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Work Design and Six Sigma: Improve Jobs and Processes

The business world keeps revisiting the concept of a high-performance organization, often coining some new phrase or slogan to describe it. Regardless of its newest label or the guru touting its latest incarnation, high performance has virtually always meant achieving a hard-to-sustain combination of six critical elements:

  • High profitability
  • World-class service
  • Accountability
  • Simple workflow
  • Customer-centered jobs, structures and metrics
  • Motivated and challenged workforce

Quality deployments like Six Sigma invariably yield process improvements that address key elements in the middle of the list – by simplifying workflow, for example, and introducing or refining customer-centered structures and metrics. To achieve the top items in the list, however, execution is key – and that still depends on human elements. To make sure Six Sigma projects contribute to high profitability and world-class service, organizations need a motivated and challenged workforce with appropriate accountability for performing well in customer-centered jobs.

To achieve that, organizations need to look at work design and how jobs and people integrate with newly designed processes.

Redesigning Processes and Work in Tandem

Many quality deployments stumble – or, even more commonly, fail to maximize their gains – because work processes are redesigned and job descriptions are altered without ever investigating whether the resulting jobs are good ones to do or ones that people can be motivated to do well. Business leaders seem to have forgotten the wisdom of Frederick Herzberg, the motivation theorist who wrote, “You can’t expect people to do a good job, if there isn’t a good job to do.”

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Failing to design “good” jobs leads organizations to a host of problems. Often manufacturing-like work designs show up in service environments. Workflows become extended, resulting in fragmented service. Over-reliance on technology and process efficiency leads to too many people in support activities and too few delivering mission-related, customer-centered tasks. Feedback and accountability then become remote and blurred.

Many of these hazards can be avoided by redesigning the work at the same time the process is being redesigned. Leading-edge Six Sigma initiatives include examining work design while the project is still in its problem-solving stages.

The latest thinking about work design builds from Herzberg’s motivational theory and work by J. Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham, authors of the book Work Redesign. Their research, coupled with practical consulting work, led to the recognition that a “good job,” to use their terms, is one that provides workers with “experienced meaningfulness,” “experienced responsibility” and “experienced feedback.”

Simply put, the work has to be important, the employees have to clearly be responsible for that work, and the employees have to know how they are doing in performing the job. Learning and growth opportunities also trigger internal work motivation, one of the outcomes of effective work design.

Today’s approach to work design builds on those well-tested principles and is a participative one focusing on work content and its integration with work process. It aims not only to improve process flow, but also to increase job satisfaction and reduce employees’ distance from the customer.

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Jobs That Motivate: Focusing on Core Dimensions

By focusing on each job’s core dimensions – skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy and feedback (Table 1) – work design helps an organization to answer the question: “Is this a job that people are not only going to be able to do, but also want to do?” To answer that question, it helps to know what distinguishes the jobs that motivate people the most. The most motivating jobs are those that:

  • Are designed so workers complete an important task, in its entirety, for specific customers.
  • Include clear, impartial feedback.
  • Allow workers the freedom to design much of the day-to-day “how to’s” of their job.
  • Provide for learning and growth opportunities.
Table 1: Core Job Dimensions


Meaningful Work
.


Responsibility
.


Knowledge of Results
.

Skill Variety
Use of multiple/different skills

Task Identity
Whole job from start to finish

Task Significance
Value or benefit to clients

Autonomy
Degree of freedom to use judgment

Feedback from Job
How can I assess my performance?

Using the Job Diagnostic Survey to Guide Work Design

Six Sigma practitioners are always glad to learn that the motivational underpinnings of work are measurable. Hackman and Oldham developed a job diagnostic survey that measures the presence of the motivating concepts in a job by its core dimensions. Easily administered and requiring only about 30 minutes of an employee’s time to complete, the survey can give an organization a clear reading as to the likelihood that existing jobs (or new or redesigned jobs) are ones that people will want to do.

If an employee’s current role involves just a small part of delivering a product to a customer – slicing tomatoes for a take-out hamburger, for example – the task identity result for that job may be very low (2.7 on a scale of 1 to 7, where 7 is high). Redesigning the work so that the employee completes more of an important task – for example, so that he or she cooks and assembles the hamburger in its entirety – will likely raise the task identity score significantly. The employee’s motivation will go up along with the score.

The job diagnostic survey can be used during a Six Sigma initiative, thereby helping organizations to:

  1. Redesign jobs.
  2. Match employee populations to the newly designed jobs and provide them with the support, learning and skills they need to succeed.
  3. Manage the change process.

By creating motivating jobs that tap into an employee’s discretionary effort, work design enables organizations to maximize the outcomes of process redesign and obtain breakthrough gains in customer satisfaction, service performance, productivity and employee satisfaction.

The “How to’s” of Work Design and Six Sigma

The job diagnostic survey can be deployed in the Measure phase of a DMAIC project to obtain a baseline. The resulting insights also can be used in the Analyze and Improve phases to redesign work and integrate it with newly improved work processes. The survey can then be redeployed in the Control phase to validate the work redesign benefits and the improved motivational gains achieved.

At each phase, work process improvement should consider how tasks are packaged into jobs – and how the jobs should be managed and organized into work units – so that “whole jobs” face off to specific customer or market segments. Job survey results can be addressed with one or more of the following implementing concepts to maximize a job or work unit’s customer contact, accountability and feedback:

  • Content analysis to eliminate unnecessary and non-value-added work (consistent with value-analysis and Lean Six Sigma).
  • Task combination to package work into complete units or team people in ways that their combined work is a completed unit.
  • Creation of natural work units, so that organizing structures meet the needs of specific customer or market segments, product lines or geographical segments.
  • Client relationships, which means assigning employees to specific customers for whom they are responsible, and eliminating degrees of separation between customers and staff.
  • Vertical loading, so that employees perform tasks previously handled by first-line supervisors.
  • Feedback channels, opening direct links to job-specific, immediate feedback about work performance from the work itself.

Integrating Work Design into a DMAIC Project

In a recent case, an experienced Black Belt at a large-scale international insurer integrated work design into his DMAIC project. Use of the job diagnostic survey helped engage the employees in a meaningful and important way in the areas where the project was being deployed. These employees helped design the changes that were ultimately deployed. The Black Belt was able to describe specific elements of the newly designed work process and organizational system – including specific content items and change process items – that surfaced only through the work design analysis. Because the resulting business benefits would not have been obtained without the work design effort, this company is now planning to include work design as part of its DMAIC toolkit nationwide.

This recent project confirms the experience of work designers during the last 25 years. Designing work that is intrinsically meaningful is not simply a nice thing to do as part of an organizational improvement effort. Whether in a Six Sigma or other performance-driven initiative, work design is key to attaining internal motivation, enhanced work satisfaction, improved customer relations and higher profits.

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