How Lean Practices Adjust the Difficulty Level of Work

One sentence caught my attention around the midpoint of the episode of Hidden Brain, titled Work 2.0: Game On! This was after setting the context of how people often view work as pointless or tedious, while enjoying playing games, even though they are equally “pointless.” It was Ethan Mollick, the co-author of the book Changing the Game: How Video Games are Transforming the Future of Business, who asked,

“Wouldn’t it be great if work adjusted its difficulty level to keep us in the perfect level of engagement, without either being too stressed or getting bored.”

Well-designed games keep people playing in various ways. The cycle of challenge and mastery is one. Games allow us to try, fail, try again, and eventually succeed. Many games then take us to the next level of difficulty. This is important so that we don’t get bored with it. We can keep striving for a higher level, new areas to explore, storylines to uncover, items to acquire, abilities to unlock etc. Why don’t we design work to “keep us playing” in similar ways?

Lean Practices to Adjust the Difficulty Level of Work

Two things came to mind when I heard that sentence. First, the phrase “Wouldn’t it be great if..?” is one we encourage learners to use during the kata process when defining their challenge. In kata terms, a challenge is something that seems hard, may take months, would bring great benefit, but we aren’t yet sure how to do it. By reviewing the results of their small experiments daily with a coach, a learner takes steps towards something great. The kata approach is well-suited for tackling problems with unknown solutions. A learner can take on a difficult challenge one knowledge threshold at a time.

The second thought was, “Lean management practices let us adjust difficulty level of work in many ways.” This is due to the interplay of standard work, continuous improvement, and the emphasis on developing people. While the terms “stress” and “boredom” aren’t often addressed directly in the lean literature, this is addressed by removing burden, unwanted variation, and non-value added effort. But this isn’t automatic. It requires that leaders design work and engage as coaches or “game masters” with their learner-employees.

Setting and Following Standard Work

Games have rules. That’s part of what makes them fun. We accept a set of constraints on what’s in bounds or out of bounds, how we can or can’t move, what conditions define winning or losing. Sure, we can do whatever we want, but it’s unlikely we’ll win consistently if we ignore a game’s rules and constraints. The same is true of how we do our jobs. In lean management, this is known as standard work. In discrete and repetitive processes, it’s possible to define standard work through takt time, standard WIP, and work sequence. In a more general sense, it’s the best way of doing something as we know it today.

Standard work is exacting. It’s intended to specify timing, sequence, outcome down to the level of gestures and seconds, in many cases. For people who are not used to following standard work, this feels uncomfortable. Many ask, “Why can’t I do it my way?” In fact, you can. But “my way” needs to be within the confines of what’s better than the current best way. There are rules to the game. There are an infinite number of levels to the game. Before standard work, we’re at level zero. Following standard work, it’s possible to master it, find ways to improve it, and level it up.

The Suggestion System Grind

Another analog between games, engagement, boredom, and leveling up is the grind. Many video games require players to repeat an activity or challenge over and over in order to gain in-game currency, items, or to level up. While this can be boring, it’s the price of gaining the reward. It’s also how game designers keep people playing longer.

When we describe work as a “grind” it suggests doing something dull and repetitive. The task requires grinding or chipping away. There is no shortcut, no easy way to leap ahead. Sometimes this is due to how we’ve designed the task. For example, when manual assembly tasks are short and repetitive, work feels like a pointless grind. When we connect processes so that a person can see the product come together, work is more satisfying.

In other cases, the grind is due to the nature of the work. In order to gain competence with a job skill, we need repetition. In order to discover flaws in our standard work, we need to adhere to it every day, every cycle. Even innovation can be the result of a grind. In the creative idea suggestion system, people are asked to come up with simple kaizens even if they only save a few seconds, every month, every week, or even every day. This gets harder as the years roll on. We pick away the low-hanging fruit, solve the obvious problems.

Finding a small improvement every day requires that we don’t become complacent. We must level up our expectations for processes that are safe, high quality, and easy to perform. A person who has found hundreds of simple improvements must look more carefully at their process, understand what makes it work, and study the data.  What’s interesting is that this also works in reverse. A person new to a job may find a small improvement that a seasoned veteran can’t see. This is because what may not bother a higher-skilled person may be difficult or confusing for a brand new person. The perceived difficulty level changes, requiring that we level up the process, revise standard work, and give people a sense of control over their work.

The Kaizen Event Carry

There’s another interesting analogy between games and lean management practices. In video games, there is something called “being carried.” For example, a player with a lower-level character or level of skill will join a party of higher-level or more experienced players. These stronger players will “carry” the weaker one through a challenging area, to defeat a boss, to gain an achievement, or to level up. This may be done between friends, or even as a paid service with real or in-game currency.

Lean management practice analogies to the carry include the kaizen event, a QC circle in TQM, or any team-based problem-solving or improvement effort. When we need to adjust the level of work downwards to suit a novice, they may join a team that includes several members experienced in problem-solving. As they work through a framework and achieve concrete goals within a relatively short time period, the learner can rapidly level up. This type of learning-by-doing works well when problems and known solutions are well-matched, and it’s just a matter of doing it. In game terms, it’s learning the established mechanics of how to complete a level. While we can do this through trial-and-error, it’s often faster and more fun to be carried a couple of times.

Putting the Adjust Back in the PDCA Cycle

At the head of practically all continuous improvement practices is the plan-do-check-act cycle. The PDCA cycle is also called the PDSA cycle, for plan-do-study-act. Some prefer to call the fourth phase adjust. This is often explained as making adjustments to the plans and countermeasures, if the previous ones were insufficient to meet our goals. Likewise, when the previous PDCA cycle was a success, we set our sights higher for the next cycle, adjusting our targets and expectations. It’s also possible that we adjust the difficulty downward by breaking down the problem into smaller ones for the next cycle, or to temporarily loosen the standard if it’s unattainable under current conditions.

The key point is to view these practices not only from the process perspective but from the people perspective. From the process perspective, there is always room for improvement. One improvement leads to the next. We should pursue perfection in terms of safety, quality, speed, etc. even if it’s unattainable. From the people perspective, we need to make sure that striving for perfection is fun. The challenge should be invigorating and not a burden. We should pull people out of their comfort zone, but not all the way into the far zone. We need to adjust the difficulty of work upwards or downwards as required to keep people engaged and learning.

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