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dynamic work design

An executive’s most important task is to understand and monitor the processes by which their business operates. Errors and setbacks in the chain of production can happen in any system, whether in physical production (factory setting) or intellectual workspaces. Without suggestions for improvement, small problems in a workflow can turn into significant risk factors for a company’s bottom line. Here’s where dynamic work design comes in.

Corporate structures were traditionally built around a static system. This setup can lead to bottlenecking within projects. Unaddressed, a bottleneck stops the progression of work, has a ripple effect on employee’s tasks and accumulates wasted time and effort. Traditional chains of communication, which flow from CEO’s to directors, managers, team leaders, and eventually workers, can make problem solving extremely sluggish. These hierarchies can stifle communications, creativity, and collaboration, and reduce efficiency. 

So how can these systems be reassessed to reduce red tape and optimize function from the highest rung of the ladder to the lowest?

I came across some heavy research performed by MIT Sloan Business Faculty Director Nelson Repenning and Senior Lecturer Donald Kieffer not long ago. They propose a system of key changes to the static business design that can apply to any workforce called “dynamic work design”. Intrigued, I tried to wrap my head around it and take the first steps to implement some of these within my own teams.

So far, the results are speaking for themselves. Inefficiencies caused by bottlenecking are virtually gone and problems are easily detected and solved. We still have a long way to go in order to get rid of all the structural and workflow problems, but for the first time, I feel we’re on the right path.

In this article, I’ll do my best to outline the key principles of dynamic work design, but be warned – you’ll have to do a lot more research to grasp the entire concept. I strongly believe every business executive should be aware of the practices and system changes described below.


Physical work is visible, repeatable, and tangible. The inputs and outputs between departments at each stage of physical production are easy to document, monitor, and follow. This makes discrepancies easy to track and inefficiencies easy to address. In businesses that rely on intellectual work, however, many tasks and their outputs are invisible, conceptual, and often variable. The accumulated work can achieve tangible goals, but each task along the way can be difficult to quantify, track, and manage. 

With me so far?

Factory work design

Courtesy of iStock

One key idea within the concept of dynamic work design is to make invisible work visible. By breaking down intellectual work into documented steps, it will become systematized for easier assessment. This way, you can intervene, assess and solve inefficiencies where you once couldn’t.

The Four Key Principles of Dynamic Work Design

These principles ensure connectivity between workers throughout the entire company hierarchy while providing continuous, real-time monitoring and interaction between management and teams. 

Here they are:

  1. Reconcile activity with intent. What are your intentions and how can your documented activities meet these? Align your goals with daily tasks and eliminate everything that’s not working for those goals. Visually representing activities performed towards the completion of a goal, allows you to remain productive and on-track.
  2. Connect the human chain through triggers and checks. Instead of focusing on the individual steps of the current process, concentrate on the inputs and outputs fed into and created by the system. This gives you quantifiable data to manage. Ensure the outputs from one department match the corresponding inputs to the next individual or team in the chain. This can help ensure that at no point in the process is anyone missing information or unaware of next steps. 
  3. Structure problem solving and creativity. Use the scientific method. Record and analyze data points with free exchange and comparison of information. If a task in the current workflow is not achieving the desired goals, it’s possible to determine which part of the process is creating the stalling point and how you can fix it. 
  4. Manage optimal challenges. Manage the capacity of a project. Assess the number of problems introduced into the system to estimate how current operation can be scaled to goals. How great are the challenges? If the concerns are wide-spread and systematic, operations will fail or diminish. If problems are small enough, they may not create total failure, but you will experience under-performance. Learning, experimentation, and repair can help to optimize processes and achieve ideal outputs. 

Physical Representation Of Invisible Work 

While the intellectual workflow is often not managed visibly, changing this standard at your business can make all the difference. With visual management techniques, all points along the creative process are monitored and managed as if they were physical processes — as clearly as you could in a factory setting.

By documenting each step, achievements are made visible, workflow status is determined, and operational problems can be pinpointed. Having this documentation allows for efficiency in all corners of your business, from clear discussions in staff meetings to collaborative communication between all employees, managers, and executives. Make this the basis for routine reports given to upper-level team members and immediately clarify team outputs. 

Workflow documentation example

Courtesy of iStock

The Relationship Between Factory And Studio Work Processes

There are two main types of work processes. Factory style work and studio style work. Factory work is serial and repeatable. Studio work is often variable, innovative and collaborative. Through visualization and monitoring, much of the invisible work within creative work systems can be treated effectively with principles of factory style workforce management. There are many processes in studio work that are still serial and repetitive. Think along the lines of invoicing, budget balance, weekly reports, and data management. 

Kieffer outlines the following seven steps to improve the work chain:

  1. Define the value-added and what is being created. What are you trying to offer as a result of this work?
  2. Identify the human chain. Don’t identify areas or functions, but individuals and their specific role in the larger process. 
  3. Align inputs and outputs. Who does what? What is needed from one link in the chain to support and connect to the previous and following links? 
  4. Create a test. Once the inputs and outputs agree, create an experiment. Set a goal and a means of achievement. These tests allow for failure to be detected immediately within the management chain. If the goal is not achieved with the current workflow, examine what caused the hold-up. 
  5. Identify an escalation path. If the goal is not achieved, the test has failed. Analyze accordingly and determine how the issue can be corrected to pass the test in the next attempt. 
  6. “Help Chain” to refine and improve the method. Were the correct steps followed? If not, why? If so, was there something wrong in the design? What changes can be made?
  7. Pull work through, never push. Complete work as it is demanded. Do not force work through. If there is something wrong in the chain, stop the chain and address the problem. Much like a troubleshooting process in an effective factory assembly line. 

Management and consistent flow are a part of the system from the ground up. Improvement is ingrained into the work itself. Collaborative work in a studio environment can be streamlined by closing communication gaps between teams. Changing long email exchanges into group meetings, with direct feedback up and down the chain from management, can help track intellectual processes in a physical and visible manner.

How can collaborative work in a dynamic work system be best managed?
In a team meeting, individuals can use physical data from intellectual processes to compare, contrast, and examine methods of improvement. Kieffer outlines these following seven steps to improve meetings or any type of collaborative work:

  1. Define the purpose of the meeting. What is the problem you’re addressing and what decision is needed?
  2. Ensure the right people are presenting: Data owners and decision-makers. All applicable teams in the chain need to be represented by decision-makers.
  3. Structure of the discussion. Make sure that all the information is on the board, visible, and presented in sequence. Design all elements of the conversation so the steps of the process are clear. Building those steps visually make information easy to access and understand. 
  4. Clearly define status within the processes. Clearly show what is ahead or behind on scheduled steps. What was the target?
  5. Leaders need to ensure all issues are addressed. The project leaders should guide collaboration and discuss all relevant problems.
  6. Leaders need to decide what can be addressed locally within the meeting and what requires escalation. 
  7. Don’t overload. Decide the purpose of the meeting and stick to the purpose. Manage your time effectively. Start on time, end on time, and get back to work.

These two types of work (factory and studio) and approaches for managing each can create some overlap; the above steps to improve work chains and communication can be used for either type of operation. The principles of dynamic work design, while effective, can seem hard to implement to those who are new to them. Luckily, there are plenty of online courses, events or research papers out there to help.

Learning the Elements of Work vs Management and How To Switch Seamlessly

Checking the progress of work is a time-based consideration. Triggering help and intervention due to an issue in the workflow is event-based. In a physical factory system, each step of the assembly line represents the checks. If there is a problem, the line is stopped and the issue is addressed. This represents the trigger. 

Where are the triggers in intellectual work? How can it be known when immediate help is required? Most traditional systems for intellectual office work don’t offer recognizable triggers for quick intervention. Without these in place, problems tend to linger and exacerbate. 

How triggers and checks are designed and implemented can be crucial. If progress checks are too infrequent, as is often the case in software development, problems may accumulate and compound, making them more difficult and time-consuming to address. Finding a reasonable amount of time and work to check can be a game-changer for effective management. It’s important to match the frequency of those checks to the underlying pace and rhythm of the work being done and the goals being achieved. 

Set clear boundaries that will require immediate intervention if crossed. Find an appropriate balance for where those boundaries are set. Offer some freedom, but make sure to establish what lines can’t be crossed. This is a design task to be paced again to the rhythm of the work and goals being pursued. 

Dynamic Work Design & Upper Level Oversight

These principles and methods translate up and down the entire scale of operation. If you can break down every step into a visual path on a design board, showing the correct procedural flow, management and troubleshooting become much easier. If goals aren’t being achieved, you either have the wrong activities set on the board, or these aren’t being executed correctly. If inputs and outputs are being tracked at every stage, quickly finding and correcting the problem becomes much easier.

You’ve read Create Better Workflows with Dynamic Work Design, originally posted on Pick the Brain | Motivation and Self Improvement. If you’ve enjoyed this, please visit our site for more inspirational articles.