The open space is not a factory but sometimes you should look at it that way

There is nothing more different than industry and the service industry, especially office work. Different activities, different profiles, different times but also different ways of working.

Two worlds that don’t look at each other very much and don’t have much interest in each other, especially when it comes to talking about work organization. And even in businesses where the two coexist, it sometimes seems as if there are two different businesses.

And yet if the two are radically different (well, not always), they face the same challenges and should sometimes ask themselves the same questions.

It’s all about turning one thing into another

If we look at things in a very basic way, it is all about transforming a raw material into a finished product.

In one case the raw material is tangible, in the other not (knowledge, information).

The same goes for the finished product: a good in one case, a decision, a report, an information, a service in the other.

In the middle there is a transformation process: different raw materials are transformed, aggregated, pass from one agent to another during a more or less long process and that is a real common point.

In both worlds, there is only one objective: to make this process produce the expected product in terms of time and quality, in the most economically efficient way possible.

A major difference: in one case the flows are visible, the process known and intangible, as well as the operators, in the other the flows are invisible, the process mixes a part of formal and adhoc, some of the operators are known but others can intervene in an adhoc way. I would even say that in one case we know exactly what raw material we need from the start, in the other not.

Another one. One is, as the saying goes, to reproduce perfection ad infinitum, the other is to manage exceptions and even to be creative in order to achieve it, because in both cases everything that can be automated has been or will be automated. But in one case the operators (human or not) follow the rule, in the other they can have an impact on it.

But in the end, one essential question unites them (I repeat myself): to make this process produce the expected product in terms of time and quality, in the most economically efficient way possible.

But you will tell me that the way to achieve this will be radically different. Certainly, although sometimes the approach can be the same, it will simply be translated in totally different ways (the difference between copying a recipe and copying its result.

But one thing is sure: before improving things, you have to understand them. You can’t improve your work without knowing how people work, you can’t improve a process without understanding it. If you don’t start with that, you’ll never get anywhere.

The office is a factory like any other

Most of us have no idea how a factory works and how to manage its operations. However, many of us would be able to intuit that a factory is malfunctioning just by walking around and looking.

Idle machines: machine down, not enough demand or lack of raw material?

Work in progress in front of a machine: it is fed too much compared to its capacity.

Stock at the exit of the factory: we produce too much compared to the demand?

Of course the example is simplistic and caricatural but it is nonetheless true.

Now let’s take a walk in an open space. What do we see?

People more or less busy, a place more or less agitated or calm. What does this tell us? Not much.

A quiet place can tell us that everything is fine, that things are going smoothly. Or that people are waiting for something (a decision, information…) to move forward. Or that they are totally disengaged and procrastinating while there is work waiting.

A quiet place can also tell us that people are working but not together. This can happen in businesses with multiple locations where a sometimes significant portion of employees work with people who are not in the same building, city or country as them. They might as well be in remote work…

A hectic place can tell us that there is a lot of activity, but is it good activity? Everyone is bustling and everything is fine? There are problems and we’re trying to solve them? Are we blowing smoke to make it look like we’re busy?

Is an individual really overwhelmed? Is he a bottleneck? Is he overloaded with unnecessary tasks? Does the right information and instruction go to the right place or does it bounce from person to person? Who is working with whom? On a regular basis or to help occasionally? Is he working or using his energy to find the people and information he needs? Is he multiplying exchanges and meetings, but is it productive?

These are the things we need to look at.

In short, a manager who walks through an open space and is satisfied or worried about what he sees is relying on signals of almost zero reliability.

Visual management, or management by wandering around (attributed to Hewlett Packard executives in the 70’s), heirs to the gemba walk introduced at Toyota in the 50’s, an idea to which Deming added the need to see suppliers and customers as well, is more complicated in this context and the fact that remote work is becoming more and more widespread is not going to simplify things.

However, it is essential for us to “see” how people work, what they really do, to visualize things if we want to claim to improve them. Indeed, I am convinced that if, in an open space, we could visualize the stocks and flows of work, we would see a worrying chaos.

We don’t know how people do things

When I wanted to improve the efficiency of a team of 14 people that I had just inherited, I went to each of them to ask them what they were doing. At first they were surprised, because usually you are supposed to know what people do when you take over a team, or you can guess from their title.

But I wasn’t interested in what they were supposed to be doing, I knew that, and that’s what we usually limit ourselves to. No, what I wanted to know was what they actually did every day. Not what they were achieving in terms of outcome, but what they were actually doing to achieve it, all their daily actions.

I had already applied this method to improve the employee experience with a focus on the reality of daily work and since it had worked once, there was no reason why it couldn’t work a second time.

Why people?

That was one of the things I had retained from reading How to manage complexity without getting complicated: we don’t know what people actually do all day.

And I’ll recall once again what the New Yorker said about this.

Peter Drucker noted that during the twentieth century, the productivity of manual workers in the manufacturing sector increased by a factor of fifty as we got smarter about the best way to build products. He argued that the knowledge sector, by contrast, had hardly begun a similar process of self-examination and improvement, existing at the end of the twentieth century where manufacturing had been a hundred years earlier

My point here is not even yet to say “what to do to change and improve” but “how to understand what we are doing” in order to improve it” . My regret is that in many transformation projects that I have seen, if the end point was known, the starting point was not, which makes things just as complicated when deciding what to do. For, as we have seen, better organizing knowledge work is solving many problems at once.

Objectivize the intangible to explain it

In order to present the real subject in concrete terms, before claiming to improve anything in the work of people, it is necessary to make the intangible tangible, to objectify it.

Only then will it be possible to interpret it in order to determine what needs to be changed or not.

Only then will the question of how to change and the target model arise, something that is often put first without knowing where we are starting from.

The good news is that today we have the means to do this, that thanks to devices like feedback or secondary data, managers and businesses are no longer blind to what their teams are really doing.

Now the question is to know which data is relevant, which is not and above all what to use it for and what not to use it for.

This will be the subject of another post, as this one is already too long.

Image: open space of Monkey Business Images via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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