The Starfish, the Spider and the Span of Five

I just finished reading The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman nd Rod A. Beckstrom. It is a quick read with some interesting ideas. I have a number of issues with the book, and by examining these issues we can learn something about the Toyota Production System and the role of supervisors in Lean manufacturing, among other things.
The authors tell compelling stories of successful examples of starfish organizations including the Apache tribe, Wikipedia, Craigslist, al Qaeda, blogs, eBay, file sharing and others. Toyota is included in Chapter 8 as a hybrid between the centralized and decentralized organization, but more on that later.
If you are a failing spider organization (one that dies when it’s head is cut off), the idea of becoming a starfish organization that is more adaptable and able to survive being cut apart, only to regrow from its parts may be attractive. However, you need the same endurance to build and maintain either type of organization. Neither path is the easy answer and neither is inherently superior. According to the authors the starfish organization has five “Legs”. These are 1) Circles, 2) The Catalyst, 3) Ideology, 4) The Preexisting Network and 5) The Champion. There are some immediately obvious links with Lean.
Lean can not function without circles, whether you call them cross-functional teams for various innovation, improvement and management activities, or whether they are quality circles (QC Circles) and other front-line teams.
Lean is an ideology.
The notion of the catalyst as a type of leader who is more of a teacher than an order-giver fits well within the Lean value of “manager as teacher” instead of the traditional “manager as boss”. There is a difference in that these catalysis can typically shun all responsibility for the organization and simply act as sparks or instigators, while managers have profit and loss responsibilities they can not shirk.
Inasmuch as Lean is about changing how work is done within a preexisting network (an organization, typically centralized) this point is covered.
And anyone who has been appointed Lean Champion and wondered what it mean can take some inspiration between pages 98 and 105.
The three things that are not discussed but seem to be essential if you are interested in building a starfish organization are 1) direct customer involvement in the design and deliver of your product or service, 2) small teams making local decisions on how a product or service is delivered or improved, under the tutelage of a team leader and 3) the removal of the economies of scale to enable these things. These three things are all inter-related, and they should be familiar to any student of the Toyota Production System.
While most of the starfish organization examples in the book have benefited significantly from information technology, the authors vastly underplay the impact of disruptive technologies in the demise of the “spider” organizations and the rise of the “starfish”. They give too most of the credit to the organizational characteristics, which they call the Five Legs.
The internet, or information technology, has a very low cost of entry and is highly scalable at a low cost. These are disruptive technologies, in the hands of the customers and they are also destroying economies of scale. Want to go to buy something at an auction? No need to have an auction house, parking lot and auctioneer. There is almost no set up cost on eBay.
If a disruptive technology creates an economy of scale or depends on it, this will not enable a starfish organization. If the disruptive technology of the last decade had been something like the steam engine, the would be a completely different story and spider organizations would be all the rage, since it takes a certain amount of capital to own a and maintain a steam engine.
It’s not that starfish organizations are better or worse than spider organizations, they are simply able to compete in select niches because of the availability of the resource called information technology. To put it another way, without the internet this book could not have happened. That’s not to say starfish organizations aren’t a real phenomenon, only that the readers should take caution in applying the starfish model to their organization if they do not have a way of using the internet as a significant technology accelerator and remover of economies of scale.
Starfish do not move very fast or go very far. By comparison, a spider is a quick little critter and will crawl up your arm and bite you on the head lickety-split. This book is the story of high-tech starfish moving faster than spiders.
The local interest story is that my house has had no electricity since Thursday evening (this blog entry published via Starbucks WiFi connection). When we have windstorms like we did in the Puget Sound this week and 700,000 people lose power, these starfish organizations will depend on big spiders like the Puget Sound Energy people to come in and fix things and get their electricity back so they can power their computers and internet connections.
Could starfish organizations get out and fix downed power lines? Possibly. Could they run a regional power grid? Not with the current power generation infrastructure and economies of scale. Give us a new technology called co-generation or micro-generation of power and we may see starfish organizations for electric power generation. The point is that starfish require a new technology to destroy an economy of scale, or they will not be able to move fast enough to survive when the tide goes out.
The authors seem to like the idea of “no one is in charge” with the caveat that anyone / everyone can contribute to shape these starfish organizations. In Lean manufacturing terms we could say they are customer-driven to the extreme, and this can be a good thing, particularly since these organizations are not encumbered by economies of scale and can let customers (members of starfish organizations) do what they want to shape the product / service / community.
This is an important point. What allows these organizations to succeed by being extremely customer driven is that there are no local economies (costs) such as fixed assets that need to absorb earned hours, etc. that get in the way. Customers are having an impact on the design of a service that has very little fixed overhead and requires no costly molds or tooling to prototype the new design.
This is a key concern of Lean accounting in terms of how product launch and marketing decision are made by organizations who are pushed to sell based on numbers that are not driven by cost assumptions which have nothing to do with customer needs and everything to do with the prevailing technology for designing and delivering the product or service.
By the authors’ definition the starfish organizations directly include the people that are consuming the services (Alcoholics Anonymous, eBay, Wikipedia) while this is almost never true of spider organizations (automobile manufacturing). This fact alone has been written about in many books, and could have been highlighted more in this book.
None of the examples given of starfish organizations make anything. They either sell a product or provide a service. They do not require significant fixed assets or a supply chain of any complexity in order to exist. Many of the examples are not for profit business at all, so the applicability of the starfish principle in making money is in itself questionable.
In Chapter 8 the authors introduce the notion of the “sweet spot” of some between the spider and the starfish is greater than either. Drucker, GM and Toyota make appearances. When the subtitle of the book is “The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations”, needing a “sweet spot” between a starfish and spider (decentralized and centralized) seems like a cop out designed to explain the non-starfish aberration that is a Toyota full of strong leaders.
A story from NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.), the joint venture between Toyota and GM is used to illustrate the fact that the circles of workers in the factory became self-managing. When a plant manager from another GM site joined the workforce as a factory worker in a one-man sabotage experiment, the members of his team stepped in to set him on the right path, rather than the managers doing so. The sabotage seemed fairly harmless, and it would be interesting to learn how long the sabotage would have been allowed before the team leader stepped in, rather than the peers on the team.
The authors say that Toyota has found a “sweet spot” between centralized and decentralized organizations where their “circles” have enough autonomy and freedom to be creative but not to much so that thy introduce variance into the process.
The authors miss the critical importance of strong supervision for long-term kaizen (continuous improvement) at Toyota. Certainly there are quality circles and other team based improvement activities but these rely on the so-called “span of five” style groupings of team leaders and supervisors to teach, support, and troubleshoot for five other team members. They are not equals. It is not a “circle” in the sense that an Alcoholics Anonymous group is a circle or in the sense that people working on a Wikipedia page are a circle.
The authors also marvel at the 100% acceptance of employee suggestions at (Toyota cites 99%) as proof that these circles act like starfish organizations. They claim that team members are free to make changes, and that if other team members don’t like those changes they can change it back. While it is true that changes at Toyota are performed as experiments, and that if an experiment fails (it is not an improvement) things are reversed or further improvements are conducted, it is not correct to say that workers can make suggestions that are 100% accepted.
While making changes to Wikipedia, or allowing team member/customers to direct how Alcoholics Anonymous sessions or Earth Liberation Front actions are taken may be alright, allowing workers (no matter how talented they may be) to make real-time changes to assembly lines moving at one vehicle per 60 seconds has intolerable real-world consequences. This is not how it happens at Toyota.
Again the span of five concept and strong supervision is involved in making the ideas of workers real life improvements. Workers have ideas, and these often require significant coaching and nurturing before they turn into feasible experiments whose impact can be measured using the PDCA (Plan Do ChecK Act) process. There is not sweet spot between spiders and starfish at Toyota. There is centralization pushed down and implemented to through each level in the organization all the way to the front lines. The highly structured nature of the organization allows for flexibility, since people are well trained to follow certain principles when responding to changes or problems.
Can the starfish concept really even apply to manufacturing companies so tied to economies of scale (whether illusory or real), or to an organization that has a complex supply chain? Can we have mass production without the management of fixed assets such as equipment, land and buildings? Perhaps the ultimate in Lean is to move beyond mass production to many small micro producers with virtually no fixed assets, and direct local customer involvement. Then again, I think we tried this several hundred years ago before something called the Industrial Revolution came along.

2 Comments

  1. Nancy Kress

    December 22, 2006 - 12:40 pm

    “The notion of the catalyst as a type of leader who is more of a teacher than an order-giver fits well within the Lean value of “manager as teacher” instead of the traditional “manager as boss”.”
    The common answer to the question of how managers can improve the organization is often: “better communication.” I would argue that managers can best improve the organization by helping employees to know themselves. I would rather have my employees thank me for enriching their lives than thank me for their paycheck, or worse, thanking me for not firing them when they fail.

  2. Rod Beckstrom

    December 27, 2006 - 8:14 pm

    Dear Jon,
    I very much enjoyed your thoughtful and thorough analysis and critique of our book!
    You are right, we could perhaps have emphasized the disruptive impact of technology even further. On the other hand, as we point out in the New Rules, the network effect and diseconomies of scale are both included and reference the impact of technology. But you are right in pointing out that it is fundamentally technology which has changed the environment and allowed such a proliferation of new starfish networks and organizations. Great work. Gambatte!
    Rod