Changing the System Can Alleviate Challenges to Knowledge Workers

Topic(s): burnout, Job Design, job satisfaction, turnover, wellness
Publication: MIT Sloan Management Review, 2018
Article: Breaking Logjams in Knowledge Work
Authors: S. Dodge, D. Kieffer, N.P. Repenning
Reviewed by: Dr. Diana Walker

There are many challenges to knowledge work, which means work involving processing knowledge and ideas. Past research has demonstrated that advancements in technology have not eliminated the work overload that faces many knowledge workers. Instead, knowledge workers continue to encounter logjams that may cause health issues, deterioration of production quality, and high employee turnover rates. This article (Dodge, Kieffer, & Repenning, 2018) discusses how a change in work design can change the work environment for the better.  


The “push” system work-design theory was created by manufacturers and revolves around the idea that by keeping workers busy, factories maximize productivity. When factories started experiencing increased production costs and loss of market share due to global competition, other workflow systems were considered. In 1980, Toyota and other Japanese manufacturers shared knowledge about a work design that was shown to improve the quality of products and work environments. This work design was known as a “pull” system. This theory centered around a balanced workflow. Team members were empowered to stop the production process at any time during the workflow cycle to maintain control of the system. Factories started to adopt the new work-design theory and saw improvements in efficiency, elimination of logjams, and lower employee turnover rates.

Desiring the same positive outcome, the authors of this study implemented the “pull” system work-design theory at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.   

The institute is a biomedical and genomic research center that hoped to gain control of product outcomes, streamline innovative ideas, and improve the work environment by changing its workflow theory. Both the lab and research departments used visual management techniques to assist with this transition, a technique that is commonly used in agile project management teams.        


The lab at the Broad Institute was experiencing long turnaround times. In order to meet customer demands, they were forced to expedite some samples at the cost of processing others. It was proposed that operations could be streamlined and genome sample analysis turnaround times shortened by adopting a “pull” system. Such improvements would lower work environment stress levels and reduce the risk of losing clients to competitors. As part of the transition, the team worked together to create color coding workflow stages. This visual management technique allowed the group to determine upper and lower “control limits” for sample holding areas. When samples at a certain stage of the workflow fell outside of the established control limits, the group was able to quickly identify issues and improve the process. These steps, when continuously followed, shortened sample analysis turnaround times. This led to improved delivery time to clients.


The research department at the Broad Institute struggled to move new technology through product development cycles. Product development workflow was somewhat disjointed. New product ideas were documented and stored in multiple software applications. The greater the number of projects moving through the development cycle, the higher the risk of delays. Developers jumped from one project to another out of urgency driven by market or client demands. Development cycle times improved after implementing the new work design theory with assistance from a funnel tool (a visual management technique) that sorted and prioritized new technology ideas. The department was able to prioritize new technology development based on capability and capacity limit factors, instead of urgency.


Through implementation of a “pull” work design theory, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard was able to shorten turnaround times of sample analysis, streamline new technology development processes, and most importantly, nurture a healthy work environment. The work design implementation was ultimately successful, as the authors jest, “The stuff we teach works only in organizations that have people in them.”


Dodge, S., Kieffer, D., Repenning, N.P. (2018). Breaking Logjams in Knowledge Work. MIT Sloan Management Review, 60(1), 46-54.