One of my favorite things is reading a book and finding a statement that makes me pause and reflect. It’s the highlighter worthy statement. It’s the one I might write about or use to start a conversation with a colleague. It’s a statement the author uses to convey the point of their writing. For me, it’s a statement that feels right because it connects with my own experiences.
It happened today as I was reading Lean Thinking by James Womack and Daniel Jones. Womack and Jones recapped the findings of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi by saying,
“The types of activities which people all over the world consistently report as most rewarding — that is, which makes them feel best — involve a clear objective, a need for concentration so intense that no attention is left over, a lack of interruptions and distractions, clear and immediate feedback on progress toward the objective, and a sense of a challenge.”
At work, I have an ongoing conversation with a few colleagues that the most rewarding department in the company is shipping. The product comes to them and leaves them, piece-by-piece. They check a box, mark it complete, mark it shipped. This is not the type of stimulating work Csikszentmihalyi mentions. But shipping personnel are gaining the sense of accomplishment by starting and completing work without interruptions.
Here’s a challenging situation. Today’s office of matrixed organizations working on multiple projects, makes replicating the experience described by Csikszentmihalyi extremely difficult. I’ve been wrestling with the puzzle of transitioning IT work from batch-and-queue into single piece workflows. Part of that puzzle is finding solutions for how best to keep technology workers satisfied and inspired by their work. Project requests come simultaneously from multiple stakeholders including customers, product managers, and compliance teams. Project requests also originate from events like mergers, acquisitions, facility closures, and company reorganizations. All this results in what I call organizational entropy. It’s very difficult for a professional worker to achieve “a concentration so intense that no attention is left over”.
One way to minimize the number of stops and starts is by level-loading assignments to workers by prioritizing work and regulating the in-take of new work from entering the flow of production. This takes discipline from the managers to see the entire system and to manage with an eye towards uninterrupted work. It requires discipline from the workers not be distracted by upcoming work or work not requested by the customer. If I think about my typical day, I start with a set of defined work tasks for what’s important and due. It takes concentration to complete a task from start-to-finish without pausing to look at emails, new requests, or other project assignments. But when I do stick to the plan and complete the work, I find the work more rewarding.
Picture this – “Concentration so intense that no attention is left over”. Office squirrels might go extinct.
Onward and upward!