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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Designing, Operating, and Improving Complex Systems: Common Challenges–>Common Responses

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Sunday, April 4, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

TQM, six sigma, lean, TPS, and the like stem from different sources but nevertheless share common approaches because they are responses to a common challenge: managing the design, operation, and improvement of complex systems of work–many people, spanning many disciplines, using multiple technologies, to deliver value to the market.
This is so challenging because the design of any complex system is a product of imperfect people’s creative efforts.  Hence, the initial design is imperfect and needs to be improved relentlessly.
Therefore, all these approaches have some element of rigor in:
the design of work to reduce variation and to help distinguish between normal noise and real problems,
the improvement of work to reduce the magnitude of noise and frequency and severity of problems, and
leadership engagement
That there are common responses to common problems arising out of disparate origins (convergent evolution) supports the idea that there is a ‘basic science <http://chasingtherabbitbook.mhprofessional.com/apps/ab/2010/03/12/tbasic-science-of-high-velocity-systems/> ‘ in managing the design, operation, and improvement of complex systems.
Six Sigma: “Don’t Tweak” “Get Better”
Deming–father of six sigma–attacked the necessity of making perfect imperfect systems with an approach that can be summarized in two simple phrases: “Don’t tweak.” “Get better.”
First, don’t tweak by responding to ‘noise’ the normal perturbations in a process.  That will only exacerbate the variation.  Instead, use statistical process control and other techniques to separate normal noise from bona fide process drift.  When you see a real problem, use that as a signal to get better.
Second, don’t tweak with haphazard process changes–be those to reduce normal variation or to shift the process mean.  Therefore, use rigorous “plan-do-check-act”–the Shewart cycle–so actions taken result in measurable reactions, so cause and effect is clear.  In other words, be rigorous in how you are getting better.  DMAIC–define, measure, analyze, improve, control–is another expression of rigor in improvement.
Third, Deming placed a tremendous on leadership engaging people and process to get better in a rigorous, non-tweaky way (see, for instance, his ’14 points’)
Lean Manufacturing: Engineer chaos out, engineer stability in
Lean manufacturing represents the distillation of lessons learned studying Toyota and other high performing manufacturers.  Common were a set of approach to engineer chaos out of systems and engineer stability in.  How?
Focused factories within factories (continuous flow) to reduce the clutter, chaos, and congestion characteristic of job shops.
Self-pacing pull systems to reduce the chaos inherent in fragile scheduled push systems.
Standard work, 5S, and cells in lieu of improvisation to ensure repeatability and reduce variation.
In essence, the “don’t tweak” of Deming taken to more granularity.
More recent criticism of lean, as actually practiced, is that the same rigor applied to process design is less evident in process improvement.  James Womack, dean of the lean movement, has been especially critical recently of lack of engaged leadership.  He and others have responded to delegating process design and improvement to subject matter experts and limiting the application of rigor in design and improvement to far fewer work processes (largely discrete part manufacturing) than possible or necessary.
Toyota Production System: Be disciplined in process design and operation, improvement, knowledge sharing, and leadership engagement to achieve high velocity improvement and innovation
Toyota was an unremarkable car maker in the late 1950s, characterized by poor quality, limited variety, and abysmal workforce productivity to the standard of manufacturing excellence by 2000, having distinguished itself by quality and productivity; with enviable product variety, successful new brand introduction (Lexus and Scion); regional expansion of design, production, and sales; and technological innovation (e.g., hybrid drive).
Toyota’s success, and that of other ‘high velocity organizations,’ is rooted in the internal capacity to generate and sustain high rates of broad based improvement and innovation.  This capacity is rooted in four distinct capabilities or skills.
1.  Process design: the design of all work is highly specified in terms of target output, sequence of responsibility, form and content of handoffs, and individual work methods to capture the best known approaches to doing work _with_ tests built into work to indicate when and where the best known approach is failing.  The building in of tests to see problems is foundational within Toyota, rooted in the concept of ‘jidoka,’ attributed to Toyota founder Sakichi Toyoda in the late 1800s.  The initial, specific idea was that textile equipment should stop the moment a thread broke to avoid weaving material with a run.  The general idea is that all work should signal immediately when and where there was a departure from expectations.

Poka Yoke is an example in the lean world, though, in general lean in practice has more emphasized the specification of system design, far less the building in of tests to see problems when and where they occur.  SPC is an example in six sigma of how to see problems in high volume, low variety, repetitive processes and is a general example the need to do so in all processes).
2.  Process improvement and problem solving: when problems are seen, they are solved with a rigorous application of the scientific method–the explicit articulation of problem background, diagnosed root cause sources, proposed countermeasure treatments, and predicted target conditions.  In the lean terminology, this has been referred to as ‘A3’ thinking. There are obvious parallels to DMAIC and the Shewhart cycle.
3.  Knowledge sharing: Fundamental to Toyota and other ‘high velocity organizations’ is broadly applying discoveries made in local problem solving by ensuring that the discovery process and not just the solution is shared.
4.  Engaged leadership:  Common to high velocity organizations like Toyota is leadership engagement in designing and improving systems over the span of responsibility they and only they have AND in developing the disciplined skills of process design, problem solving, knowledge sharing, and people development for whom they are responsible.
In short, six sigma, lean (and the Toyota Production System on which it was based) had their origin in different settings but nevertheless ‘co evolved.’  Each was responding to common challenges: the design and operation of systems, inherently imperfect because of the imperfection of the people trying to manage the system’s complexity.
Underpinning the tools of each approach is rigor in the design of processes to reduce variation by capturing best known approaches and making problems evident, rigor in problem solving, rigor in knowledge sharing, and rigorous engagement of leadership in design, improvement, and people development.

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