Cells—and a looser version that I refer to as co-location—are still rare in the service and knowledge work sectors. Part of the reason is that individuals, work teams and departments in these environments typically juggle many processes that support many value stream. To create flow and, therefore, reap the benefits of cellular structure, the first thing that has to happen is what I refer to as “work segmentation.” People have to be available to do the work in a process or value stream that a cell supports. Until an organization organizes work into “swim-lanes” and realigns staff accordingly, flow is nearly impossible to achieve (as is the application of takt).
A second obstacle to using cells in these environments is that it requires breaking apart long-standing, silo’d, functional departments, which challenges an organization on multiple fronts. Like dominoes (or home renovation as I’ve learned!), you start in one place with a seemingly simple objective and a series of new obstacles arise. To break down silos and look at work cross-functionally, an organization has to confront how it approaches incentives, bonuses, performance reviews, and the like. Without a senior leader in place who understands the nature of flow and likely has experienced the benefits of holistic work systems, middle managers’ hands are tied. Without a clear vision from the top, the most motivated middle manager who “gets it” can do very little to experiment with cells.
So here we are again – back to leadership. Instead of junior-level people getting black belts, green belts, and yellow polka-dot belts, leaders have to learn about these principles. We have a long way to go.