Growing up in the 1970s, I often found myself in my father's factory, which manufactured women's clothing. Spending time in the factory was not only a way to be close to my dad, but also great entertainment in an era of only five TV channels and no cell phones or personal computers. (Later, my first job was sweeping the factory floors). The factory was like my personal playground — the stacks of pallets were mountains, the floor-to-ceiling dress racks a jungle gym, the colourful stacks of fabric a 50-layer cake. Enthralled by my surroundings, I would run around the factory floor and talk to the operators at each machine. They took pride in showing me what they did — they were paying it forward.
The technology employed in the seventies was a top-of-the-line sewing machine or a battery-powered forklift. There was little computerisation, automation or even reporting compared to today's manufacturing environment. Yet my dad needed to be able to see if production was on schedule or not. He also had to be able to quickly identify bottlenecks to determine if he needed to intervene in order to complete a run or meet a delivery deadline. Rather than sitting in an office, my father put a desk in the middle of his rectangular shaped factory floor. He built a small platform that raised his desk three feet above the floor. This enabled him to see the entire factory in one glace. It also allowed the employees to quickly locate the boss if they needed help. It made each employee and their respective work visible to each other. My father knew every job, task and process.
He set up a system that was the same for each station or job. Items that needed to be worked on were piled onto a cart just to the right of the operator; completed items were piled up just to the left. As fast as it took dad to lift his head, he could tell if the sewers were on schedule (were the piles on the right high or low?) or if a particular operator needed help (was the pile on the right of one operator always higher than the rest?). He knew when the pressers were about to be idle because not enough dresses had been completed (was the pile on the right low and about to run out?). He knew if the buttonhole operator needed more training on that new machine, or if the shipping truck was late. The visibility was critical to the productivity of the factory.
I decided not to become a dressmaker (big mistake, given the success of Project Runway). Instead, I went to graduate school and joined a large corporation. Nonetheless, I see that the transparency of the factory floor needs to be applied to our modern knowledge work environment. That is a challenge. By definition, knowledge work goes on inside an employee's head. This makes it difficult to supervise and intervene if an employee needs help producing his output (deliverable/report/decision). If an employee is off track, he can consume a lot of organisational resources without the manager even being aware. Some organisations have responded to this inherent challenge by moving to an open office concept. There has been a lot written about open offices (and I won't go into the topic here), but they don't solve the problem: they make the employees visible — not the work. A productive working environment requires the inputs and outputs (right cart and left cart) to be visible.
That means knowing what the input is. At an individual level, we often think of it as hours spent on a task or project. However, this is only one input, and often not the best one. How many analyses were required to complete that market segmentation report? How many times did the cross-functional team have to meet to reach a decision? What type of competitor analysis are you doing in order to evaluate that market? A system that makes all of these inputs visible to management will enable better decisions. Equally, all too often, the individual outputs are only visible to the contributors at the very end of the production with little to no time for others to reflect, intervene, teach and challenge. Maybe it takes you six hours to write that report, but it only takes your colleague two. Unless that becomes visible to you, you'll never know there's a more efficient way to get it done. Making the work output visible to all workers involved allows them to contribute by providing insight, identifying short cuts, including innovations and adding suggestions from their diverse experiences and background.
At a collective level, knowledge work is often interconnected: one knowledge worker's output is another knowledge worker's input, so transparency benefits the process of knowledge work as a whole. To use the dress making analogy, "seeing" each component of the dress being assembled gives the manager (and all operators) the opportunity to intervene and ramp up any individual part of production. If knowledge workers and their managers can "see" the work, they are more likely to contribute additional value beyond the narrow task that they are assigned.
Some companies have organised their knowledge workers to achieve that visibility. At one insurance company, work was broken down into projects and each project was broken down to a plan with assigned resources. Once approved by the manager, the plan and resources were loaded into a workflow system which was then continuously updated. Plasma screens that displayed the workflow individually for every project and collectively for the whole department were placed in public areas. The manager could "see" which projects were ahead of schedule, in progress or lagging behind, and how much work was starting, underway or being completed each day. In fact, one manager saw that work actually stopped when a merger was announced, and, as a result, increased his communication activity and presence with his team.
When work is not transparent, you lose a chance for employees to contribute the gifts they have to offer — their creativity, inspiration and perspective. And that's true whether you're making dresses, or making information.
Jordan Cohen is a knowledge worker productivity expert at PA Consulting Group
He is the recipient of the 2010 Grand Prize at the Management Innovation eXchange (The MIX) for his previous work as creator and Head of pfizerWorks at Pfizer Inc.
To view the article online in HBR, click here.
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