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
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
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 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”.
Agile Software Development, Second Edition. Boston: Addison Wesley, 2007.