I recently had an interesting conversation with a client after we had facilitated what everyone thought was a very successful value stream mapping workshop. It was an important value stream, and the team had reduced customer response time by 72%. Nevertheless, something was bothering me.
“Why,” I thought out loud, “do we end up with so much wasteful complexity in the first place?”
The client seized upon this and pointed out that there was no cultural force in his organization to push back on complexity. Simplicity was just not a virtue in in an organization as large as his. Quite the opposite. Everyone had lots of ideas, and they all wanted to contribute to products and processes by adding more.
“No one ever steps back to look at the big picture”, said the client about his organization. “We create lots of complexity, and then on top of it we create a culture of …”
I think he said “rule-followers”.
Now, this organization is only beginning to adopt the idea of a Value Stream Manager, who is responsible for both day-to-day execution and continuous improvement. Those of you familiar with that concept may be tempted to conclude that this is just an issue of poor process management.
Not so. In digging a little bit deeper, the client and I started looking at the cultural contrast with an organization like Toyota, where people are expected to improve processes all the time. In spite of all the attention paid to process improvement in his organization, the client felt that people in his organization were often just… “Stuck in the mud?,” I suggested tentatively. “Yes,” said the client, or perhaps even “stuck in the web, a web of ever-increasing complexity! We laughed, but it wasn’t a happy laughter.
Upon further discussion, it struck me that there are three different attributes of an organizational culture that relates to this:
- Inclination – are people motivated and prone to stepping back and seeing how things can be simplified?
- Ability – do they have the thinking skills and big-picture view to make substantial improvements in how things work?
- Opportunity – do people have the information, resources, and permission, to actually make things simpler?
In most organizations, people have neither the inclination, the opportunity, nor the ability to truly pursue continuous improvement. Of these three, however, I think ability is much less of a problem than the other two. We can train people in value stream mapping all we want, but it is the top-level leadership that must change the way they look at their business and the way they look at their people.