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Bruce Hamilton


Systems ‘Tinking’

Don’t let the policy books gather dust

Published: Thursday, August 3, 2017 - 12:01

At GBMP’s launch of the Shingo Institute’s Build Excellence workshop, it occurred to me that perhaps systems thinking might be more aptly named systems rethinking. Workshop participants offered up current systems in their organizations that actually impeded continuous improvement, each time expressing frustration with the difficulty to create system change.

For larger organizations with more explicit codification of systems, the task to create a change was more onerous. One class participant commented, “Our standard procedures are documented in dozens of binders—all of them covered with dust.” But even in smaller organizations, creating a new system will mean undoing a de facto process that, despite its shortcomings, feels normal.

According to the Shingo Institute, these systems are the domain of managers who should be reviewing them regularly. But when business systems are ingrained as part of the corporate fabric, the idea of changing even one of them instills concern regarding the global effects. Will changing one system negatively impact others? Concern for unanticipated consequences will trigger risk-averse behavior. Add to that challenge the fact that existing systems may, in fact, have been authored by the same persons who are now charged with evaluating their effectiveness. When Shigeo Shingo declared that subjective inspection of one’s own work is not good practice, he might have included the work of managers along with that of front-line employees. It would be better apparently for these organizations to have no systems to start their lean journeys than to be saddled with status quo systems that evoke the wrong behaviors. So, what can be done?

According to the Shingo Institute:
First, stop basing the design of systems purely on local results. This practice creates silos and disharmony. Each part of the organization is rewarded as if it were its own company, rather than for its contribution to system goals. Speaking at a Shingo Conference many years ago, Russ Scaffede, formerly an executive at General Motors (and later at Toyota) quipped, “At GM we used to say, ‘All of our divisions made money, only the corporation lost its shirt.’” That is the status quo condition for many organizations: local bogeys driven by systems that simply don’t knit together.

Second, consider the foundational principles beneath the lean tools, or as Shingo noted, first “know-why” before you “know-how.” Many organizations parrot the tools without understanding the philosophy that makes them effective. Simply layering tools on top of a faulty philosophy also generates disharmony rather than real results. Many organizations, for example, have invested time to develop a quality system like ISO 9001, including quality-control tools and problem-solving methods, but employees are afraid to report problems for fear of reprisal. Shingo Principles articulate the culture that must be present to make systems work.

Finally, to avoid concerns regarding the interdependency of systems—i.e., the unanticipated consequences make the changes small—in the words of Masaaki Imai, “create many small changes for the better.” Don’t let the policy books gather dust; review and update them often. To use a metaphor from knitting, check and adjust your systems one thread at a time. Don’t let the knitting unravel. It’s called “tinking,” the process of taking knitting back, stitch by stitch, to correct a problem in the fabric. (“Tink” is knit spelled backward.) In this case, let’s call it “systems tinking.”


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change. Also, he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an ongoing reflection on lean philosophy and practices, with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.


Two thoughts: First, probably

Two thoughts:

First, probably the best way to keep policy and procedure current and relevant is an ongoing process that allows, nay encourages and rewards, users and stakeholders to challenge the status quo. The world changes and the organization must evolve. Old policy and procedures shoehorned into new technology may not be an improvement.

But, as G. K. Chesterton so wisely advised, "Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up."