This is Part 2 of a Design Story from Mollie Callahan and Michelle Pomorski. Part 1 is here.

The Top 3 Board

Mollie’s story illustrates the strategy of taking complex problems, breaking them down into smaller problems, and doing experiments to address the smaller problems one by one, rather than trying to tackle the whole situation at once.


I’d like to share a work in progress, which is a project with a large manufacturing company. In this case they didn’t come to us with a specific problem or a project, but rather it was, “let’s get to know each other and see if there’s an opportunity for collaboration.” Eventually we stumbled onto the issue of workload management. This is a company that’s in an extremely critical moment in an industry that’s undergoing major shifts — so the stakes are high. There’s a competitive space. There are financial constraints. They’re struggling to adapt quickly in this environment, and they know they need to be proactive, both in terms of innovating, but also in terms of maximizing profitability and minimizing loss.

The tendency is to think that since it’s a complex system, we need a complex solution — something that’s going to fix all of this.

Now, their current environment is very chaotic, but like most manufacturing, they’re used to managing chaos. All workload management is driven by urgent priority: a production line is down, there’s a customer recall, or whatever. And it was just a totally overwhelming process, especially in the area of so-called “indirect” work — in other words, all of the management and engineering work needed to support production on factory floor. It was kind of a black box for them. Everything got done, but they had zero insight, zero visibility into how to plan for that work, or even if there were regular standard patterns to the work. So we were brought in to study that. We started our discovery process by studying the lowest rungs of the indirect work — section leaders and what they call “specialists,” who are engineers that provide direct support for production. We shadowed a lot of these folks, mapped out visual “workflows,” and developed experiments to help troubleshoot some of the problem points.

And here’s the design “aha” for me: the tendency in these kinds of situations is to think that since it’s a complex system, we need a complex solution — something that’s going to fix all of this. But when there’s no system, or there’s a broken system, you have to address the complexity little by little, from the ground up. And so what we’ve been doing is taking some of the workload management processes that we know are effective at Menlo and elsewhere, but which can be fairly complex, and break them down into their fundamental parts to solve specific problems.

It was so simple, it was almost embarrassing to introduce.

Here’s an example of an experiment we tried at this company — it was so simple, it was almost embarrassing to introduce, but it radically changed how people communicated with each other and how they managed work on the ground. One of the things we heard in the discovery phase is that people doing indirect work would have lists of things they planned to do, but they would never make progress on those lists because every day would be taken up with unplanned urgent “firefighting.” People would say, “If we could just get one or two or three of those planned tasks actually done, we’d feel good.” So we took the idea of a work authorization board, which we use at Menlo to manage task priorities and responsibilities, and distilled it down to what we called a “top 3 board.” It wasn’t a management system, just a physical board on which individual team members write down their top three priorities, displayed in a physical location visible to all so that everyone can see how each person’s priorities compare to their actual work. Just doing that has made a big difference, and now we’ve moved up the rungs and are doing the same thing with senior management.

You don’t ever arrive at perfect; it is an organic, living experiment.

The punch line to a lot of what I’ve been describing is that it has truly been a collaboration. This is not about us coming up with a solution and introducing it across the organization, even though we may think we know what they need. Instead it’s a partnership, based on a clear understanding of what the problem is, that starts with nascent ideas — and even more importantly, nascent experimenters. This connects with the idea Michelle was talking about, that you don’t ever arrive at perfect, that it is an organic, living experiment. In the process of working with this client we’ve introduced a new mindset around experimentation. We went from originally starting with four teams — a total of twelve people — to now over 32 teams, 250 individuals impacted, and it’s still expanding. So we think about success not just as an end-design, but also a way of thinking and a process, and collaboration is critical for that.

Next: Technology is Not the Solution