Lean Organization Requires Alignment of Social and Technical Systems

Some years ago while speaking at one of Norman Bodek’s Productivity Conferences, Norman referred me to an article by UCLA professor Lou Davis. Norman thought that Lou Davis and I were talking about the same things, but from different perspectives.

(Norman and I have a lot in common. At about the same time we both sold our companies (his was Productivity Press, mine was Miller-Howard Consulting Group) and he went off to follow Budhist philosophy and I went off to find God on the oceans. Now we are both back at work and both with new books.)

The Lou Davis article was on Socio-Technical Systems (STS) design (I know the very name makes managers fall asleep!). The first self-managed team manufacturing plants, long preceding the arrival of the first Japanese transplants, were created using STS. Gains Topeka, the first of these plants served as a model, and Proctor & Gamble picked up the technique and converted every manufacturing plant using STS. They considered it such a competitive advantage that they would not allow visitors in their plants. Whole-system design (the term I prefer) is an up-to-date version of STS, incorporating our knowledge of lean.

At its heart, STS was a simple and under appreciated idea. Manufacturing plants (and offices) are designed primarily with the flow of materials, equipment, and safety in mind. They were not designed with the competence and motivation of people as a primary design criteria. The founders of STS (Fred Emery, Eric Trist) demonstrated you would get optimum performance if the plant was designed with both the technical and social systems in mind and was created in a way that aligned these systems.

The more experience one has with Lean manufacturing or organization, the more clear it is that lean is a system in which both human and technical systems have been aligned.

The following illustrates the social and technical systems that need to be designed and aligned to create a true lean culture in the organization. This diagram may not include everything, but it is a good start.

Alignment2

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