Markovitz Countermeasures

Focus on systems, not people, to make organizations work better

In Productivity Is About Your Systems, Not Your People, Daniel Markovitz starts a great essay with a straightforward observation that company-wide productivity (or better, progressivity) isn’t the sum of everyone’s personal productivity:

Personal solutions can be useful, but the most effective antidote to low productivity and inefficiency must be implemented at the system level, not the individual level.

I prefer the term progressivity to productivity, because making progress is not always just about increasing output, but instead improving outcomes.

Markovitz goes on to offer four countermeasures to improve how companies work:

Tier your huddles — Markovitz points out that some companies have adopted a system of tiered daily huddles, and tiering means both a series of management layers — or scope of decisions— in the company as well as a sequence of decision-focused meetings. Front-line workers huddle at the start of the day, surfacing any out-of-scope issues. These — if any — are passed along 30 minutes later to the second huddle of first-line supervisors, which can surface out-of-scope issues and actions taken to the third huddle of directors and VPs, 30 minutes later. The goal is to resolve issues at the earliest point/closest-to-the-problem level, with only unresolved issues being surfaced to the next huddle. His management layers can be replaced with other organizational approaches, with similar benefits.

This system improves the linkage between the C-suite and the front lines; it accelerates decision making; and perhaps most importantly, it improves productivity by reducing the number of scattershot emails about a variety of problems.

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Make work visible — Use tools that expose the status of work, like task boards (he mentions Trello, Asana, Airtable, and Zenkit) so that the state of work elements and those responsible for them is visible. This is also called ‘working out loud’. This avoids status check emails/meetings. Similarly, making people’s status visible — like working from home today, or taking Tuesday off — has a similar effect:

In this case, “predictability” serves the same purpose as “visibility” — it allows workers to see what colleagues are doing, and to react accordingly.

Define the ‘bat signal’ — Pick a single channel of communication to communicate when a true emergency happens, so people don’t have to search through email, intranets, chat, and voice mail. Define agendas to use when things go pear-shaped.

I will quibble with his chart, above, and replace desk phone/face-to-face in the lower right — especially during coronavirus — with work chat or intranet messaging.

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Align responsibility with authority — People have to be given authority to accomplish the work that they are nominally responsible for. Anything less is a recipe for massive inefficiencies, if not disaster. Moskovitz singles out the W.L. Gore ‘lattice’ structure as a realization of this principle:

The $3 billion company broadly distributes leadership responsibility throughout the organization, allowing employees to make “above the waterline” (i.e., low-risk) decisions on their own, and only requiring approvals for “below the waterline” (high-risk) decisions. Gore has spent decades developing and refining the culture, systems, and processes to support their unique organizational structure, so it might be difficult for another company to copy their model. Nevertheless, it’s an example of the kind of thinking that can improve individual — and organizational — productivity.

Jeff Bezos characterizes this in a slightly different way at Amazon. He divides decisions using a door analogy: is this decision a two-way door, where we can turn around and exit if the decision doesn’t pan out? Or is it a one-way door, where once the threshold is crossed, there is no return? Obviously, more consideration should be applied to one-way decisions.


This was initially published as a section of Work Futures Update | Sow The Wind.