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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Guest Post: ROWE v. Lean – My Two Cents

My good friend Mark Hamel, author, blogger, and Shingo Prize Examiner joined the conversation on ROWE.  Mark takes on the David's point linking ROWE with Shingo's respect for people in a counterpoint. I am happy to share Mark's thoughts on the Shingo Prize principles and their relevance to ROWE.

Recently, fellow-blogger David Kasprzak, introduced me to the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) strategy. ROWE, created at Best Buy’s Minneapolis headquarters, espouses a philosophy under which employees can work where they want, when they want, and how they want – as long as the work gets done.

I love meritocratic thinking!

Of course, there’s nothing like a brand new philosophy or system to challenge, and/or sharpen, one’s personal belief systems. You can’t defend that which you don’t understand.

Admittedly, I am more than a bit fuzzy about ROWE. I’ve done some reading on the internet, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I’m considering buying the seminal book, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution, but haven’t pulled the trigger.

In any event, here’s my two cents on what I think I know about ROWE. I could break into the Donald Rumsfeld spiel about known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns…you get the point. So, in the end, what I have to say is worth just about $0.02. Definitely, nothing more.

As you read this, or perhaps more appropriately, after you read this, check out Kasprzk’s latest post on ROWE. It’s right here on Tim McMahon’s A Lean Journey blog. Consider this a type of good-natured point/counterpoint between the two of us.

Here it goes…

ROWE ostensibly engages and empowers the workforce. It strips away some of the organizationally and self-imposed muda of rigidity and silly limitations and focuses on accountability and results. It’s tough to argue with that.

Of course, this almost seems too easy. The “Free Love” days of the 1960’s sounded great, but were not necessarily the best thing from a socio-ethics perspective.

Stupid analogy!? Maybe.

Part of my concern has to do with interdependence. In an enterprise, we can’t all be free actors all of the time – whether we are part of a natural work team or are individual contributors.
Virtually no one in an organization is self-directed (even the C-level executives, just ask them!). What we can be is self-managed within the aligning context of deployed breakthrough objectives (think strategy or policy deployment), key performance indicators, value stream focus, standard work, problem-solving, etc.

So, one burning question I have is where and how does “do[ing] whatever you want, whenever you want as long as you get your work done” intersect with this notion of interdependency and self-management? And, with that, how does it square with the Shingo Model principles?

I bring up the Shingo model (yet again, I know) because David did first…and because it’s a great place to start.

Here’s a quick list of some of the Shingo principles, from bottom to top, and my ROWE relevant questions/comments.

Respect for every individual. Freedom without accountability is license (not good). Accountability without freedom is repressive (also not good). ROWE seems to get that. But, back to the interdependence – can my focus on getting my work done trump the value stream performance and/or that of my natural work team members?

  • Lead with humility. Certainly leaders must have a certain deference to workers in ROWE.
  • Seek perfection. I hope that folks seek to make things easier, better, faster and cheaper, NOT at a sub-optimized level, but for the broader business. There is no kaizen without standard work. So, one question is whether or not ROWE facilitates standard work, its development, adherence to and constant adjustment (improvement). I hope that ROWE fosters team-based problem-solving and alignment of that problem-solving. 
  • Assure quality at the source. Cool, as long as “getting your work done” ensures that it meets customer requirements and that jidoka is regularly applied.
  • Flow and pull value. My biggest concern (and it’s not trivial) with ROWE is whether or not it promotes continuous flow or if it is subordinated to “non-levelized” schedules of empowered workers. Also, if it does not promote adherence to standard work, how do you ensure that the system performs as designed relative to timing, output, etc? Human systems are fragile! That’s why we apply lean management systems.
  • Embrace scientific thinking. Good process = good output. Same goes for the rigorous application of PDCA and SDCA (standardize-do-check-adjust). Hopefully, “getting your work done” includes embracing and following the pragmatic rigor of PDCA and SDCA.
  • Focus on process. See above for my points on interdependency, alignment, and improvement…
  • Think systemically. Ditto… Plus, I hope that ROWE promotes long-term focus as well as short-term. This means that “getting my work done” is for now AND the future. Also, if we recall Imaii’s kaizen diagram, everyone’s job (“work”) includes maintenance and improvement.
  • Create constancy of purpose. Ditto…
  • Create value for the customer. Hopefully, ROWE promotes and facilitates the necessary “line of sight” and mechanisms for the employees so that they understand stakeholder value objectives and effectively work to satisfy them. This is achieved well only if we live all of the principles identified above. 
OK, that’s my $0.02. Please keep the change.

I’d love to learn more about ROWE and explore how it can enhance the lean business system and vice versa. If you can, please help with my ROWE education. No, I’m not looking for tuition assistance; just share your experience and insight.

About the Author:

Mark R. Hamel is a lean implementation consultant, blogger at Gemba Tales, and award-winning author. His book, Kaizen Event Fieldbook: Foundation, Framework, and Standard Work for Effective Events (Society of Manufacturing Engineers, 2009), received a 2010 Shingo Research and Professional Publications Award. Hamel can be reached at mark@kaizenfieldbook.com.

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  1. I work at a small healthcare system that uses lean as its continuous improvement methodology and we are gearing up to transition our first pilot group to ROWE. We will primarily be focused on transitioning our hospital and clinic billing office personnel to a ROWE. You make some great points about the need for standardization and continuous improvement and I look forward to ensuring that those elements are part of our future state. Email me if you want to discuss further - tracylhanson@gmail.com

    1. Tracy,

      Please keep me in mind as you go about your ROWE experience. I'd love to hear about your first-hand experiences.


  2. Hi Tracy,

    Thanks for the comment. I'd love to gain some insight into how you and your organization are going to integrate lean and ROWE.

    I really appreciate your offer to correspond. Expect an email.

    Best regards,
    Mark Hamel

  3. Mark,
    When I read your blog post, the first thing that cropped into my mind was "piecework". ROWE from the outside looking in may sound like a good idea, but I think at the end of the day what you really end up with are a few rock stars who deliver fantastic results - but at what expense? The motivation and mindset for how to approach work becomes "how much I can get done in as little time as possible, and reap the highest benefits (or best visibility)". I think it tears at the fabric of teamwork, standardization becomes difficult to manage, and sustainment nearly impossible.
    Think about (as a manager or supervisor) trying to manage an organization and work-life balance to deliver consistent results and demonstrate improvement in waste?
    Think of ROWE in the context of a shipping department at a manufacturing plant - "hey, we hit the numbers for the month!!" (Sales and customer service nearly break their arms with their self-congratulatory back-slapping). Nevermind that you shipped 85% of volume and $$ in the last 5 days!! What was the total cost of sales to deliver those goods? How many OT hours did the warehousing staff have to put in? How much extra logistics and shipping costs did you incur to achieve those Results (Only)?
    One question that should be asked is, "Who is at the end of that whip?"
    How many hours do the customers of that data, information, or output from people who are using the ROWE philosophy have to put in to meet the end customers expectations?
    The first tenet of TPS the way I understand and try to teach/coach Lean is, "Respect for Humanity". In my humble understanding, this means all employees, not just the choice few who can luxuriate themselves with "free love" work hours as long as the results are in!!
    The ideal state is to create a better process for all.. Think of how much waste could be taken out of a process if only 1/4 of the "free love" time were spent on process improvement? Maybe everybody at company X would enjoy the weekend????

    1. Hi Ed,

      Thanks for the very substantial comment!

      I think that you have captured some of my very concerns (and more). It will be interesting to learn how ROWE manages the all too real risks you identify above.

  4. Mark,

    Very thoughtful piece. My biggest concern involves standardized work and spreading of those best practices. If everyone is working in different locations, at different times, and in different manners, how can you create standardized work and reduce variability? ROWE doesn't make it impossible, but it sure doesn't make it easy.

    1. Hi Dan,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I am also perplexed as to how exactly we integrate improvement with work and practice yokoten within a ROWE adopting business.

      Unless I learn otherwise, I think your final sentence is spot on.

  5. I think the critical issue for the creators of ROWE to address are the larger, systemic issues that have been brought up concerning level loading and ensuring that ALL benefit, not just the individual. Certainly, it's within the realm of possibility to say that those things should be Results, too, for senior managers and leaders capable of creating that dynamic. That is fairly well aligned with Lean's principles, I think. To date, however, most of the conversation coming from the ROWE community tends to center on first-line relationships between staff and manager. Im my opinion, to truly grow and deepen the ROWE concept, an enterprise-wide description of ROWE as a system and style of management, and not simply a behavioral ideal, needs to be developed in some detail.

  6. I worry that ROWE could lead to the unintended consequences of a "whats in it for me (WIIFM)" attitude. Results are great, but if the results are continuously mediocre and there is no emphasis on improvement, any new "result" will need to be pushed down from on high. As Imai discussed in Gemba Kaizen, as worker lead kaizen activities increase, top-down governance reduces. I don't see how ROWE can increase the engagement to the benefit of the whole company rather than just the benefit to the individual.