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November 16, 2023

Moving to the Winning Zone

By Gene Kim ,Dr. Steven J. Spear

This post is adapted from Wiring the Winning Organization: Liberating Our Collective Greatness Through Slowification, Simplification, and Amplification.


In an earlier post, we presented a vignette of Gene and Steve renovating an old Victorian hotel. Despite their best efforts, they failed miserably. As we explained in the last post, Gene and Steve created Layer 3 wiring that resulted in a system where movers and painters were working in nothing remotely resembling a unified and coherent whole. The functional silos divided the people who needed to coordinate and collaborate frequently and intensely. The only mechanism their system gave them to coordinate was escalating to Steve and Gene.

Now let’s look at how Gene and Steve can wire their organization for success and move them out of the danger zone and into the winning zone.

A Better Way

As the implications sink in of how poorly things have gone, Gene and Steve listen to the considerable frustration of the painters and movers and begin to appreciate just how much coordination has to occur between them for their work to get done. They also see the futility of trying to coordinate people through schedules and expediting. 

They realize they should partition the whole project into smaller pieces, organizing people into individual “room teams,” so the work in one room is less coupled to the work in other rooms. As we’ll see, this is an approach of ensuring each team is coherent and less coupled to other teams. This is the opposite of what they had before: low coherence and high coupling.

Each room team includes both movers and painters who have all the supplies, materials, and decision rights necessary to start and finish renovating a room on their own. Gene and Steve assign each team a group of rooms, which the team will complete, one after another.

Each team can now work independently because they are a coherent whole. By spreading the teams across the hotel, teams are also less likely to interfere with each other. In other words, the distance between teams reduces interference and coupling, which reduces the need to coordinate. 

The work within each room becomes easier to complete too. Each room team needs to worry only about coordinating the efforts of the movers and painters within that team. They are not dependent on any other room teams to do their work, and vice versa. This one change significantly reduces the amount of friction and interference between room teams. 

Now some room teams are able to partition even more, reducing interference within their own teams, specifically between the movers and painters. To do this, the movers and painters of a room team discuss with one another how to make it easier for the other group to do what they need to do. For instance, the painters explain to the movers that they don’t need everything cleared from the rooms—very large furniture can be left behind, so long as it is moved away from the walls. Painters can do their work behind the furniture and cover it to prevent paint spatter. These explicit handoffs make it more obvious what each person needs to accomplish to achieve the system goals and how to get it done.

Similarly, the team agrees that movers should return the furniture only after all the paint surfaces are dry to the touch and after all the fumes have left the room, preventing the movers from marring the paint and ensuring health and safety.

This creates immediate benefits for the movers and painters. By more clearly defining their boundaries and handoffs, they further partitioned their work and simplified their system. Everyone has fewer people they need to interact with and everyone is able to stay productive with fewer things to worry about. Movers and painters can work more independently of each other, and they’ve reduced opportunities for error.

Note how within the room teams, movers and painters are able to continually redefine how they interact with each other. There is no risk of impacting those outside of their team. This liberates movers and painters to fix their own problems and solve their own frustrations, with no need to coordinate with anyone outside their team. In effect, by changing Layer 3 (the social circuitry), Gene and Steve made it much easier for the people for whom they were responsible (the movers and painters) to do outstanding work in Layer 1 and Layer 2.

However, the movers and painters still encounter problems that have to be solved. For instance, painters are occasionally frustrated that they need more time to find the right mix of stain for the wood in the rooms. This is time consuming to get right, meaning those rooms take longer to finish. 

Instead of trying to solve these problems in the moment, while the movers are waiting for them, the painters decide to solve these problems “offline.” The painters finish their day by experimenting on wood samples to test different formulations for absorption and coloration. When they discover that some paneling is oak and other paneling is elm, which stain differently, they pass this knowledge on as “standards” for the other teams, which makes these operations easier and faster to complete in the future. They’ve used slowification to solve difficult problems ahead of time, during planning and preparation, so they are spared surprises during performance.

In another complication, Steve notices movers struggle with furniture through a dimly lit, narrow staircase that has a loose tread. He installs extra lighting and temporarily reaffixes the tread. Rather than “being more careful” or “working around the problem,” they solved the actual problem. By amplifying the signal of problems and fixing them offline, work is quicker, easier, and safer.

With both the stain and the staircase, Gene and Steve helped make it easier for movers and painters to do their jobs easily and well. The workers were able focus on their work and stay “locked in,” without having to keep pausing to figure out how to work around some problem.

So far, the movers and painters have created advantages for themselves by creating room teams (simplification), sequencing their work within the teams (simplification again), solving more difficult problems offline (amplification and slowification), and capturing their best-known approaches as “standards” for getting each room done (simplification again).

However, despite everything, the movers and painters still run into unforeseen problems that make their work difficult. For instance, painters were still sometimes surprised by how much primer the old plaster absorbed before it was ready to be painted. Movers occasionally had to deal with large, awkward items, such as a large, delicate giraffe statue, which was very difficult to carry and navigate through the hallways. 

To deal with these periodic glitches, Gene and Steve first try to help by finding a mover or painter in a nearby room who doesn’t seem too busy at that moment. However, to their surprise, this makes matters much worse. What they didn’t realize was this caused problems to cascade out further. This is because the team from which the person was “borrowed” is now shorthanded and requires help too. In trying to be helpful, Gene and Steve inadvertently “coupled” the two rooms together, creating a problem in the social circuitry (Layer 3). 

They now had two problems instead of one: the room with the original problem and the room that was now understaffed. And, of course, coupling was exactly what they were trying to reduce when they created independent room teams in the first place.

To avoid this, Gene and Steve decide to keep a few movers and painters in reserve, not assigned to any of the room teams. They choose people who are particularly good at dealing with trickier issues. Their job is to help teams deal with especially challenging situations as they arise. By doing this, problems are contained and stabilized. That is, problems in one room don’t “escape,” disrupting the teams around them.

This Layer 3 mechanism ensures that room teams quickly get the help they need, instead of struggling with their problem alone—and it does so without impacting the other room teams. The effect is that problems are quickly and reliably contained, teams are able to do their work better, and work becomes smoother than ever.

What’s astonishing is that this new system quickly becomes self-synchronizing. The room teams know what they need to do next merely by examining the room, without the need for a schedule to tell them. The teams clearly define all the steps that need to be performed, as well as how each step is supposed to be done. It is now easy to tell how far along work actually is, without tedious or time-consuming reporting. It is quick and easy to call for help, and small problems stay small (and local), as opposed to having a large or lasting effect.

This is all achieved without Gene and Steve having to do anything reactive, impulsive, or interruptive. Instead of having to constantly fight fires (without actually creating enduring solutions), Gene and Steve are able to assess the system’s performance and help with things the movers and painters can’t do alone. 

Gene and Steve look around, marveling at the differences in experience and performance between when they started and now. Work is getting done quickly and beautifully. Everyone is proud of the work they are doing, as the teams keep getting better at every aspect of their work. Instead of being mired in coordination, people are able to collaborate around moving and painting with harmony. They are actively improving how they work within teams and between teams. 

By changing Layer 3’s social circuitry, Gene and Steve helped create conditions in which it was much easier for the movers and painters to solve the problems they faced, liberating their collective ingenuity and professional capability to push the frontiers of their performance.

More importantly, Gene and Steve are finally able to report to Miriam and Margueritte that the hotel rooms have been refurbished. Everyone is delighted by how beautifully the rooms have been painted and restored. They all take pride in their work and their role in helping this not-for-profit center open their doors to serve children in need.

Conclusion

In this series of posts, we presented two vignettes: one with a couch as a metaphor for joint problem-solving, and another with moving furniture and painting rooms in a hotel as an example of how we integrate two functional specialties toward solving a common objective. In these vignettes, we showed good and bad characteristics, classifying them as the danger zone and winning zone respectively.

In the book, we’ll further explore the moving-and-painting vignette through the perspective of the three mechanisms to wire a winning organization: slowification, simplification, and amplification. As well as present multiple case studies that show how these mechanisms working across all industries.


Learn more about Wiring the Winning Organization here.

- About The Authors
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Gene Kim

Gene Kim is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, researcher, and multiple award-winning CTO. He has been studying high-performing technology organizations since 1999 and was the founder and CTO of Tripwire for 13 years. He is the author of six books, The Unicorn Project (2019), and co-author of the Shingo Publication Award winning Accelerate (2018), The DevOps Handbook (2016), and The Phoenix Project (2013). Since 2014, he has been the founder and organizer of DevOps Enterprise Summit, studying the technology transformations of large, complex organizations.

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Dr. Steven J. Spear

Dr. Steven J. Spear (DBA MS MS) is principal for HVE LLC, the award-winning author of The High-Velocity Edge, and patent holder for the See to Solve Real Time Alert System. A Senior Lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School and a Senior Fellow at the Institute, Dr. Spear’s work focuses on accelerating learning dynamics within organizations so that they know better and faster what to do and how to do it. This has been informed and tested in practice in multiple industries including heavy industry, high tech design, biopharm R&D, healthcare delivery and other social services, US Army rapid equipping, and US Navy readiness.

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