ROWE versus Lean: Heaven or Hell?

Posted on April 5, 2012 by


In this post I’m going to examine the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) model and give you my thoughts on the subject as it applies to Lean.

I initially came across ROWE in the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Dan Pink:

I then followed this up by reading Why Work Sucks And How To Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, who are the originators of ROWE.

The principle of ROWE is that employees are not only allowed but are encouraged to do whatever they want, whenever they want – as long as the work gets done. Teams decide if and when they are ready to join; no one is forced into it.

With ROWE there are no timetables, nobody counts hours, work is something you do – not somewhere you go – and there is no judgment on how people spend their time.

From what I’ve read (and I don’t claim to be anywhere near an expert) here are my main concerns with ROWE (in no particular order):

Which comes first – the individual or the team?

Firstly, how do you separate the individual from the team? If you have achieved your “result” for the day and go home, how does this impact on your team which may be reliant on you or the skills you have? Moreover do the potentially uneven timetables of all the empowered workers facilitate and encourage continuous flow? For me this links to Demings point:

Break down barriers and silos between departments

The essence of this is to deploy cross-functional teams who work together at the same time across the whole value-stream and don’t working sub-optimally in silos or compartments, or indeed as individuals. I’ve always thought that Kyosei, a Japanese word meaning ‘living and working together for the common good’, is related to this idea as it has at it’ heart the concept of a deep conscious collective wherein support and teamwork pervade the organisational culture. This sums-up Demings point nicely.

The logical conclusion of Kyosei is that the performance of the indivdual should be judged in terms of the performance of the value stream and ultimately the entire orgainsation. I guess another way of looking at this is that companys need to build a system. Everyone wins if the system wins. Does ROWE allow this if people are working in separate places, at dissimilar times, and in non-standard ways?

A rush to finish

Will most people become motivated by getting “the result” as fast as possible (a, “what’s in it for me” attitude) so they can leave as soon as they can? Not only would this impact on teamwork but (especially for blue-collar workers) the desire to rapidly generate your output for the day would become the goal. This must surely affect standardisation (remember: there is no kaizen without standard work) and variation reduction, never mind quality?

Agree the result

Who decides, “What does good look like?” in terms of the desired result? I personally believe this should be set by the teams themselves as they are involved day-to-day in the process and not by management who may be removed from the process. If managers set the result then it may be too easy (wasteful) or difficult (demotivating) to attain. The more operationally lead kaizens we have the less high-level authority you need. Can we get this level of engagement from ROWE?

Final thoughts

ROWE, as far as I can see if really trying to do something very similar to Lean which is trying to fully employ people in an attempt to eliminate non-value added activities. It also has Respect for People at its core: in a similar way to Policy Deployment or Hoshin Kanri, employees are empowered to decide on what works best for them to achieve results and employers have to have faith that the work gets done. Of course, it’s the duty of the employer to lead with humility and provide the skills and resources necessary to allow this to happen.

However, I’m still concerned about the potential disadvantages which I’ve highlighted in this post. Would you try to apply ROWE at your company?

Learn more

A great podcast on the subject.

As ever feel free to clarify my thinking, challenge me, or tell me I’m nuts by leaving a comment below:

Posted in: Culture