Applying the 6 Laws of Tech to Lean

By Jon Miller Updated on November 26th, 2017

Melvin Kranzberg, a professor of the history of technology at Georgia Institute of Technology, came up with six laws to explain society’s unease with technology’s growing power and presence in our lives. This was in the 1980s and his laws were based on historical examples taken from the Cold War. A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out that these are still highly relevant 30 years later, to how we view modern technology. They also apply to the logistics, innovation and cost reduction technology that we call Lean.

Law #1: Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral

This law points out that whether a technology’s impact is good or bad depends on its geographic and cultural context. It can be good, bad or both. The same chemicals can make our lives easier but also poison us. The same social media tools that help us stay in touch with friends also helps terrorists recruit. It’s less what we invent, but how we use it, that matters.

In terms of Lean management we can say the same thing. Improvement methods can be applied to intensify work, squeeze out more profit for the benefit of a few, destroy competitors and generally give capitalism a bad name. Or Lean can be used to engage people’s minds and enrich working lives, secure the long-term future of the company and its stakeholders, and build prosperity for many. Lean is an engine in gear, forward or reverse, there is no neutral.

Law #2: Invention is the mother of necessity

That reads backwards from the regular adage “necessity is the mother of invention.” Kranzberg meant that technical innovations demand additional technical advances in order to make them work fully. This law I read as more of an example of “technology push” which is the opposite of “market pull”. Smartphones spawn the “need” for phone cases, 5G wireless, smart watches to stay connected, etc. How much of this invention is based on true need and how much based on marketing, the invention of need in people’s minds?

From a Lean perspective, improvements can be the mother of future needs to make improvements. Repeatedly turning the PDCA cycle identifies the next imperfection or dissatisfaction to fix, or cool idea to try.

Law #3: Technology comes in packages, big and small

We must look at the whole to understand the technological part. This is once again a call to put technology in context. For example how does the new technology or a self-driving car interact with highways, taxis, public transport, car pooling, gas stations, the way people take holiday road trips, how people get ready for work in the morning, and so forth? What doors will be opened and what doors will be closed?

A Lean enterprise transformation only works when it is undertaken as a never-ending commitment to keep building capability and making the organization more resilient. It may start small but the intended scope is big. In fact Lean can’t end at the organization’s walls but need to be understood in the broadest context.

Law #4: Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions

I believe the central message of this law is that culture shapes technology, rather than the other way around. Technology can influence culture, but without users, technology is nothing. People can invent but also ignore, underutilize or abandon great technologies for non-technical reasons.

As in technology, so in Lean. It’s how people think and feel about it that influences policy, adoption and its long-term viability, and not the technical issues.

Law #5: All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant

This law I am not sure that I agree with totally. It seems inconsistent with the other laws. How can technology be taken out of context of the history of non-technological things? Kranzberg’s other laws emphasize context, social  and human factors, yet here he says the history of technology is most relevant. Technology is just an artifact of culture, albeit a very important one. Wouldn’t the social, cultural and human factors that resulted in the technology be more important?

All history is relevant, but is the history of Lean the most relevant? If we are strictly seeking to understand how to better apply Lean, I suppose this is true. We can ask, “What did we try before? How did it work? Why did we struggle with it? How did we adapt? What did we learn? What will we try next?” Investigating the history of anything quickly leads to hints from the history of other things. Answers to these questions often aren’t “technical Lean” ones.

Law #6: Technology is a very human activity

This seems obvious but perhaps we need to remind themselves of it. Prof. Kranzberg noted at the dawn of the internet age, “Many of our technology-related problems arise because of the unforeseen consequences when apparently benign technologies are employed on a massive scale.”

Lean thinking is about understanding cause and effect, about understanding human psychology and about appreciating systems, to rephrase Deming. Unintended consequences arise due to gaps in appreciation of one or more of these areas. We can’t wait for perfect information to invent, nor can we ignore such unintended consequences and blaze ahead. In Lean, as in technology innovation, we need to keep humans at the center.

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