Lean Organization and Culture

A recent discussion on the NWLEAN Yahoo discussion forum compared lean manufacturing systems to the human body, an organic, inter-active and interdependent system. I think this is a very useful analogy to describe how an organization functions.

Sometime in the early ’80s Norman Bodek introduced me to the work of Lou Davis at UCLA and this led me to other writers and thinkers in the area of socio-technical systems (STS) and whole-systems thinking. My firm at the time, took our Team Management process and expanded it to what we called Whole System Architecture which looked at the work system (technical work flow), the human or social systems of the organization, and the business systems (how money flows) and argued that these needed to be designed as one integrated whole, rather than in a disjointed piecemeal fashion. We implemented this process in organizations such as Corning, Dun & Bradstreet, and many others.

In my experience, this preceded the development of lean manufacturing, but we were doing lean implementations even though we didn’t use that term. We started by studying the work-flow, eliminating waste, speeding cycle times, etc.; then we built the human systems around that work flow. Starting with the front-line team or work cell, optimizing the capability of that level, the designing functions as needed to support the work-flow. With the implementation of lean, and my own concentration on lean culture and lean leadership, I have not been pushing the whole-systems idea. However, it is very work revisiting.

The word “organization” is related to “organism” and “organic.” Both of these imply something alive, something into which has been breathed the mysterious spirit of life. And what matters if you want to improve performance is not the organization chart, but that spirit of life. If you improve that, then you have really done something useful.

The organization’s systems are much like the systems of the human body. The human body is a complex whole-system. Yet, it has various sub-systems, the nervous system and brain, the respiratory system, the digestive system, the cardiovascular system and so forth. Each of these can be described as a separate system, but they are not really separate. Each is dependent on the other; they are inter-dependent systems of a whole. If one of these systems is suffering, it will impact all of the others. Often it is difficult to tell which system is the root cause of a problem. If the digestive system is malfunctioning it will quickly affect the nervous system and that may then impact the cardiovascular system. This exact same interdependency exists within the systems of an organization. For example, if the information systems do not provide effective information to work teams, it may appear that the work team structure is not effective. If incentives contradict (individual vs. team) the structure, it may appear that the team lacks the proper skills. It is obvious that a team’s performance will be optimized if all of the systems support the same performance; in other words, if they are aligned.

In order to create alignment and continuous learning it is helpful to have a mental model, an organized way of thinking about the organizational system. To be honest, I have developed, used and discarded five or six different whole-system models over the years. The above model is, I think, as good as any. This diagram can help you discover and analyze the components of your organization. Think about this series of circles as what you might find if you put that original circle representing the organization under the microscope.

Of course you can apply this systems model to the individual, the team and the organization. If you are interested, I have a paper that described the application of this model and the process of whole-system design in much greater detail. Just email me at lmmiller@lmmiller.com and I will send you a copy.

The purpose of this, or any other whole-systems model is to engage members of the organization in thinking about the current state of that system, understanding how the different components interact, and designing the ideal future system. The more one understands organizations such as Toyota, Honda or other great organizations, one realizes that their success cannot be attributed to any one element of the system. It is not just single-minute exchange of dies (SMED), or the use of 5S, or visual display, or anything else. It is EVERYTHING. It is how they hire, promote, reward, communicate, structure, etc., etc.

The question you should ask yourself is, “Do we have a group in the organization who understand their job as thinking about, planning, designing and implement the ideal future system?” And, “Do they have a model and process for engaging in that analysis and design?” If not, you are lacking an important element of internal competitive strategy.