Organization designing and simulations

Simulations are an experiential learning technique well used in a range of disciplines and I've experienced them myself. I once landed an aircraft at San Francisco Airport (in the British Airways flight simulator in case you're wondering). It was a tremendous thrill to land the aircraft safely with only the slightest judder – although following the San Francisco crash last month the words of my instructor/co-pilot came to mind. He'd said at the time that San Francisco was one of the most difficult airports to land in and you had to have hours of training before attempting it.

I've also participated in various games, role plays, and simulations that immerse the participants in various aspects of organizational behavior, operations, decision making, team effectiveness and so on. Choosing the something appropriate from the available range can be challenging. A challenge that is made more complex by the medium choices available: online, virtual world, physical world, with or without artefacts, etc.

However there's definitely a power to immersion in a situation that's as close to real life as possible and that's what I was involved in last week but this time I was an observer not a participant.

The health services center that I'm working with is moving to a new building. On two half days last week teams of health center staff and volunteer 'patients' (actually employees from a local manufacturing company) were working through 'a day in the life of the center' in the new building.

The purpose of the simulation was to experience what it would be like on day one when clients came for their appointments. We were trying out three main things:

  • The building logistics, systems and operation including phone system, elevators, location of stuff, signage
  • The new patient flow process: how patients flow from front entrance through their appointment, seeing the provider of the service they had come for, being checked out, leaving the building
  • The ease of responding to specific circumstances e.g. request for immediate help for sudden heart attack or patient freak-out

An incredible amount of learning came out of the first half day – some practical things that could be instantly addressed for the second half day like putting a paging system on the phones, taking down the storage bins above the cubicle dividers to make line of sight across the room without having to be a prairie dog (US terminology – see what it means here) + 81 other various issues to address. We had some great volunteer actors none of them professional but well able to give the staff a totally realistic scenario. In the dental department one volunteer, new to the area, was so taken by the new facilities that he registered himself and his wife for real: an unexpected bonus to the scenario. By the end of day two we had another 60 or so issues, making the total list 147 items ranging from simple to complex to solve. You can see a similar simulation in this 7 minute video at the Valley Medical Center (disclosure: I work for NBBJ).

I've now discovered the Society for Simulations in Healthcare which, even if you're not in healthcare, is easy to learn a lot about simulations from. They speak of simulation as 'the imitation or representation of one act or system by another. Healthcare simulations can be said to have four main purposes – education, assessment, research, and health system integration in facilitating patient safety.

Each of these purposes may be met by some combination of role play, low and high tech tools, and a variety of settings from tabletop sessions to a realistic full mission environment. Simulations may also add to our understanding of human behavior in the true–to–life settings in which professionals operate. The link that ties together all these activities is the act of imitating or representing some situation or process from the simple to the very complex. Healthcare simulation is a range of activities that share a broad, similar purpose – to improve the safety, effectiveness, and efficiency of healthcare services.'

Organization designers do not typically go in for these kinds of simulation although I have come across several that use quantitative data to develop a range of design options. Three examples are:

Ecomerc's OrgCon. This asks 77 questions grouped into 17 categories. Here are some of the questions from the co-ordination and control category. NOTE – these may have changed in the last year or so since I used OrgCon:

Current centralization

  • How much direct involvement does top management have in gathering the information they use for making decisions?
  • To what degree does top management participate in the interpretation of the information input?
  • To what degree does top management directly control the execution of decisions?
  • How much discretion does the typical middle manager have in establishing his/her budget?
  • How much discretion does the typical middle manager have in determining how his/her unit will be evaluated?

The software is principally for use in educational settings for participants on executive MBA programs.

Orgvue draws on a range of organization data to guide organization designers 'from your 'as is' situation to a whole range of 'to be' scenarios, including FTE, costs, responsibilities and skills.'

Flexsim is an example of a tool for modeling, analyzing, visualizing, and optimizing any imaginable process – from manufacturing to supply chains, abstract examples to real world systems, and anything in between.

An article in the Journal of Organization Design last year by Raymond Elliot Levitt Using Simulation to Study, Design and Invent Organizations makes for an interesting read. It's an academic style, fairly heavy going article but well worth the challenge – here's the abstract for the time crunched.

This article argues that progressively validated, calibrated, and refined computational simulation models of organizations are rapidly evolving into: (a) powerful new kinds of organizational analysis tools to support organization design by predicting the performance of specific organizational configurations for a given task and environment; (b) flexible new kinds of organizational theorem provers for validating extant organization theory and developing new theory; and (c) organizational test benches that can be used to explore the efficacy of hypothetical organizational configurations that can address the unprecedented demands of new and emerging work processes in the presence of high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Nicolay Worren has a blog piece about pilot testing an organization design simulation. In this test 'The key idea was to have 7 tables with 5 students, each symbolizing a department, while coloured t-shirts symbolized the work process they performed. Hence the task was to reconfigure the formal structure into a more process-based organization by moving people according to set rules.'

This comes closer to the idea that simulations could be used to develop or test new organization designs in a way that includes the human behavior that is so often missing in the standard organization design methodologies but still doesn't quite match the immersed experiential style of last week's healthcare one.

Business simulations of the type offered by Harvard Education might go some way towards the sort of thing I'm imagining. I listened to the info on the Change Management one. Again this one is designed as a teaching tool and I would describe it as a game (the semantics of simulation, role-playing and gaming are confusing). These types of thing are useful for teaching but they're not same as a realistic situation in which people are really testing out a proposed situation.

What I've found helpful in organization design testing are what I call 'walk-throughs' but they are not related to the activity in the physical space. Essentially they involve displaying the mapped new workflow and organization chart on a wall, standing in front of the display with a realistic scenario that has been developed by people who do that work – and 'walking it through' the end to end process in proposed new design. (I should more realistically call it a 'talk through'). Participants in this activity are those who will be doing the work. This does have the effect of highlighting deficiencies, bottle-necks and so on but again is not the powerful experience of actually trying out the work in the space that I witnessed last week.

If you know of any organization design simulation work going (beyond the quantitative data modeling) let me know.