Friction is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the force that resists relative motion between two bodies in contact” or “the clashing between two parties of opposed views.”   

Identifying Organizational Friction
Organizational Friction

In our last article, we identified three types of organizational friction (the resistance points within a company that limit its performance). Those friction points were caused by oversight or shortcomings in Policy, Culture, and Environment. Each type of organizational friction has its own unique root causes and manifests itself differently within a company.

As with most organizational issues, identify the cause is a crucial hinge point for alleviating it. Friction is best identified by categorizing it in one of two ways: Environmental Friction and Behavioral Friction. 

Environmental Friction is typically rooted in a company’s policies, or physical factors (technology, office design, and more).

For example:

  • Having two computer systems that don’t communicate with each other
  • When you have to fill out the same information in two separate forms on the same project
  • When decisions are delayed because they have to go through unnecessary layers of review before getting to the persons with the power to decide (Building a culture of trust can help avoid this one).
  • When you have standing meetings that are no longer necessary or require attendance for the entire meeting when some roles only need to be there for half of it.
  • Or, when your computer system is old and slow and requires 3-minutes to boot up and lags when you have more than one program open (ok, don’t get me going on that last one as it is frustrating as hell).

The root cause of these resistance points is typically procedural or technical. Many of these issues are caused by a lack of innovation (that’s how we have always done it, why change?”), an alignment to industry best practices without customizing them to the organization’s specific environment and culture, oversight, or just plain bad planning.

These factors are often solved by reworking policy, updating the work environment, or refining technical equipment. Some of these examples are low hanging fruit that can make a huge impact in how your organization performs when identified and removed. Others are more complex and harder to detect, but equally as important and impactful. 

The second category is what we call Behavioral Friction. This type of organizational friction is often more subtle and harder to detect.

Some examples include:

  • People don’t speak up in meetings for fear of being seen as a nuisance and creating a disagreement
  • Leaders suppress negative information about a project because they fear the repercussions to their career (see the sunk cost fallacy and follow along here)
  • People go out of their way not to work with a team member because that individual has a reputation for being rude and mean
  • Two co-workers won’t work together because they have differing political viewpoints
  • Sales teams don’t share best practices because they want to be the best sales team in the nation and fear that sharing their “secrets” will jeopardize that 

These are emotional and social forms of friction that are caused by cultural norms, human bias, and interpersonal relationships within the company. While environmental friction can often be solved with a procedural or tangible fix, behavioral friction is typically a bit more complex and often irrational. It usually requires a deeper psychological solution to solve.

Identifying and Measuring Friction

So how can leaders identify friction? Often, it’s best to start with the negative impact they are hoping to eliminate and trace it back to the causation – e.g. the friction point. Identify the measurable problem first, then identify and fix the cause of that problem.

When we work with companies to identify friction, we start by looking at two layers. The first is what we call “hard items.” These include time, cost, job completion, task abandonment, and re-work measurements impacted by the friction point. The second layer is what we refer to as “soft measures.” These include employee engagement, work satisfaction, frustration levels, employee motivation, performance, and attitudes. 

The hard measures can usually be audited by assessing your workflow processes – this will lead you back to the friction point. Inversely, once you have identified the friction point, you can model various scenarios to see how it would improve those measures. For instance, if after realizing that duplicative tasks are costing time and money you intend to remove two-steps out of a process, you can measure those savings in reduced time or cost by doing a quick time analysis, computing out the hours saved, and multiplying that by average wage per hour.

What is harder to quantify is how employee engagement and other behavioral measures trace back to a point of friction, and inversely how programmatic changes to that friction point can impact employee engagement or reduce frustration. You can’t really measure the impact this has on engagement in an annual engagement survey, instead, you need to conduct some qualitative research, interview people who are impacted, and perform a behavioral assessment of their satisfaction change due to the improved processes. 

When we complete a friction audit, we like to make a friction map. We use this to identify where the key points of friction inside an organization are. A friction map allows organizations to see where the pain points are and to what severity. This map can then be used as a guide for creating solutions.   

To create that friction map, leaders should do four things:

  1. Ask employees
  2. Workflow audits
  3. Technical assessment
  4. Social interaction assessment

Ask Employees (and Customers)

Begin by just asking people. What are the frustrating aspects of your job? Where does work break down? How could programs or processes be improved?  What would make your job easier? Look for patterns in how people respond and then do the following steps specific to those aspects (i.e., the approval process for our incentive designs). 

Workflow Audits

There are lots of articles and resources out there that leaders can tap into to conduct a workflow audit. The basic premise is to look at all the steps required to do a task or job and see if there are redundancies, bottlenecks, and confusing or superfluous steps. Breaking each process down from start to finish can identify any number of friction points that can be eliminated or reduced. 

Technical Assessment

This looks at your technical systems. Are they operating as they are supposed to? Can you streamline logins, ensure top performance, reduce downtimes, ensure access and compatibility. Improving systems is often costly, but when you look at the improvements to process flow and employee satisfaction, the ROI can be significant. For small businesses this can be pretty straight forward, for midsized to larger organizations, this can be a huge undertaking. Oftentimes, it may be necessary to do a very limited assessment on only one piece of technology that has been identified as being cumbersome. 

Social Interaction Assessment

This assessment looks at how we, as employees, interact with each other.  It explores who we communicate with and the quality of those interactions. Begin by mapping out who people interact with within their jobs, how often they interact with them, and then assess how those interactions are perceived in areas like the ease of interaction, quality of information gathered, timeliness of responses, a general feeling of satisfaction or frustration.  Look for patterns and contextual impacts. 

Pulling it together

Take the information gathered from these assessments and try to map out where the hot spots are – where is friction causing the greatest negative impact on your organization.  Use that map to work on the most significant areas first and work your way through it.  By doing this, you can make a big difference in your company’s performance.