Slack vs. Lean

Slack, slacker, waste, muda.

Lean, tight, together, focused.

As a business person it’s hard not to come down solidly on the side of building the lean organization. On the other hand, organizational slack is a critical success factor. Whether we are looking at the current organizational creativity work of Teresa M. Amabile of the Harvard Business School, or the much older work in the NPD academic community that describes the importance of organization slack in designing an innovation organization there is a large body of knowledge in support of slack. And then there is good common sense.

Organizational slack means that there is time and a place to think.  Above all it means that there is room in your company for those of us who wake up at 4:30 with an idea, rough it out on the night stand, then come back into the office and have people willing to leave their e-mail and play with the thought for a bit – not quite knowing where it will lead or how the time should be logged. These are the real “slackers”. These are the real engines of organizational innovation.

As walking is the act of managing a controlled fall, innovation is the act of managing controlled slack. Be careful as you institutionalize this idea. There is a myth that at 3M the employee gets 15% of their time to experiment on projects of personal interest. The internal story at 3M is that you get the 15% above 55 hours. Checking e-mail at 11:00 at night and again at 6:30 before you shower, with your “crackberry” on the night stand makes think time a challenge. Air travel is increasingly becoming the last island of un-connectedness and uninterrupted thought. As we reinvent and redesign work we must reinvent time to think.

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