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Happy Cogs

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:

                  Structure                                                  Flexibility
Constrain work to schedule and budget      Adapt to discoveries of what works
Maintain commitments                             Promote evolving, clarifying conversations
Establish authoritative documentation        Engage in rich human interaction
Objectively measure results                      Frequently examine criteria against reality
Monitor details                                         Encourage noticing, feedback, and help
Focus each participant’s work                   Empower individual creativity
Capture best practices                             Adaptively 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.

4 Comments to Happy Cogs:

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Moses Kurt on Friday, January 11, 2013 9:18 AM
Hey Tom you are really a brilliant person and I appreciate you for this great writing as well! Here all information on "Organizational Design" are really special and also important for me so far. Thanks the head up and keep posting like this...........
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Tom Robertson on Friday, January 11, 2013 12:51 PM
Thanks for your comment, Moses! I wish you well in your organization. Tom on Tuesday, January 22, 2013 7:13 PM
tailor effective action by thinking of their organization as a  “Factory” – creating structure that mutually supports individual and organization (Happy Cogs, Taking Chances ); or a
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jack kent on Monday, May 21, 2018 10:31 PM
nice post this is for all the happy people out their.
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