Happy Cogs

Tom Robertson: Posted on Monday, December 03, 2012 2:26 PM

The notion of an organization as a “factory” can make people frown. You know the story – dull, repetitive tasks; exploited workers; de-humanized cogs in a machine. This is what organizations get when they forget they are made up of people. But just the same, all organizations share a factory-like need to guide and coordinate human talents. 

During my first years studying engineering in college, I worked in a factory that made trucks. I noticed a parallel: both factories and electrical circuits need a design that works in spite of variable and somewhat unpredictable components. Bureaucrats try to serve this need in organizations, and we often despise them for it. But structure and routine can result in good things, like trucks that are widely affordable, and good pay for limited skill. 

A well-designed “factory” can achieve a self-reinforcing harmony between organization and individual. There are structural and organizational sciences to draw upon, but applying them to a particular organization, at a particular point in time, is an art.  

For example, consider a “factory” that builds computer software. In Agile Software Development*, Alistair Cockburn cites the need for these organizations to develop “ecosystems that ship software”, tailored to situational factors such as: team size, skill, and experience; software complexity, criticality, and requirements changeability; and enterprise culture, e.g., risk aversion. 

We can view creating a good “factory” as tailoring a balance between structure and flexibility. Here are some trade-offs to consider:
Constrain work to schedule and budget      Adapt to discoveries of what works
Maintain commitmentsPromote evolving, clarifying conversations
Establish authoritative documentationEngage in rich human interaction
Objectively measure resultsFrequently examine criteria against reality
Monitor detailsEncourage noticing, feedback, and help
Focus each participant’s workEmpower individual creativity
Capture best practicesAdaptively optimize cost-benefit

Of course, an organization is more than a “factory”; in our next post we will explore organization as a “family”.


*Cockburn, Alistair Agile Software Development, Second Edition. Boston: Addison Wesley, 2007.

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