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Jim Benson

Lean

It’s Not My Job

Role definition is important

Published: Monday, July 1, 2019 - 12:03

If I have been on a decades-long drive to make work more flexible, Alton Brown has been on a similar one in the kitchen. There is no shortage of rants on his various shows about “unitaskers”... things in your kitchen that can only do one thing and therefore are only useful in a few, often unlikely, contexts.

Alton Brown takes a dim view of unitaskers and lax workplace safety. In agile and lean, and in good business in general, we seek to mimic this flexibility by getting people to experience different projects, job types, and perspectives. This helps us deal with frustrating situations by having many people in the organization who can respond quickly to variation or opportunity.

Having said that, in the great pendulum-swing that is human excitement, we have gone so far the other way that we want everyone to be a generalist and shy away from being purposeful about who is going to do what.

And, in general, it’s helpful to know what we are doing.

This has led to problems in role definition. Role definition is not a job description, and it can change as often as we need it. Generalists can have roles. Indeed, every time a bunch of generalists get into a car, at least one immediately has a role — he needs to drive. There can’t be a “I thought you were going to be the brake-pedal pusher today.” Any of those generalists can drive, but the location behind the steering wheel should (hopefully) be a fair enough visual indicator of who is doing it now.

Just like Brown isn’t going to want unitaskers in the kitchen, he’s still not going to cut raw pork and then use the same unwashed knife to cut bread. It may be a multi-purpose knife, but in that context the rules of the kitchen give the unitaskers role definition. “For this moment, you are the porcine blade.”

It’s helpful to build a nontoxic system up front. Yet functional cross-contamination is the rule in every office. The longer the project, the more simultaneous work, the more people, the more interactions, create a confused and dangerous atmosphere. “I was already doing that.” “I thought you were getting that.” “I told him the complete opposite of what you just said.” “What in the hell is that?!”

It’s as if we have 20 chefs making a meal for 500 with no order to our kitchen.

So, here’s the thing. Every saucier can grill a steak. Every executive chef can prep lettuce. Every sous chef can scoop ice cream. They are, to an extent, generalists, multitaskers. But they don’t run around cooking everything every day.

On any given day, however, they do need to focus on specific things. Those things have roles. What is on the menu, what has been selling, what needs to be upsold, different ways to prep, new improvements in technique, or even who is coming in that night can all subtly or not-so-subtly change what people do that day.

Good kitchens tend to be noisy, communication abounds, and demands change regularly. But people have roles. The kitchen itself has a structure. There is mise en place, a structure to the space that avoids actively poisoning the guests.

There is structure that focuses effort in the desire to produce quality food. There is role definition for the safety of the kitchen.

In the office, we fear such transparency or organization. We want to greedily “focus” on our personal work, but do so without fundamentally knowing what is going on around us. Real focus requires a degree of awareness on what you can and should be doing. Ignoring other people is not synonymous with focus. Ignoring people does not mean your role is defined.

Role definition, in this case, is understanding what type of knife you are and what you will be cutting today. In this block, we are all utility knives. We can cut almost anything; that doesn’t mean we cut everything. It doesn’t mean that we always focus on one thing and can cop an attitude and decide we are actually a boning knife.

“Not my job, man.”

If we are in a company, we are there to work in the company of others. We are not immune or special. Regardless of what the group does (including sales, customer support, coding, or whatever else you might feel this doesn’t apply to), there are shared goals, shared responsibilities, and a need to continuously improve. There is always collaborative work.

Depending on what the group needs to get done, roles can be loose overall but need to be tight at the moment of action. Are you doing the right thing? Is that thing going to mesh well with the things other people are doing? Do you know what others are doing so you can help or not mess them up? How long have you been doing this thing without checking in with others? Do we know what the customer wants?

How to define a role

Role definition is simply what we need to do, each of us, to get today done. Quite often that will be what we did yesterday. Even if we think, “We pretty much have our own work today, and there’s not a lot of overlap,” if that were always true, there wouldn’t be a group. There is always something to learn from and to teach our colleagues. There is always a way to provide and receive help. There is always a way to improve.

To define roles, team members should ask themselves: What does the team need to accomplish? The individuals on the team might have focused, individual work, but the team needs to improve and deliver. To that end, there are always opportunities for shared work and, therefore, for role definition. If you believe your team is truly a set of autonomous people who do not need to communicate or understand what they are doing, you do not have a team.

So, let’s just consider four simplified steps to quickly build role definition.

Step 1: The team has goals (e.g., improvement, sales, production). Be explicit about them.

Step 2: Define what needs to be done. Make those goals happen. Don’t wait or hope. Even if it’s something small, every day, work toward those goals.

Step 3: Define what each person needs to do to make those goals happen. Have expectations; again, they can be modest, but begin to feel like a real team with real shared objectives.

Step 4 : Do and review. Do the work today; review the work tomorrow.

Right now you might be part of chaos, but these simple steps in defining roles with a purpose can and should start as a tiny fraction of your work. As they become second nature, they will save you from the drudgery of just being a unitasker while still allowing you to enjoy the focus that makes unitasking so compelling.

Discuss

About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

A pioneer in applying lean and kanban to knowledge work, and an internationally recognized speaker and writer, Jim Benson is CEO of the collaborative management consultancy Modus Cooperandi. He is a fellow in the Lean Systems Society and recipient of the Brickell Key Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, 2012. He is the creator of Personal Kanban and co-author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2011) and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013).

Comments

This!

Thank you for this! I wear many hats in the company and this helped bring some focus to my current situation. Thanks!