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November 21, 2023

The Three Mechanisms to Wire a Winning Organization

By Gene Kim ,Steven J. Spear

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

In our previous posts, we saw Gene and Steve’s efforts to help refurbish the old Victorian hotel. They were able to make the work of movers and painters easier by changing how they wired the social circuitry. The basic nature of the work at Layer 1 (technical object) and Layer 2 (tools and instrumentation) did not change. Movers still used carts, dollys, and hoists to relocate furniture. Painters still used sanders, scrapers, and brushes to paint and prep each of the rooms. It was changing Layer 3 that made the difference. Ultimately, Gene and Steve helped move their teams out of the danger zone and into the winning zone.

People working in the danger zone are unlikely to be able to fully use their ingenuity, to solve difficult problems individually and collaboratively, and to bring new and useful insights into practice effectively. In the danger zone, conditions are complex, fast-changing, and unforgiving. It’s hard to exercise control and the stakes are high. Learning from experience is challenging in this space. 

On the other hand, when leaders put those same people in the winning zone, conditions are simpler and slower moving. Control can be exercised and the stakes are lower. Learning from experience is possible. And people are capable of inventing wildly innovative and useful solutions to challenging problems.

Leaders can help their organizations move from the danger zone to the winning zone by changing how they wire their organization’s social circuitry (Layer 3). This is achieved through some combination of three mechanisms—slowification, simplification, and amplification. Slowification makes solving problems easier to do, simplification makes difficult problems easier to solve, and amplification makes it obvious that there are problems that demand attention and whether or not they’ve been adequately addressed. 

Slowification in Action

Slowification changed how and when problem-solving occurred, so people could be more deliberate and creative in solving problems. It was essential to first slowify before they could simplify, because people needed opportunities to figure out how to decouple their work (as we’ll see in the next section). But slowification showed up in many more places. 

In the beginning, movers and painters were forced to solve challenging problems in the production environment, solving problems as the work was being done. That’s in the danger zone, the wrong time to solve such problems. 

Fortunately, Gene and Steve had enough sense to pause. Instead of expecting teams to solve these problems in the production environment, teams were able to shift their problem-solving into the more forgiving environments of planning and preparation. 

Later, Steve, freed from having to “supervise,” as he and Gene had done with scheduling and expediting, supported movers by setting up extra lighting in the dimly lit stairs and installing a temporary tread on a questionable step. Painters set up “laboratories,” with Gene’s help, to test and try out stains. And, movers worked out how to handle particularly awkward pieces of furniture before actually committing to moving through halls, in and out of doorways, and up and down stairs. 

These acts of slowification created opportunities to capture knowledge of local discoveries and then share the new insights across all the room teams. All this was made possible by deliberateness and time being committed to slowification by Gene and Steve.

To slowify or not is a choice that leaders make. Gene and Steve could have stuck to their (doomed) plan and insisted on “getting the work done,” doubling down by setting objectives such as “number of walls painted.” They got lucky that the movers and painters—using their brains, talents, and experiences—were able to help them create better ways of working by slowifying.

Simplification in Action

Simplification helped move the situation out of the danger zone by making the problems themselves easier to solve. In the beginning, the entirety of the refurbishment project was the only coherent unit. No portion of the system could start and complete a room independently. Instead, Gene and Steve allocated movers and painters to rooms through schedules and expediting, which was completely inadequate. 

This changed when they partitioned the whole project into individual room teams, an example of modularization, which is one of the three techniques of simplification. Each room team had all the resources needed to refurbish a room independently, with no need to coordinate with anyone outside of the team. This made things simpler, because everyone had fewer people they needed to interact with. 

Later, the room teams further partitioned their work by defining the handoffs between movers and painters (i.e., the conditions created by removing furniture, painting the room, and returning furniture to it). This created even more opportunity for independent problem-solving, meaning more people’s ingenuity was being put to good use at the same time. They could solve more problems simultaneously.

This recursive nesting of modules (i.e., from the entire hotel to room team to stages to steps, while still protecting coherence) enabled easier, clearer, faster problem-solving between the people doing the work. Work was increasingly able to be performed and improved in parallel. Collectively, this helped fully unleash the movers’ and painters’ skills, expertise, and ingenuity to better use, all without Gene and Steve having to do anything, let alone constantly interfering.

Modularization, the first technique of simplification, is a concept that is used heavily in computer science. It refers to partitioning large systems into smaller ones, which are each coherent. They connect to each other through pre-established interfaces (just as air traffic controllers and flight crews followed a terse and coded protocol during normal operations in Chapter 2). This property allows modules to hide internal complexities, which is called “information hiding.” 

The goal of information hiding is not duplicity or deception. Rather, it enables modules on either side of an interface to operate together (e.g., exchange information, goods, or services) without having to know how the work is actually performed inside the other module. 

For instance, an air traffic controller does not need to know how the flight crew set their flaps and rudders. The controllers have confidence that the flight crew can control the plane and can proceed in the direction and altitude instructed. Changes can be made inside the module without having to get permission or coordinate with people on the other side of the interface

There is another required property of modularity: problems inside the module are contained, as opposed to escaping outside of the module. Initially, when room teams ran into trouble, Gene and Steve stole movers and painters from other room teams. This inadvertently coupled the room teams together, causing local problems to spread. 

To solve this, they created a reserve team who helped room teams in trouble. In this way, the problems were contained. The more frequent and severe the problems, the more people need to be held in reserve. 

The enormous differences in performance in the moving-and-painting vignette were not achieved in one step or as a grand mandate from Gene and Steve, prescribing exactly what the end state should look like and how it was to be achieved. Instead, it emerged through incrementalization, the second technique of simplification. Rather than changing everything all at once, what was known was kept intact and novelty was added bit by bit. 

For instance, there was the iterative (incremental) approach to partitioning the project into rooms, rooms into phases, and phases into steps. Then, within these modules, there were small iterations and experiments that the room teams performed to deal with difficulties as they emerged. It was not someone trying to outline in advance every possible issue they could imagine occurring, and then designing and implementing those solutions all at once. 

Within the room teams, once the movers and painters defined their handoffs, they linearized their work. Linearization is the third technique of simplification. This made it more obvious what work was being done and what had to occur next, further enabling independence of action. (Linearization does for sequential processes what modularization does for parallel processes.)

As we’ll see in Part III, simplification, through the techniques of modularization, incrementalization, and linearization, makes it far easier to engage large numbers of people in managing and mastering large, complex, and otherwise unwieldy situations. 

Amplification in Action

Amplification makes it more obvious, earlier and more often, that problems exist for which people’s ingenuity is needed to create solutions. Also, the continued existence of problems makes it evident that these problems have not been seen and successfully solved. Amplification is the opposite of suppressing signals that something is amiss, thereby letting problems persist or even cascade into larger problems. 

In the beginning of the vignette, due to the high coupling within the system, there were problems everywhere, all the time. Gene and Steve were so overwhelmed worrying about which movers and painters were in what rooms that they couldn’t help solve other problems, like loose stair treads or difficult-to-stain trim. There were signals of problems everywhere, but they couldn’t respond to any.

As the teams became increasingly able to focus on moving and painting problems in Layers 1 and 2, rather than the problems of sense-making and coordination in Layer 3, amplification played an ever-larger role in triggering further improvement. When painters struggled with unpredictable stains, and when movers struggled with furniture that could be surprisingly hard to handle, these both triggered a pause. The result was assigning some movers and painters to a “stabilizing” role, so they could help teams before problems spiraled out of control.

By increasingly specifying ahead of time what the work was, how it should be performed, and how it should be handed off, movers and painters could generate signals earlier and more frequently when things were not going as planned. Each of these helped trigger more improvements and helped everyone push the frontiers of performance.

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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Steven J. Spear

Dr. Steven 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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