A Speedy Recovery to Houston, and a Lesson in Overburdened Systems

By Jon Miller Updated on September 16th, 2017

Mura, muri, muda. Three words that someone should have taught the civic leaders of Houston decades ago. This trio explains how systems break, why we waste our resources, and why people suffer worse than we should from predictable disasters.

Mura is variation, variability or unevenness. When there are differences between over here and over there, between today and tomorrow, between you and me, this is variability. Variation is natural. It can also be human-caused. A retailer may have an extremely busy Christmas season. This is not natural, but human-caused. Muri is an unreasonable or impossible burden on something, people, processes, systems. We place overburden on ourselves and on our systems when trying to bridge the gap in unevenness. When we hire, train, buy materials and run factories 24-7 during the months ahead of the Christmas rush to put products in the warehouse, this places a burden on people, cash flow, and processes. It may be bearable burden, but trying to chase the variability makes us do things that generates muda, or waste.

Humans have always put burden on ourselves trying to close the natural gaps we face. Lacking wealth, pioneers ventured into inhospitable lands, working hard to make them livable. We turn harsh soil arable through irrigation and fertilizer. We work longer, harder, burning the candle at both ends, to take advantage or rare opportunities. We want to live in cities, but they are at capacity, so consume open lands for development to fit in more people. But at some point, and at a certain scale, this becomes unreasonable, overly burdensome, and catastrophically wasteful. The flooding in Houston after the recent hurricane is an example of this.

Houston has grown into one of the largest cities in the United States in population but also in geographic spread. The city grew by replacing green corridors capable of absorbing water with asphalt and concrete structures, which cannot. This type of development is not unique to Houston. The scale, their location near the bay and a hurricane corridor is. When Houston was visited by historic weather, the water had no place to go. Replacing the natural systems of water management, the open areas of green, with strip malls and housing developments created an unreasonable burden on the natural system. This burden was great, the system broke. People tragically experienced dislocation, loss of property, loss of peace of mind, even loss of life. Resources will be spent to recover, rebuild and help Houston get back from minus to zero. In that such a disasters could have been predicted and minimized, the loss and the cost of recovery is waste.

Leaders at all level are responsible for insuring that systems are well-designed and in good condition to maintain safe daily life even in the face of natural disasters. They should make sure we don’t pave over our natural recovery systems for short-term gain. Taking lean thinking beyond business and into government means requiring elected officials to have at least a basic understanding of cause and effect, the nature of variation, and an appreciation of systems around us. Until people understand that overburdening our systems for short-term gain will always be more costly for everyone long-term, we will keep doing it. Long-term it is up to both the citizens and civic leaders to help themselves through education and good decision making.

  1. Brad

    September 18, 2017 - 8:07 am

    Your point is well taken, Jon. Over-development is certainly an issue in Houston. As one who lives here and experienced what happened at the gemba, I would also respectfully point out that Houston has created many green spaces and water management systems. They simply were not enough to overcome 51″ of rain in 4 days. Could civic leaders have done more to better prepare with more responsible development? Surely. But I’m not sure that it would have been enough to counter such historic rain.

    • Jon Miller

      September 19, 2017 - 3:16 pm

      I agree that would not have been enough to keep the city dry but it may have worsened the problem.

  2. Todd Hass

    September 19, 2017 - 1:42 pm

    Conceptually I would agree with the logic of maybe how to better prepare using lean tools, but just for the fun of it let’s talk about what the city did do to prepare and respond as a team.

    1) City officials had a plan that was designed to handle most situations (80/20 Pareto concept)

    2) City officials empowered the people of Houston to respond and assist in recovering its “team” (Servant leadership)

    3) News updates were given with structured cadence at set times (leader standard work)

    4) All relief of retention areas were clearly communicated prior (clear vision and speaking to the WHY’s for alignment)

    5) The responsibilities were shared throughout the city officials as to what was shared, how and when (5w1h concept)

    7) Minimal time without materials and supplies in supply chain End to End process for most major stores (material balance, pfep, replenishment process, etc)

    Honestly the list could keep going, but the fact of the matter is the city of Houston was faced with an anomaly (rain) having to react with 4 days. Some of the industry leaders would have a hard time preparing for a spike 4-5 times normal consumption within the same timeline.
    Always opportunity, but they might be more lean than initially thought.

    • Jon Miller

      September 19, 2017 - 3:19 pm

      I’m not questioning the competence of Houston’s civic leaders in terms of emergency response. And hindsight is 20-20 so it’s easy for me to say, “Doing this would have prevented that,” after the fact. Maybe the next Houston will do more to prepare and prevent.

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