kanban cards or control charts, then you can see the underlying ideas and how they connect to fundamental processes of humans trying to do something productive.  We developed the first cut at the principles a few years ago.  Based on our experience (since we first started talking about and using them), we recently updated the principles to reflect that experience.  Here is the latest version:

Principle One:  Reconcile Activity and Intent

This one hasn’t changed.  The basic idea is simply that effective, dynamic work has two related features.  First, people get regular feedback on whether or not they are meeting the targets and, second, there is a process for those doing the work to think through how any shortfall is connected to the activities they did.  It’s not enough to tell people they missed their targets (in fact on its own this can drive you right into the capability trap), you need to engage them in a discussion of why.  A large body of research (summarized in lots of our papers) suggests that regular feedback combined with the opportunity to control the outcome and make it better leads to work that is highly engaging.

Principle Two:  Connect the Human Chain Through Triggers and Checks

Here the changes are more substantial.  In our prior version “connect the human chain” was our fourth principle.  Now, we’ve moved it to number two and clarified it.   If you do a good job implementing principle one, then people doing the work should get regular feedback about whether or not they are meeting their targets and they should be actively analyzing the work they do to close any gaps.  Leaders enter this process via triggers and checks.  A trigger means that when the gap between activity and intent reaches a certain threshold, the next level in the hierarchy becomes involved.  A piece of yellow tape on the floor of a moving assembly line is a trigger.  A check goes the other direction, a leader goes down the hierarchy to make sure the work is headed in the right direction.  There are two keys to putting this principle into practice.  First, the “help chain” needs to be clearly specified.  When something goes wrong, I need to know exactly who to call; not the function, or the department, the person.  Second, the rules that define a trigger or a check need to be specified in advance—if I miss the target by this much, I call my supervisor; or, I check in with the scrum team every day at 5 p.m.  Here the research is clear, without pre-specified rules, people usually wait too long to ask for help and leaders don’t check in frequently enough.

Principle Three: Structure Problem solving and Creativity

In the last version, our second principle was “structured problem solving.”    Now we’ve moved it after “triggers and checks,” so that it’s clear when to use it and  that we’ve given it an upgrade.  The change came when we realized that Toyota-style structured problem solving (click here to read) is a powerful method for tackling issues that are reasonably well defined, but other types of work might require a more-forward looking approach with a bigger emphasis on creativity.  The recent popularity of “design thinking” is one example of a structured method for tackling ill-defined challenges.  The key thought is to note that both methods have a structure, it’s not a free-for-all, and that we need to make sure the innovation goes in the right place.

Principle Four:  Manage Optimal Challenge

The final principle hasn’t changed much.  If you follow the first three principles, it means you created a system in which, when people fall short of their targets, they escalate to their supervisors and engage in a structured approach to learn from that gap and close it.  Principle four simply says that there is an ideal amount of shortfall to leverage the benefit that comes with the first three principles.  If the challenge level is too low, people never fall short of their targets and there is no opportunity for learning.  Too much challenge and people are constantly focused on just getting work done and don’t have time for the structured inquiry that would lead to learning.  An easy way to assess optimal challenge is just to see whether the work is moving (flowing) and whether people are learning (structured problem solving and creativity).  In most cases, the challenge level is too high and the work doesn’t move (no flow) and people don’t have time to learn.

Stay Tuned…

As we’ve hit the road and started talking about Dynamic Work Design, I’ve developed a new hypothesis: when proposing a system of n principles, your audience will always suggest that n is not enough, and there should in fact be m principles, where m=n+1; this law holds for any positive integer n.

Mathematical humor aside, we have received some great feedback from our users and colleagues. I’m not in a huge hurry to add a fifth principle (though there is no particular magic around the number four), but we are dedicated to making Dynamic Work Design ever better and more accessible.  To that end, we will keep updating and keep you all updated.

Nelson Repenning

Nelson helps translate successful fieldwork into underlying principles with rigorous academic underpinnings for use in his work at MIT as well as by ShiftGear.

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