The secret to success: Differentiating IN and ON work

September 27, 2021

Take a look at your daily tasks. Are you spending more time planning tomorrow’s innovations or solving yesterday’s problems? Consider this example:

From 1942 to 1944, the Boeing Company pulled off what many would consider a miracle. A plant responsible for B-17 Flying Fortress production reduced costs by 43 percent over two years, while production increased by 530 percent over the same period. How’d they do it?

The plant’s staff embraced continuous improvement. To win the war, America needed to make a lot of stuff, make it high quality and do it quickly. Inexperienced work forces had to become experienced and they had to learn to improve every day. Boeing’s employees worked ON the production line, eliminating waste and making their IN work more productive. At the end of each day, the workers gathered for a team meeting in which they reflected on the day’s events and shared their improvement ideas. These ideas were implemented the next day. If the idea made IN work better, it was retained and if not, it was back to the old way with a mind to look for a better solution. 

The short answer to the question “how did they do it?” is that they understood the difference between working IN the plant and working ON the plant to make it better. 

Differentiating IN and ON work is important to any organization. IN work involves executing to deliver value to the customer while ON work involves executing to make the organization better. An organization will become better at executing IN work (and therefore become better at delivering value to the customer) by executing ON work effectively.

The difference between IN and ON work is not always clear. This is especially true where the customer is concerned. Both task lists (IN and ON) are customer-centred. The IN task list is often driven by complaints, by what the customer expects and expresses in the moment. Meanwhile, the ON task list is often driven by what excites the customer. Unfortunately, customer excitement is difficult to measure by asking the customer what they want. As Henry Ford once said, “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” 

To help you differentiate your own ON and IN work ask yourself: am I coming into work today to deliver an innovation for tomorrow or am I dealing with yesterday’s problems? 

ON work does not simply refer to technological innovations or new products, it also refers to anything that frees up more time for the increased productivity of IN work. IN work is driven by importance at a given moment in time; ON work is driven by giving yourself more time to do value-added tasks that deliver for the customer. 

Great organizations are those that improve faster than the average and are able to reinvest improvement savings to innovate and grow the business. For an organization to succeed long term its people need to execute ON work at the rate needed to improve faster than the average. 

In The E-myth Revisited, entrepreneurial guru Michael E. Gerber notes that small business failure rates in the United States are astoundingly high (in Canada only 51 percent survive five years according to 2012 Industry Canada figures) while those of new franchises are very much reduced. For Gerber, the reason entrepreneurs tend to fail while franchisees tend to succeed is that with the latter one is forced to work ON the business. For a franchise, the product is the business, or more specifically the businesses’ way of doing business. Gerber argues that small businesses everywhere need to learn to behave like franchises in order to minimize their potential for failure. For organizations to stay ahead of the competition, they need to schedule their best people to work ON the business. 

Our IN work at Sympli Works is to help other organizations execute their ON work. Our self-directed courses will help you understand how much of your day you spend checking, chasing and correcting other people’s work. If the answer is more than 20 percent, the organization is probably not improving fast enough.

Let us help.