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Fighting Organizational Friction

Elimination of waste is one of the core principles of lean. But we often think of waste and its elimination in purely economic terms: a particular lean improvement saved a certain number of dollars, or a certain number of hours per year.

There is also value, though, in visualizing waste in the form of organizational friction: the resistance that workers encounter when trying to do their jobs, or when trying to change the way that their jobs are done.

I say this because, in my experience, managers and workers often have different motivations when it comes to lean. Managers are often motivated by numbers, especially when they figure prominently in their annual goals and objectives, and especially when they have dollar signs in front of them.

As managers, though, we need to realize that these sorts of quantitative measures are in some sense just an abstraction of what is happening on the floor, or wherever the work gets done in our organizations.

And what is happening on the floor, as experienced by our workers? Either their jobs are getting easier or they are getting harder. Either they find it easy to do work that adds real value, or they find themselves hindered by organizational impediments. And when they try to make constructive changes in the ways that their work is done, either they find it easy to make such changes, or they encounter resistance. In other words, they are either fighting against organizational friction, or their work is proceeding smoothly, with no obstruction.

And why is it important to visualize waste in this fashion? First, because it can easily be observed. If you come to me with two different schemes for accomplishing a task, then it may require expensive time-and-motion studies to actually determine which method is most efficient. But if I observe the work being done in my organization, or spend a few minutes listening to an employee talk about the work they’ve done recently, or even if I simply notice how an employee feels about his or her work, then the friction that I’m talking about is easily observable. The places where friction is occurring become obvious pretty quickly: I’m having to wait for someone to approve my request, or I’m having to fill out long forms in order to get someone else to help me do my job, or someone has changed their mind fifteen times about what it is they want me to do, or a certain tool is unreliable, or… the list of possible sources of friction can go on and on. But just as mechanical friction generates heat, organizational friction also generates clear signs that it is occurring.

So signs of friction are generally pretty obvious. But then, as organizational leaders, what happens if we ignore such signs, or are insensitive to them? What happens if we are counting up our lean savings for the year, while our workers are struggling to overcome sources of friction right outside of our offices?

This is the really dangerous point. Because, if we see such friction occurring, and we take no steps to eliminate the friction, then, in my experience, our workers start to see value in fighting against the friction, or even in creating and maintaining the sources of friction. After all, if we are not eliminating the friction, then we must be embracing it!

And this enshrinement of friction is also pretty obvious, once we begin to notice it. My, look how hard I worked to get my job done today! Look at the long list of obstacles I overcame! Look how much overtime I put in so that we could meet our schedule! Look at how well I fought off an attempt by another organization to get us to change the ways we do things over here!

So what is happening in your organization? Are your employees constantly fighting against friction in order to get their jobs done, or in order to make constructive changes? Are you working to eliminate friction from your organization, or are you turning a blind eye to it, and thus tacitly condoning it, or even celebrating it? Are you happy to see employees who get their jobs done easily, and leave work feeling energized at the end of a normal shift? Or are you happier to see employees struggling mightily to get their work done, and leaving work exhausted after putting in overtime to get a normal day’s work done?

Or, to put it most simply: are you fighting to eliminate friction from your organization, or are your employees constantly fighting against it?

August 28, 2013

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