designing efficiency

November 25, 2016

It is axiomatic that well-designed products are of better quality and will find favor with consumers (providing of course that the product has features that the consumer wants). Ikea, Rolls-Royce, houses by Huf Haus, Dior bags, and the Spitfire aircraft are all triumphs of design—some designed for functional use, or to be aesthetically appealing, while some for both. Well-designed products sell, badly designed ones do not.

Accordingly, companies spend a lot of time and money getting the design of their products right. Every detail of every function and every aesthetic component is picked over and analyzed. Expensive design consultants are hired to give their views. Products may go through half a dozen or even more trial phases, with the design tinkered with at each step before it is finally launched. By the time the launch does come around, the company can be confident that it has designed a superior product that will perform well.

But do these same companies pay a similar level of attention to the work processes and environments where these products are made? The answer, very often, is no. When it comes to production, same-as-we-have-always-done is the usual rule of thumb. Many companies are reluctant to invest in new technology to make production more efficient. Others are enthusiastic about the technology but do not really know what to do with it. Most pay very little attention to the ‘soft technology’ of their production systems, the human beings that man the machines and make things happen.

Production systems are often chaotic, badly ordered with elaborate flows and procedures. The badly designed facilities and environmental conditions are not conducive to effective work. As a result, much of that huge investment of time and money in product design is wasted. The best design in the world will fail if the product is badly made, or not made in sufficient quantities to satisfy customer demand and recoup the investment. British Leyland, the UK’s state-owned car company in the 1970s and 1980s was an excellent example of this. The company produced some outstanding, cutting-edge designs, and then tried to make them with production systems that were not fit for purpose.


making the makers

Designing a production system is every bit as important as designing the product itself. One of those who understood this concept clearly was the American industrialist Henry Ford, pioneer of mass-market car manufacturing. Ford designed one of the most iconic cars of all time, the Model T, but knew its success depended on a production system that could turn out cars quickly, cheaply, and to a high-quality standard. Ford hired one of the best architects in America to help him design a purpose-built facility at Highland Park, Michigan. No detail was overlooked; every element of the production system fit seamlessly together thanks to excellence of design.

The Model T was a huge hit with the public, but for the industrialists of the world, Highland Park itself was the fascination. Business leaders came from all over the world to study its designs and learn its lessons. Some, like the Czech shoemaker Tomáš Bat’a, learned those lessons well and implemented them in their own plants back home. Both Ford and Bat’a topped the world-league table in their industries for production, profits, and productivity. Both leaders knew that design leads to productivity and productivity leads to profit.

Even more important than the mechanical production system, though, were the people. Hans Renold, the British entrepreneur who invented the drive chains that propelled bicycles and nearly all early automobiles, and was the world leader in his industry, recognized this when he said, “Our job is not to make chains. Our job is to make people, who will make the chains for us.” Renold invested heavily in people and their skills, knowing that this was the surest way to achieve productivity and quality. (His views are an interesting precursor to those of Vineet Nayar in Employees First, Customers Second.)

But merely putting people to work in a production system was not enough. The system had to be configured in a way that enhanced their efforts rather than wasting their labor. An American engineer named Frank Gilbreth was one of the first to realize this. While working as a manager in a brick-making company, he began to watch the movements of bricklayers, in particular, how they transferred bricks from the pallets to the wall they were building. Gilberth realized that the way the men were working was quite inefficient; they were taking longer than they needed to lay each brick, and they were also getting more fatigued through unnecessary effort.



Gilbreth realized that the number of individual movements the layer made when transferring each brick from the pallet to the wall being built could be reduced. This would have the double impact of speeding up the work, and reducing the amount of energy the worker would have to expend, cutting down on fatigue. Following this, he began to study motion at work more scientifically. He began classifying motions into various types such as turn, select, lift, load, and so on. These generic classifications were known as ‘therbligs’ (an anagram of ‘Gilbreths’). Through this ‘motion study’, Gilbreth found he could re-engineer almost any task, anywhere, to make it both more productive and less exhausting for the worker.

The implications of Gilbreth’s work were profound, and he and his wife Lillian, an engineer and psychologist, developed a number of methods of work design and application. They used techniques such as freeze-frame photography and also invented a cyclograph, a device consisting of small electric light bulbs strapped to a worker’s light bulbs which when filmed, showed acceleration and deceleration of movement graphically on a screen. They began applying these techniques in a variety of settings. They designed new forms of workstation for assembly line workers, using therblig analysis to detect areas where the workstation could be reconfigured to reduce unnecessary motions.

The Gilbreths redesigned workspaces, tables, desktops, chairs, lighting systems, and so on, all to improve individual productivity and reduce fatigue. They studied the needs of disabled workers, of which there were many in America after the First World War, and found that many tasks and workplaces could be altered to suit their requirements; often, indeed, the amendments required were only minor ones. This was an important step forward in the acceptance of disabled workers into the workplace. Called in as consultants to improve the speed at which medical operations were carried out, the Gilbreths redesigned hospital operating theaters to make them more efficient. For example, the practice until then had been to have trays of medical instruments at one side of the room, meaning one had to walk across the room and back each time a new instrument was needed. The Gilbreths designed an instrument tray which could be attached to the operating table, meaning only a second or so was needed to bring each new instrument into use. This did not just improve efficiency, it also saved lives.

There are two lessons to be learned from the Gilbreths’ work. First, improvements to work design are often simple and quite inexpensive. Small alterations to the process, the tools used, and how the environment is configured can result in huge jumps in productivity. The key is to observe; look at how work is done, and adapt tools and processes to fit the work. The wrong way to do things is to design processes and tools, and then expect the work to adapt. That method is almost certain to result in lower productivity and reduced quality as workers try to change natural work rhythms to fit artificially induced processes.

The second lesson is that work design has to start with the individual worker. Again, it is no good designing an overall production system and expecting workers to fit into it, regardless of what task they are carrying out. Every workstation, every part of the production process will have different needs. As we saw above, the Gilbreths broke each task down into its component parts, and then engineered systems to fit the person carrying out the task, not the other way around. The same is still true today, regardless of whether we are setting out to design an automotive production plant, a call center, or a research laboratory.



The Gilbreths created the discipline we now know as ergonomics, the design of workplaces that promote employee health and well-being along with higher productivity. Of course, the two are closely linked. As countless studies have shown over decades of time, happy, healthy employees are more productive than unhappy, unhealthy ones. And as one of the chief causes of unhappiness and poor health is workplace stress, it seems clear that paying attention to workplace design is important in terms of raising productivity.

That linkage was clearly demonstrated by one of the largest workplace design experiments ever undertaken, the Hawthorne Studies in the 1920s and 1930s. I have talked about the Hawthorne Studies in these columns before, so forgive me if I repeat material covered earlier; for the benefit of new readers, the studies were carried out at Western Electric’s plant in Hawthorne, Illinois, a facility that made switches and relay systems for telephone switchboards. Western Electric wanted to see whether productivity among its workers could be raised, and after conducting some experiments of its own, called in a team of researchers from Harvard Business School. The Harvard team conducted a wide range of surveys and experiments, most famously one where they found that changing the level of lighting in one workshop increased productivity.

The methodology and results of this study have been challenged, and some later studies purport to have found that changing lighting levels makes no difference to productivity. Other studies dispute this, and do find that light makes a difference. Temperature, ventilation, noise, and the layout and quality of office furniture and/or production machinery also make a difference. Some studies have also found gender differences; for example, men appear to be more sensitive to changes in lighting than women, while women are said to be more responsive to temperature changes.

The point here is the same; workplaces need to be designed with the needs of people in mind, because it is the people who make the goods and deliver the services that lead to customer satisfaction and, thence, profit. There is too often ideological approach to workplace and production system design that does no one any favors. Take for example the rush to open plan offices which began around twenty years ago. Walls were torn down and people brought out of their cubicles and put together in clusters of desks where they could see and hear each other.

Now, belatedly, studies are beginning to tell us that in many workplaces this has been a terrible idea. The benefits of open plan—more conversation and communication, more dialog, and exchange of views and information—sometimes happen but more often do not. Disadvantages cited by people working in open-plan offices include lack of privacy, pressure to work longer hours (the first person to leave an open-plan office always gets noticed) increase in bullying and sexual harassment, distractions from background noise and goings-on, and time wasted in frivolous conversations and activities that have nothing to do with work. Very few studies of open-plan offices have shown an increase in productivity.

Production lines are different because each worker has a station and by and large focuses on a task, but even here open systems can be noisy and distracting. Noise reduction programs have been shown to lead to higher productivity, and improving ventilation can also have an impact; both also improve worker’s health over the long term, which also has implications for productivity.

The message is clear: a well-designed workplace improves productivity. Thinking about how work will be done, not just what work will be done is essential.