July 25, 2014

ROWE: An attempt at achieving the Lean Ideal?

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Roundabout by juiCZe on deviantart.com

In the past few months that I’ve been blogging about ROWE, I have been poking at how the two concepts might help to reinforce each other, with the premise that ROWE-thinking could help to enable Lean-thinking by overcoming the tools-based focus that is so prevalent in Lean implementations and, instead, returning the focus to the culture where I believe it belongs.

I managed to pursue my curiosity to the point that I was able to have one-on-one discussions with one of ROWE’s creators, and I sparked the curiosity of several recognized Lean thought leaders as well.  After stirring the pot and looking for the common ground between the two, I am now wondering if my original theory – that ROWE could enable Lean – was a bit backwards.

Tuesday, when Mark Graban appeared on the Results-Only Live radio show, the conversation centered around the similarities both the Lean and ROWE community face when attempting to change the leadership styles and culture I posed this question via twitter (and, yes, I realize the irony in the fact that I wasn’t able to call in because I was busy at work!):

Is Lean enabled by ROWE, or is ROWE an attempt to achieve the Lean ideal?

Whereas I began this comparison of ROWE and Lean believing the former, I am starting to believe it is the latter.  ROWE, as Mark indicated on the show, is a response to the same problem Lean sees – people are underutilized and non-value-added activities are everywhere.  So, what ROWE has attempted to do is eliminate that waste and utilize people to their fullest.  It also does so in an intuitive fashion, and returns the gains back to the workers in terms of control over their time and freedom to work when and where they please.  All of which is very enticing to all ranks of the organization, at a personal level.

Lean’s bad rap stemming from the terrible implementations of the practice due to a misunderstanding of Lean principles is an issue to be addressed, to be certain.  What I am currently considering, however, isn’t how much ROWE’s perspective can be used to help overcome bad implementations, but why a whole other paradigm should be layered on top of “Bad” Lean just to make it go better.  Why not just focus on making True Lean, which has a well-developed set of principles and tools, the norm?  If we’re focusing on making Bad Lean more palatable, aren’t we missing a focus on the root cause and, instead, focusing on doing expertly that which should not be done at all?

As I have mentioned on this blog and others is that the countermeasures to that problem are much more well developed in the Lean school of thought.  Which begs the question, if ”Good” Lean and ROWE are seeing the same problem, with the same end goals in mind, and Lean has a much more robust and mature tool set – shouldn’t we be focusing on understanding on making the adoption of “Good” Lean the norm, and not on adopting ROWE to overcome the bad?

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  • Ronnie

    I will be the first to admit that I am not well-versed on
    Lean and have only an elementary understanding of it.  However, that rudimentary knowledge leads me
    to believe that the two CAN co-exist and that ROWE might just actually facilitate
    the entire LEAN implementation.  The challenge
    I see with LEAN is that it involves understanding a set of processes and
    concepts that some workers might not fully grasp, whereas ROWE has one very
    simple concept – MEET RESULTS.  It
    basically tells the workers, “You KNOW how and what to do – you’re already
    doing it – we trust you TO do it. If you fail to do it, then you won’t have a
    job.”  That’s a pretty cut and dry set of
    rules to follow, which most people can quickly understand.  Don’t misunderstand, a transition to ROWE
    also comes with its own challenges, but because you’re not following a “discipline”
    or an intellectually charged theory, those challenges can be overcome with
    common sense approaches in words the general population of workers can quickly

    • http://myflexiblepencil.com David M. Kasprzak

      “You KNOW how and what to do – you’re alreadydoing it – we trust you TO do it. If you fail to do it, then you won’t have ajob.”

      Or, in other words – manage by fear and fear alone.  That isn’t improving the workplace, that’s just replicating all the problems and giving license to say that failure is entirely the employee’s fault.  That is an unfortunate mentality.  It is something that proponents of True Lean would never advocate.  It says that leadership within an organization bears no responsibility for the outcomes of work efforts. 

       Consider this:  2 people are given an identical task on Monday.  It is due on Friday.  Person A works about 8 hours a day for 3 days on the effort and it is done, and done well.  Person B works 80 hours over 5 days, and it is also done well.  Both have met the target in terms of both quality and schedule and – since they are exempt employees – the cost is the same regardless of how much time they put into it individually.  So, everything’s fine, right?  They have met RESULTS!

      Unfortunately, that’s pretty shortsighted.

      For one, the person who is working 80 hours is, obviously, going about the work in a way that causes a lot of strain.  Allowing that to go on shows no respect for the person whatsoever and is guaranteed to lead to burnout – meaning the person will probably quit before long, and everyone else in the organization will have to work harder until a replacement is identified, trained, and able to take over.  Or, the productive capacity of the organization is diminished, meaning work for customers will have to be delayed or even passed on since the organization can’t accommodate the workload with diminished resources.

      So why would one person require more than twice as long as another to do the same job?  Is a person who is willing to give up a massive chunk of their personal time to deliver the desired results lazy or not dedicated?  Obviously not.  He’s simply going about the work the best way he knows how, but that might not be the best possible way, or the way that benefits the whole of the organization. But if all focus is on the results, and not the process, then no one would ever see that there are gigantic amounts of capacity for the organization tied up in tasking that can be performed more efficiently. Not to mention creating a long term boondoggle as resources get burned out and quit, and frankly, treating a human being quite poorly as well by focusing just on the results.

      The person who can accomplish the same tasking in 24 hours of work vs. 80 most likely has identified a better method.  So, should we terminate the person who worked as hard as possible but didn’t think of a way to accomplish the task in less than 80 hours?  Do we call the person a dunderhead, a lost cause, an inept employee – or do we blame the leadership for not bringing the people executing the work together in order to allow them to identify the best method for going about the work?  How about the person who did the task in 24 hours with little strain and high quality?  Should we say “Great Job!” and set them on their merry way for the rest of the week, or should we say, “Damn!  That’s smart.  Can you teach everyone else how you did that so that everyone knows the best possible method?  By freeing up all that time, we can serve more customers, in less time, with the same resources.  That’s awesome!”

      That would be what Lean is focused on.  If that is not ROWE’s expectation and hope for the leadership of people, (and I don’t think that it is), you can keep it.
      Regarding the difficulty in understanding Lean’s terminology or concepts –

      It is springtime here in New England, which means only one thing – the Red Sox are in training camp.  So, my thoughts turn to baseball as an analogy.

      If you recall the scene from Bull Durham, the Bulls are on a losing streak, and so the manager explains to his team that baseball is a simple game.  You throw the ball, you hit the ball, and you catch the ball.  That’s it.  Simple.

       The rulebook for Major League Baseball, however, is 123 pages long. (http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/downloads/y2011/Official_Baseball_Rules.pdf).  The classic book, The Physics of Baseball, is 160 pages long (http://www.amazon.com/Physics-Baseball-Robert-Kemp-Adair/dp/0060950471).  The 2010 edition of the Ken Burns documentary on the history of baseball is 23 hours long and fits on 11 discs.  The list of knowledge, history, technical terminology, and intricacies surrounding the game are more than any person could ever consume.  Experts have a lingo all their own that anyone new to the game would struggle to understand.

      None of that complex understanding, however, is necessary to enjoy the game and play it well.  As it is with baseball, so it is with Lean – the enthusiasts and those who wish to have a detailed understanding will go deep into the conceptual underpinnings because they enjoy exploring the depths at that level.  Nonetheless, it is not necessary to go to that extent just to enjoy the game.

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