Compression: Key Points

Key Points

January 12, 2011

A small group of Compression Thinkers met last weekend. We decided to form the Compression Institute to make the ideas more operational. This thumbnail version of Compression Thinking came from that meeting.

Vision: Assure survival and well being using self-learning systems.

Mission: Build systems and processes that work to perfection. No excess use of resources. No wasted energy. No toxic releases. Quality over quantity – always.

So far this resembles many other movements. However, Compression differs in several ways. First, the need to reduce resource consumption stems from many potential cataclysms, not just one. These interrelate, so we need to consider them all. Second, to do this, we need to formulate business models based more on process or system thinking than on transactional gain. Third, this is beyond the capacity of a single human brain; work organizations have to become vigorous learning organizations, multiplying human effectiveness much more than standard hierarchies. Finally, Compression poses a somewhat arbitrary, but clear global operational goal to marshal dramatic change, one to which work organizations can tie their own operational goals and business models:

By 2040 globally develop a quality of life somewhat like industrial societies today, but using less than half the virgin raw materials and less than half the energy as in the year 2000, and with zero known toxic releases.

Taken seriously, this turns life upside down for companies and other work organizations essential to quality of life or which process a lot of energy or material. We must change our values and priorities at the gut level, recognizing that every working organization, however financed, is a sub-set of the global ecology. Resolving the problems that it thrusts on us are not options to defer until we have enough time or money to address them. That status will never arrive. We will never have enough resources. We can only shift our frame of reference to deal with the challenges this poses.

But how? Omitting a lot of detail, a cryptic explanation is “Expand learning speed; shrink resource use.” An incomplete example today is designing vehicles to increase fuel economy. Move a lighter mass using a smaller power train with more oomph per pound without degrading driving performance. This approach crams every vehicular cranny with gizmos so that a car resembles a rolling computer with 10 million lines of code. Creating a densely integrated package like this requires collaborative multifunctional teams to use thousands of design iterations and simulative tests. That is, a lot more learning squeezes into a shorter engineering process lead time – or Compression.

However, no matter how smartly done, improving unit fuel economy still does not meet that Compression objective. Increasing unit fuel efficiency by 4X would not change total fleet energy use if 4X more of them took to the road. All vehicles use energy that must come from somewhere, so the auto industry needs to ask basic questions: Why so many vehicles of various kinds and purposes? It needs a business model based on values other than increasing vehicle sales. (See the PortionPac story for a simpler example.)

No individual genius can knife through such systemic tangles and simplify them. But genius organizations might. Human systems are unpredictably complex. Natural systems are even more complex. Together these overwhelm most organizations – and their managers – as structured today.

Vigorous learning, done on-the-job, by real-life experience, is the kind that must greatly accelerate to preclude massive resource waste. Fail often; fail early; fail smart; preclude problems before they happen. Remediating messes that have already happened is waste. To do that, work organizations must advance to the Vigorous Learning Enterprise level.

In addition to the above, here are a few of the guiding principles that the Compression Institute itself will use to try to advance Compression Thinking in the next few years:

  • Counter business leaders’ fear of going broke (prevention, not remediation).
  • Sustain a common global goal, no more complex than necessary (simple in concept) that all kinds of organizations can tie their own goals to.
  • Not rely on government funding (vulnerable to political swings).
  • Introduce counterintuitive thinking in stages, as people can absorb it.
  • Become a how-to learning network, for both strategy and operations.
  • Develop a cascading system to spread the thinking “like an epidemic.”
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