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October 7, 2014

Evolving Organisations

In my previous blog (No More Heroes?), I suggested that the human need for recognition and self-actualisation (to use Maslow’s term) meant that lean improvement was incompatible with human evolution – we like being “heroes” too much.

The blog received a good number of comments from people arguing that it was, in fact, organisations that hadn’t evolved sufficiently. The cooperative and supportive nature of lean is not incompatible with human behaviour, but it is incompatible with poorly “evolved” organisations.

So my discussion this time focuses on how organisations, stuck in an eighteen century “command and control” framework, might be helped to evolve into a participative and cooperative workplace where improvement happens continuously.

Unfortunately, I am not sure that there is an answer to this question. Species evolve over millions of years through continual trial and error of adaptations. Organisations can also evolve by continual trial and error of adaptations to problems and issues (that may even be a definition of lean!). The problem is that we don’t have millions of years in which to do it, and, importantly, organisations that have become “stuck” in a rigid command and control model just don’t do the trial and error through which they might find better and more effective ways of working.

So the solution to enabling organisations to evolve is to shift them from a “stuck” state to one which allows the trial and error that forms an essential part of continuous improvement. The challenge is that organisations which are stuck in the command and control mindset don’t have the vision (or even the ability) to understand a world where employees actively drive improvement and work together to improve their own processes.

In such organisations, things only happen if they are initiated and controlled by managers. Employees thinking for themselves is virtually a punishable offence; and is certainly not encouraged in such an environment. Perhaps it is a question of trust; perhaps it is one of power and status (and fear of giving both away); perhaps it is a lack of experience of alternative paths. The challenge is how to change these stuck states.

Resistance to change is usually linked to preferring to stick with the “devil you know” rather than face the unknown. The skills and behaviours which work well for managers in the “current” environment may not be (and often won’t be) the sort of skills and behaviour that the new (open and collaborative) environment values. This creates fear for one’s position and standing in the organisation, and even one’s whole “raison d’etre” in the operation.

Senior management turkeys, stuck in old ways of working, are unlikely to vote for Christmas! Indeed, after many years of working as a “command and control” manager, the switch to “improvement facilitator and coach” may not even be psychologically possible. Organisations directed by long established command and control managers are unlikely to have any interest in moving away from the status quo. The “carrot” is unlikely to work with senior managers who feel they personally will lose status or even their whole “purpose” in the organisation.

Perhaps, then, the only solution is the “stick” – for the owners to make wholesale management changes to bring fresh blood into the organisation in order to make it evolve. This might work, but appealing to owners and shareholders is a difficult task, particularly when a company’s shares are publicly listed so that there is no real ownership involvement.

If neither the carrot nor the stick work, then what? Perhaps we just have to wait for new agile competitors to come through and take the market away from the dinosaurs. That is evolution, but, as we know, it will take years, decades even.

Organisations need to evolve, but how long do we have?