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Tim McMahon

Six Sigma

11 Pointers Toward Systems Thinking in Lean Management

Check egos and emotions at the door.

Published: Monday, March 8, 2010 - 05:30

A management system is the framework of processes and procedures used to ensure that an organization can fulfill all tasks required to achieve its objectives. A lean management system consists of the discipline, daily practices, and tools that you need to establish and maintain a persistent, intensive focus on process. It is this process focus that sustains and extends lean implementations.

Peter M. Senge, is an influential systems thinker from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of the book The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization published in 1990 and a revised edition published by Broadway Business in 2006. In Chapter 4, “The Laws of the Fifth Discipline,” Senge suggests 11 systems laws that help us understand systems better. The laws are:

1. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.
We humans are happy when we solve problems. We often don't think much about consequences. Surprisingly, our solutions could strike back and create new problems.

2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
We have this stubborn reaction to push our way through when things are not working out as we want. We charge without taking the time to stop, think, and find better alternatives. Sometimes we solve problems, but often we find ourselves up to ears in the swamp of other problems.

3. Behavior grows better before it grows worse.
Short-term solutions give us a short break and temporary improvement, but don’t eliminate fundamental problems. These problems will make the situation worse in the long run.

4. The easy way out usually leads back in.
We learn a few solutions that brought easy success. We try to vigorously apply them in any situation disregarding particular context and people.

5. The cure can be worse than the disease.
Sometimes the easy or familiar solution is not only ineffective; sometimes it is addictive and dangerous. They may even induce dependency.

6. Faster is slower.
When we get a taste of success we start to advance at the full speed without much caution. However, the optimal rate of growth usually is much slower than the fastest growth possible.

7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
We are good at finding causes to our problems, even if they are just symptoms and far from real root causes.

8. Small changes can produce big results—but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.
Most obvious grand solutions such as changing company policy, vision, or tag line often don’t work. Small, ordinary, but consistent changes could make a huge difference.

9. You can have your cake and eat it too—but not at once.
We often face rigid “either-or” choices. Sometimes they are not dilemmas if we change our perspective and rules of the system.

10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.
Inability to see the system as a whole could often lead to suboptimal decisions.

11. There is no blame.
We like to blame and point fingers to other people or circumstances; sometimes we even believe in this. But we and the cause of our problems are part of the system.

Lean management is a thinking system where much the same rules apply. These laws serve as an excellent aid to avoid lean implementation pitfalls. As we implement lean solutions we need to learn and understand the processes involved. There are many challenges to this way of thinking. Many challenges can be defeated by gaining and using knowledge of how systems work. But the most serious challenge is our own contradictory human nature. Our passions, emotions, and instincts could easily defy this rational and systematic way of thinking.


About The Author

Tim McMahon’s picture

Tim McMahon

Tim McMahon is the founder and contributor of A Lean Journey blog. This site is dedicated to sharing lessons and experiences along the lean Journey in the Quest for True North. The blog also serves as the source for learning and reflection which are critical elements in lean thinking. McMahon is a lean practitioner, leading continuous improvement efforts for a high-tech manufacturer. He teaches problem solving skills, lean countermeasures, and how to see opportunities for improvement by actively learning, thinking, and being engaged.