By rgleed, Nov 9 2016 06:41PM
If we want our work systems to be resilient – to successfully adapt to changing circumstances – then we need to understand and respond to the gap between work-as-imagined (WAI) and work-as-done (WAD). Work-As-Imagined is an idealistic view of the formal task that disregards how task performance must be adjusted to match the constantly changing conditions of work and of the world. Work-As-Imagined describes what should happen under nominal working conditions. Work- As-Done, on the other hand, describes what actually happens, how work unfolds over time in a concrete situation. If the assumption that work can be completely analysed and prescribed is correct, then Work-As-Imagined will correspond to Work-As-Done.
It is not that WAI is better than WAD. It is not an either or choice. Like poles of a paradox, both exist in the real world of the work system and both need to be respected and hopefully aligned. Without WAI there would be no guidance and support to help reduce errors from fallible humans. Without WAD there would be no local innovation, adaptation and improvement to work effectiveness. Sometimes following the rules creates safe outcomes, sometimes it is dangerous; it all depends on the situation. Thus, adaptation is a double edged sword.
So dIfferent situations require different adaptive responses. Some organisation's or processes are more ‘interactively complex’ than others. Interactive complexity is a combination of the the inherent complexity of the process and the degree of close coupling. More interactive complexity requires more adaptive responses or variability in performance. But interactive complexity is not fixed but is dynamic. All processes can become interactively complex due to limited resources, excess demands on key people or processes, and procedures or rules which are too limited to deal with the current situation.
All work is comprised of multiple and potentially competing demands and performance requirements.This means that individuals simply executing an established pattern of tasks tend to add minimal value.
“This is because there is always a distance – a gap – between real situations and what is defined by procedures. The gap can only be bridged by people using their judgment to best apply procedures. Bridging that gap is how people add value. The greater the complexity of multiple and contradictory performance requirements, the greater the distance between situations and what the rules can instruct.”
The gap between WAI and WAD characterised by key differences for those who work at the ‘blunt’ end and those who work at the ‘sharp’ end of the organisation.
Those who work at the 'sharp end':
- Experience front line work first hand
In direct contact with the working interface including suppliers and possibly customers
- Receive feedback with little or no delay
- Priorities are related to the work at hand
- Represents practice:
Conditions are constantly changing and can be unpredictable
Work is underspecified, so guidelines must be interpreted within the context of changing conditions
People at the 'blunt end':
- Experience front line work indirectly and are limited to selected and convenient measures and indicators
- Receive a considerable delay in feedback (months to years)
Feedback is received in highly processed forms e.g., statistics and key indicators
- Priorities rely on interpreted and filtered information without precise knowledge and complete understanding of sharp end experiences
- Represents ideas about practice:
People can only imagine processes because they only gain access to selected information about outcomes (easily assessable)
One reason for the widening of this ‘gap’ is a phenomenon known as “practical drift” (Snook, 2000).
Practical drift refers to a situation where, over time, local work practices ‘drift’ away from the original intent at the time of system design, to more locally efficient work practices. However, if the local practices drift unnoticed and the work system becomes more ‘interactively complex’ and switches from loose to tight coupling, for example, circumstances may change resulting in functions becoming more time dependant (Perrow, 1999) without a corresponding change in local practices from task to rule focused, then the results can be catastrophic.
When there is slack in the system, this is seen as being efficient, but when circumstances change and revert to being tightly coupled and time dependant, then things go wrong. The challenge is that people at all levels of the organisation need to be able to distinguish between drift that is adaptive and improves organisational performance and drift that becomes dangerous.
Therefore “drift into failure” can be used as a metaphor for organisations wishing to become more resilient. For organisations this may mean making the gap between work as imagined and work as actually performed visible because the more the gap remains hidden, the more likely it is that the organisation will drift into failure.
The solution to drift is not attempting to further restrict performance variability as this simply sets up a new cycle of practical drift. Rather, it is more appropriate to monitor and detect drift toward failure and attempt to estimate the distance “between operations as they really go on, and operations as they are imagined in the minds of managers and rule-makers”(Dekker, 2006, p. 78).
Drift is inevitable: “all task performance is subject to operators discovering new things—better ways to do athings, short- cuts, unanticipated safety factors, what Snook (2000) has so usefully labeled “practical drift.”
In the end it is the task and the people doing it that create their own standards, rules, and behavior patterns. I believe we have to accept such practical drift as being inevitable in all operations, have to observe it, have to analyze it, and have to decide how best to integrate it into our safety programs.”
All organisational leaders must accept that that groups of workers are ‘communities of practice’ who may, through interaction with one another and the tasks they perform together, create their own shared meanings about what it is to work safely.
How can felt leadership help bridge the gap?
The answer to making the gap visible is by the behaviour of the leaders within the work system. These are some of those actions:
1. Live the systems – leaders need to own the organisation's safety systems and bring them to life by their active participation in them. They do this by the practices that they systematically demonstrate. In this way they build ‘collective mindfulness’
2. Teach people when and how to demonstrate adaptive behaviour – help build individual autonomy – “people using their judgement in the moment” – by understanding what your people do and the context in which they do it; the combination of resources, goals and constraints.
3. Structures of accountability - Leaders should focus less on the paperwork associated with safety awareness programmes and more on implementing structures of accountability that hold managers responsible for learning from the outcomes of these programs.
4. Be present in the workplace - Furthermore, if the source of culture is as much communities of practice as it is organisational leaders, then leaders need to understand the safety practices that develop informally in these communities. To do so, leaders and managers must spend time in these communities of practice and build trust among the members.
5. Transfer learning - With trust comes the opportunity to make tacit knowledge explicit. This knowledge can then be shared among members of the community and with managers. Therefore, communities of practice become the site for learning and provide a mechanism through which organisations can grow a worker’s base-line of common sense.
6. ‘Live by the rules, but don't die by them” - Finally, understanding work as it is actually performed will allow managers to develop safety rules that are grounded in reality, and to create a culture of safety that encourages workers to be mindfully rule guided rather than mindlessly rule bound.
7. ‘Juggler’ – leaders have a specific role to play in ‘juggling all the balls’ – the competing demands of safety, cost, quality and schedule – that help create the ‘gap’. Jugglers’ are the people in the middle of the continuum between WAI and WAD. They translate, interpret, shield and deflect to hold things together and maintain relationships.
8. ‘Walkrounds’ – leaders must develop ‘operational awareness’ for the work systems for which they are responsible. This means getting out from behind a desk and getting into the workplace. One effective way of doing this is by using a ‘walkround program’.