Two Wrongs

Handoff Waste and Taylorism

Handoff Waste and Taylorism

I’m creating flashcards from my notes of Ward’s book on product development1 Lean Product and Process Development; Ward & Sobek; Lean Enterprises Institute, Inc.; 2014. and it is chock full of wisdom. It’s an insanely good book. Read it.

Taylorism leads to wasted work

In product development organisations, there is usually a lot of work happening that doesn’t make things better for the customer, also known as waste.

There’s one particular type of waste that’s built into every single one of our organisations, thanks to Taylorism, or “scientific management”2 I dislike that term because it’s about as scientific as Young Earth creationism.. In essence, Taylorism advocates that when structuring work,

  • the Manager is responsible for project success;
  • the Expert decides how to do things;
  • the Worker does the actual job; and
  • feedback is unnecessary because the Expert has thought of it all already.

This sounds sensible because we’re culturally trained to accept it3 And it might even be sensible for some kinds of work, but not for product development and other creative lines of work., but it leads to work being done inefficiently, with lots of wasted cognitive effort.

Symptoms of handoff waste

The type of waste we are discussing is called handoff by Ward, and you might recognise its effect from your past work experiences:

  • If the Worker does not have the knowledge necessary to do good work, they will either do it badly or have to go back and forth to the Expert.
  • If the feedback of a quality problem does not reach the Worker they will continue producing low quality.
  • If the Manager does not have the knowledge of how the thing is done they will set a bad direction and hold both Workers and Experts to meaningless standards.

Some other consequences/symptoms of handoff are

  • Excessive status reporting, which takes time and produces no value for the customer.
  • Lost knowledge, resulting in demands for explanations and irrelevant questions being asked repeatedly.
  • Finger pointing and responsibility shirking, when people realise they can just claim “I did my part correctly. The thing you’re talking about is not my job!”
  • Mistrust for management, because people respect and follow leaders who are skilled at their job, not just appointed into some management position for their political connections or business acumen.

These things are not inevitable parts of an organisation – they are created specifically by handoff waste.

Separating functions is the problem

We can minimise handoff by keeping the four functions of responsibility, knowledge, action, and feedback together. For each product being developed, there should be exactly one person who is

  • responsible for project success, including quality targets, profitability, staffing demands, etc.;
  • has the knowledge to develop it on their own, given enough time;
  • actively spends time on the floor working on the details; and
  • receives feedback about how things are going, both internally and from the customer.

That person can hire other people to help them, but what they cannot do is completely delegate any of the above functionalities to someone else. If they do, waste will creep into the operation.

Toyota calls that person a Chief Engineer, and Ward suggests Entrepreneur System Designer4 There are good reasons for this specific name, but going into it might be a separate article.. Either way, it’s a role I’d like to see more of in the industry.