The False Tradeoff in Redesigning Work

In theory, actively engaging your front line employees in improving the way work is done makes perfect sense. It allows front line workers to learn by doing. It builds capability. It gets the work done. It builds emotional commitment to changes.

Yet in practice, leaders seldom choose to actively engage the front line when redesigning work. Why?

Consider what happened at a major U.S. tire manufacturer, which implemented a new order fulfillment process in 2005. My consultant friends Steve Cantrell and Sharol Henry were hired to work with them on changes to managers’ roles caused by the new process. A few years later Cantrell and Henry asked their client why they hadn’t actively engaged managers in the design activities (as they had recommended). The client said they felt it would slow things down, water down the design, and that they would lose control. Therefore they took the seemingly simpler and faster route, but then had higher than planned complexity, cost, and risk…and took longer to achieve desired results.

Engagement versus speed

Leaders usually hold engagement and speed in an opposing paradigm of either/or: either they can actively engage workers or move fast. It can’t be both. It’s a trade-off. But this is not necessarily true.

Why don’t leaders challenge this paradigm? Most leaders simply don’t know how to effect change fast using a high engagement approach. Under stress, they resort to command-and-control, work in silos, and stick to turf they own. Most leaders can’t embrace something new and different if they don’t know how to do it. They usually need more than just being told. They first have to experience a different “how.” Only then can they begin to apply it broadly.

Days versus months

But process change can engage the front line and be fast. For example, Henry and Cantrell conducted a workshop to examine the need for process improvement at a major Houston-based hospital to avoid unnecessary downtime in the main operating rooms They use many advanced facilitation techniques, with the simple tools of cards, like index cards, and a “sticky wall” (actually sticky paper mounted on the wall).

Key players from various departments in the hospital, as well as office personnel and a surgeon, participated. First, to describe the end-to-end process in detail, individuals wrote cards for tasks in the process and posted them on the wall, then grouped and sequenced the cards. Second, participants were asked, “What bothers you about how you do each part of this process today?” Individuals wrote more cards for problems, then posted them under each part of the process, then grouped similar kinds of issues. Third, participants were asked, “Why do you think these issues persist?” More cards went up on the wall. Fourth, Henry and Cantrell introduced a tool to assess the process to help them learn why issues persist, and they concluded that process redesign was needed. Finally, the participants developed an action plan to mobilize the needed process work. More cards went up on the wall with individual accountability.

The wall was filled with their ideas. Every key player, from different organizations, contributed to the assessment, and was emotionally committed to get the needed work underway.

The vice president of operations said: “It was simply amazing to see how the team worked together to solve those complex issues and learn from each other’s creativity. We were most pleased, and the outcomes were achieved with the effort of a few days vs. months…it was nearly unbelievable!”

120 days

In another example, Cantrell and Henry worked with Cerveceria Nacional Dominicana, one of the largest brewers in the Caribbean, in 2008 and 2009 on a high engagement approach to process redesign that led to an overhaul of the company’s human resources function. Cantrell and Henry engaged almost 200 people in redesigning their “sell and deliver products” and “procurement” processes. The first changes were implemented less than 120 days after launch, and most changes were implemented in less than a year — including a new organizational structure. In procurement, almost every job changed significantly…and even the leaders weren’t a “ready fit.”

Sharol Henry told me, “We had to simultaneously determine the best match between people and new jobs, manage development opportunities, and plan for implementation challenges. We designed a selection process with decisions made by a team in a working session.” The resulting selection process was used to staff the new procurement organization, and became the new HR selection process — to fill one job or many. People who participated in selection teams said it was huge in terms of their own personal development, Henry said, and had actually changed their lives, not just professionally. “The organization went from mistrust and negative feelings about HR to one where people pulled for the new HR processes. And people trusted the selection process regardless of the personal outcome — how rare is that?”

Question: Have you seen organizations that have made changes fast AND engaged large numbers of workers in the change?

This article was first posted on the Harvard Business Review and has been lightly edited.

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Categories: Continuous Improvement, Process Management

Author:Brad Power

Brad is a consultant and researcher in process innovation. His current research is on sustaining attention to process management. He is currently conducting research with the Lean Enterprise Institute.

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