Q What is Work-Out?

A Work-Out is a structured method for bringing together a large group of people for a 1-3 day event to pursue an urgent, challenging business goal. At its most basic, Work-Out involves “taking work out” of a process. Work-Out participants examine problems and brainstorm solutions, decision-makers accept or reject those solutions, and accepted solutions are quickly implemented. GE developed Work-Out in the late 1980’s. This predated Six Sigma at GE by a decade.

Q Why do businesses use Work-Out?

A Work-Out is particularly powerful in what GE’s Jack Welch called “bureaucracy busting:” taking unnecessary work out of a service or administrative process. Since the Work-Out method helps senior management and other stakeholders focus their attention on an important business problem, it gives them a problem-solving method that is quick and that gives solutions that are supported by the organization and its leaders. Work-Out can also help change organizational culture. GE used it broadly and intensively to develop a culture where senior managers were expected to respond quickly to barriers surfaced by their employees, and where employees felt empowered to initiate changes.

Q What are Work-Out’s main advantages?

A One main advantage is its speed in finding solutions and getting these accepted by senior management. In Work-Out this takes days, instead of the weeks or months typical in more traditional problem-solving methods. Secondly, because the very stakeholders whose buy-in is required to make them work create the solutions, solutions are typically implemented quickly and the gains are sustained. A third advantage is that the regular use of Work-Out as a problem-solving technique helps to create a change-oriented environment that motivates the workforce to be involved in continuous improvement.

Q What are some typical Work-Out targets, and what kinds of results do companies see?

A When Work-Out is applied to eliminate bureaucracy in processes such as review and approval of capital expenditures, purchase orders, and credit approvals, we see 60-90% reduction in cycle time. We see 10-15% improvements in productivity when used to improve creativity through better brainstorming sessions on new products, and to tackle operational imperatives such as rework and scrap at a specific workstations, and package line up-time.

Q What is the Work-Out method, and who is involved?

A Work-Out requires a trained Designer and a Facilitator plus a Sponsor (i.e., a senior manager who can make final decisions about the Work-Out topic). Together, they work through the three phases of Work-Out:

  1. Plan the Event: Identify the specific topic and goal of the Work-Out, tailor the methodology if needed, organize and communicate the event, conduct pre-work, prepare participants and decision-maker(s).
  2. Conduct the Event: Participants explore the problem and identify and prioritize solutions. The solutions are then presented to the Sponsor and other stakeholders in a session called a “Town Meeting,” during which the sponsor immediately decides to accept or reject the solutions. The Work-Out event is modeled after a highly involving form of local government common in New England history.
  3. Implement and Review: Finalize action plans, coach the implementation teams, track progress to ensure solutions are implemented successfully, and monitor to ensure the gains are sustained.

Q This sounds very much like standard problem-solving. What’s different about Work-Out?

A Four aspects stand out. First, participants include a cross-section of the organization, from senior decision-makers to front-line people who have day-to-day involvement in the target process. Second, senior leaders come to the Work-Out event with a strong bias toward accepting, rather than shooting down, the participants’ recommended solutions. Third, the speed of decision-making is rapid, with managerial approval happening during the same event as solution-finding. Fourth, Work-Out simultaneously addresses operational issues and builds a culture in which employees are both more accountable for their work and more willing to suggest and make improvements.

Q Is Work-Out the “magic bullet” for every problem? What are its limitations?

A Although extremely effective, Work-Out has its limitations. First, it requires that participants come into the large group meeting with enough facts and data about the processes to make good decisions; Work-Out doesn’t work when participants don’t know their business and its processes well. Second, it requires that senior managers be willing to approve proposed solutions unless there is a good reason not to, and to subject their decision-making to public scrutiny. The requisite bias toward action in particular is often hard for managers, particularly when the participants are not very “business savvy.” As a result, Work-Out has been most successful in smoothing out basic operational processes, less so with strategic decisions. Third, Work-Out is not a particularly good method for improving complex product or service quality problems where more detailed analysis may be needed to find the root cause of complex relationships. In Six Sigma terms, Work-Out may take a process to perhaps 3 or 4 sigma, but it does not employ the tools necessary to get an existing process to 6 sigma, or to design a new process for six sigma. Finally, Work-Out should not be used when the Sponsor or other managers are seeking buy-in to predetermined solutions, when those involved will not be the ones who have to implement the solutions, or when the objective is a reduction of staff.

Q How is Work-Out related to Six Sigma?

A Some firms treat them separately and may even have a separate staff of facilitators. We know Work-Out can be an excellent independent program, with large paybacks. But it is even more powerful when used to pave the way for a Six Sigma initiative, or when taught to Black Belts as a tool that complements Six Sigma. The chart below captures some of the differences between Work-Out and Six Sigma. We suggest using both methods together to cover the wide range of business problems.

Average time to get results1-3 months3-9 months
EmphasisSpeed, tangible business resultsAchieving 6 sigma quality,
customer-focus, 2-6 month projects with measurable bottom line impact
IssuesBureaucracy reduction,
process improvement
Process improvement
EnablersStrategic focus, team creativity,
management disciplines
Process analysis, executive leadership, team skills, management disciplines
ReachBroad — many people involvedFocused-trained leaders and team members
Data neededVaries according to issue
and timeframe
Detailed process data
Data analysisVaries from simple to complexComplex
Time to become self-sufficient6-12 months12-24 months