Through my new friends in Lean (and some old Navy folks), I have been introduced to ROWE – Results Only Work Environment. At the same time I have been re-reading Fish!, whose premise closely follows what ROWE is all about: if you empower your workforce you will see major productivity gains.
Either I have not researched the topic deeply enough or I am too new a neophyte to ROWE to understand, I do see some dangers. I write this blog entry to stimulate a conversation. I do see the power in choice and evaluating people on merit. But I also see ROWE as more of a part of an overall strategy, not a panacea.
The first fear or danger I see is the fear of sub-optimization. Sub-optimization is the sin of improving locally without regard for the whole. A local improvement could have a harmful impact on the entire operation. From what I have seen from my limited literature search, there is no mention of required coordination to ensure work flow. Also, the increased capacity from the local improvement could be lost if left in the hands of the individual worker. There still has to be some guidelines necessary to ensure work still flows smoothly through the entire operation and not bottleneck the downstream internal customer.
The second fear or danger is lack of synchronicity. I work in a shipyard that maintains US Navy warships. We live and die by the schedule. We have to repair and maintain ships on a set schedule otherwise we adversely impact those ships already underway (they have to stay out longer if we miss schedule and you know how ticked off you would be if you were cooped up in a cabin for an extended period of time) and it snowballs from there. For any work to be completed you need four things to be available at the same time: procedure, operator, equipment, material (POEM). If one part of this is missing you cannot accomplish work. Repairing ships is a ballet just like building cars. We have to ensure the POEM is there to ensure work is done. On larger scales I can see ROWE can harm the concept of POEM if not planned out well. ROWE can reinforce POEM by ensuring a happy workforce but it cannot allow the O part of POEM to be let down because a critical skill decides that they are done for the day and leave because their part of the work is done.
I see these dangers as extreme circumstances. Yes, if people are happy, feel they have some control of their schedule, see the value that they provide, and understand their importance to the accomplishment of the mission these dangers of minimized. So I ask the ROWE experts, “What makes ROWE different from Deming’s 14 points, Senge’s 5 disciplines, or Taiichi Ohno’s workplace management concepts?” If it is a way to apply these concepts, I am all for it as long as consideration of the potential pitfalls are also addressed.
Until next time!