How organizations can improve task flow and prevent overload.

If you work in an organization, you know what it’s like to have too much to do and not enough resources to do it. Digital tools for communication and collaboration are meant to make it all more manageable, but access to technology often can’t fix the root causes: poor work design and entrenched organizational behaviors.

The costs of overload are well-documented: It makes people less creative, less productive, more prone to illness, less likely to hit deadlines and goals, and more likely to leave their organizations to work elsewhere.2 And it’s been implicated in many major accidents and disasters, from BP’s Texas City Refinery explosion to the more recent U.S. Navy ship collisions.3 But, despite the evidence, many leaders continue to believe that their organizations thrive when overloaded, often both creating pressure and rewarding those who deliver under duress. It’s a popular but pathological approach to management.

U.S. manufacturers suffered mightily under this approach for decades, until many found a better way.

Before the 1980s, plant managers tended to believe that keeping every person and machine busy was the key to success. If everybody was busy, the thinking went, the plant would produce more. But visits to Japanese manufacturers and books like The Goal4 revealed that this approach actually undermined performance. Today, factories are run differently. On the whole, managers have become much more aware of which operations are critical to overall performance — and manufacturing and assembly plants are both more efficient and more flexible than they were in the 1980s.

Nevertheless, the “keep everybody busy” theory remains alive and well in other settings, particularly in knowledge work. Though it hasn’t been studied as extensively in such contexts, evidence suggests that in many types of jobs — for instance, serving bank customers, performing complex surgeries, and developing cutting-edge products — organizations overload their employees in hopes of maximizing the performance of the enterprise.5 They have a lot to learn from manufacturing, where managers have adopted a “pull” system for controlling the number and the rhythm of tasks in a work process.

In this article, we explain how this concept from the world of physical work can be used to improve resource allocation and prevent overload in other settings.


*Other contributors to this article include Broad Institute colleagues Timothy DeSmet, James Meldrim, Niall Lennon, Danielle Perrin, Steve Ferriera, Zachary Leber, Dennis Friedrich, Stacey Gabriel, and founding director Eric S. Lander.

2.M. Kivimäki, M. Hotopf, and M. Henderson, “Do Stressful Working Conditions Cause Psychiatric Disorders?” Occupational Medicine 60, no. 2 (March 1, 2010): 86-87; J. Kodz, B. Kersley, M.T. Strebler, and S. O’Regan, “Breaking the Long Hours Culture” (Grantham, U.K.: Grantham Book Services, 1998); J.M. Lyneis, K.G. Cooper, and S.A. Els, “Strategic Management of Complex Projects,” System Dynamics Review 17, no. 3 (fall 2001): 237-260.

3.The BP U.S. Refineries Independent Safety Review Panel, “The Report of the BP U.S. Refineries Independent Safety Review Panel,” January 2007; U.S. Navy, “Collision Report for USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain Collisions,” Nov. 1, 2017.

4.E. Eliyahu, M. Goldratt, and J. Cox, “The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement” (Great Barrington, Massachusetts: North River Press, 2004).

5.D.R.M. Somlo, N.P. Repenning, and A.A. Mangi, “Improving Patient Flow With Dynamic Work Design,” NEJM Catalyst case study, June 6, 2018; R. Oliva and J.D. Sterman, “Cutting Corners and Working Overtime: Quality Erosion in the Service Industry,” Management Science 47, no. 7 (July 1, 2001): 894-914.

6.See Somlo et al., “Improving Patient Flow With Dynamic Work Design,” as a recent example.

7.E.S. Lander, L.M. Linton, B. Birren, C. Nusbaum, M.C. Zody, J. Baldwin, K. Devon, et al., “Initial Sequencing and Analysis of the Human Genome,” Nature 409, no. 6822 (Feb. 15, 2001): 860.

8.M.l. Spearman, W.J. Hopp, and D.l. Woodruff, “A Hierarchical Control Architecture for Constant Work-in-Process (CONWIP) Production Systems,” Journal of Manufacturing and Operations Management 2, no. 3 (Jan. 1, 1989): 147-171; W.J. Hopp and M.L. Spearman, “Factory Physics: Foundations of Manufacturing Management” (Boston, Massachusetts: Irwin/McGraw-Hill, 2001).

9.S.C. Wheelwright and K.B. Clark, “Revolutionizing Product Development: Quantum Leaps in Speed, Efficiency, and Quality” (New York: Free Press, 1992); N.P. Repenning, P. Gonçalves, and L.J. Black, “Past the Tipping Point: The Persistence of Firefighting in Product Development,” California Management Review 43, no. 4 (2001): 44-63; D.P. Oosterwal, “The Lean Machine: How Harley-Davidson Drove Top-Line Growth and Profitability With Revolutionary Lean Product Development” (New York: AMACOM, 2010).

10.See Wheelwright and Clark, “Revolutionizing Product Development.”

11.M. Wilson, “Six Views of Embodied Cognition,” Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 9, no. 4 (2002): 625-636.

12.N.P. Repenning, D. Kieffer, and J. Repenning, “A New Approach to Designing Work,” MIT Sloan Management Review 59, no. 2 (winter 2018).

1 Comment On: Breaking Logjams in Knowledge Work

  • Mauricio Dicker | September 10, 2018

    A very effective story of a very common reality in the industry, in my company I have observed similar processes in plants and through similar methods, the effects also lead to better results.

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