Hacking Work

Stop doing stupid stuff because that's the way it's always been done. Stop using crappy tools because that's what the company offers. Stop following inane rules because that's the policy. Over at AMEX Open Forum, Matt May brought the concept of "hacking work" to my attention. He interviewed Bill Jensen (author of Hacking Work) about this idea -- because let's face it: in a lousy economy where people feel lucky just to have a paycheck, breaking corporate rules doesn't seem like the smartest thing to do.

Jensen explains that

overall, the design of work sucks, and a lot of stupid rules persist. The tools we use in life have leapfrogged over the ones we use at work. What available for people to do their work is out of sync with what they really need to do their best. . . . People are being asked to do their work with a massive anchor wrapped around their leg. In today’s economy, that anchor—the corporate-centered design of work—is making it really hard for everyone to keep their jobs, let alone do their best work.

Jensen provides two examples of hacking that illustrate his idea:

we know of one manager couldn’t get her customer-focused project approved, even though the senior team declared customer focus as a strategic priority. So she secretly videotaped customer complaints (that her project would address) and posted them on YouTube. The public outcry was so huge that the senior team quickly reversed their decision, not only approving her project, but they actually increased her budget.

Or take the trainer that told all her trainees that she knew her mandatory courses “sucked” due to circumstances beyond her control—several years of zero funding—so she sent everyone to free online courses outside of the company, tested them on what they learned, and validated their certificates in courses they never attended.

Jensen is passionate about hacking. He believes that it's practically a moral imperative for the engaged employee to try to improve his or her work. Doing stupid stuff and following pointless rules is a soul-sucking waste of time and energy.

A few months ago, I started an online "community A3" project to figure out how to eliminate the waste of crappy meetings. One of the participants figured out that their team (like groups in most companies) had their meetings on a "push" basis: they scheduled meetings with a certain frequency and followed that schedule regardless of need. They shifted to a "pull" mode -- meetings were only held when needed to solve customer problems -- and reduced their collective meeting burden by 1/3. It wasn't the "way things are done here," but they freed up 56 hours per month to actually solve problems.

Matt points out that the hacker spirit is really another way to describe the mindset at Toyota, where people are constantly trying to find ways to banish waste and unnecessary work. So whether you call it "hacking work," or "A3 thinking," or "kaizen," the point is to stop doing stupid stuff so that you can do great work.