understanding work systems

Continued from focus on the system.

“Over the long haul, even strong people can’t compensate for a weak process. Sure, some occasional success may come from team or individual heroics. But if you pit a good performer against a bad system, the system will win almost every time.”Rummler & Brache

The nine-box model is an effective model for unearthing systemic issues that influence how work gets done. It looks at Goals, Design, and Management from three levels — the Organization, the Processes, and the Work Teams. This is a tool I have used for several consulting engagements during my career as a workplace performance improvement specialist.

rummler brache nine box model

For example, if goals and priorities are not clearly connected & communicated, unclear processes can result, leading to ad hoc methods and an increased need for coordination, wasting time. Professionals may be getting the work done, 
but at what longer-term costs?

More detailed questions can be asked for each box as shown in the example below.

  • Are goals clear?
  • What are the spans of control?
  • Is work open and transparent to all?
  • Are priorities clearly communicated?
  • Are feedback loops clear and used?
  • How are decisions made and tracked?
  • Is there a mix of asynchronous and synchronous communications?
  • Does the hierarchy increase or decrease the flow of knowledge?
  • Are rewards and consequences aligned with organizational goals?
  • Are there systemic barriers that block or slow capable workers?
  • Are workers managed based on a framework that supports autonomy, competence, and relatedness?
nine box model questions

Just mapping these nine boxes can provide a much clearer image of how the organization works, or perhaps does not. From here, we can start to address systemic issues and not focus on individual performance. Our organizations are human-made tools for getting things done. In A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan (1967), John Culkin wrote that, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” As on a ship, the most important person is not the Captain or the Navigator, but the architect who designed the ship. We have the capability to redesign the ships on which we work.

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