The Forth Bridge is a famous railroad bridge in Scotland and is over 125 years old. It needs painting to fend off rust. Albert Cherns, the late famous social scientist who founded the Department of Social Sciences at Loughborough University, identified the Forth Bridge principle as part of the nine principles for designing a sociotechnical system. He also referred to this as “the principle of Incompletion”.
The main idea is that the Forth Bridge was never fully freshly painted – it was always incomplete. The posse of painters started at the Midlothian end, and by the time they reached the Fife end, the Midlothian end would require repainting. In Cherns’ words;
Design is a reiterative process. The closure of options opens new ones. At the end, we are back at the beginning.
As soon as design is implemented, its consequences indicate the need for redesign.
This concept is further elaborated in the book, “Knowledge Management in the SocioTechnical World” edited by Coakes, Willis et al;
Cherns emphasizes that all periods of stability are in effect only temporary periods of transition between one state and another.
Cherns identified the nine principles in his 1976 paper “The Principles of Sociotechnical Design”. I will discuss this list further in a future post. He called all organizations as sociotechnical systems and called for joint optimization of the technical and social aspects. The systems are dynamic and always changing. Cherns also stated that there is no such thing as a final design of the system. The system has to be continuously changed to cope with the impact of changes in the environment the system is in and the impact of changes within the system. This is the idea behind the Forth Bridge principle.
The Forth Bridge principle reminds me of the concept of kaizen and standards in the Toyota Production System. The concept of kaizen is about never being satisfied with the status quo, and improving the process. The concept of standards is about having a high definition of all activities. Dr. Steven Spear in his HBR article with H. Kent Bowen “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System” talked about the first rule as – All activities are highly specified in terms of content, sequence, timing and outcome. The standard consists of three elements. They are;
- Takt time
- Work sequence
- Standard Inventory
Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System talked about the relationship of Kaizen and Standards as;
“Without standards, there can be no kaizen”.
The problem with standards is that it can create a need to maintain the status-quo. This is against the principle of kaizen. Cherns wrote about the “stability myth” in 1987;
“The stability myth is reassuring but dangerous if it leaves us unprepared to review and revise.”
It is important that we realize the concept of the Forth Bridge principle and appreciate it. The system design is never finished, and we have to keep on improving it. The system is always incomplete and it is our duty to keep on making things better – make the standard, review the standard, make it better, and repeat. This is a Zen-like lesson.
I will finish this post with a story about the never ending quest.
After years of relentless training, a martial arts student has finally reached a pinnacle of achievement in the discipline. He knelt before his sensei in a ceremony to receive the highly coveted black belt.
“Before granting the belt, you must pass one more test,” the sensei solemnly tells the young man.
“I’m ready,” responds the student, expecting perhaps one more round of sparring.
“You must answer the essential question: What is the true meaning of the Black Belt?”
“Why, the end of my journey,” says the student. “A well-deserved reward for my hard work.”
The master waits for more. Clearly, he is not satisfied. The sensei finally speaks: “You are not ready for the Black Belt. Return in one year.”
As the student kneels before his master a year later, he is again asked the question, “What is the true meaning of the Black Belt?”
“It is a symbol of distinction and the highest achievement in our art,” the young man responds. Again the master waits for more. Still unsatisfied, he says once more: “You are not ready for the Black Belt. Return in one year.”
A year later the student kneels before his sensei and hears the question, “What is the true meaning of the Black Belt?”
This time he answers, “The Black Belt represents not the end, but the beginning, the start of a never-ending journey of discipline, work and the pursuit of an ever higher standard.”
“Yes,” says the master. “You are now ready to receive the Black Belt and begin your work.”
Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Sideroxylon Grandiflorum and the Unintended Consequences Phenomenon.