Organizational Connectedness – the Hallmark of Being Lean

“We must therefore rediscover, after the natural world, the social world, not as an object or sum of objects, but as a permanent field or dimension of existence.”
― Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

One problem plaguing the modern organization is organizational disconnect. As organizations (corporations, non-profit, religious) become more complex in nature and structure, more layers of responsibilities are added to accommodate the manager’s span of control over subordinates and resources.

As customers get more demanding (better, faster, cheaper products and services) and competition becoming more severe, product innovation, technological advancement, savvy marketing, and process efficiency are necessary to just survive quarterly reviews – business growth is just a wish.

At the lowest level, we often find people who are given strict sets of narrow responsibilities, tasks that are often repetitive, in order to make operations efficient. Processes are broken down into several stages and manned by highly skilled people. Similar processes are grouped together and supervised by a manager and/or supervisor. As the processes are divided, refined, and constantly improved, people become alienated from one another. Different departments and functions develop their own goals in order to survive and escape the blame-game that executives play.

Everyone in the organization – top executives, managers, supervisors, staff, operators – is given performance targets to meet. With mounting stress, people become defensive and protective, and over time, forget the purpose of everything about work (purpose, passion, vision, policy, communication), and oftentimes purposelessness spills into their private lives (rest, recreation, spirituality, health, wellness, relationships, etc.)

The irony of organizational disconnectedness is that culture rewards the superstar employees while at the same time HR budget is spent on keeping the employees engaged in an environment that reeks with “anti-engagement.” Year after year, Gallup study shows that only about 20% of employees are fully engaged in America. No wonder billions of dollars are spent for employee training and development supposedly to increase productivity and engagement.

The prevailing western form of management upholds individuality and putting self above everything. While Western mega-companies ruled the global economy in the post-WW2 era, a pocket of Japanese companies (headed by Toyota, Honda, Sony, Panasonic, Kawasaki, Suzuki) deeply rooted in Eastern spirituality and culture took the world by storm. The Japanese culture subjugates the self under the company or team in order to prosper together. While Japanese employees are given specific tasks much the same way as in Western companies, they don’t forget the fact that they are interconnected with one another, that when someone fails they need to be supported. I learned this lesson early on in my career when I worked as a QA supervisor in a Japanese business unit of IBM during the early 1990s. One day, the engineering manager called me to explain something about our organization. He drew several circles representing the different functions in our operation. He said under normal conditions, each function works according to their assigned responsibilities. But once a certain function is falling behind or not performing well, other functions will lend support, stressing the point that we are one organization and if one is failing, the whole organization might fail.

Lean carries with it a bright hope to end organizational disconnectedness. One of the pillars of Lean is “Respect for Humanity.” It means recognizing and utilizing the vast human potential to add value to the organization and to the customers. In Lean companies, operators are given authority to improve their own processes under a controlled protocol. Operators are often given expanded span of insight and responsibility thus creating products from beginning to end, not just a slice of a process. Even in deployment of corporate strategy, using the Hoshin Kanri allows alignment, agreement, and feedback to happen from the participants in every level of the organization, thus building a shared sense of responsibility and accountability over plans and outcomes.

Lean is about “learning to see” – learning to see not just the waste in the physical processes, but also the often unseen disconnectedness among people common in a “silo” company. Be Lean!

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