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October 31, 2023

Why We Wrote Wiring the Winning Organization

By Gene Kim ,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.

Every day, people badge in, buzz in, swipe in, scan in, sign in, log in, or otherwise just walk into their places of work. From that common beginning, the differences in their experiences are vast.

For some, work is marked by drudgery or even danger. Their days are filled with frustration amid the regular confusion of figuring out what to do, when and how to do it, and even why it needs to be done. Too often, they’re left cynical about what’s going on around them and exhausted from trying to get meaningful things accomplished. 

However, some people experience the opposite. They are well equipped and capable of succeeding at what they’ve been tasked to do; they are respected and appreciated for doing their work well; and they leave the workplace knowing they’ve added value for others and to their own lives.

We have observed that when people’s days are miserable, the organization’s performance is miserable too. On the other hand, when people’s experiences are outstanding, the organization excels across all metrics: workplace safety, resilience, agility, time to market, quality, profitability, etc.

What’s remarkable is that these vastly different outcomes don’t require trade-offs; better experiences for individuals and their organizations are not bought at the cost of resources. People with the best experiences need fewer resources, less capital equipment, and less time to accomplish greater things. 

We have observed this phenomenon regardless of the type of work being done or the products and services being generated and delivered. It is the management system that establishes the difference between whether work is miserable versus delightful, boring versus engaging, and whether individual experiences translate into an organization’s failure or success.

Wiring the Winning Organization explains how leaders are responsible for enabling their people to work easily and well, generate and deliver valuable products and services that benefit society, and feel appreciated and treated with dignity. 

The best leaders create, sustain, and improve their organizations’ social circuitry, the overlay of the processes, procedures, routines, and norms that enable people to do their work easily and well. While individual specialists are focusing their attention on the problems immediately in front of them, this social circuitry establishes the patterns by which information, ideas, materials, and services flow, setting up people for success and integrating individual efforts for common purpose. 

When that circuitry is well wired, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Conversely, when an organization is not well wired, people’s efforts are squandered, and they are unable to put their full efforts toward achieving organizational goals. Too often, the parts don’t come together into an effective whole, likely because leaders massively underestimate the difficulty of synchronizing disparate functional specialties toward a common purpose. It should be no surprise, then, why leaders of great organizations are so invested in creating outstanding processes and procedures. These leaders are rewarded with outsized performance benefits and tremendous competitive advantage. 

Effective social circuitry is designed around the ingenuity and limitations of individual and collective human intellect. It allows people to repeatedly and persistently see and solve difficult problems and bring what they discover into practice quickly and well. In this way, the organization’s resources are used to their best possible potential, and that potential continuously expands. 

Wiring the Winning Organization is the culmination of a decade-long collaboration, to which we both bring our own perspectives and motivations. We’d like to take a moment to share a little about how we came to write this book and what we hope to achieve with it.


Many say the goal of science is to explain the most observable phenomena with the fewest number of principles, confirm deeply held intuitions, and reveal surprising insights. By doing so, we create robust and testable theories that can explain the world around us. 

Scientists have been able to do this for the physical sciences, which has enabled so many of the modern miracles that we benefit from today. Many believe, as I do, that we are missing this same clarity when it comes to understanding how and why organizations work the way they do, both in the ideal and not ideal. 

This motivated my study of high-performing technology organizations, which began in 1999. This was informed tremendously by working with Dr. Nicole Forsgren and Jez Humble on the State of DevOps research, a six-year, cross-population study that surveyed over thirty-six thousand technology professionals from 2013 to 2019. 

This journey also led me to take a two-day executive education workshop from Steve Spear at MIT in 2014, which changed how I view the world. Personally, I attribute at least a one-year slip in the creation of The DevOps Handbook to this, as I tried to integrate what I had learned into the book.

I took the workshop because I had read Steve and Dr. H. Kent Bowen’s famous Harvard Business Review article “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System” in 2004 and read Steve’s book The High-Velocity Edge when it was published in 2010. 

What was so exciting about my interactions with Steve was a hint that there was something in common between agile, DevOps, lean, the Toyota Production System, safety culture, resilience engineering, and so much more—that they were all incomplete expressions of a far greater whole. I am not exaggerating when I say that coauthoring this book has been the most intellectually challenging thing I’ve ever done. 

There was a moment in the summer of 2022 when I almost gave up and considered abandoning the project. Steve and I had been struggling to create a simple scenario that would show the principles we were trying to explain, which we believed were the underlying mechanisms that have made great organizations great. After weeks of being unable to create a satisfactory example, I went for a walk on the beach, telling my wife that I wouldn’t come back until I could explain to myself in a simple scenario what our theory was actually trying to say.

Six miles later, I was convinced that either I wasn’t smart enough to understand what Steve was trying to explain to me, or I didn’t understand software development well enough, or maybe even that our theory wasn’t correct. Attempts to create a simple scenario using restaurant operations led me to conclude that I didn’t understand restaurant operations well enough, or movie theater operations, or many others. 

This is what led to a scenario based on the activities of moving furniture and painting a room. It was an extension of two vignettes we had created earlier in the year to explore the concept of coordination cost. I was so excited to share this idea with Steve and even more excited when he understood it within seconds.

We spent months debating and arguing what should and shouldn’t be in the vignette. But I know all those deliberations were worth it. What resulted was a simple and concrete scenario that made it easy to determine what the essential concepts of our theory actually were. Furthermore, these debates often led to some of the largest “aha moments” of my career.

I am grateful for my collaboration with Steve, which is now a decade long, and I am certain that this book could come only from a collaboration like this. We share many common beliefs but come from very different research backgrounds and industry experiences. To massively oversimplify, my career has been in software, while Steve’s career has been nearly everywhere outside of it. But I believe that this commonality and complementarity are what made this book possible—and this book is another example of what cross-functional problem-solving can achieve.

It is my fondest hope that the simple metaphors we use in the book—moving a couch as a metaphor for joint problem-solving and cognition, and moving furniture and painting an old Victorian hotel as a metaphor for how we integrate different functional specialties toward a common purpose—help clarify what leaders at all levels need to do to liberate everyone’s ability to collaborate, use their full creativity, and solve ever more important and larger problems together. 

Further, I hope that this work helps unify the language of how leaders manage systems, regardless of industry, domain of work, or the system being managed. As a consequence, I hope that those leaders are able to create immensely more value, both for the people they are responsible for, as well as the people who depend upon them.


The differences between well-managed organizations and those that are not are extraordinary. In organizations that are led best, all stakeholders benefit: employees invest their time to do work that is appreciated by others; investors gain returns on resources they provide; and the students, patients, customers, and others receive exceptional products and services in exchange for the trust they’ve placed in providers. In those less well managed, people’s time is squandered, spirits are squashed, material resources are wasted, and societal needs are left unmet.

My awareness of the differences between the exemplars and their more ordinary peers started in the 1980s. At the time, once-storied American companies couldn’t keep up with their Japanese counterparts. One by one, well-established firms—ranging from electronics to steel to automobiles—struggled, with some collapsing completely.

Many in my generation tried to grasp the causes of such differences and find solutions. In truth, many of us initially found the answers we were looking for. Those with a technical bent found fantastic tools, techniques, or algorithms. Those with a transactional mindset celebrated metrics and incentives that guaranteed, they thought, more commitment from the workforce to do the right thing.

The problem was, putting those ideas into practice didn’t work. Each solution provided only a glimpse into what true superior performance might be. The technologists focused only on what people used to do their work; the transactionalists, on how hard they tried. They missed how management systems enhanced or inhibited people’s ability to work together, in particular to solve difficult problems collectively and bring solutions into practice effectively.

Many practitioners and researchers came to appreciate just that point in the 1980s and 1990s. Following their leads, I saw how the “objective function” of the best leaders was creating such opportunities. My first deep dive on this was an immersive study of Toyota that informed “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System” and The High-Velocity Edge

Toyota had been an awful auto industry competitor in the late 1950s, emerging from the wreck of World War II. By the 1980s, though, it was the industry leader, a position it has expanded on in the forty years since. 

This point was reinforced by working with Alcoa, which had become the safest employer in the country (despite the hazards of its industrial processes). Their safety success did not come with a trade-off. Alcoa was also a leader in quality, yield, and other competitive metrics. 

The fact that the best lead by actively managing the design of the processes and procedures that comprise their social circuitry, regardless of competitive sector or technological domain, was validated by working with medical care providers. Some had simultaneously improved access, affordability, capacity, patient safety, and workforce experience. 

Since then, experiences in a widening array of situations have validated the point: the common issue across all situations is creating conditions in which people’s ingenuity can be liberated for its best possible use. Do that, and whatever resources are available will be put to great uses. Don’t do that, and no matter how many resources are available, outcomes will be disappointing.

This book distills our research and experience to a few essential mechanisms that anyone responsible for coordinating the efforts of other people can use to generate greater outcomes quicker and easier than otherwise would have been possible. Scale doesn’t matter: whether it’s five, fifteen, forty-five, or five hundred people, there are ways to set them up for success (or not). This is regardless of whether they’re doing esoteric, upstream research or are involved in the most basic production and delivery of goods and services. And it is regardless of the sector in which they work. There are better and worse ways to bring the parts into an outstanding whole.

This clarity was possible as a direct result of my decade-long collaboration and friendship with Gene and his background in fields in which I have little experience. It would have been easy to say, “Oh, that’s a technology problem versus an industrial problem” and dismissively wave away commonalities in light of differences in products and services being designed, produced, and delivered or the science and technology used to create them. What has made this partnership work and enabled us to reach the conclusions presented here was a shared conviction that bona fide, testable science is better than simple, analogical reasoning.

One last thought before moving on. Each Sabbath, Miriam, our kids (Hannah, Eve, and Jesse), and I preface our lunch with a biblical declaration that we should be doing our work for six days and resting on the seventh. That’s an admonition that life shouldn’t be only toil; it should have dignity. 

However, the declaration doesn’t say that dignity is just for some people and not for others. Rather, for those who received this declaration, it is also for their sons, their daughters, their maids, their servants, the animals on which they depend for labor, and even the strangers who may have appeared at the city gates before the Sabbath commenced. Dignity is a universal right. 

Our family is also blessed by living in “a nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as Lincoln said at Gettysburg. We aren’t blind to gaps between people’s lived reality and that espoused aspiration, but we take inspiration in knowing so many who actively close that gap for others each day. Miriam and I are proud our own children are crafting their lives to help close the gap between reality and aspiration too.

With sentiments like those in mind, Gene and I try to always write about people and the work they do with respect, appreciation, and admiration. If what we share here helps you bring more dignity and a sense of lived value to yourselves and those for whom you are responsible—whether that’s five, fifteen, forty-five, or five thousand—then we will consider our own labors successful.

Our purpose in this book isn’t to replace the major tools and processes that have been adopted by organizations to help them overcome hurdles, both small and large. Lean, agile, DevOps, and so forth are excellent approaches to problem-solving and value creation. However, these are concrete examples of the more general ideas we’re introducing here. 

A theme common across these various tools is that they recognize organizations as “platforms” through which people collaborate toward achieving common purposes. Focusing on the human element is consistent with Dr. Douglas McGregor’s Theory Y, from The Human Side of the Enterprise, which emphasizes the positive motivations people have toward shared objectives, taking responsibility, and being creative and imaginative. It is also consistent with Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s teachings on collaboration, systems thinking, and profound knowledge. Deming also showed how management systems must fully engage people’s ingenuity and motivation as active participants, to their benefit, that of the organization, and society more broadly.

We seek to make clear the specific mechanisms that are alluded to in these theories and that we’ve found and studied in many different organizations in a wide variety of industries that make the exceptional ones exceptional. We seek to create a way for leaders to take these, until now unknown, characteristics and apply them to their own organizations.

As you read, our hope is that you take away a deep understanding of the powerful mechanisms that can be used to wire your organization to win, an appreciation for the collective genius of the people who make all of your endeavors a reality, and a drive to achieve the greatness that is possible in all organizations.

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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