The River Rouge – a divergent legacy

ford-model-t-1925-6I expect that you’ve heard of the industrialist Henry Ford (1863 – 1947), but what about his massive ‘River Rouge’ car plant?

If you had gone for a ‘factory visit’ in the late 1920s, what would you have noticed?

The Model T Production line1

Ford wanted to provide a car that the masses could afford to buy – to ‘democratise the automobile’. Enter the Ford Model T – a car designed to be easy to drive and easy to repair, with standard interchangeable parts.

…but it wasn’t just about the car’s design. It was about the design of how the car was made.

In 1906, Ford’s engineers did something different – they experimented with the physical layout of their manufacturing system. They arranged their manufacturing tools in the sequence of processing steps rather than the normal practise of by machine type. This seems ridiculously obvious now (hindsight is a wonderful thing!), and the result was considerably higher productivity. This innovation created a flow in the order of the work but, at this stage of the Ford story, each work step was still done on stationary tables and stands.

In 1913, they took the next breakthrough step: they experimented with the moving assembly line for a small section of the process and, after some fine-tuning, this increased productivity fourfold…..and so the engineers got to work spreading this method throughout the manufacturing value stream.

Ford was constantly reducing his costs, not by ‘cost-cutting’ but through a fanatical focus on creating flow. This was achieved by a combination of continuous (incremental) and breakthrough (step change) improvements…which enabled Ford to pass on these savings by consistently lowering the price of the Model T…which increased demand…which outstripped supply…which meant that ever further production innovations were required to keep up!

Highland ParkA great deal of the experimentation explained above was carried out at the purpose built Highland Park factory. It was six-stories high, with a railroad track running down a central atrium (pictured) and cranes lifting materials from the rail carriages up to balconies that opened to the appropriate floors on either side.

The basic pieces of the Model T started at the top floor and, through the use of chutes, conveyors and tubes between floors and the force of gravity, they made their way down through the various sub-assembly processes until they reached the ground floor final assembly conveyor….and then the completed car could ‘drive off the line’.

River RougeWhilst Highland Park was an amazing feat of engineering, it had its limitations – such as the central crane-way that was probably a huge bottleneck! Henry Ford went for one more innovative jump – he created an enormous horizontal factory complex called the River Rouge2. The site started with raw iron ore and materials and finished with completed automobiles. It had its own ship docks, power generation plant, blast furnaces and rolling mills – all arranged to achieve flow (I’ve added the basic flow over an aerial picture).

“The River Rouge Plant in 1925 produced about one vehicle per minute in a total lead time of about three days and nine hours from steel making to finished vehicle.” (Source: Henry Ford’s book ‘Today and Tomorrow’)

“…as long as it’s black”

You are probably familiar with the famous Henry Ford quote that ‘you can have any colour you like, as long as it’s black’. Today this sounds quaint, even humorous but there’s a seriously important point within: the manufacturing process was not designed to handle variety.

This hadn’t been a problem – people just wanted to be able to afford a car! – but rising standards of living and the birth of modern marketing gave rise to the ‘sophisticated consumer’. The new problem became offering ever wider variety (e.g. different colours, engine choices, trim levels, add-ons….) whilst retaining low-prices (and therefore mass-production costs).

And so to the crux of this post: Lots of organisations from all around America and the world went to the River Rouge to learn…but what did they see…and, therefore, what did they go away to do?

American Manufacturers post World War II.

So American organisations saw scale at the River Rouge.

Unfortunately, achieving the product variety now demanded by customers meant regularly stopping the production line to change tooling to be able to produce the different variants. Delivering variety was seriously hindering speed.

What to do? Here’s what they came up with:

  • Let’s interrupt the flow and decouple the stages within the production line, allowing the different processes to operate independently, and create buffer stocks between each process;
  • Let’s build each process to the largest scale feasible, and then run large batches per product variant through at the fastest rate possible and thus keep the number of changeovers required down to a minimum.
  • Let’s build warehouses to store all the resultant inventory (Work-in-process and finished goods)

This fundamentally changed production from workers producing for the next process step to workers merely producing for inventory. It became a case of ‘make lots and inspect later’. It was virtually a crime to stop the line3 – a disaster for quality!

Of course, once the main process steps were decoupled, their co-location didn’t matter so much. So rather than having a number of end-to-end manufacturing sites across America, the ‘logic’ could extend to…

  • Let’s centralise process steps into ‘centres of excellence’ so that we can increase scale even further! We might end up with, say, a massive steel works in one city, huge sub-assemblies in another city and a mega final assembly yet somewhere else.

…and the above ‘solution’ to variety introduced massive wastes in the forms of transportation across sites; inventory and its motion as it is constantly transferred in and out of the warehouse; over-production and obsolescence; defects through poor quality and rework…and on and on and on.

You could conclude that they ‘unlearned’ (even destroyed) what Henry Ford had achieved before variety had been introduced.

The above led American manufacturers to the hell of:

  • centralised planning, culminating in mega algorithms calculated by Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP ii) computer applications, producing theoretical answers far from reality; and
  • ‘management by results’ using managerial accounting data (unit costs, rates of return, targets, budgets,…) to command and control the work.

This approach, even though it was hugely wasteful, proved profitable until the 1970s…until domestic demand became satiated and globalisation opened up the market to other manufacturers. Things suddenly became rather competitive….

Over in Japan

The Japanese, and Toyota in particular, saw flow at the River Rouge.

Taiichi Ohno (Toyota) realised that flow was the important bit: “ [they] observed that Ford’s plant conserved resources, by having processes linked in a continuous chain and by running slowly enough so that people could stop and fix errors when they occurred.”  (Johnson4)

Japan, unlike America, did not have the luxury of abundant resources after World War II. They couldn’t afford to create huge factories or tie up money in inventory…so they had to find a different way – to do a lot with a little.

Taiichi Ohno came to the conclusion that variety and flow had to go together i.e. “a system where material and work flowed continuously, one order at a time” (Johnson).

This created some clear challenges to work on:

  • rather than simply accepting that machine changeovers took time, Ohno set his workers the challenge of continuously reducing set up and change-over times; and
  • rather than running high-volume batches per variant, Ohno empowered each worker to design and control the steps they performed so that they could perform different steps on each unit that passed through them

In short, he set his people a huge visionary challenge, of working together as a system to think about the incremental, and sometimes giant, steps they could take to handle variety ‘in the line’.

Rather than centralised planning with standardised work dictated to them, the workers were empowered, and encouraged, to think for themselves, to deal with what was in front of them, to experiment and to innovate….and to share what they had learned.

And, wow, they came up with some fabulous techniques such as ‘Single-Minute Exchange of Dies’ (SMED), ‘pull’ using kanban, product supermarkets, ‘stop the line’ using andon cords, visual management, machine ‘right sizing’…and on and on.

I could write about each of these…but I’m not going to (at least not now). The point is not the brilliant innovations themselves. It is the clear and permanent challenges that were set and the constant progress towards them.

You may copy ALL of Toyota’s techniques but they (and other like-minded organisations) will still leave you far behind. Why? Because, whilst you are attempting to copy them they are racing yet further ahead. Indeed, what you copy (even if you ‘get’ the why) may be an out-dated technique before you go live! (This is to compare a static vs. dynamic environment)

What about service?

The Western (?) ‘solution’ for service organisations has, sadly, been virtually the same – scale: to standardise, specialise, centralise and ‘crank up the volume’.

Yet the challenge of handling customer variety is so much bigger: variety for service organisations is virtually infinite – it’s different per customer and, even for a given customer, it differs as their circumstances change.

So should we just pick up the ‘Toyota tool kit’ and get implementing? No. The techniques to meet the challenge will differ. Service is NOT manufacturing.

But can we learn from Toyota? Most certainly – but this must be at the deepest ‘beliefs and behaviours’ level.

The core message from the above is that service organisations should design their system such that the front line are allowed, and enabled, to absorb variety in customer demand.

If you run a service organisation and you have set up:

  • a front office ‘order taking’ function to categorise demand (which can only be based on the limited information available to them), and break it down into standard ‘work objects’ from an allowable catalogue of variants;
  • a ‘workforce management’ function to: prioritise and allocate (i.e. push) these work objects into ‘work queues’, usually by temporal batches (e.g. by day/ shift or weekly);
  • multiple specialised back office silos to churn through their allocated work, ‘motivated’ by activity targets (and incentives) regarding volumes of work performed; and, as a result
  • a complete confusion as to who is taking responsibility for resolving the customer need

…then you have seen scale, through commanding and controlling the work, as the ‘solution’.

If, however, you are on a journey towards:

  • equipping the people at the point of contact with the necessary expertise and freedom to respond to what most customers will predictably want (i.e. the bulk of demand); and
  • where more unusual demand hits the system, allowing and enabling these same ‘front of service’ people to ‘pull’ expertise to assist, yet retaining ownership of the service provision (thereby speeding up their rate of learning and widening their skills and knowledge)

…then you are on a similar track to Ohno: Pursuing flow for each unique customer demand, through revealing and harvesting the passion and pride within your workers.

Footnotes:

1. Sources: Much of the above comes from early chapters within three books:

  • ‘Relevance Regained’ by H. Thomas Johnson
  • ‘Profit Beyond Measure’ by H. Thomas Johnson
  • ‘Toyota Kata’ by Mike Rother

Other details (including pictures) come from searching around the ‘interweb’ thing.

…and of course the service ending is inspired by the work of John Seddon.

2. Historical point of detail: “The River Rouge was built to produce Model T Fords for decades to come, [but] by the time it was capable of full production later in the [1920s], a factory a tenth its size could have handled the demand for Model Ts.” (Wiley)

i.e. Henry Ford had built this huge production machine but his product had gone out of fashion because its competitor, General Motors, was providing the variety that customers now wanted, albeit using scale to do so. Ford was now in a dash to recover.

3. ‘Stop the line’ crime: Workers knew that managers wanted them to make as many as possible, with no ‘down time’. I understand that this is where the phrase to ‘throw a spanner in the works’ comes from…which refers to a disgruntled worker ‘accidentally’ dropping a tool into the assembly line mechanism so that the line stopped and they all got a break whilst the cause was found and rectified.

4. A fresh giant: Johnson is a giant for me, and I’ve been meaning to add his ‘giant bio’ to this blog for ages now…I have finally done so 🙂

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The gift that keeps on giving

A good laughI’m a big fan of the Think Purpose blog. It gives me a good hearty laugh, and long may it continue.

Some time ago the author promoted the blog’s most viewed post to a ‘page of its own’ status under the heading ‘It’s not all cream cakes and beer in systems thinking’. Go on, have a read.

I enjoy this post immensely (it has so many truths within) and, as such, I have it on my wall in an attempt to keep me sane.

I was pondering it the other day as yet more madness happened around me and something struck me: I wanted to add something of an optimistic/ positive nature to the list (‘item no. 8’ if you will)….and here it is:

Once you begin to understand the basics of systems thinking and intervention theory then much of what you observe around you becomes ‘the gift that keeps on giving’.

There isn’t a day that goes by in which I don’t read an email or intranet communication or become involved in (or overhear) a conversation in which I start to chuckle (even ending up crying with laughter) at what is happening before and around me.

So, yep, I’d add to the list that systems thinking is the gift that keeps on giving. Just think – all that comedy was occurring around you beforehand…and you never knew! How could you?

 

…and to follow up this positivity, ‘item no. 9’ is that ‘systems thinking’ conversations are hugely stimulating.

Since starting my journey, and in particular from when I began to write this blog, I have never had such fabulous, important, liberating, energising, therapeutic, cathartic etc. etc. conversations with some truly inspirational, humble, genuine, passionate and well-meaning people, searching for a ‘better way’ for them, for society and for our planet.

Sure, much of the command and control cr@p still remains around them but it’s a great feeling to be able to talk to a fellow human and ‘you know that they know’ and ‘they know that you know’! It’s a bit like having a magical secret.

Obviously it gets better the more of you there are1…but even just two of you can hugely enjoy a daily exchange about another “you couldn’t write this stuff” instance of ‘item 8’ comedy (see above).

Conversations beforehand were just so bland, boring and irrelevant to the world.

Ho hum, roll on tomorrow’s fun 🙂

Footnote:

1. I see these stimulating conversations as the pioneers of a ‘new way’ connecting and nourishing themselves along the lines of the Berkana Institute system change model. (Thanks to Charles Beauregard for sharing this video in the comments section of a much earlier Think Purpose post.)

Lost in translation

keep off the grassSo I came across a PowerPoint slide recently that was headed something like ‘Deming’s 14 points for management translated for our organisation today’ (emphasis added).

It then contained 14 very brief (i.e. 2 or 3 word) phrases of unclear meaning.

I am familiar with Deming’s 14 points for management, having them on my wall, and many (most?) of the phrases on the PowerPoint slide were alien to me.

Now, the reasons for this apparent mismatch could be one, or many, of the following. The author of the slide:

  • doesn’t understand Deming’s principles; or
  • doesn’t agree with Deming; or
  • doesn’t think that they apply to his/her organisation or to the world as it stands today1; or
  • does understand, does agree with them and does think they are applicable BUT doesn’t want to ‘upset the applecart’ with the inconvenient truth that some (many?) of Deming’s principles might go completely against how his/her organisation currently operates2

…and so considers it necessary and acceptable to, let’s say, ‘adjust’ them.

Now, the point of this post is not to dwell on my translation concerns on what I read on a PowerPoint slide (I mean no disrespect or malice to the writer). The point is to faithfully set out Deming’s 14 points as he wrote them and to pull out some pertinent comments…and, in so doing, to point out where many organisations have a way to go.

“Hang on a minute Steve…

…erm, you seem to be suggesting that Deming’s points are akin to a holy book! What’s so important about what Deming had to say?!”

If you are wondering who on earth Dr W. Edwards Deming was then please have a read of my earlier ‘about the giants’ post on Deming.

In short, he may be considered a (the?) father figure for post war Japan/ Toyota/ Lean Thinking/ Vanguard Method/ Operational Excellence…and on and on. If you believe you are on a ‘Lean Thinking’ journey, then Deming is a hugely important figure and I’d humbly suggest that anyone/everyone study and understand his thinking.

So, here they are!

Deming’s 14 points for management, as summarised3 by Deming (the blue italics), with additional comment from me4:

“The 14 points are the basis for transformation. It will not suffice merely to solve problems, big or little. Adoption and action on the 14 points are a signal that management intend to stay in business and aim to protect investors and jobs

…the 14 points apply anywhere, to small organisations as well as to large ones, to the service industry as well as to manufacturing.


1. Create constancy of purpose towards improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and to stay in business, and to provide jobs.

Purpose is about improvement for the customer, not growth and profitability per se. If we constantly pursue our customer purpose, then success (through growth and profitability) will result …NOT the other way around. You have to act as you say, the stated purpose cannot be a smokescreen.


2. Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change.

Deming’s reference to Western management might now be referred to as ‘Command and control’ management and ‘management by the numbers’. Not all of western management today is command and control (there are many great organisations that have escaped its grip using Deming’s wise words) and, conversely, command and control is not limited to the west – it has sadly spread far and wide.

It’s a philosophy: Deming isn’t putting forward an action plan. He’s putting forward an aspirational way of being. The distinction is important.


3. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.

“Quality cannot be inspected into a product or service; it must be built into it” (Harold S Dodge). If you have lots of ‘controls’, then you need to consider root cause – why do you deem these necessary?

Controls cannot improve anything; they can only identify a problem after it has occurred. What to do instead? The answer lies (in part) at point 12 below.


4. End the practise of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead minimise total cost. Move towards a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.

How many suppliers (such as outsourcing and IT implementations) are selected on the basis of a highly attractive competitive tender and are then paid much much more once they have jammed their foot in the door, and the true costs emerge once we have become reliant on them?

True strategic partnerships beat a focus on unit prices.


5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.

The starting point and never-ending journey is quality, in the eyes of the customer. The outcome (result) will be decreasing costs. Cause and effect.

To start at costs is to misunderstand the quality chain reaction (a post to be written). Focussing on cost-cutting paradoxically adds costs and harms value.


6. Institute training on the job.

 Management (of ALL levels) need constant education at the gemba and, when there, need to understand capability measurement and handle (not frustrate) variation.


7. Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.

Management should be farmers, not heroes.


8. Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.

The fixed performance contract (incorporating targets and rewards) is management by fear. Replace with trust.


9. Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.

This doesn’t mean turn everything on its head! Many an organisation misunderstands and attempts a grand re-organisation from vertical silos to horizontal streams. This is not the point. There is a need for (appropriate) expertise – the problem are the barriers that prevent collaboration across such teams….such as cascaded objectives, targets, rewards, competitive awards…and on.


10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.

The role of management is to improve the environment that people work within, rather than constantly badger and bribe people to do better.


11.

a) Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership.

b) Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.

Numeric targets and straight jacket rules do not improve processes. On the contrary – they create dysfunctional behaviour that clashes with ‘serve customer’ as people struggle to survive.


12.

a) Remove barriers that rob the…worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.

b) Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objective

This means removal of the performance review process!

 To improve, the value-adding workers need to be given the responsibility to measure, study and change their own work. This fits with the front-line control (devolution) lever.


13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement

i.e. learn about Deming, about all the other giants …but through education, not merely training; through educators, not gurus….and then experiment.


14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.”

…but don’t fall into the ’empowerment’ trap! Empowerment cannot be ‘given’ to teams, or people within…it can only be ‘taken’…and they will only take it if their environment motivates them to want to, for themselves.

 True collective accountability (i.e. where everyone can and wants to work together towards the same common purpose) comes from profit sharing within an ideal-seeking system.

Beware ‘making a message palatable’

Going back to that translation: Some of you may argue back at me that the person that carefully ‘translated’ Deming’s 14 points into something more palatable is ‘working with management’ and ‘within the system’ and that this is the best thing to do.

I don’t subscribe to this way of thinking (and neither did/do the giant system thinkers such as Ohno, Ackoff, Scholtes, Seddon etc.)

To borrow a John Seddon quote:

“Fads and fashions usually erupt with a fanfare, enjoy a period of prominence, and then fade away to be supplanted by another. They are typically simple to understand, prescriptive, and falsely encouraging – promising more than they can deliver. Most importantly fads and fashions are always based on a plausible idea that fits with politicians and management’s current theories and narratives – otherwise they wouldn’t take off.”

Beware the trap of ‘adjusting’ an unpalatable message (to the current status quo) in an attempt to progress. In making it ‘fit’ with management’s current thinking you will likely have bleached the power from within it.

For example: to translate Deming’s point 12 and (conveniently) omit his words around abolishing management by objectives and the performance rating system is to (deliberately) strip it of its meaning. Sure, it’s been made ‘agreeable’ but also worthless.

Deming’s philosophy is no fad or fashion! As such, it is important that it shouldn’t be treated that way. Managers should be exposed to what he said and why…and those that are true leaders will pause for self-reflection and curiosity to study their system, to get knowledge as to what lies within.

Footnotes:

1. Deming wrote about the 14 points in his 1982 book ‘Out of the Crisis’

2. If this is the reason then it strongly suggests that the organisation fails on Deming’s point 8: Management by fear.

3. Whilst this is only Deming’s summary, he wrote in detail on each point i.e. if you want a deep understanding of one (or all) of them then you can.

4. There’s far too much to pull out of the above to do justice to Deming within this one post – I’ve merely scratched the surface!…and, if you have been a reader of this blog for a while, you will likely have read enough that supports most (all?) of his points.

Oh…so that’s why ‘Command and Control’ doesn’t work very well!

social systemWarning (or advert for some): Sometimes I write long(er) ‘foundational’ type posts – this is one of them 🙂

Russ Ackoff researched and wrote a great deal about systems.

It is within his writings1 that I find an excellent explanation about why many organisations adopted the command and control management model, why there is a major problem with this and, most importantly, why there is a better way.

First, A recap:

Before looking at types of systems, I should allow Ackoff to remind us what is meant by ‘a system’ and why this matters:


“A system is a network of inter-dependant components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system…

The two key pieces here are that:

  • there is an aim; and
  • it is made up of parts that need to work together (either directly or indirectly) to achieve that aim

If you have parts but no aim then you don’t have a system…you simply have a ‘collection’.

If you have a part that (truly) isn’t required to achieve the aim then it isn’t actually part of the system…which is why your ‘appendix’ body part got its name.


…If each part of a system, considered separately, is made to operate as efficiently as possible, the system as a whole will not operate as effectively as possible…

The heart and lungs are parts of the body but if they function according to what’s best ‘for themselves’ then they won’t function as required for the overall good of the whole. It’s no good if the brain is telling the heart and lungs to ‘work flat out’ to run like hell from a chasing pack of lions and these organs both respond with a “no thanks, this doesn’t suit  us!” The same is true for parts of (e.g. functions within) organisations.


…The performance of a system depends more on how its components interact than on how they act independently of each other…

You can buy a ‘light as a feather’ carbon frame, an awesome set of aero wheels and a precision engineered 11-speed group set but you can’t ride them as a bike if they don’t fit together. Further, someone with a basic ‘sit up and beg’ bike frame with cheap wheels and components that do fit will easily beat you in a bike race.


…When a system is taken apart it loses its essential properties.”

If you take apart an alarm clock, you will have all of the parts necessary for the system but the disassembled collection of parts isn’t sufficient to tell you the time.

The above has huge implications.

So, on to Ackoff’s system types:

Ackoff defined a number of types of systems2 and the problems that occur when an organisation adopts a management model that does not match the correct system type.

Here goes….

Type 1: Deterministic (e.g. mechanisms)

alarm clockA deterministic system is one which has no purpose and neither do its component parts. This might seem rather strange…”Erm, I thought you said a system had to have an aim?!” – the point is that a deterministic system normally serves a purpose of an entity external to it, such as its creator. Its function, and that of its parts, is simply to provide that service when required.

Mechanisms are the most obvious examples of deterministic systems: An alarm clock is such a system. Its purpose (to tell the time) has been provided to it by its creator (the clock maker)….and that is what it is for, nothing more and nothing less. It can’t decide to do something else!

Even a computer, whilst incredibly more complicated than an alarm clock, is such a system – it is reliant on the inputs and programs provided to it by its external sources.

Type 2: Animated (e.g. most organisms)

monkeyAn animated system is one which does have a purpose of its own but its parts don’t.

Animals (and therefore humans) are the most obvious example. They have a purpose of their own – where this might be argued as (at a minimum) survival, and (more optimistically) to enjoy doing so, in the manner of their own choosing.

The animal is made up of parts (e.g. organs) and whilst these parts have a necessary function for the good of the whole, they do not have a purpose of their own.

In this way we can compare a computer to a person and see that they are fundamentally different. The computer’s purpose is provided to it whilst the person provides their own.

Type 3: Social (e.g. organisations, societies)

flagsA social system is one which has a purpose of its own and so do its parts (the people within).

Indeed each social system is usually part of a larger social system (e.g. a family is part of a community, which is part of a nation, which is part of ….)

And even more complex, a person belongs to multiple social systems – which have different, sometimes conflicting, purposes3.

So, bringing these three types together, we have:

System Type4: The whole is: The Parts are:
Deterministic (e.g. a mechanism) Not purposeful Not purposeful
Animated (e.g. a human) Purposeful Not purposeful
Social (e.g. an organisation) Purposeful Purposeful

These three system types form a sort of hierarchy: The deterministic alarm clock is given purpose by the animated (clock making) person who also lives within their social group. The linkages don’t go the other way….or at least they shouldn’t…which leads on to…

Okay, interesting stuff but what’s the point?

Well, now that we have an understanding of three different types of systems, we can see the consequences of the misunderstanding of an organisation as a system:

A ‘deterministic’ model applied to an organisation:

Adam Smith (often referred to as the father of economics and of capitalism) wrote a famous book called ‘The wealth of nations’ (1776). In it, he used the example of a pin factory to explain the concept of ‘the division of labour’. He explained that one person performing all the steps necessary to making a pin could perhaps make only 20 pins a day but if the pin-making process were broken up into a series of limited operations, with separate people performing them in a joined-up line, productivity could rise to thousands of pins per day per worker.

Now that sounds fantastic doesn’t it! But for who?

Smith’s thinking was taken on board by industrialists who went on to employ vast factories of ‘unskilled labour’ in the new concept of ‘manufacturing’ (and who likely still do in the sweat shops of 3rd world countries).

Standing back, we can see that this is using people as replaceable machine parts i.e. we have a defined mechanism (the manufacturing process) which is given its purpose externally by its creator (e.g. make pins)…and wow, this mechanism sure can make pins!

Henry Ford’s phenomenal success worked in the same way. He designed a mechanism to make Model T Fords (his mass production factory) and installed workers as the mechanism’s parts. He (and other ‘owners’ at this time) could use workers in this mechanistic way because:

  • unskilled workers, whilst poorly educated, were adequate for the simple tasks required of them;
  • such workers were willing to tolerate being treated as a machine part since there was high unemployment and virtually no social security safety net…giving them little option (i.e. work as required or starve);
  • there was a large pool of available labour – the human parts of the machine were easily replaceable; and
  • such business owners were subject to very little societal controls (such as governmental interventions and constraints) limiting their treatment of their worker ‘parts’4.

It’s worth noting that, even though worker conditions were massively in his favour, Ford’s ‘mechanism’ had an astounding 370% turnover of workers in 1913, with new hires staying an average of only 3 months. Many workers simply ‘walked off the job’ without notifying anyone…which is what happens if you ask humans to perform monotonous (demoralising) work without having to use their brains.

An ‘animated’ model applied to an organisation

So times moved on. We had two world wars that caused/ enabled major societal changes – a major shakeup of the class system, the birth and rise of the Labour movement and worker unions, massive improvements in education, social security and welfare, and great advances in technology.

The other significant change was the raising of capital (necessary for post war growth and development) from the public and the consequent birth/ rise of publically owned corporations. This separated the ownership and management of these new organisations.

A big difference from before was that:

  • the workers were now far more educated and empowered; and
  • the required work had become far more skilled (utilising new technologies).

Managers were no longer able to treat workers as merely replaceable cogs in a machine – it took time to train them, and they now had worker rights and choice.

Now, rather than seeing an organisation as a deterministic system with the all-powerful owner dictating its purpose (as the likes of Ford had done), they operated as an animated system would6: with a ‘brain’ (senior management) and a ‘body’ (the various operating functions performing the work).

Such a model works by senior management providing the instructions (the what: commands) and procedures (the how: controls) and then the operating units carrying them out accordingly.

“Command and control represents the division of labour between decision-making and doing the work.” (Seddon)

We all know that the ‘operator’ parts within the organisations ‘body’ are actually human beings but the ‘command and control’ management instruments don’t really recognise this fact:

  • the organisational ‘brain’ (often annually) decides the strategy and breaks this down into a set of objectives for the parts of the ‘body’ and locks these into a cascaded grand plan;
  • the organisational ‘brain’ provides incentives for the ‘body’ to act as it requires: thus assuming that it is simply a matter of extrinsically motivating each part to comply as required;
  • the organisational ‘brain’ considers the performance of each part of the ‘body’, scores it and delivers this judgement back: thus assuming that each part can and will accept such feedback for the good of the whole;
  • the organisational ‘brain’ performs (frequent) reorganisations on the ‘body’ parts, as if shifting pawns around a game board. The brain does this by dictating such redesigns to the body rather than asking the body if (and how) it could better rearrange itself;
  • The organisational ‘brain’ thinks that the answer to an increasingly complex environment is simply to increase the quantity and regularity of communication with the ‘body’ parts. This fails to realise that communication is not the underlying problem.

But the reality for every organisation is that they have purposeful parts – you and I – whether they like it or not…and so to treat these parts as merely having a function for the whole is to inevitably generate conflict.

A social model applied to an organisation

…and so we reach the point at which we conclude the obvious that:

  • the organisation (hopefully) has a purpose;

AND

  • the humans working within it have separate purposes.

…and therefore any management model that doesn’t understand and work within such a social system will be very limiting – causing loss of immeasurable value to the organisation AND to the people within.

Now you might say “okay, interesting stuff, but treating an organisation as an animated system and using command and control methods has worked fine so far…why do we need to change?”

The rate of change in our world has been massively accelerating. It used to be that change was seen as generational and this made it relatively easy for people to adapt but this no longer holds true.

Organisations are operating in more complex and less predictable environments with the result that:

“Over the last 50 years, the average lifespan of S&P 500 companies has shrunk from around 60 years to closer to 18 years.” (Source: The art of corporate endurance )

Here’s a classic Deming quote: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

But if survival is desired, then the best chance that an organisation has is to operate a management model that actually fits with the correct type of system! In so doing, it can get the best out of everyone within.

What might this model look like? Studying ‘Deming’s 14 points for Management’ would be a great start. A post to follow next.

Who’s been successfully operating a social model for decades? Two brilliant examples are Toyota and Handelsbanken.


Footnotes:

1. Credit: The core of this post comes from learnings derived from a classic Ackoff essay entitled ‘Reflections on systems and their models’ which can be found in the book ‘Ackoff’s Best: His classic writings on management’.

2. I’m aware that other system thinkers have created other, more sophisticated, classification schemes (e.g. Boulding, Beer). Ackoff’s system types nicely serve the purpose of this post.

3. This fact is probably relevant to the need for, and creation of ‘soft systems thinking’…which is where Peter Checkland’s work fits in (A ‘giant bio’ currently in draft)

4. For those ‘system’ geeks out there: Ackoff explained a 4th system type, that of an ecological system – where the parts are purposeful but the whole is not. Ecological systems contain interacting mechanistic, organismic and social systems, but do not have a purpose of their own. However, their function(s) serve the purpose of the systems that are their parts.

Example: the purposeful use of fluorocarbons as propellants by humans (a purposeful part of the ecological system) affects the ozone layer in a way that is determined, and not a matter of choice for our planet (the whole)…the planet cannot decide that it is harmful to it and decide to ‘do something about it’– the outcome (even though we may not understand it) is determined.

5. Henry Ford realised the problem and, in an attempt to compensate for their conditions, paid his workers well as compared to what they could earn elsewhere.

6. Stafford Beer wrote a famous book called ‘The brain of the firm’ (1972) that explored in detail the analogy of an organisation working as the human body does.

Don’t be an Ostrich

OstrichHere’s something that I’ve noticed over the years: ‘Command and control’ managers really don’t like being referred to as….well…’command and control’ managers.

In fact, they don’t like this apparently grubby ‘command and control’ phrase being used to describe anything around them – it seems to irritate them….a lot!

So it got me pondering about why this might be:

  • Perhaps they see it as disrespectful, as in “how dare you, don’t you know who I am?!”
  • Perhaps they are somewhat embarrassed, as in “shhh – keep your voice down! I’m not very comfortable with you bandying that term about.”
  • Probably there’s an element of both.

If you are that ‘irritated manager’

…and this is the point of this very short post, putting your fingers in your ears and humming “lalalala” doesn’t make it go away.

Fingers in ears

If someone uses the dreaded ‘command and control’ phrase ‘at’ or about you (or your management team) then, rather than being an ostrich, how about asking for, and respectfully drilling into, their perspective as to why they feel this way?

You might learn quite a bit (but that would depend upon you).

…and even if you aren’t able to bring yourself to accept (some of) what they say, remember that perception is reality.

And before you are tempted by the “well that may be your opinion Bob, but you are the only one saying it!” riposte…stand back and have a think about that.

One of THE attributes of a ‘command and control’ environment is fear…and so there should be no surprise that there is only one foolish/ brave/ wise/ disengaged/ about to retire/ got another job* ‘Bob’ prepared to tell you. (* select as appropriate)

Perhaps you would have accepted Bob’s critique, say, last year but you have been doing your best to progress towards a better way. However, don’t be offended if the ‘command and control’ label doesn’t melt away overnight – it won’t because it can’t.

Turn Bob’s challenge on its head as a good thing – every time someone uses the ‘command and control’ label you have an opportunity to better, and more deeply, understand your current condition and its root cause and then further improve.

…though, if it’s not getting better after a while, you are probably doing it wrong!

…and finally

If you are the employee using the ‘command and control’ label to describe what you see and feel, then please carry on with using this label when it is appropriate to do so…but carefully look out for any ostrich discomfort from management (whether verbal or body language) and, rather than withdrawing or defusing your comment, how about asking them “so why the discomfort?”

–  You may create an opportunity to inform and educate 🙂

Note: My next post will use an Ackoff essay to explain why ‘command and control’ is the wrong model to apply.

“What I think is…”

InformedI’d suggest that every day in our working (and home) lives we are asked for our opinion on something. In fact, such a situation probably occurs dozens of times every single day.

Let’s drill down into a single instance and consider the basic pattern of dialogue: we listen to someone state, and maybe explain, their thinking with regards to what they deem to be a problematic situation (explained below)  and then we start an immediate response with words like “I think that…”.  Worse, we may state our ‘thinking’ (perspective) as fact and we may mistake our feelings as rational logic.

I have a constant battle with myself to avoid, pull back from, or recognise my fall into this vast pit.

A sideways look at ‘everyday life’:

Peter Checkland, in his ‘Soft Systems Methodology’ (SSM), came up with a rather nice device that assists – the idea of ‘problematic situations’.

“As a member of the human tribe we experience everyday life as being quite exceptionally complex. We feel ourselves to be carried along in an onrushing turbulent stream, a flux of happenings, ideas, emotions, actions, all mediated through the slippery agency of language, all continually changing.

Our response to our immersion in this stream is not simply to experience it. Beyond that, we have an innate desire to try to see it, if we can, as meaningful. We attribute meaning to it – the ability to do this being one of the characteristics which marks us out as human.

Part of this meaning attribution is to see chunks of the ongoing flux as ‘situations’. Nothing is intrinsically ‘a situation’; it is our perceptions which create them as such, and in doing that we know that they are not static; their boundaries and their contents will change over time.

Some of the situations we perceive, because they affect us in some way, cause us to feel a need to tackle them, to do something about them, to improve them.” Thus we perceive such situations as ‘problematic’ i.e. something to intervene in.

This neatly dovetails with my last post in respect of Ackoff and messes vs. abstract problems. Just as Ackoff didn’t like the simplistic word ‘problem’, neither does Checkland. …and for the same reason: ‘problem’ implies ‘solution’ but, as he puts it, “real life is more complex than that!”

Back to that opinion we have been asked for

How do we arrive at our thinking? Do we have enough knowledge to justify a response?

Here’s another useful passage from Checkland:

“In human conversation, each of the persons involved influences others and is also influenced by them. Out of this two-way process comes what the participants are creating as their notion of changing ‘reality’. These acts of creating reality are never complete, and so have to be examined as only a part of a never-ending process.”

i.e. Any response we provide isn’t, and cannot be, ‘concrete’*. We have, and will always have, much to learn. Of course, it’s absolutely the case that our mindset (and where it sits on the ‘fixed – growth’ spectrum) will determine in which direction(s) and how far our thinking will travel during, and following human interactions.

(*yet, in many situations, we are easily satisfied with superficial response(s) and make key decisions based upon them)

I’d like to propose a few ‘alterations’ to our language to more accurately express the reality whenever we offer our opinion. How about we start our replies with:

“what I currently think is…”; or even better

 “what’s just popped into my head as a response is…”

Because, let’s be honest – we weren’t thinking about it 5 minutes before we were asked and we have press-ganged our brain into providing a timely reply. Further, our ‘answer’ isn’t exactly complete. It’s just an initial train of thought based on what we have been exposed to, and heavily weighted by its recency.

Even thinking about adjusting our replies to being less certain is likely to help us contemplate what we actually know to respond.

I could be flippant here and say that, if you ask me what I think, I should reply that I don’t know yet – ask me on my death bed…because that’s when I will have finished* assimilating all the information available to me. (* though likely, I presume, not by my choice)

Rather than taking this unhelpful line of reasoning…let’s look at what lies within:

Knowledge, not opinions

i.e. the idea that I need to take my time, gain (and therefore seek out) experience, understand the facts and expose differing perspectives before I provide a hypothetically useful reply.

So, even better than the “what I currently think is…” response would be to clearly explain the basis, extent (and therefore limitations) of our experiences in respect of the topic in play…so that we and the listener can appreciate why we currently think as we do…and our listener is encouraged to  reflect in the same manner. Gosh, we might end up educating each other!

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” (Confucius)

In a work scenario our response should often simply be:

“I don’t have the facts to make a valuable response…but I can do something about that…I’ll get straight to the gemba!”

…and if we do this, we will collect the facts, appreciate the environment in which they arise, and understand other perspectives…leading to meaningful change, towards purpose.

…which is an excellent link to three previous posts:

…and I’ve also set myself up for a follow-up post on the ‘soft systems thinking’ topic of ‘Worldviews’. Here’s a teaser to end with:

“The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another. [It] goes on to discover that every world-view is terribly restricted. There are no experts in the systems approach.” (C. West Churchman)