How Does Autonomy Fit Into Lean Management?

Dan Pink’s new book “DRIVE” made me wonder how Lean managementwill work with the book’s premise that knowledge workers seek autonomy.Do standardized work and job instruction sheets take away from the need to have autonomy over what tasks people do, when they do it, who they do it with, and how they do it?

The book’s premise is that old motivating ways of using the carrot as a reward or the stick as punishmentdoesnot work for knowledge workers. Knowledge workers are motivated by autonomy over task, technique, time, and team. They are also motivated by the pursuit of mastery and fulfilling a purpose. I posted a video from the author explaining the concept a couple of months ago.

Pink breaks down processes into two categories:

  • Algorithmic: Tasks where you follow a set of established instructions down a single pathway to one conclusion
  • Heuristic: Tasks which require experimenting with possibilities to devise a novel solution and no single pathway exists

Carrots and sticks work well for motivating people with algorithmic tasks (to some extent) butcause damage when applied to heuristic tasks.

One of the challenges at my hospital is that most providers think providing all elements of care is heuristic. They each have their own special skills and experiencesto create care for the patient. From a Lean perspective, we have variation and unpredictable results which cause waste. Provider teams in the hospital are working at transforming some of these tasks to be algorithmic. Weare able to meet our patients’ demands better, less people are idle, and supplies are getting closer to point-of-use.

Despite these wins, is Lean thinking taking away autonomy by transforming heuristic tasks? I do not think so but we have look at things a little differently.

Just because a task is algorithmic does not mean creativity is lost and robots are created. For patient care, maybe all of the steps leading up to diagnosis are algorithmic but the value added part is heuristic. This frees up the provider’s mental capacity to focus on the true customer problem and not on the problems getting up to the customer.

Another way of looking at this is that the problem solving part of everybody’s work is heurestic. If every task is somehow transformed into a single pathway, your staff should still have the autonomy to recognize problems and experiment to fix them. Helping people understand that their creativity will be focused on trying to improve experiences instead of trying to figure out what to do next or where something is.

Lean management should strive to motivate people as autonomous knowledge workers. Even if standardized work makes tasks look ripe for the carrot and stick treatment, recognize you are asking staff to be creative and solve problems.

What do you think?

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Filed under Change Management, Communication, Consulting, Improve With Lean, Improvements, Learn Leadership, Learning Organization, Problem Solving, Productivity, Reflection, Respect For People, Standard Work

3 responses to “How Does Autonomy Fit Into Lean Management?

  1. I think your use of the word autonomy is different from Pink’s definition; you weaken Pink’s definition in order to support it. You refer to giving people the autonomy to identify problems and to experiment with fixing them. This is a good thing; it does give people more control over their work, and it fosters creativity and learning, but it is not autonomy as Pink defines it; at least not as I understand him. As you point out, he defines it as covering four aspects of work: what people do, when they do it, how they do it, and whom they do it with; or, alternatively, as people having autonomy over the four T’s: their task, their time, their technique, and their team.

    Standardized work and job instruction training are by definition meant to reduce/eliminate such forms of autonomy (especially the first three). Identifying problems is not choosing what to do, how to do it, when to do it, or with whom to do it with. Experimenting does give you the opportunity to influence these aspects. but influence is not autonomy.

    I’m not claiming lean turns people into mindless robots; quite the opposite. Lean requires thinking (deep thinking), and as mentioned is inherently tied to learning and creativity. I am simply stating that lean not only does not aim to create the types of autonomy Pink advocates, it in fact inhibits them.

    Whether this is good or bad is another issue altogether.

    I think the concept of autonomy must be modified (or clarified–perhaps I simply misunderstand Pink) to having the autonomy to make choices that do not lead to sub-optimization of the system worked in, accompanied by people not feeling controlled by others. Thus, for instance, choices as to when to do work must be constrained by such things as meeting customer needs (including the next process as a customer). Also, forcing people to comply with lean practices makes them feel controlled and hurts intrinsic motivation. But if people freely choose to adopt lean principles, including standardized work, because they understand the why of it, then this will foster intrinsic motivation.

    I think this happens by virtue of the other two intrinsic “motivators” Pink discusses: fulfilling a purpose and mastery. Furthermore, I believe these two trump concerns over autonomy: If people see standardized work as enabling them to better fulfill a higher purpose and move towards mastery, then any resultant lack of autonomy is overshadowed and people remain/become highly intrinsically motivated.

    Feel free to disagree…

    • Simon, Thanks for your thoughtful response.

      You are correct that I may be stretching Pink’s definition of autonomy to fit into Lean.

      When I read the book, I felt that standardized work does remove autonomy over which tasks people do, how to do them, and when to do them (content, sequence, timing, and outcome).

      Since Lean principles recognize people as knowledge workers and not just a pair of hands, what do we do if the very nature of our improvements take away from the autonomy they crave?

      I was trying to argue, maybe weakly, that defining a worker’s primary job as being a problem solver allows for autonomy since they choose which problems they want to solve, how to experiment, when to experiment, and who to partner with. If a worker’s focus is just on the algorithmic tasks, then they do not have a lot of autonomy in a Lean environment. But if organizations really support the same worker to have a problem solving focus while concurrantly doing the algorithmic tasks, they have a new dimension to their daily job.

      Lastly, I agree with you about the benefits of workers freely choosing Lean principles. I think an organization is in danger if they have to resort to compliance instead of committment.

      Thanks again!

  2. Interesting post! Some good food for thought on how we can get the best of lean systems while still allowing opportunity for autonomy and creativity at work.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    Cheri Baker
    The Enlightened Manager Blog

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