Reconciling Workflows with Human Performance Theory

Recently, I’ve been tasked with improving the workflows at my place of work. On the surface this is seemingly a worthy task. Workflows, while not explicitly discussed in the interventions readings from a few weeks ago, are certainly an active part of workplace performance support taking the form of strategic planning, benchmarking, documentation & standards, and the greater fundamental of quality improvement. But as my teammates and I work through these exercises, I’m questioning the use of these processes and the tools used to work through them. Often what is being discussed within the context of these workflow conversation is the tools used to track projects, as in Program/Project management tools. Tools like Microsoft Project, Planner, Sharepoint, ClickUp,, Asana, Trello, and Slack are often brought up in these chats. The chats normally center on the ability to collaborate between cross functional teams, maintain accountability amongst enterprise divisions, and visibility to higher management. Again these are all very valid needs, but as is often said, the devil is in the details.

One thing that has begun to creep into my thoughts is concern that these management tools and task based orientations actually hurt human performance. To be specific, I think these tools if not fully vetted potentially decrease productivity and workplace satisfaction. And in my experience, the vetting of these systems is rarely done by the frontline worker, and even when they are vetted by the frontline worker they are looking at the tool through the eyesight of someone who is intimately familiar with the current processes. A process the frontline worker may or may not like and have almost certainly figured out a way to work with or work around (that’s their job right?). If I’m being honest the process has been somewhat discouraging, and I’m normally a pretty optimistic guy.

I think perhaps one of the reasons I’ve been a bit down in the dumps about this is based off some reading I did while getting my MBA a few years back. The workflow discussion I mention above winds up sounding a lot like the Scientific Management that was popular in the 1910’s and 20’s, this was as the assembly line process was just picking up steam. It’s essentially mapping out the whole of a process and finding the most efficient way to get said process accomplished. Again, sounds pretty good yeah? Sure, but an important element that is overlooked is that initially manufacturing plants had a lot of trouble hiring workers to do these very processed tasks. Ford somewhat famously had to over hire hundreds of workers to fill his ranks. One of his biographers wrote, “So great was labor’s distaste for this new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to higher 963.” I see a lot of this same “distaste” when front line personnel are looking over new performance interventions, and I wonder if it’s because we are attempting to take something they value, i.e. their personal knowledge and skill to do a job, and mechanize it in the development of a workflow or task management system. The mechanization is a quick step to automation which while potentially helpful to the bottom line will not necessarily be helpful to the motivation and engagement of front line personnel. Strangely, a particular presidential candidate also thinks this way and has made it central to his campaign.

I think in a practical sense, perhaps the way to move forward is to have some amalgamation of process + effort. Similar to discussions on cognitive load theory, perhaps we develop tools and materials to decrease extraneous cognitive load, i.e. better processes and task management systems, and increase germane cognitive load to improve the development of personal skill to thus improve both the worker and the overall bottom line. It’s similar to the “don’t miss the forest for the trees,” concept that is so often brought up, and ultimately I’m sure that is the overall goal of what many enterprises are trying to do, including my own. But if we keep in mind the agency of the frontline worker, their actual use of the tools available to them while they are exerting the mental effort necessary to accomplish the enterprise goal then the goal for the intervention becomes clearer with the proposed interventions needing to be both personnel performance enhancing and objectively effective while also not being so tedious so as to discourage forward thinking.

This book covers some of these ideas and is a quick read, especially if you like motorcycles.

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