Thinking about work

Posted on January 28, 2021

At the end of your life, the pie chart of where you’ve spent your time will be mainly sleep, followed by work. The slightly more than a third or so left is all the other stuff. An average week is even more stark: eight hours a day sleeping (if not less) and then eight hours a day working (if not more).

Yet of all that time, how much of it do we spend thinking about work? I don’t mean, thinking about the labour, the things you must or want to get done (write some code, update the wall). I mean thinking about the way the work works. The system of the work.

We might, occasionally, talk about things like process, outputs, activities, tasks, actions, decisions etc. but do we think about what holds it all together? How the pieces fit and how we know whether they are effective or not? And, critically, how to make it better?

One thing I’ve noticed is that methodologies like Agile and Lean do. And what’s more they not only talk about the way to do work but they talk about how you need to empower everyone to own the system of the work.

When people talk about Continuous Improvement, they mean people can improve how the work works, not just have to follow the motions of the work. When people talk about reflection, they mean spending time looking back at the work and understanding what its impact was, not just ticking off a task list. When people talk about visibility they mean can you see the way the work is working not just did I hit my targets.

Understanding the system of work is the goal to improve it. Deming said “a manager understands and conveys to [her/]his people the meaning of a system. [S]He explains the aim of the system. [S]He teaches his people to understand how the work of the group supports these aims.”.

Essentially, in Deming’s mind, the core responsibility of leadership is to understand the work, and make sure everyone who does the work, understands it too.

This is a key to successful digital transformation. Digital companies don’t just make lots of money through cool products. They understand work. In the same way Toyota understands work. Jeff Bezos famously said “focus on the inputs and the results will follow”; essentially master the system of the work. Spotify is famous for its innovations in organisational structure which is around ensuring that structure and work are better connected.

People describe these organisations as ‘process orientated’. Various research backs Bezos as companies which reach higher levels of process maturity consistently outperform their competitors.

The contrast is results orientated organisations. They care only about the outputs. They don’t invest in the means to reliably produce them and they have little patience with the details and generally don’t care about things like quality or compliance. The culture is generally short term thinking and short term profits.

“The results-oriented managers immediately wanted to measure the bottom line results of the Continuous Improvement program. The process-oriented managers were more patient, believing that an investment in the people and the process would lead to the results they desired.”

It is interesting that in sports, a culture of extreme competitiveness, results orientated thinking has been rejected. John Wooden, one of the most successful sports coaches of all time, famously said “you Never heard me mention Winning.” In fact, he said, he wanted to keep his players’ minds “Off Of Winning.”!

Instead, he focussed them on the “hour by hour, day by day” activities and how to improve player training, “that little Itty-Bitty improvement that you make every day”. He was clear that “Winning”, the Result, was the byproduct of the system. Similar thinking was applied in British sports by coaches like Harriet Beveridge and Peter Keen who drove a revolution, enabling them to dominate areas like cycling with “ordinary guys in ordinary teams”.

Of course, direction is still critical. Process for process sake risks “doing the wrong thing righter”. Which is why the first principle of lean is “understand value”, and then the next four are all about process improvement.

In fact the first principle of the Agile Manifesto sums it up well. “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.” We must know the purpose of the work (to “satisfy the customer”), and the method behind the work (“early and continuous delivery of valuable software”).

Like the great sports coaches, great leaders invest the time learning and understanding the way people work and how the system and processes behind it support them. Do those processes enable them to understand and learn and improve for themselves? Do they empower them to constantly discover how to make their work better? If not, then it’s the leaders responsibility to empower that change.