One of the scientists that I have referenced in my posts a lot is the American physicist Richard Feynman. I particularly love his imaginary depiction of Mayan astronomy. Feynman went to Mexico for his second honeymoon and came across a copy of the Dresden Codex (one of the oldest surviving books from the Americas). He was particularly interested in the bars and dots in the codex. He was able to decipher the number system that the Mayans used to depict Venus’ trajectory in the solar system. He was so good at it that he was able to find that some of the versions were actually fakes. Feynman imagined the Mayans counting and putting nuts in a pot to make predictions of where Venus would be on a given day. Feynman was curious whether the Mayans actually knew what was happening (why it was happening) or whether they were going by the rules and making predictions based on a rule-based system of counting and manipulating numbers. Feynman stated that the Mayans may have gotten really good with counting but they must not have understood how the celestial bodies worked.
The push for following rules without understanding the context is unfortunate. Yet this is very prevalent. The rigidity of the rules cannot be sustained when a complex situation arises. The rigidity of rules indicates a direct linear relationship where cause and effect are clearly noted. This is the push for standardization and having one best way of doing things. This leads to stagnation, since this stymies creativity and the push for innovation. Rigid rules always break. Another way to look at this is as the push for robustness – avoiding failure by any means. We will put redundant steps, perform multiple inspections and implement punishments for not following rules. In the complex world, we should accept that things will fail – the push should be for resilience, getting back up in a short time. The rules are dictated top-down since the rules are created by the experts. These rules do not have the requisite variety to tackle the uncertainties of day-to-day dealings. The contexts of these rules do not match the actual context where the action takes place – the context at the gemba. Context is what brings out the meaning in a situation. The focus on rules and efficiency through best practice does not lead to having the requisite variety to change the context as needed to address a problem when it arises. We are involved in complex adaptive systems on a day-to-day basis. We need to change context as needed and adapt to respond to unanticipated events. Evolution requires that we have variety. This response is not always rule-based and is developed depending upon the context. We should allow room for bottom-up heuristics, since these are based on experience and local context.
As a simple example, let’s look at 5S, one of the most commonly identified lean tools, to look into this more. 5S is translated from Japanese as Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardize and Sustain. The rules are provided to us and they are clear cut. Similar to the Mayan story, do we actually know the context for 5S? Toyota did not have 5S. The last few S’s were added on later. This has now changed into 6S and even 7S. The “sort” step in 5S is to have only the required tools needed at the station. The “straighten” step is to identify/label the tools so that operators from other shifts or job rotations can easily find the tools. The third step is “shine” where the work station is cleaned by the operator. This allows the operator to find any spills or other signs of wear and tear that may not be seen by a cleaning crew. These three steps help the operator to identify problems as they occur, raises awareness and helps to take pride in the work. The fourth step is “standardize” and this is mainly a regulatory function to ensure that the first three steps are followed. The last step is “sustain”, which means to integrate the first three steps so that they become the normal routine and if they are not followed, one feels like something is missing. The context is to help the operator do his or her job better and be effective. The context is that a problem is made visible immediately so that it can be addressed and people can be developed. The context is not following rules. The context is not applying 5S in areas where it does not make sense. The context certainly is not policing people. When the context of what the operator does is not made clear, they do what makes sense to them in their context – at that time with the limited information they have. Empty actions do not have context and are thus meaningless and non-value adding.
Seek to understand the perspectives of your employees. Seek to understand their local context. Seek to make them understand your context, and the context of the shared goals and objectives. Heed to their stories. Develop your employees to see problems.
I will finish with an interesting question that was posed by some French researchers in the late 1970’s.
“On a boat, there are 26 sheep and 10 goats. What is the age of the captain?”
Perhaps, you might see this as a trick question. Perhaps, you may use the two numbers given and come up with the answer as 36. The answer 36 sounds right. The answer that the researchers expected was “I do not have enough information to give the answer.”
To the researchers’ surprise, very few subjects challenged the question. Most of them reasoned in their context and came up with a number that made sense in their mind. We are not trained to ask the contextual questions.
Always keep on learning and ask contextual questions…
In case you missed it, my last post was MTTF Reliability, Cricket and Baseball: