Aquatic Life Forms and the Lean Organization

One of the guiding principles of the lean approach to product and process design, known as the production preparation process (“3P”) is to learn from how nature does things. Nature, said Johannes Kepler, uses as little as possible of anything. Nature designs some of the most elegant systems, sustainably and efficiently, based on universal principles. For an enterprise to succeed over the long-term it must be in harmony with its environment, including the local market, laws of the land, society and even nature itself.

Taken at the practical level of the organization or team, it is useful to reflect nature and seek analogies that we can learn from. Recently I led a exercise at a leadership retreat in which I asked the participants were to liken their organization to an aquatic lifeform, draw a picture and explain why they chose the particular animal, fish, bird, reptile or invertebrate. The results were very thoughtful and creative. This exercise can be used during a strategic planning session, a reflection session on leadership behavior, a lesson in how we run meetings, or how we measure up as a lean organization. The following are some examples of how to draw analogies between aquatic life forms and the effectiveness of your organization.

The Hippopotamus

The hippopotamus is a water animal that represents power. Creatures in the wild respect the quiet, if not exactly elegant, power of the hippopotamus. No animal hunts the hippopotamus. The hippopotamus will attack alligators fearlessly, guarding its territory and keeping waters safe for other creatures. At full galloping speed, it is one of the fastest creatures on land. The hippopotamus has a big mouth, allowing it to bite off and digest a lot. Yet it is somewhat monolithic, inflexible, and does not change directions easily once it has begun it charge. Does this sound like your organization?

The School of Fish
The school of fish represents a collection of fast, small players who are well adapted to their specific niche and environment. The school of fish has what we might call strong team cohesiveness, and can can react to threats and change directions quickly. The loss of any one member has little effect on the school of fish. Does this sound like your organization?
The Frog


The frog represents change. In fact, the Japanese word for frog “kaeru” is a homonym for “kaeru” which means “to change” something. A frog changes from an egg to a tadpole, growing legs, shedding its tail and maturing from a fish into an amphibian. The frog is Comfortable in water, on land, in trees. The frog makes progress in leaps, but would not win a foot race over short distances. The frog catches prey in leaps (of the tongue) but must often wait patiently for that opportunity to come along. Does this sound like your organization?

The Duck
From the point of view of modeling the lean organization, I have a lot of respect for the duck. The duck is capable in land, water and air. It is able to find new habitats (lakes, ponds) in which to thrive both locally and also by migrating long distances as seasons change. As a team animal, the duck migrates by flying in v-shaped formation which allows any member of the team to step in and take the lead when the head bird is tired. The duck is a talkative bird, constantly quacking as it walks, flies or swims. If only we were as communicative as ducks many of our problems would be gone. Most of all the duck is graceful on the surface of the water, while working its feet furiously below the surface. The simplicity and elegance of a lean organization is underpinned by daily discipline, overlapping checks and constant strengthening of the fundamentals, the working of duck feet beneath the water. Does this sound like your organization?

Marine life is fascinating. We are still finding new and bizarre species in the deep ocean, beneath the Antarctic ice, and in volcanic vents in whose heat and chemical compositions we thought life could never exist. Creatures which live in or about water have adapted to many conditions. The colors, designs, habits and habitats are extremely diverse. We can seek inspiration from aquatic life forms. If your organization was an aquatic life form, what would it be? Try this exercise.