Self-Boiling Water

The Myth of Organizational Genetic Engineering

November 03, 2014

In the last few weeks a couple of Fortune 500 companies have elected to dismantle their Lean Six Sigma program offices. The short term cost savings are a tempting target; a product of the reasoning that "we've been doing this so long that it's now part of the DNA." After many years of training belts and executing improvement projects, it seems logical that the supporting structure might no longer be necessary. After all, Toyota has no real centralized "Toyota Production System" office — they just live it, breathe it, and do it. It's woven into the culture.

But here's the important distinction: Toyota was not able to embed structured process improvement (and the thinking that drives it) into its culture inside of a generation. Toyota had Taiichi Ohno working for decades in a senior leadership capacity, with the active support and involvement of company executives.

As Lee Corso of ESPN Game Day would say: "not so fast my friend!" Just because the water has been boiling for a good long time does not mean that it will keep boiling by itself without a continued supply of external energy. Without that external energy, the heat dissipates quickly and entropy reigns. In my experience, the same thing happens to process improvement efforts: disorganization quickly asserts itself, and structured, customer‐centric, data‐driven projects aligned with the organization's key imperatives are replaced by reactionary ad‐hoc improvement efforts driven by anecdote and opinions.

In system dynamics terms, successful process improvement is an open system: the kind of activity you want takes place far from equilibrium, so the only way to maintain that non‐equilibrium state is a constant input of energy (leadership). The argument that "we've been doing this so long that it's now embedded in our DNA" is like saying "we've been doing accounting for so long, we don't really need a centralized accounting staff or Chief Financial Officer". It might work, but I've never seen it happen — systemic process improvement is just not a self‐organizing behavior.

The pendulum always swings. Hopefully it doesn't hit and break anything irreplaceable on it's latest circuit.