Study Hacks Blog

The Chaotic Factory

May 1st, 2020 · 47 comments

Imagine that you walk into a car factory and encounter a chaotic scene.

Half-built vehicles are scattered across the floor. Workers wander frenetically, grabbing each other as they pass, shouting out random requests.

“Do you know where the wrenches are?”

“When you get a chance, come show me how to install a steering wheel.”

“What happened to those lug nuts I gave you yesterday, did you use those?”

Some of the workers strain under the weight of materials piled high in their arms. Others lounge in the corner.

Vague but emphatic posters on the wall encourage everyone to “hustle” and the shop managers stand on ladders yelling out slogans, trying to inspire intrinsic motivation.

If you saw this, you’d be astounded. Surely this factory wouldn’t be in business for long. The company down the street that knows about computer-controlled assembly lines and Kaizen and inventory supply chain logistics will eat it for lunch.

And yet, in knowledge work, a lot of organizations run more or less like the chaotic car factory. If you replace the half-built cars with shared Google Docs, and the shouted requests with emails and Zoom, it’s the same haphazard dynamics.

Which leads to the interesting question underlying our current state of disrupted affairs: how long until the “smarter company down the street” — with its more disciplined, thoughtful, demanding processes — becomes a reality in the knowledge sector, forcing rapid change in how we work?

47 thoughts on “The Chaotic Factory

  1. Krishna kumar says:

    Good insight.

  2. Shail Shah says:

    There are always going to be people in the knowledge sector who work in a haphazard manner. I think working in an organized and more disciplined way, as you suggest, is something that is up to the individual. I think the workplace dynamics start to shape up from the very beginning of the company or the organisation you work for and go down as tradition which is then followed by the new employees. It is up to leaders to create such environment where the more organised and disciplined way is the new normal. But I am just a 17 year-old who doesn’t know what he is talking about.

    1. The point of the article, it seems to me, was that the individual approach is what creates the chaos in the first place. When someone figures out how to really organize knowledge work collectively, it will change things. … If, in the very nature of knowledge work, that’s even possible. Which may be your point.

  3. It’s easier to live in the moment than to start with the end in mind.

    Parents are parenting the same way we’re running companies.

  4. Pete says:

    I work for a large engineering consultancy and this is spot on. Individuals can carve out their own corner of sanity to a degree but the whole system is broken. Or to put it more accurately, there is no system.

  5. Callum says:

    This is an excellent post

  6. Ian Howlett says:

    Good one! Loved it, it’s so true!
    I think the root of the problem is that in manufacturing there are clearer best practices, and it’s easier to measure the output to see what works best.
    I’ve worked in commercial IT for 20 years, and have seen so many half-baked management theories that are just an excuse for slapdash and shoddy work. I think it’s literally made me sick.

  7. This is really good. As I am working in HR department, I can represent this post in front of my team. We are working on next year’s roadmap for our organisation. This will be of great help to plan out things. Thank You So Much.

  8. Gerard says:

    As much as I agree with you, knowledge work is harder to organize than factory work.

    1. Very true Gerard. A structured work environment does not always require automation of process. It is now possible to provide guardrails and a measure of scaffolding to guide cognitive application when executing demanding tasks. We at Innov8 Cafe ( think there is an opportunity at the intersection of technology and culture to allow for intuition in the organisation of thoughts and planning of work.

      It is a long short but we think digital workspaces, which we call cafes, gives the knowledge worker the best chance at creating and delivering high quality work over and over again.

    2. Jeremy Hoff says:

      I respectfully disagree…..
      Knowledge is organizable.
      Ideas are organizable.

      If the business has a clear purpose, a stated and sticky mission, and understandable goals, then knowledge and ideas either fit within them or they don’t.

      The problem is not the knowledge work. In my experience, the problem is usually a misunderstanding of the goals.

      1. Gerard says:

        I did not say it was not organizable, I said it was harder to organize than factory work. In a factory it is very clear what you need to build a finished product. No-one will tell you to go find it yourself if something is missing.
        In knowledge work, this happens quite often. It is harder to explain to others what you need. It is harder for them to understand.

    3. EA says:

      I disagree that it’s harder. It just requires different strategies.

  9. Joel Sanders says:

    In his book Principles, Ray Dalio describes building Bridgewater as that “smarter company” with disciplined, thoughtful, demanding processes. Bridgewater’s culture requires everyone to be candid and open with one another about their individual and collective weaknesses, and being willing to have others poke holes in their own thinking.

    While most people are able to intellectually understand how such candor can make them better, in practice few are able to stomach it. Ray described Bridgewater as an “Intellectual Navy SEALs” for a reason: only the top fraction of 1% survive.

  10. Evan says:

    As someone in the midst of a chaotic factory, this is chillingly accurate – “Some of the workers strain under the weight of materials piled high in their arms. Others lounge in the corner.”

    At the same time, I must admit, it’s difficult to effect change from within the factory if you’re not on the tallest ladder.

    But it does beg the question, what does that company down the street look like? What are the knowledge work equivalents of computer-controlled assembly lines, Kaizen, and inventory supply chain logistics, and are they as simple? Also, do disciplined, thoughtful, demanding processes necessarily support creative work? Maybe yes, maybe no. But perhaps the knowledge gap of what’s happening between those on the floor and those on the ladders in a knowledge-work context is so great that it demands entirely new management philosophies beyond simple processes.

  11. Ashutosh says:

    I think Basecamp for one is quite thoughtful about its working process.

  12. Marcin says:

    Sadly, that sounds like my company.
    The problem I see is – how does one inspire change in an organisation where hardly anyone listens?

  13. Pawel says:

    that kind of work organization you can see in chinese companies. I work remotely with chinese colleagues, they sometimes visit us in office in Poland and they have a very focused work ethic. They have a clear line of management and everyone knows what to do. Maybe it’s just this company, but for them focused work and meetings without smartphones is the norm.

  14. Hugo says:

    How would a large institution, let’s say a university, go about implementing these changes? A lot of your advice has centered on how individuals can cultivate deep work, but I’ve seen less concrete advice for administrators.

    Eliminate open offices. Design an email system that people would only check once or twice a day (maybe only deliver new emails at certain hours). Anything else?

    1. Jenna says:

      Along the same lines, as an advisor at a university… how do you set up your graduate students where they can get guidance on their research, you can help them instill strong habits for deep work while not micromanaging them, and also get your research done?

  15. Thaise says:

    I’m thinking about it a lot. In Brazil, we have the harphazard as rooted culture. With the evolution of the processes like knowledge managment and similars, the private universities, wich used to be the second choice of studants (the public and free of tuitons used to be the first) are being able to deal better with that, because they have a “management culture” that is damned as tough, stiff. When we put it togheter the the privatist impetus of the current government, we have the perfect scenario to the private universities being the “smarter company” of the federal ones.

    1. Thaise says:

      *as damned as tough, stiff in the public, federal ones.

  16. Cathy says:

    You might be interested in a book called “The Phoenix Project.” It makes a similar analogy and attempts to transfer some of the principles of factory workflow to knowledge work — specifically, an IT department.

  17. JR says:

    This is so spot on. I happen to work at a powertrain company not at the plant but as an programmer. The propensity to enforce your whole week to be full of shallow work is immense: zoom meetings, Skype chats, emails, meetings for project ideas conceived in seconds without deliberate thought process, meetings for project redundancies, meetings to help others do their job for them, …the list goes on and on. I’ve been ruthless about not attending meetings or secluding myself for deep thought after I read Deep Work at the end of 2016, I’ve seen huge gains in knowledge and productivity. As a programmer I have to seclude myself, at least for me creating code requires silence and lack of interruptions in thought process.
    Evan is correct, for large companies it’s a matter of top down company wide philosophy. For now I’m in search for one were chaos is maximally minimized and it’s core value is deep work. Perhaps a futile pursuit.

    1. Sam says:

      How do you go about secluding yourself? As a programmer, I can’t imagine you’d be able to hide out in any conference on just any machine. It’d have to be a powerful enough machine with all your software installed and environment correctly configured.

  18. Kole says:

    Wouldn’t that be Amazon – being purely data focused and streamlining all their processes they have eaten basically everyone’s lunch.

  19. Rob says:

    A high-stakes, deadline-driven production model for the smarter knowledge company down the street?

    Most any newsroom at a competitive newspaper or TV station.

  20. CMS says:

    When I began reading this, I thought you were describing and leading up to a discussion of the Trump White House’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 situation.

  21. Paul says:

    (Donning asbestos suit…)

    Your vignette reminds me of how most shops seem to be doing Agile — because it’s “adaptable” and the customer doesn’t need to know what they actually need… (Note, my choice of need instead of want is intentional.)

    Thought and study answers many questions!

  22. Udana Power says:

    This is so spot on! Thanks to your amazing books…I read 3 of them back to back (Digital Minimialism, Deep Work and How to Be a Straight A Student) I turned off all notifications and committed to doing the deep work. I finished a project that I had been trying to finish for 3 years…. turning my network marketing business into a REAL business. I call it a Friendchise…. and it finally has a whole, CALM, focused way of training and execution. I’ve had 5 Beta teams go through and we are all so RELIEVED. No more of the crazy Rah-Rah and throw-a-lot-of-spaghetti-on-the-wall to see what sticks.

    It’s interesting for me to learn that large corporate organizations might have chaos-disorder and some wasted and crazy mixed into them. (I was a professional actress-writer-singer-dancer. From that point of view all the “Suits” looked really well organized and efficient.)

    Your insights have changed my life. Now I know that I can take on any project and complete it. Also… without exhausting myself. What I learned in “Straight A Student” was a total revelation.

  23. Kurt S. says:

    I think you need to go larger with the view and incentives. If your factory does not work, machines fall on people and workers die. If you build a light bulb and it short circuits, customers die. The feedback is rather large and immediate. Therefore you can, over time, carefully build a system where (almost) nobody in the entire chain dies. Feedback is built in. Give a student a lousy education and they go bankrupt, or worse die, ten years later and nobody in the chain gets any feedback. If all your knowledge work came with giant, flaming disasters we can expect rapid improvement in the processes.

  24. YFOoi says:

    Such a great insight. I’ve always have the thought in mind: Would an organization that doesn’t have managerial level work (better)? Only with one leader in each function – aligning the vision with the company’s vision and across functions. One owner for each projects within each function – Projects can be cross-functionals and owners are free to collaborate with transparent communications (to avoid the need of managers being the ‘top down communicator’ as what happens in most organizations nowadays. Finally, every members of the organization will take the role of owner of certain projects and members in others’ projects.

    I wonder how will an organization like that work? Will it be better or worse?

  25. Rajitha says:

    This post is awesome!

  26. I’m surprised you have not written more about the pandemic’s long term implications. Email and apps are being entrenched more and more into our everyday work lives. This will linger for many years unfortunately.

    1. Joe says:

      We’ve backed off tremendously in the last few weeks at my university. It’s been a boon for our instructional design work and streamlining our course creation and upkeep.

    2. Sourav says:

      Since there is no way to upvote comments here, I too am interested in knowing Cal’s thoughts on this.

  27. Amira says:

    Practically for software development, better organization can come from good documentation and focus into writing clean and consistent code…something that isn’t too commonplace unfortunately.

  28. Gran Torino says:

    As an aside, Cal, I have to ask what you thought of this NY Times piece. Sorry if you have already commented and I missed it in a previous entry of yours. Not to be “us against them”, but I hated to kind of hear Dr. Turkle acquiesce to screens. What’s next- Nicholas Carr becoming Mark Zuckerberg’s butler? Stay tough!

  29. Erin says:

    Hey Cal, you’ll be horrified by some of the new remote working products coming onto the market:

    I can’t imagine it not being distracting, at minimum, to randomly have my photo taken while working and to have random voices just popping up.

  30. Tom Larsen says:

    In a factory, the ‘finished products’ are clearly defined from the outset, which means the processes to construct them can be carefully optimised.

  31. Sergey says:

    “knowledge work” is a too vague generalization. Mining the knowledge and application of the knowledge are two different processes, otherwise, inventors of Kaizen would be scooping up all Nobel prizes.

  32. Zuzanna Lumanisha says:

    Yes… We are definitely overloaded with new tools, apps, softwares etc. each day. Which can be frustrating to follow it all. On the other side… the choice we have is wonderful. Everyone can test and choose tool that works best for them. Nevermind there will be soon someone new. And again. And again. But… That is the cycle of life. Elimination. Creation. Growth. Depreciation. Devaluation. Elimination…

  33. Tom says:


    This reads like every place I’ve worked. Maybe management should read this blog post and this blog to change how they run day to day things…Like they would ever do that, Management benefits the most from chaos like this.

  34. Jeff Russell says:

    I used to work as a management consultant doing Digital Strategy work (my particular specialty was Operating Model and Governance, or figuring out what processes to follow and who makes what decisions). Our team conducted our projects following the Scrum project management method, with some tweaks for putting out knowledge work rather than software.

    Like any Scrum team, we had a Scrum Master, sprints, sprint planning sessions, a demo, and a team retrospective. The role of product owner was usually somewhat shared between the senior member of the consulting team and our primary client, as the senior member of our team had the expertise on digital transformation, but the client had the expertise for their industry.

    The biggest tweaks came in the form of defining chunks of work in a way that could be meaningfully tracked, and figuring out what incremental production of knowledge work looked like. The single biggest factor we figured out for defining chunks of work was to have a rock-solid definition of “Done” – if you force yourself to get very specific about when a chunk of work is truly done, you end up thinking very clearly about what the work actually is. The incremental piece ended up meaning that we would often come up with mock-ups or templates before we populated them, or if we were going to produce many of the same kind of thing (like job descriptions of new roles), we would work up one before we made everything else.

    This usually struck clients as rather odd when we first got started, and occasionally we were met with some skepticism or even hostility (as we asked any clients working on the project to also follow these procedures). They were used to consultants coming in, doing a bunch of interviews, and then disappearing into a conference room somewhere for a few weeks and then coming back with a beautifully polished PowerPoint. Instead, we were showing them the work along the way, sometimes getting it wrong and often ugly before we had a chance to make it look good. Once our clients saw that we actually listened to their feedback on these intermediate products and incorporated it, though, their attitude completely changed. They may have missed the drama of a big reveal, but instead they actually got something useful that they wanted, so it was a pretty good trade.

    If anyone looking for a way to get started with more rigorous procedures for knowledge work, you could do worse than to give Scrum a try.

    1. Peter K says:

      Good comment Jeff.

      My organization transitioned to using agile a year ago and after some pain and much learning it has helped bring structure and raise discussions around things like what does “done” mean that bring clarity across teams.

    2. Alex Aitken says:

      Yes, Jeff. Scrum leans into a number of these questions and is immensely valuabe for, among other reasons, the definitions it elicits and the constraints it brings (working on random stuff in random ways is going to place you at clear odds with the rest of the team). Visualization of the work is also key to successfully managing what is otherwise invisible.

  35. Jon Bennett says:

    Great allegory. One that can imply across most industries that service / advice based.

    I’ve used something similar before when describing the benefits of automation internally and had the push back it can’t be done. That principles of creating a ‘product’ aren’t the same as advice led services.

    And I agreed with them.

    Creating a complete ‘production line’ isn’t the best solution but there are certainly parts that can be be turned into processes that could free up significant time to work on the more important work.

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