Good design, bad design

The phrase "good design is cheap, bad design is expensive" came up again in an organization design training course I was facilitating yesterday. One of the delegates took issue with the connotation of good design being 'cheap'. He offered an amendment to the phrase, suggesting "Good design can cost a lot. Bad design will cost a lot." Other delegates agreed with the amendment – so there it stands and the following story illustrates:

One delegate told the story of a newly designed and built elementary school, where lunches for the children were prepared on site. Some of the design faults they were contending with because architects had not consulted with stakeholders in the meal preparation process included:

  • The unloading dock for produce was not close to the kitchen
  • The kitchen was not close to the dining area
  • The servery in the dining area where staff dished out food had not taken into account that children are shorter than adults so staff had to peer under the hot lamps to find out what selection the children wanted (rather than look at eye level over the hot lamps which would have been correct had adults been being served) – this design fault resulted in several servers getting burned.
  • Staff had to wheel hot food from kitchen to servery down corridors where children were – not ideal from a health and safety perspective
  • Produce deliverers could only deliver food when the children were off-site (again because of safety issues).

She described the whole situation as a 'nightmare'.

To get over this type of outcome (unfortunately very common) the tack I take in designing or redesigning organizations is to:

  • Ensure there is leadership agreement on the purpose of the organization – what is it there to do?
  • Ensure there is leadership agreement on the purpose of the design or redesign – what is it aiming to achieve in terms of delivery of the business strategy? (e.g. faster, better, cheaper…)
  • Agree the design 'brief' for the new organization – what are the parameters in which it has to be designed?
  • Map the ideal flow of the work that needs to get done to deliver the strategy within the parameters? Noting handoffs, interdependencies, decision points, etc. (Usually up to four core processes)
  • 'Bundle' the work activities revealed by the mapping exercise in various combinations and test these 'bundles' against the design brief/criteria. Arriving at two or three 'bundle' options. These form the foundation for the structure.
  • Determine the numbers, skills and levels of skills needed to do the work activities (i.e. determine the roles) in the various bundle options.
  • Assess the costs and opportunities offered by each bundle option.
  • Determine the best option.
  • Convert the preferred option into a structure (organization chart) by arrange the roles in a structure that allows maximum co-ordination, autonomy, etc (depending on the design brief and desired outcomes)
  • Test the new structure with 'walk-throughs' against typical day-to-day scenarios to answer the question "Does the work flow optimally through the proposed structure?"

So in my approach determining the structure (organization chart) is the last step in the designing process.

Delegates were intrigued by this as they were used the situation in which someone handed them an organization chart saying "I want my organization to look like this – please go and implement it." Within seconds people were telling other stories of faulty designs that began with the structure and resulted in very expensive workarounds to get the work flowing (less than optimally) through the structure, thus endorsing the point that bad design will cost a lot.

They saw instantly the value in a) getting stakeholders involved in the design process from the start, and b) leaving the structure (organization chart) piece to the end.

Getting the point about leading with work flow (after agreeing purpose, desired outcome, design brief, and so on) delegates went on to discuss how they could sell this approach to line managers who were blinkered to anything beyond the organization charts and moving people from one box to another.

One way that I have found effective is to discuss the risks and costs involved in a) not doing an assessment of the context for the new design b) not involving stakeholders in the work flow c) telling stories like the one above.