Tips for Lean Managers

Snowflakes, Structural Collapse and the Simplification of Lean

By Jon Miller Published on September 19th, 2011

A snowflake is a delightfully complex object when rotated in the three spatial dimensions. Collapsed into two dimensions, it is a pattern of jagged lines. Reduced to a single dimension a snowflake becomes merely a connected series of points, a mathematical line, wholly unimpressive. Viewed through the window of a warm building, a blizzard is a beautiful moving arrangement of snowflakes. These are just four ways of looking at a snowflake, and there are more. The important question is “In which of these ways do we look at our organizations?”
The more Lean is popularized the more there is trend towards for simplification, removal of jargon, specialization into sub-fields of Lean, opportunistic hybridization, and fragmentation. The Lean organization demands handling in its whole, awesome glory. Human psychology, group dynamics, organization behavior, social forces, macroeconomic trends and the drift of history; these may be parallels from snowflake to the snowdrift. I don’t know how many serious scientists dedicate their lives to the study of snowflakes in their entire glorious life cycle, but in comparison our attempts at lean seem like boys in a snowball fight: grab a handful and throw it hard, whatever works.
Even three dimensions are not adequate to understand snowflakes or much else in this world. No process can be contemplated without the dimension of time. This is true of the processes which create snowflakes from dihydrogen monoxide vapor. And what about the elegant, fractal rules that a snowflake follows to create its beautiful and complex structure? Where do those rules come from? “No two snowflakes are alike” is a statement which is useless unless we doggedly ask “why?” and “so what?” until we discover the algorithms that underlie fractal water crystal formation. How can we hope to design high performance Lean organizations without understanding that such rules exist, much less without understanding what they are?
By definition there are always structures and systems larger than the one we operate within (thinking deeply about this is a good way to induce vertigo). In order for us to frame and think about what we perceive, it must be collapsed into fewer dimensions than contain these perceptions. And yet time ticks on, the universe expands. Trying to follow this flow is as useless as chasing snowflakes which turns to dew as soon as we get close enough to it. Rather we need to grasp the total process of how blizzards come about, what makes the individual snowflakes actualize.
Not satisfied to merely theorize about the process of universe formation, scientists indeed do grapple with the flow of time and space, and dare to make direct observation. What they find is that large chunks of the universe appear to be completely missing. Completely baffled, scientists theorize the existence of something called dark matter. Scientists need massive amounts of dark matter to exist for the universe to make sense, but nobody has found any of it. The only evidence is the gravitational effects dark matter has on visible matter as well as gravitational lensing of background radiation, but otherwise the dark stuff is undetectable. It’s what a puzzled machine maintenance man might call gremlins.
In a similar way, we infer that something must be missing from our understanding of Lean organizations when observe and find that large chunks of improvement are missing. We observing the effects of changes that we make within our organizations, finding that although we followed every step in a transformation process that worked many times in the past, the results in this organization do not match the theory. We suppose there must be an extrinsic explanation like dark matter. As with cosmology, the answers we seek about lean organizations come from more observation, broader measurement and deeper understanding of the system.
It’s inevitable that lean management will be simplified, built up and then collapsed back into fewer dimensions. As with science, we think we have understood something when we can use the knowledge to go blow things up. In the broadest sense, science and lean are both about managing power, using energy more effectively. We put knowledge to practical short-term use; we attempt to frame it around ourselves. This is a good thing insofar as we learn from applied science and practice. But we do need to be cautious when simplifying lean not to collapse it into too few dimensions, to frame it too early, too small. How few, how early, or how small depends wholly on whether one happy with snowball fight Lean or with blizzard Lean. Like snowflakes to water, all organizations eventually return to their simplest unit: the person. Turning water into vapor, snowflakes and a blizzard, that takes process.

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