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Lean and Systems Thinking

November 29th, 2010 Posted in Lean, Systems Thinking Tags: ,

Here is a repost of some ideas I posted in a discussion group on LinkedIn regarding Systems Thinking and Lean. I hope to say more in specific articles on this blog, but… let’s deliver some value right now and improve later! The group is Systems Thinking World. Please note that this post does not address the Vanguard Method (advertised as systems thinking mostly in UK), but systems thinking as one can discover it for instance on Gene Bellinger wonderful web site Systems Wiki.

I can read a lot of comments about Lean toolset. Lean is IMO far more than this, for waving a tool without mastering the environment where you’d like to apply it, you risk hurting someone.

Lean does not advocates systems thinking, though I personnaly feel, when “properly” applied, it helps employees and management build a holistic view of their organization. I agree that all lean tools are reductionistic. But the approach, IMO, is not.

When you start transforming your organization toward Lean (that means for me changing to the new Lean business model, not just applying tools), you need to change the whole organization, not just parts of it. Because when you start to identify the value streams across your departments, you’re considering the whole system. Then, pulling from the customer’s point of view, you need to constantly adapt to what they’re going to buy (quality, delay, costs, etc.) and the pulling impacts the whole company (or should as some people limit it to some parts of the company, which is an error for me). So, yes, Lean only applies to the closed system of the enterprise (or the extended enterprise as advocated by Womack & Jones in “Lean Solutions”), but with a strong eye on the environment so as to constantly adapt the organization to the clients (=environment). From a Viable System Model, that’s decentralizing System 4 throughout the organization.

Then, speaking of continuous improvement which is usually done using the “A3 tool”, the process mandates that the one in charge of the A3 speaks to all involved and do that by going to the real place to see things by himself. Then talk to the people, get their ideas, get their approval, and then only propose the solution for the management and for all to try & improve later. The more you “do A3”, the more you build a systemic view of your company.

Should I need to speak of hoshin kanri, where a direction is set by management and all company hierarchy levels are asked to contribute with the specifics of their respective departments? Isn’t this a description of System 5 and the way it impacts sub-systems 1 as in Viable System Model?

Viable Systems Model useful for Change Management

It just occurs to me that Ross Ashby’s law of requisite variety as operationally described in the Viable System Model (Checkland – See my delicious links about VSM here) might be a very good model for what consultants refer to as “Change Management”.

I’m talking here of “big changes”, the kind of which that mandates communication plans, sponsor involvement, a full blown CM toolbox… and of which it is usually expected a high resistance in reaction.

The fact is that most (if not all) organizations are both hierarchical and, well, big. By big, I refer to the capacity of anyone to devise ways of implementing the change in all of the impacted parts of the organization: if no one can hold that in their mind, then it’s “big”.

Now, I can see that most Change Management approaches (try Googling it to see for yourself!) try to deploy heavy guns for big changes. That encompasses talking and listening deeply to impacted people as well as driving out fear, devising very precise and specific agendas for change adapted to the part of the organization undergoing change, etc.

My question is: what’s the point of exhausting (paying) some consultants to imagine (necessarily incomplete and unadapted) actions plans for all impacted parts of the organization, when the very same work can be better done from these parts themselves? And with more engagement since they will be involved in the work and everybody knows that we’re more willing to engage with what we’ve helped design?

Now, when one’s looking at the VSM model (open up some external picture from these links), we can imagine the purpose of the change initiative being System 5 (policy), which informs relations between System 4 (external monitoring of change conditions for instance) and system 3 (management). Then system 3, management, has the role of taking care of relations between Operational Units (Systems 1) through information brought up by System 2 (conflict management).

Using the preceding model, one can envision Management (S3) being informed of the change to be done and then “configuring” dashboards (S2) to follow attainment of the change outcome as defined in S5. The way the outcome needs to be attained is then let up to each and every  OU (all of impacted S1s). As autonomous entities (as per the VSM model), they are the ones to know best what needs to be done and how it could be best done to achieve the expected outcome.

I understand that what I’m describing above is related to “complexity management” and post-modern approaches to change. It’s mentioned in a back issue of the AI Practitioner (Appreciative Inquiry online magazine): see november 2008 introduction. You can buy that issue on the AI Practitioner web site. Now, AI is a way to involve the whole system further than what can probably be done using more traditional “policy deployement” as suggested by the VSM. But that’s another story (I’ll write on this soon).

Do you have some stories to share of “cascading change management” as described here (probably without the VSM reference!) ?

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