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Skillfully designed work will increase performance potential

Organization members create economic value when they effectively fulfill one or more process roles. Each such role is the nexus of a complex work system within which individual workers perform. Each worker's performance is determined by two principal forces: (1) the extent of the worker's motivation and capability for the actual work involved (e.g., including emotional labor, stress), and (2) the extent to which the worker's performance is enabled and constrained (i.e., typically both) by the many work-system influences impacting the worker.

As many operations scholars have asserted (e.g., Deming, Juran), and DesignedWORK routinely reveals, a role's work system has substantially greater impact on work performance than does the worker performing in the role. A skillfully designed role can maximize every incumbent's potential for economic value creation, whereas a casual or fragmented design inevitably results in unintended performance constraints that limit potential.

Work design should consider the extended work system

Skillfully designed work not only yields higher performance, it provokes fewer people problems and requires substantially less time to manage. When existing roles are skillfully redesigned, the result is substantial improvement in performance and productivity, and in worker and manager satisfaction.

Role-based work design

The work performed within any role should be considered for its form: (1) standardized-task-activity work (e.g., following instructions, operating equipment, doing as told) [i.e., Type 1 work] and (2) adaptive-response-ability work (e.g., taking initiative, solving problems, creating plans) [i.e., Type 2 work]. All roles include some of both forms of work, yet the proportion varies widely. As the figure below illustrates, this proportion has significant impact on work design and selection of fit-for-purpose workers, just as it does on entire industries and organizations.

Work design archetypes Work design archetypes

Today's more common top-down approach to developing work systems makes it virtually impossible to maximize sustainable performance and productivity. This well-intended approach results in a work system that inadvertantly places substantial constraints in the way of essential value-creating work.

Operations managers have the opportunity to select key value-creating roles (e.g., high population, high leverage) and design them for substantially increased sustainable performance and productivity, and do so without having to challenge work-system forces unlikely to change.

Improving work performance and productivity

The principal methods for improving the performance and productivity of most human work has been automation (i.e., worker elimination) and training (i.e., worker standardization). These methods have been remarkably effective in reducing standardized-task-activity work during the past 100 years, and are widely credited with the economic advances of developed nations.

However, In many operations this pursuit of engineering-based automation and standardization has resulted in a mechanized view of all work (i.e., all variation is waste) and an overuse of these methods. The problem with this perspective is that it ignores the performance dynamics and improvement potential of adaptive-response-ability work. As a result, such work is typically overly standardized or simply neglected in the pursuit of higher performance.

The principal method for improving adaptive-response-ability work, beyond training, has been the standardized use of individual and group incentives (e.g., higher wages, larger bonus, advancement) and sanctions (e.g., poor reviews, reduced opportunity, diminished support), which reflect a largely invalidated carrot and stick (or accelerator and brake) theory of human behavior.

Research shows that these methods can be effective with some people (i.e., 10-30%) in some situations (i.e., 10-30%), but also shows that this approach is far from universally effective or performance-maximizing. Of greater concern, these methods have a performance-decreasing impact on the majority of workers, resulting in both wasted potential (i.e., opportunity cost, disengagement, turnover) and wasted expense (e.g., incentives without impact, reduced productivity of disaffected workers, turnover costs).

Work design is a more effective and less expensive approach for improving the performance and productivity of people performing adaptive-response-ability work. Work design's substantial cost-benefit arises from the inherent power of human nature and leverage of systemic improvements.

Improving work systems

Systems are a way of understanding the interconnectedness of things. Aristotle first pointed out that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but it seems we continue to struggle with applying this reality when we search for causes and solutions for undesirable outcomes (e.g., behavior, quality, profit).

All too often, managers look for the more obvious person immediately preceding the outcome, proclaim this person to be the cause, and focus there for a solution. In fact, there is always a chain of causal influences leading up to how people behave.

Furthermore, managers frequently assume that because people have been assigned responsibility (i.e., response-ability) and accountability (i.e., will be held to account) for an outcome that these people can control the situation so as to produce the desired outcome, despite the many influences on the situation the person cannot control.

Work design recognizes the potential and limits of the workers in a role, plus it examines the precise influences that are resulting in current outcomes. Work design also identifies alternative actions management can take to create sustainable improvement, and tests these actions to validate and calibrate their likely impact.

NEXT: Evidence-Based Work Design

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