Tuesday, March 03, 2020

The Systems of Work

This month’s topic is about the systems of people who come together to make work happen.

I once sat next to a man who worked at a museum about transportation. I’d been starving, and we were being served a delicious hot lunch (Thank you Pennsylvania Museums Association.) As I stuffed my face, the person beside me shared some information about train schedules, routes, and systems. After I was sated, we moved into a conversation about flex work. He asked me about how I ensured honesty in my teams when I told them that I trusted them to work their hours (rather than micromanaging). Recently, I’ve been reflecting on that conversation often.

Complex, largely mechanical systems are easy to measure in terms of productivity and efficiency. The supply chain is itself a field because the way goods move through our global markets are at the core of our consumer society. There are also pretty easy ways to see when the supply chain has problems. If you don’t get a delivery of apples, you know something went wrong.

In museum systems, the product and the means of production are intellectual and invisible. Many forms of labor are hard to quantify. In an old job, my team was responsible for tours. If someone was sick, I’d find myself in the galleries giving a talk on “Animal Ceramics” as a moment’s notice. The original speaker might have spent 10 hours getting ready, and I took 10 minutes. Of course, as I said last month, I had a decade of experience to draw from, so the visitors still had a fine experience.
With the complexity of work, pain points often emerge that seem hard to fix. People feel as if, “I keep saying that and nothing happens.” These issues occur though because the underlying interrelationships aren’t clearly and critically considered. For example, let’s look at one of my favorite topics. Think of the times something breaks down. A change is made in a label, and maybe in the collections database, but neither of those systems is connected to the website. Some power visitor who pays their $50 checks the website, and then goes into the galleries, finding the error. She emails the director. The director doesn’t like having to sort through this particular type of challenge and sends it back to the curator, who says but I told them about the change. (Now before I go any farther, I made up this scenario—I don’t want any of my present or past colleagues to be implicated :>)

The above scenario is at its heart about systems. In museums, with our low budgets, we often don’t have automated systems and as such we make human workarounds that are often made on an individual or ad hoc level. For example, I know that the room will only be set up if I had a print floor plan to X person at X time. These Band-Aid solutions work fine until people leave or the system gets another change (like your organization implements a facilities request system that sends some floor plans to the facilities staff).

We fix the problem at hand rather than trying to solve the whole system that causes the problems. Why? Training is likely part of it. We’re all often trained in a specific field, but not in how to run a department that accomplishes the work of that field. Time is another. It takes months to critically interrogate how work gets done and why. And, the benefits of such a look of one’s internal systems are not usually seen in the short term.

But, why do this? For each other. Work is a group activity. It’s about the other people in the system (visitors and co-workers alike). Understanding how you do work and why can help the work get easier and more efficient. You can find yourself in a better place to work.

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