“Chasing the Rabbit” by Steven J Spear is a book about what he calls high velocity organizations. Velocity is equated with success because these companies have the agility to respond and capture business. It is not just speed. These organizations are able to capture quality.
I was interested because someone had told me this was the secret to highly reliable organizations. The book covers in detail the US Navy nuclear program which has 5700 reactor years of use without a single nuclear mishap. It covers Alcoa, a company in one of the most dangerous industries, transformed itself into one of the safest companies in America, with an accident rate twenty times lower than the US average. And of course, he compares the work of the big three US automakers to that of Toyota, through the direct experience of working on the factory floor. The book is a good read, and I could not possibly do it justice in summary, but let me pull a few tidbits of wisdom I picked up.
Complex Systems are Unpredictable: Not just complicated, but complex. These organizations are systems so complex that no one person can understand it to sufficient detail in order to predict the system. “With all this uncertainty, it is also difficult, if not downright impossible, to predict the system’s behavior under the range of circumstances in which it must perform.” Reductionists, who attempt to analyze a simplification of the system, will not find effective solutions. Instead of attempting to design a perfect system, you design a system which can learn, adapt, and improve autonomously. This is the only way to handle this complexity.
Don’t Copy, Learn to Learn: “I’m critical of those who try to achieve great outcomes by copying the specific solutions other people have developed for their own idiosyncratic problems.” A key message that it is not about Company X adopting the same practice as Toyota, but it is about Company X building a learning organization that can constantly adapt and improve their practice. Peter Senge recommended this in “The Fifth Discipline” (1994).
Untapped Potential: “Alcoa was not content … with the model of scientific management championed by Frederick Winslow Taylor in which the “brains” of the organization developed optimal procedures for the “brawn” to employ.” This quote resonates well with my last post “It is All Taylor’s Fault“. The separation of the brains from the brawn is precisely what leads to low velocity organizations that fail to learn. Time and again he points to organization that had information about problems, but no ability to do anything about it. All humans have intelligence, and to think of workers as purely “brawn” is an outdated concept that isolates the person who has the most knowledge about the details of the complex system. Without exception, high velocity organizations found ways to tap this potential.
Knowledge Work: The key point he makes is that a high velocity organization is one that constantly learns from mistakes, and from near mistakes. We don’t normally thing of assembly line workers as being knowledge workers, but in this case they are because they are collecting the most critical knowledge for a high velocity organization – what works and what does not work.
High velocity organizations exhibit four capabilities:
- System Design and Engineering – focus on output, pathways, connections, and activities.
- Problem Solving and Improvement – anything that is unexpected gets reported, even if it not actually a mishap.
- Knowledge Sharing – collect, organize, and make sure that knowledge is not lost.
- Developing Skills in Others – teaching all workers the skills above.
== But what does all this have to do with BPM? ==
Predictability: All BPM is based on the idea that a process is predictable, but in the case of these complex system, the process is not predictable. A rough process is created, but it works only through continual observation of anything unexpected or not completely understood.
Separation of Modelers and Workers: Even in the case of the model preserving strategy, BPM modeling of the process is expected to be done by a different person from the person performing the work. He says: “if problem solving capacity were developed throughout the organization, those affected by a problem could often solve it themselves — and immediately — relying on the experts only for problems of sufficient scale, scope, and complexity.”
Transparency: Some BPM systems go to length to hide the inner workings of the process from the users, on the basis that they don’t need to know that to do their particular activity. But Spear (and Ohno) shows us that the flaws in a system can only be understood by seeing that action in relationship to the whole system. The whole trick is to engage every worker in the job of improving the process — not just the specialists.
This is more support for the idea of Adaptive Case Management (ACM): a system that does not start with a predictive model of what is to be done, but instead with a clear description of the goal and a place to collect information. With ACM, people collaborate to produce the processes. The processes are transparent, and can be improved by any participant. To be clear, I am NOT suggesting that ACM will become the process engine for a manufacturing production line. Manufacturing aluminum, cars, or running nuclear reactors all require very well defined processes. What is surprising about this book, is how high velocity organizations engage every person in the organization, from top management, to the worker bolting the seat into the Corolla, in active knowledge work around the design of those processes, constantly reacting and incrementally self improving. Imagine how much advantage there is to harness the intelligence of the full workforce.
“If one contrast was between Toyota’s practice of developing people and its imitators’ inordinate emphasis on product and process, there was also a contrast between how many companies thought about responsibility and how it was carried out at Toyota. Dating back to Fredrick Winslow Taylor and before, there is the view that management is responsible for designing system, solving problems, and ensuring “compliance” with procedure, leaving subordinates to work around problems until something goes so badly that management can’t ignore it any longer. That wasn’t the way at Toyota.”