By: MIT xPRO on September 26th, 2019
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Strategy Lessons from the Toyota Factory Line

Leadership | Engineering

Professionals are under more pressure than ever to drive complex projects under high-pressure conditions, as organizations increasingly opt to ditch traditionally siloed structures in favor of a “Dynamic Work Design” approach. To enable better organizational problem solving, technical professionals and organizational leaders in particular must adopt a new analytical framework that recognizes existing organizational sources of power and culture.

Management at Toyota figured out a way to systematize the shift between its two main modes of work -- mechanistic, serial tasks or “Factory Work” mode, and organic, collaborative tasks or “Studio Work” mode. Toyota is just one example of how adopting a “Dynamic Work Design” framework impacts innovation for the better. Here’s why:

Pulling the "Andon Cord"


MIT Sloan Management Review recently explored the impact that pulling “The Andon Cord” has on the factory floor at Toyota. When an operator on the line at Toyota notices an issue, she stops the production line by pulling the “Andon cord” or pushing a button. This not only stops production but alerts a supervisor who joins the operator to help resolve the issue.

This small action leads to a big shift from mechanistic “Factory Work” to “Studio Work,” where colleagues discuss a problem to resolve it and there is more collaboration. In the example given, it took the employee less than a minute to get the attention of her supervisor and begin working again.

"The Axis of Frustration" and unproductive work design

But, what happens when organizations don’t do a good job of cycling between “Factory” and “Studio” modes of work? Ineffective iteration and wasted attention are two elements of unproductive work design, which MIT Professor Nelson Repenning -- a lead instructor for MIT xPRO's online leadership program  -- dubs this “The Axis of Frustration.” The shift from set tasks to collaborative work isn’t what makes Toyota’s process effective. Established rules and conventions that that make this shift seamless sets the “Andon cord” process apart as a prime example of “Dynamic Work Design.”

Without defining the mechanisms that move a process between the individual and collaborative modes, projects will increasingly cycle between ineffective iteration (costly and slow iteration) and wasted attention, leaving employees to frantically try to solve (or at least hide) the latest problem before the next review. This is why – regardless of the type of work being done – organizations should prioritize developing rules for moving a piece of work between these two modes.

Understanding organizational strategy

Driving innovation requires professionals to both collaborate with and influence their team to accomplish shared objectives. The MIT-honed concept of “Dynamic Work Design” provides a framework for technical professionals and leaders to better understand their organization’s sources of power and cultural environment, allowing them to identify opportunities and challenges while successfully drive the mission of an organization forward.

As remote work accelerates digital transformation, professionals with both the technical know-how and essential skills will be the ones that thrive while driving innovation. Identifying the key organizational strategies and capabilities should be a priority for professionals who aim to collaborate and apply influence to accomplish shared objectives.