Battling the Blob

blob2Discussion of issues on a global scale usually mires in philosophical wishing with few feasible ideas for concrete action. That also happens with systems that are much smaller, but still too big for anyone to grasp how they work in detail, so they take on “a life of their own.” If you have worked for a big corporation, a big government agency, or “city hall” in a community, you can relate to this. Trying to change anything of consequence is “battling the blob.”

Battling the blob frustrates action people. They prefer to plunge in and learn from mistakes. If mistakes are small, this is effective learning, but if mistakes are big and irreversible, it is a disaster. To battle a blob, one must exercise forethought to prevent unintended consequences while taking actions that lead toward a necessary future state.

Battling the blob has a degree of resemblance to converting a complex factory to “lean.” First understand what you are now doing and why, at least in the portion of the operations first addressed (value stream maps, documentation, standardization, stabilization). In this de-fogging stage, seek root causes and address quality problems and many other issues necessary to clarify workflows. Begin to develop the workforce to deal with these issues and to learn how to reduce setup times, create process visibility, reduce lot sizes, and in time, master the other capabilities of a truly lean operation. Transition will take as much time as needed to migrate the culture of the organization because that is really what is happening – learning to think differently by doing differently. Leadership must paint a picture of the kind of operation and organization intended, establish a “true north” direction to sustain despite inevitable zigs and zags along the way, and “walk the talk” – illustrate the manner in which everyone must behave in order to work very differently. A company that creates lean in this way is becoming a vigorous learning organization.

Compression, learning to do better using less, must deal with bigger, fuzzier blobs than lean in a factory. From a company view, Compression is an initiative to enable customers to consume far fewer resources, but still improve their quality of life. To do that technically, a manufacturing company would redesign products for re-purposing, re-manufacturing, recycling, and so on – full cradle-to-cradle cycles of physical product use. That’s a big leap. A much bigger leap is shifting business models from ones based on selling things, to ones based on service: help customers improve processes important to them and manage the materials cycles in support of the service. However, every situation must be analyzed case-by-case.

This expands the nature and scope of improvement processes well beyond a company’s supply chain as one is usually defined. If a company is to help customers shrink resource use while improving their quality of life, it is hard for a profit-driven company to know where to start. So change context; stop thinking like a company.

Think like a region or community forced to reduce resource use, but wanting to retain quality of life. This is still a big blob, so pick a sub-system of the community – health, energy, water, safety and security – and begin clarifying it. All these systems intersect with each other. Many forces impinge each one: technical, environmental, financial, human, and so on. To escape the blob (jurisdictional fragmentation) of most community governance structures (boards, agencies, commissions, etc.), set up an ex-officio learning group on a sub-system like water, for instance. All members should prepare to think very differently. Some of them will be active in water management; others just good questioners. Obviously, the birth and nurturing of such groups is quite an exercise.

Any such group will probably have to learn to think differently – broad scope systems thinking. The objective is to make problems go away if they require more and more water or energy or other “stuff.” That is, learn how to work more with nature instead of against it, and let a good many problems simply evaporate, making big blobs disappear a chunk at a time. But doing that is a huge mindset change for most of us.

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