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September 22, 2010

Lean and Systems Thinking

The development of the Toyota Production System was strongly influenced by systems thinkers, including Shewhart and Deming, and systems concepts are inherent in most lean tools.


If we define an organisational system as a group of interacting elements forming an adaptive entity, then it becomes clear what I mean. The lean philosophy is that we should organise by Value Stream and a Value Stream is quite clearly an adaptive system consisting of interacting elements. Furthermore, all the lean tools are designed to bring these interacting elements (for example activities in a process) closer together in order to improve flow.


Thus lean thinking is about improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the Value Stream and the larger organisational system.


However, systems thinking has further developed in the last forty years and this is not necessarily reflected in the lean tools we use. For instance, Soft Systems Methodology has developed to provide a means of understanding systems that involve human interaction (such as organisations).


The interesting thing about systems that involve human interaction is that they are purposeful – the participants in the system (including stakeholders and other influencers outside of the system itself) all have a purpose that they believe the system should fulfil. Of course, the purpose that each different participant and stakeholder in the system has may differ (and often will). In Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) this is called the Worldview, and SSM specifically explores these different Worldviews to create understanding and, therefore, learning about how to improve the system.


The concept that different participants in a Value Stream, and in the larger organisation, have different purposes for the system is, I believe, not explicitly recognised in lean tools and yet it can be extremely useful. Let us consider just two examples:


  1. Value Stream Definition. Rather than launch into what we might consider to be the “best” Value Stream structure for an organisation, Soft Systems Methodology ensures that we consider the different worldviews of the different participants and stakeholders in the organisation. This will ensure that we consider a range of options, and the sharing of the different worldviews and options is likely to create a stronger consensus for the chosen structure.

  2. Conflicting Behaviours within a Value Stream (or across Value Streams). In the early stages of lean transformation in particular, we are likely to see conflicting “non-lean” behaviours from some of the participants in the Value Stream. These may be due to a lack of understanding or trust of the new approach, or for other reasons such as reward structures or organisational politics. Soft Systems Methodology gives us a useful set of tools to explore the issues that underlie the behaviours, and to surface the structures and interactions which are causing the conflict.

I cannot do Soft Systems Methodology and other advances in systems thinking justice in this short blog. My purpose has been to raise awareness and, I hope, prompt further study. I believe that an understanding of these approaches would be a very valuable addition to the lean practitioners toolkit particularly when seeking to understand the bigger picture in order to tackle the organisational, cultural and political aspects of lean transformation.