Organisation Design: Linkages and boundaries (part 2) – cups of tea

In my blog last week, I mentioned the ‘cup of tea’ activity.  I mentioned it again in a workshop I facilitated during the week.   It’s an activity that prompts discussion on workflow, linkages and boundaries.  The participants asked for the instructions to run it themselves.  So here goes:

Intro:  An activity for groups of 4 or 5 people.  Ideally, have 3 or more groups so they can compare approaches.  It’s better done face to face.  You need lots of post notes and a marker pen for each participant.   Note:  it assumes that all participants have some familiarity with making a cup of tea.

Step 1.  Individual activity (no conferring). On post notes each person writes each step to take in making a cup of tea, from beginning to end.  They arrange the notes in order vertically as a workflow One action per post note, beginining with a verb e.g. Put water in kettle.   

Facilitator note: Do not answer questions about where should the process start or finish – the participants have to decide.

Step 2.  Within the group compare your process with other people’s.   Ask some questions – do the start points differ?  Where is the end point in each?  Are there different activities in the different process flows?  Do some people have different ingredients?  Are any cultural differences/conventions apparent? 

Note: I once did this activity with a group of people from India, China, UK and the flows were wildly different which caused great amusement.

Step 3. Agree amongst you one process flow, start to finish, of making a cup of tea.  (This can be one of the group member’s or a new one that combines ideas from the different group members).    

Facilitator note: When they have reached agreement, have a whole group discussion, on what they noticed in getting to the one agreed flow you hear things related to:  assumptions around what makes a good cup of tea, differences of opinion in where to start and where to finish the process,  order of activity in making the cup of tea, and so on.  Ask what participants are learning from this discussion?  E.g. is there one right way of making a cup of tea?  How easy is it to agree the start and end point of the process?  As group members are they being collaborative or competitive, are they aiming for consensus or consent, is a leader/dominant voice emerging, is everyone’s voice being heard?

Step 4. Post your group’s flow on a wall/flip chart so everyone can see.  Compare your flow with other groups’ flows.  What are the similarities, differences? What steps have they got in common?    

Facilitator note:  When participants have done this ask what they are learning from doing this comparison e.g. around alternative flows and orders of action, around common (or different) start and end points.  Around actions that might be redundant? Or overlap?

Step 5.   Of the 3 or more workflows on the wall, agree one as the ideal flow (agree some adjustments if appropriate).  All groups will then take this one to work further on. (From this point all groups are working on the same workflow, but still in their groups).

Step 6.  For one cup of tea, one person can (usually) deliver the whole process, in their own kitchen. NOTE this is not the case if the group decides the process begins with planting a tea plant.    But the activity now is to scale up the process. 

Imagine you have a coach party of 40 people arriving at your house and they all want a cup of tea immediately.  How will you scale up the process and make it customer centric (suppose some want sugar and others don’t or some want alternative milks to cow’s milk, etc).   

Facilitator note:  At the end of this step discuss with the group what they were discussing/their considerations e.g. speed, quality, customer service, skill of servers, etc.

In this step I’ve seen many possibilities emerge – drafting in servers who each make a cup of tea for one person, having one person take orders and another make tea, have one person putting bags in cups and others doing milk or sugar, etc.  making it easier to self-serve.  Full automation from vending machine …

Step 6. Now scale up to 400 cups of tea per half day – what are you thinking about now? 

Facilitator note:  it’s better not to give clues, but to save this for the post-step discussion.  E.g. will you need a milk specialist?  Do you have 400 cups – will you use disposable or wash them up?  If you have more than one person involved in making the tea, how do they hand over their bit of the process to the next person in the flow, what are the linkages, what are the boundaries of each person’s work – are they clear or not e.g. ‘I only do milk’.

Facilitator note:  When you start scaling up, considerations around purpose and values come into play, as well as expertise and skills sets, i.e. do you have a milk specialist or are all servers multiskilled in the tea making, what would make the tea making more meaningful as a job.  Where are the cups of tea going to? Are people coming to you for them, or are you distributing (as years ago when offices had people with trollies serving tea in china cups at your desk).   Facilitate a whole group discussion to uncover the different ways the small groups thought about doing this.

 Facilitator note: After step 6 you can scale up again e.g. to 4000 cups of tea or you can add in coffee – a roughly similar beverage i.e. main ingredient, water, milk (maybe), sugar (ditto).  I’ll go to adding in coffee.

Step 7. Now add in coffee, for 400 people, so you have two workflows going.  You have to deliver either tea or coffee a total of 800 times per half day.  What are your considerations?   

Facilitator note –again, it’s better not to give clues, but to save this for the post-step discussion.  E.g. Does your workforce do either tea or coffee, or are you going to have a workflow that blends the tea/coffee activity at points e.g. one water boiler for both tea and coffee, or one vending machine that does both (if your consideration is around outsourcing to automation), what skills do you need to keep things going – how are they rolled up into a job role.  How many people will you need?  Will they need a supervisor or manager or can they self-manage?

Facilitator note:  You may not have time for participants to develop another post note workflow.  I’ve found by this stage they can easily imagine the type of thing they would need to consider in adding another product line.

I’ve also found that everyone gets the idea that in design work, you look at the work first – what it is, what activities it comprises and the multiple ways the activities could be combined or segregated.  Once you know the detail of the work you can start thinking about roles and skills, structuring the people, and the boundaries and linkages between them.

 Learning points from this activity, include considering ways of

  • Eliminating fragmentation in workflows
  • Allowing for scaling up or down
  • Focusing the effort of the organization on the most critical work processes
  • Enhancing overall workflow within the organization
  • Directing the activities towards best achievement of strategic objectives
  • Making effective boundaries and linkages
  • Thinking about the customers e.g. would the flow and activity clustering be different if you had to offer 6 types of milk and 3 sizes of cup?
  • Thinking about the skills and roles needed
  • Making decisions about person or automation
  • etc.

What activities do you use to illustrate the value of looking at the work and work activities, before the structure (org chart) in organisation design?  Let me know.