On Running an Office Like a Factory by Cal Newport

On Running an Office Like a Factory

I was recently browsing the archives of the MIT Sloan Management Review (as one does), when I came across a fascinating article from the Fall 2018 issue titled “Breaking Logjams in Knowledge Work.”

The piece starts with a blunt observation: “If you work in an organization, you know what it’s like to have too much to do and not enough resources to do it.”

This is not accidental:

“…many leaders continue to believe that their organizations thrive when overloaded, often both creating pressure and rewarding those who deliver under duress. It’s a popular but pathological approach to management.”

The knowledge sector, it turns out, wasn’t the first to deal with a misguided commitment to overload.

“U.S. manufacturers suffered mightily under this approach for decades,” the article’s authors write, “until many found a better way.”

In the 1980s, American factory managers believed that keeping every machine and worker perpetually busy was the key to productivity: “If everybody was busy, the thinking went, the plant would produce more.”

But then more advanced manufacturing techniques, originating in Japan, spread to American factories and replaced a simplistic commitment to busyness with a much more flexible and efficient approach to production.

Though the details of modern advanced manufacturing techniques are complicated (just ask any “six sigma blackbelt”), the authors claim that some of the basic ideas from this sector can be translated to the office setting to solve the problem of chronic overload and help everyone work more productively.

In particular, they focus on the crucial shift from push to pull.

A traditional way to build things is with a push system in which you move something along a production process to the next step as soon as you’re done with it. There are two problems with this approach:

  1. It creates bottlenecks as certain steps in the process inevitably receive more work than they can handle, eventually slowing down everything else.
  2. It complicates prioritization by distributing these decisions to the individual places where bottlenecks arise, leading to a jumbled approach that often doesn’t synchronize neatly, further delaying production.

The manufacturing sector eventually realized there were great advantages to instead moving to a pull system in which you pull work to your step in the process only when you’re ready for it. This approach eliminates local bottlenecks because you don’t take on work you’re not ready to handle. In addition, because backups are now concentrated at the beginning of the process, it simplifies the task of prioritizing efforts, as these decisions can be made up front in a more systematic fashion.

Factories that deployed a pull model ended up functioning more productively. The authors of this article argue that this model can deliver similarly positive results to office settings.

The specific case study they present concerned research and development at MIT’s Broad Institute. Before their intervention, Broad’s efforts implicitly followed a push model in which ideas were haphazardly pursued and bottlenecks were common:

“When knowledge work processes are managed via push, it’s difficult to track tasks in process because so many of them reside in individual email in-boxes, project files, and to-do lists. Complicating matters, talented employees — particularly those in innovation-focused environments — have a knack for continually pushing more new ideas into an organization than it’s equipped to process”

To switch to a pull model, the R&D group mounted on the wall a flow chart that captured the steps required to move an idea from conception to deployment. They then represented projects as post-it notes on this flowchart, affixed to their current step in the process.

This visual tool made it simple to enforce limits on works in progress at each step by having projects be pulled from one step to the next, preventing overload. This shift made a big difference:

“The exercise led to two insights. First, there was an obvious lack of common prioritization: Nobody was aware of every project, there was little consensus about which ones mattered most, and many projects overlapped or competed with others. Second, the system had too much work in process. Comparing the number of current projects with recent delivery history showed that employees had at least twice as much work as they could complete in the best of circumstances.”

By implementing a pull system that made all of the ongoing work transparent, and placing limits on work in progress, the Broad Institute was able to significantly improve the efficiency with which they completed projects.

This shift from push to pull is just one idea among many that could help make better sense of the chaos that defines modern knowledge work. As I argued recently, the time has come to start seeking these ideas. We can no longer allow the efforts in this sector to unfold as a haphazard cascade of email messages and hastily organized Zoom calls. We need to take seriously not just how much we work, but how this work is organized.

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