Cynefin's Obvious Context

A real life example

Early on in my career, I landed a job working in a mail room for a major law firm. Nothing glamorous, to be sure. But for a college drop-out of 20-something with a new wife and a baby, steady pay and covering our bills were high on my list of priorities. Glamour, on the other hand, was pretty close to the bottom of that list.

Working in the mail room was a physically taxing job and to be successful, you needed to not only be able to keep up the pace, but be able to keep track of multiple requests and get them done.

We did mail runs three times per day; one at 8:30am, one at 1:30pm, and one at 5:00pm. Each run consisted of 4 routes. Most times, four employees went out, each taking a single route. Now and then, you'd have to take two routes. For each route, there were approximately 75 stops where you checked for outgoing mail and dropped off any incoming mail. The majority of the stops were baskets or trays atop a secretary's workstation. On average, a secretary worked with three attorneys. This meant that on a single route, you were handling mail for as many as 300 people. If you caught a double, you were handling mail for 600. When you got back to the mailroom, you needed to sort your cart by intra-office, inter-office, and outbound mail.

While on a run, you were guaranteed to get additional requests.

"Hey Michael, can you do me a favor, hmmm? Mr. Thompson needs new batteries in his dictaphone. Can you be a doll and send some back to me in the next mail run? Thanks so much."
"You there, office boy, um.. Oh, whatever your name is. The corner conference room is a mess. Get someone to clean it up before 2pm. I have an important meeting. Goddamn slobs..."

And I can assure you from personal experience that Mr. Too-important-to-remember-your-name will recall it perfectly if that conference room is not cleaned up by 2pm.

Now when we weren't doing runs and taking care of random errands, we were receiving packages from several over the road carriers and local couriers. Packages would come in, either direct to the mailroom or through the docks. We'd burst, sort, categorize, slot, weigh and stamp all packages in preparation for the next run.

Whenever the remote office bags got full, we'd transfer the contents of the bag into a large box and label it for overnight delivery to the appropriate office. At the end of the day, no matter how much content was in each office's bag, it got packaged, labeled, and shipped.

Manager knows the entire domain

Our Manager was a man named Greg. Greg had worked the mailroom for years and he'd worked another in a firm across town for several years prior to that. We had two PCs in the mailroom; the first two PCs in the firm. One for creating FedEx labels. The other for UPS. It was the late 80s and aside from those two devices, not much about mailrooms had changed in the prior 20 years. Greg knew it inside and out. He knew all the courier companies in town. He knew most of their owners. If we had a problem with a courier package, he didn't bother with the standard channels, he called the owner's desk phone direct. He knew every FedEx and UPS delivery person. He knew the crews working the docks. He knew all the freight elevator operators. He knew the building maintenance and management crews. He even knew the people who supplied and repaired dictation equipment. He knew just about everything there was to know about every possible aspect of running that mailroom. I say "just about" only to leave room for an extremely remote possibility, but the truth is, as far as I could tell, Greg knew it all and then some.

Best Practices

We had straight forward procedures for most everything. There was a way we ran the routes and a way we sorted the mail. There was paperwork and procedure for FedEx and UPS. We had a process for courier requests and policies covering the handling of legal briefs and discovery documents. There was a documented procedure for how the Pitney Bowes collator was used.

Notes and instructions were all about. There were labels on every compartment in the sorting wall. Procedures were posted above the large equipment and laminated instructions were next to the PCs.

If you didn't know how to do something, you asked your co-workers. If they didn't know, Greg knew.

If you had an idea about how to improve the process, you spoke with Greg. He'd listen patiently, often with a look of mild amusement; a kindly appreciation for your naive contribution. "I'll think about it.", he'd say. He always said he'd think about it. Greg rarely said "no" at the presentation of an idea, no matter how many times he'd heard it before. Later that day or early the next, Greg would tell you a story about a time someone did something similar to your suggestion and an attorney was angered by the resultant inconvenience, a paralegal had to deliver a package themselves, or a filing failed to make it to the court by the deadline. The procedures existed to avoid error and to ensure the mailroom ran efficiently. These were the best practices available and they'd been proven over time.

Sense, Categorize, Respond

Obvious work is not necessarily easy work. We kept busy, we operated efficiently, and we ended many days physically exhausted. To accomplish the work, you needed a strong back and a good memory (or a trusty notepad). In addition to these, you needed to be able to read and write and pattern match. But that was truly the extent of it. There was no extensive training or even orientation for the role. Most of our work was reading (or listening), determining what category this work fit into, and acting out a series of steps. Intraoffice mail is placed in the sorting bin with the matching name. Interoffice mail is placed in the correct outbound office bag. Cross-town same-day deliveries require a courier slip and are placed in the outbound courier bin. US Mail gets a postage label generated via the Pitney Bowes machine and is placed in the mail bin. There were dozens of procedures and policies in place to cleanly, clearly, and efficiently guide us in the execution of our work.

Hierarchy Works

This is the nature of obvious work. From the mailroom to the filing room to the stock yards and manufacturing floors of the 1900s when top-down hierarchical management first proved far superior to the less structured work environments of the day. Obvious work can be entirely understood and a single person can and often does know the entire domain. Workers need not solve new or unique problems or even understand how the overall system works. They only need to be able to sense, categorize, and respond according to procedure. Creativity is not necessary and is often unwelcome. In fact, deviance from standard can create an unstable system resulting in loss of efficiency and resource.

Risks

mis-categorization

While typically quite effective, the hierarchical approach to obvious work is not entirely risk free. To begin with, management cannot be at all places at all times. It is possible a worker or group of workers will fail to properly categorize the work before them and will execute a process that hinders the system. Say, for example, the mailroom staff was not aware that an attorney was visiting the Chicago office from the D.C. office to work on a key case. We'd route correspondence to D.C. per procedure, ensuring at least a 24 hour delay in delivery as the D.C. mailroom would then need to forward the item on to Chicago. Not properly marked, Chicago might categorize this as a mis-routed item and dutifully and efficiently send it back to D.C.

While these may be minor inconveniences that have little impact, a 24 hour delay in a time sensitive case may result in a missed filing or a violation of discovery rules or any other number of detrimental outcomes. Cases have been lost, millions of dollars have been paid out, and people's lives have been ruined simply because a key piece of information didn't get to counsel on time or a procedural requirement was missed with the courts.

Entrenched Thinking

In an obvious context, there is the additional risk of entrenched thinking and complacency. Best practices become sacrosanct. They are proven. They are best. As such, they cannot be bettered. Once one has mastered an obvious domain and put a working system in place, they may not realize the need to continue to monitor and adjust over time.

With the introduction of alternate delivery services, desktop computers, email, and eventually intranets, the mailroom was slow to adopt many of the advances. For years, supplies were requested via a simple procedure. An employee would complete a supply requisition form and drop it in their outbound mail box. This was a pressure form that made two additional copies, allowing the original and one copy to route to the mailroom and providing the requestor a copy for their own records. The mailroom would pull the supplies, checking off each item as they went. They would then separate the second copy from the original and send it back in the supply package as a record of having satisfied the request. This original, once completed, was filed for 12 months and then disposed of.

Once email became ubiquitous, people wanted to be able to shoot off an email rather than filling out a paper form. The mailroom agreed and set up a computer to help process these requests. An operator, who sat at a desk in the file room, processed each email request, transposing it onto the standard form. The original with attached first copy was routed to the mailroom for completion. The second copy was routed to the requestor. On the next run, both items were collected and taken to the mailroom for processing. The requestor's copy would be placed in their outbound bin. The supplies would then be picked and packaged and placed in the requestor's outbound bin. The original would get filed. On the next run, the requestor would receive their supplies and two transposed paper copies of their email request, one with checkmarks and one without. They would, of course, compare the paperwork against the email request and then throw away both paper copies.

There was clearly a better way to do this work, but forms in triplicate had so long stood as the best practice, they persisted without question as the changing environment transformed them from providing value to complete waste.

This example shows the folly and even humor of entrenched thinking and complacency. Forms in duplicate that need not exist are a minor issue within a large organization.

Summary

An obvious context is stable with clear cause and effect relationships that are easily discerned by most everyone. There is a best way to perform each task; a best practice, which is either self-evident or easily conveyed with minimal training.

Management in an obvious context is about coordination. It is top-down and this hierarchy helps to ensure that each individual is being fully, optimally utilized in a system as predictable and efficient as possible. Workers spend their time sensing, categorizing, and responding by executing the pre-determined procedures. Creativity and problem solving are rare activities in this context and are primarily the responsibility of management.

The key risks here are mis-categorization and entrenched thinking. Mis-categorization results in execution of the wrong procedure. For the mailroom at a major law firm, as an example, the impact can range from a minor inconvenience, such as non-critical materials being delivered late, to loss of a case or a key client, possibly even heavy fines and jail time. Entrenched thinking results in lost opportunity. For any company that operates in an obvious context, this can mean a less than optimally efficient operation and loss of profit due to waste. It can also mean losing market share to companies more responsive and nimble in the face of change. Sufficiently entrenched companies can be run out of business whilst they struggle against their own inertia.

Much of what we know today as management was formulated in this context. Frederick Winslow Taylor, the creator of Scientific Management and one of the most influential businessmen of the 19th and 20th centuries, formulated most of his theories and practices on factory floors and in work yards where the work was physically taxing, but cognitively simple.