Lean is Systems Thinking

larry-allan-photo-wolf.jpgSeveral years ago, I walked by my oldest daughter’s bedroom and noticed her writing feverishly at her desk. Considering she was no more than seven at the time, my curiosity was peaked and I stuck my head in.

“What ya doing, honey?”

“Hey, Dad. I’m writing the governors of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho to tell them not to hurt the wolves.”

This was enough for me to stop and get some details.

The story of the wolf – particularly in Yellowstone Park – is a narrative, in and of itself, around the challenges of solving complicated problems.

The quick story is Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872 and, for a bunch of well-intended reasons, the gray wolf was extirpated by 1926. Over the next several decades, it was recognized that wolves played an important role in the overall ecosystem of Yellowstone Park. So, in 1995, gray wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in the Lamar Valley.

There are many stakeholders in this problem. My daughter (and others) are invested because they love wolves, ranchers are invested because they love their livelihood, hunters are invested because they love their sport, and park managers and environmentalists are invested because they love Yellowstone. Yet, while the debate continues relative to possible solutions, all parties to the argument will agree on one point – altering one portion of the system impacted the entire system. That is, eliminating the wolf from Yellowstone almost destroyed the entire ecosystem of the park due to the interconnectedness of wolves, elk, coyotes, beavers, birds, plants, soil, rivers, and many other components of the overall system.

Lean Leadership and Systems Thinking

A business is an ecosystem in that it is a living organism where the ultimate health of the system is a function of the interconnectedness of the many processes making up the business system in totality. Therefore, to accomplish any type of significant lean transformation, we need to think and act upon the business from a systems point of view.  

Lean thinkers, by nature, are systems thinkers. We understand intuitively that a business is a complex set of functions and processes that are interconnected and dependent on each other. We respect that a change in one area, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, will have an impact in other parts of the business. As systems thinkers, we are very interested in how the overall system will be affected by our actions. This means we are cognizant of the intended consequences of our decisions, but also the unintended consequences of these same decisions. It is this perspective that allows us to understand total performance across the extended value stream and total cost across the extended value stream.

Systems thinking is a learned skill that requires practice. And practicing to be a systems thinker begins with changing our approach to asking good questions. Yes, the lean leader is interested in particular strategies we pursue, but we are also very interested in how particular strategies impact the rest of the business.

For example, instead of asking ‘What is our inventory strategy?’, ask ‘How does our inventory strategy impact the rest of the business?’ Or, instead of asking ‘What is our procurement strategy?’, ask ‘How does our procurement strategy impact the rest of the business?’ When questions are asked in this manner, you will find that you create a dialogue that begins to discuss the business from a systems point of view.

Many organizations still need to paint the picture of their ecosystem, of the interconnected relationship of functions, people, and processes. In particular, the overall system that is created when we connect business strategy, product life-cycle management, sales & marketing, and supply-chain operations.

And so, we need to ask ourselves, ‘Do we truly understand the system that makes up our business?’

Posted by Robert Martichenko

blog author

Robert is CEO of LeanCor Supply Chain Group. He is also a speaker and award-winning author of several business books - including "Discovering Hidden Profit" and his first novel - "Drift and Hum." Robert has spent over 25 years learning and implementing lean and operational excellence with a focus on end-to-end supply chain management across a wide array of industries. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and an MBA.

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Lessons in Lean : Lessons in Leadership - The Blog

There is no question that building an organizational culture of continuous improvement is a progressive evolution that takes time. In this blog, Robert Martichenko discusses his lessons learned while building these cultures in our new world of constant disruption - sharing key knowledge that will lead today’s business leaders down the path toward discovering hidden profit. 

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