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November 14, 2023

Poor Social Circuitry Leads to the Danger 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 our last post, we presented the first of two vignettes to introduce the key concepts of wiring an organization to move from the danger zone to the winning zone through the mechanisms of slowification, simplification, and amplification. In the first vignette, we saw the importance of coherency and coupling when moving a couch. It also demonstrated that all work is knowledge work.

Now let’s look at the second vignette, which illustrates how management systems can make it easier or more difficult to integrate different functional specialties to achieve a common goal.

Vignette Two: Moving Furniture and Painting an Old Victorian Hotel

Due to their splendid sense of aesthetics and design, Margueritte Kim and Miriam Tropp Spear have been asked by their friend to help refurbish an old Victorian hotel in a remote part of rural Maine. The friend’s idea is to turn it into a not-for-profit center for children who’ve undergone trauma. 

Because of its remote location and the fact that it’ll be a charity undertaking, professional general contractors, who might otherwise hire the necessary tradespeople and manage their work, aren’t readily available to do the work that is needed. 

Given the tight deadlines to open the center, Margueritte and Miriam need to focus their time on design and help their friend with opening the center. So they ask their respective spouses, Gene and Steve, to hire people to clear the rooms of furniture, do all the necessary prepping and repainting, and return the furniture to where it belongs. Gene and Steve assure Margueritte and Miriam that they can complete this. 

Steve takes responsibility for hiring and scheduling movers, while Gene takes responsibility for hiring and scheduling the painters. They pick a date to get started, thinking, “What could go wrong?”

Right after Gene and Steve assure their spouses that all will go well, everything goes wrong. Painters are calling Gene to say the rooms haven’t been fully emptied, so they can’t set up and do their work. Movers are complaining to Steve that they emptied the rooms but there’s no sign of the painters, so they don’t know when to put the furniture back. Some movers and painters are trying to work in the same place at the same time, tripping over each other.

Gene and Steve are surprised when they discover that the movers and painters started at opposite ends of the hotel. The movers wanted to do the top floors first, before they got tired. The painters wanted to start on the bottom floors so they wouldn’t have to haul all their supplies up the stairs. As a result, many rooms had been started but few had been completed. Furthermore, movers and painters were getting in each other’s way, either in the hallways and staircases or within the rooms they were working in.

To try to better synchronize everyone, Gene and Steve create a single moving-and-painting schedule in a spreadsheet. This assigns times for the movers to remove the furniture, the painters to paint, and the movers to return the furniture. Gene and Steve figure the schedule will ensure everyone is where they need to be, when they need to be there. However, Gene and Steve are amazed by how quickly the situation devolves into disarray. Movers show up while painters are still painting, and painters show up to rooms that haven’t yet been cleared.

It turns out that Gene and Steve’s estimates for the time to remove furniture is nearly always wrong—every room has a different mix of chairs, tables, bureaus, and so forth, with different sizes and weights, which require different times to move.

Their painting estimates are just as inaccurate. There are a variety of surfaces throughout the rooms, so the time required for each is different. After all, this is an old Victorian; each room has a different floor plan. As for the finishes, sometimes there is drywall and sometimes there is an older form of plastering. Sometimes there is crown molding that needs to be stained. Sometimes the crown molding needs to be replaced. And occasionally, some rooms have lead paint that needs to be managed according to code.

Because Gene and Steve’s schedule did not account for these factors, tasks rarely start or finish as expected. Cajoling and hectoring from Gene and Steve don’t help. Everyone is in everyone else’s way. Painters are frustrated with movers, movers with painters, and everyone is rightly frustrated with Gene and Steve.

To try to get the movers and painters where they need to be, Gene and Steve do two things. First, they try to create a more accurate schedule by getting better information. They start interrupting people while they’re working, asking for more accurate estimates of how long their work will take. But they discover that even these estimates are still not accurate enough. Movers and painters keep showing up too early or too late. Worse, everyone grows increasingly irritated by Steve and Gene’s constant requests for status updates, especially when there is no obvious improvement.

Gene and Steve also start expediting. When a room becomes “critical,” they demand that movers and painters drop their work mid-task to go work on that room. Expediting requires a lot of time and effort from Gene and Steve, and the constant stopping and starting of tasks is even more disruptive to movers and painters trying to get work done.

When Gene and Steve propose measuring the movers on “number of pieces of furniture moved” and painters on “number of walls painted” and “percentage of wall paintings started on time,” many of the movers and painters threaten to quit. Several painters, frustrated with waiting for the movers, start moving the furniture themselves. Tensions keep escalating as movers and painters start blaming each other for their inability to achieve their goals.

It gets worse. When Margueritte and Miriam return to the hotel, they are flabbergasted and mortified at how badly things are going, with so few rooms actually completed and absolutely no one proud of the work that has been done. Everyone agrees that the center cannot open in its current state, despite promises made to the community, donors, and the families of the children.

The problems that Gene and Steve are grappling with in this vignette are likely familiar to anyone who has ever worked in a functionally oriented organization—where people are divided based on their specialties. Leaders in these organizations often assume things will naturally self-organize or that schedules can always integrate those specialties toward a common purpose. They often neglect, as Gene and Steve did, the careful design of their organizational wiring (Layer 3). 

One potential result is the system is over-partitioned, so no part in the system is coherent. In other words, no part of the system can work independently, requiring massive coordination effort to do anything at all.

In the old Victorian hotel, rooms became “stuck” in terms of progress not being made because the efforts of the movers and painters were not coordinated. Before we explain what Gene and Steve did to get things right, let’s first analyze and reflect on what they did to get things so badly wrong. How did they miswire their Layer 3 so dismally? Check out the next post to learn more.


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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