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MIT Sloan School of Management


The Four Principles of Dynamic Work Design

How to guide human behavior as work moves through an organization

Published: Tuesday, May 15, 2018 - 12:02

Traditional corporate hierarchies tend to rely on static design. There’s the CEO at the top, followed by directors and managers. Red tape and inefficient processes can bog down decisions. 

Dynamic work design is a more effective method of managing workflow, especially intellectual work, says MIT Sloan senior lecturer Donald Kieffer. Using four underlying principles, it defines two distinct types of work for both physical work and intellectual work: “factory” and “studio.” Kieffer began his career as a pieceworker on a factory floor and rose to become vice president of manufacturing excellence at Harley Davidson.

In his MIT Sloan Executive Education course, “Implementing Improvement Strategies: Dynamic Work Design,” Kieffer offers practical tools and methods for sustainable improvement efforts of any scale, across industries. These tools and methods are from work Kieffer conducted with MIT Sloan professor and associate dean Nelson Repenning.

In an April 12, 2018 webinar, which you can watch below, Kieffer explained the concept of dynamic work design and how to implement it.

Physical work is easy to track because it’s visible, usually repetitive, and easy to see, he said. Creative work is invisible and more variable, so workflow is harder to monitor. The trick is to make invisible work visible so it can be systemized, he said.

He began the lecture by urging the use of visual management techniques, which can be as simple as Post-It notes on a work board—to give a physical face to intellectual work.

Giving invisible work this physical manifestation makes it much easier to construct a dynamic design, and monitor the progress of work as it moves through the organization from idea to physical or intellectual product,” he said.

Four principles of dynamic work design

Rather than bringing tools from physical work to the office, start with these four principles of dynamic work design and create methods and tools that fit the work and the situation: 
1. Reconcile activity with intent. Every organization is trying to solve a basic problem. Ask: Are your targets clear? Will your visible activities meet your goals?
2. Connect the human chain through triggers and checks. Can you see a problem when it happens? Is there a planned response and by whom?
3. Structure problem-solving and creativity. If the activity doesn’t deliver results, why not? What are you doing about it?
4. Manage optimal challenges. How tough should the target be? Are there too many or not enough? Think of it like training for a race: a runner needs just the right amount of challenge to improve and get stronger.

Define and map the work

Next, use the factory and studio concepts to define and map the work. Every job cycles back and forth between these two.

“Factory” work refers to serial, repeatable tasks like invoicing or balancing a budget.

To define the work:
Ask: What’s the value to the customer?
Ask: Who is doing the work? Identify the human chain. This is essential, Kieffer said. Don’t identify departments. Identify specific stakeholders.
Align inputs and outputs, or who does what.
Next, create a test. Set a task and a date. If it wasn’t executed, ask why.
Identify an escalation path if something goes wrong.
Investigate what happened. Refine the process.
Use the pull system: Do more work as there’s a demand instead of pushing work to a to-do list.

“Studio” work refers to collaboration and innovation. Think of this as replacing a long email chain with a short, effective meeting. Or think about how to improve daily huddles, weekly staff meetings, or technical reviews, all examples of studio or collaborative work, with these seven elements.

Seven elements of studio work include:
Define the meeting’s purpose.
Make sure the meeting includes both data-owners and decision-makers.
Structure the conversation in a step-wise manner, much like building something on an assembly line. Visually write issues on a wall and address each one by one.
Make sure the information is clear.
Leaders should confirm that all ideas have been addressed.
Leaders should decide if an issue is “local” and can be resolved in the meeting or if it needs escalation.
End the meeting and get back to work.

To keep things on track, incorporate a system of triggers (escalation for help) and checks (meetings) to ensure that people know what to do, when to ask for help, and who is supposed to respond to that request.  

“How we design those triggers and checks, the quality of them and the frequency of them, can make work either good or miserable,” Kieffer said. How sensitive triggers are and how frequent checks determine how and when you switch between the two types, essentially defining the interaction of an individual with the management system. Your design should match the underlying cadence of the work. That will take some experimentation, he said.

Watch the full webinar “Unlock Your Organization’s Full Potential With Dynamic Work Design” below:

First published April 25, 2018, at the MIT Sloan School of Management Newsroom.


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MIT Sloan School of Management

The MIT Sloan School of Management, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is where smart, independent leaders come together to solve problems, create new organizations, and improve the world. Learn more at mitsloan.mit.edu.