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November 2, 2023

The Three Layers of Work

By Gene Kim ,Dr. Steven J. Spear

This post is excerpted from Wiring the Winning Organization: Liberating Our Collective Greatness Through Slowification, Simplification, and Amplification by Gene Kim and Steven J. Spear.

All organizations are sociotechnical systems, people working with other people, engaging (sometimes complex) technology to accomplish what they are collaborating on. Regardless of domain, collaborative problem-solving occurs on three distinct layers, where people focus their attention and express their experience, training, and creativity.

Layer 1

Layer 1 contains the technical objects being worked on. These are the technical, scientific, and engineered objects that people are trying to study, create, or manipulate. These may be molecules in drug development, code in software development, physical parts in manufacturing, or patient injuries or illnesses in medical care. For people in Layer 1, their expertise is around these technical objects (i.e., their structure and behavior), and their work is expressed through designing, analyzing, fabricating, fixing, repairing, transforming, creating, and so forth.

Layer 2

Layer 2 contains the tools and instrumentation. These are the scientific, technical, or engineered tools and instrumentation through which people work on Layer 1 objects. These may be the devices that synthesize medicinal compounds in drug development, the development tools and operational platforms in software development, technologies that transform materials in manufacturing, or the technologies to diagnose and treat patients’ illnesses and injuries. Layer 2 capabilities include the operation, maintenance, and improvement of these tools and instruments. These first two layers are the “technical” part of a sociotechnical system.

Layer 3

Layer 3 contains the social circuitry. This is the overlay of processes, procedures, norms, and routines, the means by which individual efforts are expressed and integrated through collaboration toward a common purpose. This is the “socio” part of a sociotechnical system.

When leaders wire their Layer 3 (social circuitry) well, the people for whom they are responsible have what they need, when they need it, and in the format they need it. Problems have been redefined so that they are easier, safer, and faster to solve. As a result, people can invest their full creative energies and focus on solving their problems, either in Layer 1 (the work object) or Layer 2 (the tools or instruments to do their work). Their collective efforts flow together as a team, gracefully, as if precisely choreographed.

In contrast, consider when the wiring in Layer 3 is inadequate. People doing work are unable to do that work easily or well. They must spend their energy, effort, and cognitive capacity to get what they need, coping and compensating for Layer 3 problems. They are unable to generate and deliver value that others will appreciate. This is because Layer 3 was either overlooked or misaligned with the needs of people working in Layers 1 and 2.

In the next post, we’ll see how focusing on your organization’s Layer 3 wiring (the social circuitry) can move you out of the danger zone and into the winning zone using the three mechanisms of slowification, simplification, and amplification.

- 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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