How to Spot Signs of a Lean Collapse

By Jon Miller Updated on September 4th, 2016

Business woman Builds a Tower

Before your lean effort collapses, it slows down. That’s the gist from an article on what it looks like when society collapses, which discusses findings from a recent National Academy of Sciences paper. We can view an organization’s lean journey as a “lean social endeavor”. The lean endeavor shares many qualities of how a society functions within a civilization, such as attempting to sustain and improve itself over a long period of time while surviving of external shocks that threaten it.

Collapses of civilizations would seem to be a complex, multi-year process affected by many social, economic, and natural factors. Each civilization and the time they exist in are different. On a different scale, the same is true of businesses and other organizations. How can we spot whether a society, or a business organization, is in collapse? From the article,

They found that “critical slowing down” is a reliable early warning signal of a society on the edge of going bust. A society that can’t bounce back from a bad winter, a war, or a crop failure, for instance, faces such a slow down.

In other words, how quickly and how well a society bounces back from small shocks such as crop failures, attacks by rival tribes, plagues, etc. signals whether a collapse is imminent.

This is sobering when we look at how American society tolerates a critically slowed-down two-party political system. Our political leaders seem more concerned with winning elections and perpetuating their party bureaucracy than responding quickly to the many small shocks that attack our society every day. Fortunately the United States is resilient and adaptive in many more ways, if not politically.

Take a moment to reflect on how well your organization bounces back from small shocks by practicing lean principles of customer-focused, team-based problem solving.

  • Shock when a business model that worked in the past no longer works
  • Financial shock of losing a customer or revenue source
  • Shock of asset loss due to natural disasters or accidents
  • Departure of a key team member or leader
  • Backsliding of improvement results a few weeks after a kaizen event

When an organization loses its resilience, or ability to respond and adapt to small changes, it can be a sign that a larger collapse of the lean social endeavor is afoot. This rings true logically. If people are not exposing small problems early, responding rapidly and solving problems, bad things happen. The problems go unaddressed and hurt the organization. The problems grow larger. The problem condition, or deviation, becomes accepted as normal in people’s minds. The effectiveness of lean, and of leadership itself, comes into question. This loss of faith may lead to actions in self-interest, running from, hiding or denying problems. These things factor into the “critical slowing down”.

What can we do to forestall lean collapse? The best remedy is the simple one, and involves making small improvements every day, responding to small shocks and not ignoring problems, working together to face challenges and build resilience day by day. Lean is a constant testing and strengthening of our resolve to bounce back, not a fortification to be built up like the gates of Rome against the Visigoths.

  1. Philip Holt

    September 5, 2016 - 8:52 am

    Thank you Jon for a thought provoking article, clearly articulating the ways in which we can identify problems in our deployment before it becomes fatal. I’ll certainly be sharing this further.

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