Where do we start with work design? Part 1

If someone in your company said to you that you needed to create a 'work design' for a job, what would you do first?  I think that the old adage 'begin with the end in mind' is making us stop more than start, and there are good reasons why that's happening. It helps at the beginning to be clear that work design is both a product and process. 

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Three questions to get to work design

1. What does work look like at the moment and how are people experiencing it?  (the current product)

2. How close is this to the ideal? (comparing current product with 'good' work)

3. What way can we get from the current to the ideal?  (the process)

The first two questions are not as straightforward as they seem.  First of all, the observations and the experience are unlikely to look like the same thing at any single point in time, and we are not always privileged to be able to observe or ask easily anyway. We may not even know everything we need to look for. Secondly, we assume, even if we could name exactly what all the parts of the work were at any point in time, that we would recognise how they fit together.

To put it another way, we need to see the trees and the forest without really knowing enough about either one. The second question can therefore only be answered if you can 'measure' work in a valid way, that is we have a 'virtuous circle', we can't answer one question without first answering the other. The benefit is though is that we measure on act on the good thing, we can get more of it.

To make things even harder, the third question can only attempted if we have valid answers to the first two questions. If we can't measure it, can we really manage it? And add to that problem, can we really use a defined process to control the work design and would that process be sustainable?  If you wanted to look even more closely, you'd find other questions and assumptions so if you are interested you might want to give that a go.

You have to start with measuring

There is another saying that I like to remember - 'you can't manage what you can't measure'. The risk here is that we will 'measure' the wrong thing.  That's probably true,  And it's also possibly true that we won't quickly discover that we are measuring the wrong thing. If we are open to measuring lots of things at once, and open to deciding that one measure is better than another, then we can fine tune as we go along. The problem with that is that if you believe that improvement will take some time, then you need to measure things over time and the number and nature of relevant things is likely to change. If we don't consider enough things at the beginning then we will miss out information which later we think is important. Measuring many things at once is time consuming and for some people, confusing and unnecessary. If the people whose work you want to measure are not engaged with the measurement process, then how can you get access to the work?

The starting point with work design is then to capture as much as you can about the work in as rich a way as possible and to do that in a way in which keeps people onside and which also allows to make sense of the results. That, to my way of thinking, takes both courage (being open to the confusion of too much information and facing the fear that you could get it wrong) and trust (confidence that what you find is good enough and worth working to change).

After measuring, then what?

The beautiful thing about this approach is that if you can embed this measuring process into how you do things day to day, the second and third questions start to answer themselves,  that is the work design is created as you go along as a natural part of the way you do business. Now that's a good day's work!

What do you think?

So how do you go about work design in your business? I'd love to read your comments about what you think 'works' and what doesn't. Let's keep the conversation going!