A few weeks back, I had the privilege of attending the 2-day Shingo Prize workshop on the Principles of Operational Excellence.  The experience was nothing short of mind-blowing, as I developed a far deeper understanding of Lean and why it works, not just what works.  In other words, my understanding grew from something based on an understanding of Lean’s tools to something based more on Lean’s philosophy.

As I reflected on my own experience as a student of Lean (and what I will now refer to as Operational Excellence!), I began to think of how to relate my understanding of these concepts to others.  To my mind, the critical element in Lean transformation is the organic development of leadership based on experience and ability to mentor.  For this to happen, traditional hierarchies where managers use positional authority to push their influence onto others need to be replaced.  Simply put, leaders who encourage the use of knowledge and experience to coach others and approach their work with a commitment to “know-why” being of greater value than “know-how” will generate an influential, gravitational pull towards transformation.

Several months ago, I stumbled across John Husband’s site dedicated to the concept of wirearchy.  According to him,

A major shift in the ways activities are planned and managed is occurring in many spheres of human activity, from command-and-control to coordinate-and-channel. When customers have more power and employees want to communicate and be heard, the dynamics have to change.

A new organizing principle is emerging, called Wirearchy.  The working definition of wirearchy is:

A dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on information, knowledge, trust and credibility, enabled by interconnected people and technology

Operational Excellence relies on many of these same concepts, particularly the need to move from “command and control” to “coordinate and channel.”  The “two-way flow of power and authority based on information, trust and credibility” sounds like the very definition of “respect for people” as well.  While Husband’s concept relies heavily on the development of technology to produce non-hierarchical, collaborative teams, I think any community where people become critical “nodes” in an interconnected network as a result of their knowledge, experience, embodiment of an ideal and willingness/ability to teach others (as opposed to authority based strictly on rank and title) fits within the wirearchy concept.  What wirearchy sees technology bringing is something I believe the Operational Excellence would consider an ideal state:  free-flowing and distributed authority based on the relentless pursuit of cultural transformation.

A representation of Wirearchy

I recently came across a presentation from Jeffrey Liker, where he offered ideas based on a PhD dissertation from Robert Kucner.  Kucner models what he calls the organic spreading of Lean culture and values as spirals circling outwards from certain processes, eventually touching upon others to penetrate deeper and deeper in an “inch wide, mile deep” fashion.

In both models, we can see areas where people or processes are forming critical centers of activity that influence those around them.  How do these critical “nodes” at the center of the activity form?  I think the answer has to do with a sort of gravity that develops when organizations, or individuals within organizations, insist on driving change.  This never-ending pursuit of excellence usually starts within smaller sub-units as depicted above, however, sustaining the effort may have more to do with forming a single dense space at the epicenter of the desired behaviors than it does with spreading outwards as quickly as possible.  In other words, leaders may find that sharing knowledge to develop a deeper understanding of operational excellence in a few areas builds more momentum, more easily, than trying to spread the concepts as far and wide as possible.

A depiction of the organic deployment of Lean

If we turn the model on its side, we can more easily see how the nodes collect and gather the loose, swirling mass of ideas and behaviors until they grow deeper and denser, forming a vortex that draws others in with it.  Using this perspective, it is easer to understand why deeper is better than broader.  As multiple objects in the same space grow larger, they eventually grow together, adding energy to the phenomenon.  What this means for transformation is that when smaller organizations within an enterprise appear to be outpacing others, don’t stifle them.  Allow those deeper areas to keep going and growing deeper, eventually creating the gravitational pull that will bring other elements into the vortex.

Across any enterprise, there are organizations and individuals that develop greater depths of Operational Excellence.  While some focus only on utilizing mandated tools, others begin to pursue cultural transformation.  The focus on tools to implement change, however, prevents the strong vortices that generate an ever-deeper understanding of excellence from being formed.  As organizations evolve from a tool-driven understanding of behavior to systemic, cultural and philosophical levels, they begin to develop their own gravity, pulling in other organizations within their reach and eventually determining the behavior of the enterprise as a whole.

How to create this gravity?  As with most things that require behavioral change, constant communication and education are vital.  People at all levels of the organization need to be educated on the principles of Operational Excellence and not just why it works in general, but why it will work here. Just as important as educating people on why it will work, is building the sense of urgency that answers the question, “Why is this necessary right now?”  The more you can provide education and communication on why things are changing, the greater the cooperation and buy-in, the deeper the resulting understanding will become, and the stronger your gravitational pull towards transformation.

This post was authored by David M. Kasprzak, creator of the My Flexible Pencil blog, where he shares his thoughts on improving workplace culture through the use of Lean concepts.  While working as an analyst to develop and analyze program-level cost & schedule metrics for the past 10 years, David has now turned his attention towards understanding the behaviors that create high-performing organizations.  He currently lives near Nashua, NH with his wife and 2 sons. David can be contacted via email at david@myflexiblepencil.com