Conflict management based on values and norms is one of my passions. In the last few years, I have had the privilege to lead training workshops at some of the Masters programmes at Chalmers University of Technology. Last week, I was back at Chalmers, working with students from the whole world, talking about assumptions, values and norms, see presentation attached to this post.
In most places where I have worked in the past, the limiting factor for success has been communication skills and ability to identify and handle conflicts. These are topics that most Engineers are afraid to talk about, especially when we come to feelings, needs and personal values. Fortunately, there are initiatives to include this in the curriculum, and these workshops are an example of that.
I often use the “Barnga” card game as an experience exercise to feel inside how norm conflicts play out. It is a brilliantly designed game by Thiagi, and you can get a copy on Amazon here.
The MSc programs are much more international now compared to when I went to Chalmers University in the last century, which is really a big advantage for the students who realize the value of this. The international students generally have more work experience and often in multiple countries. It is a gold mine of experiences that the rest of the group can learn from.
Here is the presentation material that I used in the workshop:
In one of my first meetings when I was setting up my department in China I had a revealing experience – a glimpse of the political power play that underlies office operations here.
We were three colleagues around the table, H, department head of another department inside the R&D center, S., one of my engineers, and me. One of the topics was an analysis activity that H.s team would start doing. Some of my colleagues in Europe had been doing that for some time and I had some documents describing the process. I said that I would email the documents after the meeting.
Our secret (photo by Amanda Smith)
After the meeting S. comes to me and says carefully: “Don’t send the files.”
Seeing my surprise, he continues; “It is better for us if we keep this secret. Information that only we have makes us stronger. Their department started before we started, so they have some advantage. Our department will have more foreigners, so that is our advantage. Share only a little bit at a time.”
Being Swedish and brought up in a religious faith in transparency and sharing, I almost exploded, but managed to count to ten before responding.
-“Well S. – thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. Please always do. However, this time I decided to do it differently.” Then I told him why I thought it wise to share the material and also to keep my promise. Later we could outsource some of the less interesting jobs to that team because we trained them.
I am convinced that collaboration has more “upside” than “downside” – more advantages than disadvantages. On the long run, you gain more by sharing than by hiding. It is possible everywhere to build a culture of trust to enable openness and teamwork. However, in China, most of the education system is built on competition and there is no advantage of help anyone else ever. I guess that explains why it is unusual and unfamiliar to share.
Three years later, S. is a champion of sharing. He has had the opportunity to feel the strength of teamwork. He has experienced the benefits of being open and has transformed into a role model for the junior engineers in the team. Of course there is always some politicking and positioning in any office, but I have never seen it so clear as in China. It has helped me to be more aware of the games played elsewhere, so I smell it easier these days. And now I know that it is possible to push it aside and search for sustainable synergies.
My wise brother Hugo says that hiding information is a left-over thinking from the “Stuff-society” of scarcity. If I give you one of my things, I have less and you have more. It is a zero-sum game. Classic win-lose thinking.
Today, we live in the information/knowledge/idea society. If I give you one some knowledge, I still have the same as I had, but you have more. There is a net gain for us as a system. Sharing is neutral-win, with a large chance of reciprocity, that next time you will share back, to a win-neutral situation. All together this is win-win.
I believe in democracy. Democracy (as in representative parlaments and direct-vote referenda) is a slow but resilient way to balance interests in society. The key success factor of the system is transparency, so that consequences are visible and understandable afterwards.
Therefore, whenever a stupid decision is taken, and the consequences lead to worse conditions for enough people, there is always a possibility for people to change their minds and vote for something else.
In democratic societies today, we have a challenge when it comes to the quality of the feedback. The truth is often less exciting than gossip and rumors. Powerful interests push their own stories to move the popular opinion. There are less and less journalists and more and more lobbyists.
We need publicly funded institutions who can deliver unbiased and understandable information for the general public and especially for schools.
Let’s work together to improve the information quality and understandability. We need people like Hans Rosling, who can transform difficult datasets into enjoyable and understandable infographics. In Holland, where I now live, there is e.g. an excellent “Compendium for the Environment”.
Let’s see what the British citizens vote next time around. If the EU exists by then. Otherwise, let’s build something better.
I love Lean thinking because it is a key tool for sustainability.
Reducing waste, doing more with less, focussing on value and Values, improving communication and collaboration, learning from observation and continuously improving our methods and increasing our knowledge. 
All of this is what we need to do on a broader scale in society.
The principles and the tools from the “lean toolbox” can be used in all parts of the greater community. Of course, every tool and technology can be used for multiple purposes. The tool itself has no moral a-priori goodness/badness. (A hammer can be used to build a house or to kill a neighbour.) The choice is ours how to use the tools – which is why we have to start with values.
The most convincing view on sustainability that I have encountered is called “Permaculture”. It is a philosophy based on the three core ethics: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. There is a lot written on the topic, my favourite is a book by one of the founders of the Permaculture movement, David Holmgren .
In short, the objective of permaculture is to build a society that can continue forever, preferably increasing natural and spiritual wealth over time. This is no small feat, considering how much of current civilization is built on destructive patterns and non-sustainable resource extraction.
There are technological hurdles, but also sociological and psychological challenges to move in this direction.
I believe that Lean methods can help us verbalize what we value and start moving in that direction. We can map the value stream in what we are doing and find ways of strengthening the value-adding activities.
Lean methods help us to identify practices and processes that are destructive and the lean methods help us to reduce the waste.
Maybe you wonder: “but who is the Customer, who is so central in Lean thinking?”
(The “customer” as an agent is used a lot in Lean methods to quantify what is the important output or value of a process.)
I believe that the customer is you.
It is you who have to feel deep in your heart what you want that your life should deliver.
I endorse the permaculture ethics of Earth Care (leave the environment better than when you came), People Care (help people grow and flourish) and Fair Share (share the surplus, don’t hoard), as guiding values. Does this activity improve the state of the Earth? Does it improve the connectedness and knowledge of the People? Does it distribute the accumulated wealth?
Viewing society and corporations through this lens helps us to develop products that improve the world. We can use all our creativity to invent new ways of working together to grow people instead of using them up as “human resources”. We can develop new profit sharing mechanisms that allow companies and organizations to flourish for longer and longer.
Let’s lean the world and build a sustainable civilization.
Published on 18 August 2014 – Overshoot Day .
Until today we have used up all resources that can be sustainably produced during 2014. Every day from now until the end of the year we are using up resources that leave the Earth a poorer place than when we came.
A sad, sad situation for Earth Care.
Of course it is hard. We have a car, even though we often go by bike to work. I burn plenty of gas to heat our house, even though I would like to grow the wood instead. I have conflict minerals in my mobile phone.
However, by looking at solutions and using lean tools, we can work together to find better solutions, one breath at a time. I do not know any better way. Do you?
Isn’t it ironic that the lean methodologies were developed by the world’s largest car maker Toyota?
 Lean Thinking & The Machine that Changed the World – Womack and Jones
 Permaculture – Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren
 The Toyota Way – Jeffrey Liker
 Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture – Sepp Holzer
 Gaia’s Garden – Toby Hemenway
 Overshoot Day – link
Sometimes, there is a tension between the values of fairness vs. efficiency. It is a common theme in Dilbert, where well-intentioned company policy leads to something ridiculous in a particular situation. We all encounter it from time to time, when we struggle to strike the right balance between same-for-all and right-for-this-situation.
This is an aspect of the cultural dimension that Fons Trompenaars calls “Universalism/Particularism” (or What is more important, rules or relationships/the specifics of the situation?). I believe that each individual’s work culture to a large extent is based on the relative importance of values.
Some people value the rule and the principle of fairness more – and are willing to accept a negative outcome for some specific cases. Other people truly value the individual particular situation more – therefore they feel that rules are there to guide but not to stifle judgement and wisdom.
On a train ride this week, we hit into this dilemma when we took the 263 train (Beijing->Ulaan Baatar). The 16 wagon train was almost empty. According to our wagon attendant, less than 30 passengers. This is supposedly typical for this season. The train is full in July, but the rest of the year there are plenty of empty berths. The lowest occupancy was last year in December when they drove once the whole way from Beijing to UB with only five passengers. More tourists do go the other way, but even in that direction it is quite empty in the train. Sometimes more personnel than passengers. This time, we were five passengers in our whole wagon.
Our wagon attendant explained that: “The agreement between the governments mandated that they would always drive 15 sleeper wagons and one restaurant wagon, twice per week in the winter and three times in the summer. And since it is an international agreement – it is important to be fair and honor the agreement.”
We spent 4 hours to change boogies (wheelsets) on all 15 sleeping wagons at the border crossing between China and Mongolia. We could have used one or two wagons, and be finished in 30 minutes.
The reason for changing wheelsets is due to the rail gauge – the distance between the two rails. The railway connection between Ulaan Baatar was built in 1956, during a time when the Soviet Union had a strong presence in Mongolia. Therefore, the train tracks in Mongolia follow the Russian standard, which is wider than the Chinese standard. It was impressive and weird to see the wagons lifted up and the boogies rolled away to be replaced with a slightly different width. This boogie dance went on for hours, in the middle of the night – and we were waiting for our passports to be back from the Chinese border police. It was indeed a relief when the adjustments were completed, the passports retrieved and we could glide away into the Mongolian night to cross the Gobi Desert.
It is an amazing waste of time and energy to do this boogie-changing. Especially for all the wagons that are almost empty. I was crying deep inside my passionate Lean-heart to see all these people doing useless work with excellent execution. There are so many important value-adding jobs out there!
Do you encounter dilemma’s of fairness vs efficiency in your job?
How do you deal with the dilemma of fairness vs efficiency in your organization?
What legends do you have about heroes in the past who broke corporate guidelines to do the right thing?
A few years back, I worked in an American multinational corporation in the automotive electronics business. We developed embedded software for cars, as a consultancy for the OEMs (Volvo, Saab, Jaguar,…). In this explosion of electrification, it was a playground to put processors in
every piece of plastic possible.
I ran into an ethical dilemma for consultants – the balance between delivering what was agreed vs. what they need. My company’s interest was to deliver quickly according to the agreed specification, and then sell extra-hours. I felt the pressure to implement features that were in some way faulty, so that we could close the fix-price project and then start charging for additional work. Nobody would admit this, but it was something that made me quite uncomfortable. We were taking advantage of the car-makers lack of competence in computers and software, to ensure short-term profits on our side.
The project managers inside the consultancy were heroes when they closed projects fast – and would be celebrated for their efficacy. Even when the software was crap.
It is a genuine conflict of interests, where one company has a long-term need for robustness and a great product, and the other company does not have to care. I found this corrosive for the morale, and a typical example of win-lose relationship. On the long term, everybody loses.
I think that this problem has many facets. An important one was how success was measured inside the consultancy company. Even though top management was talking about long-term partnerships and quality and integrity, that was not what was celebrated. That was not measured.
And you get what you measure, as Deming used to say .
There is a lot of good thinking needed to find new ways of running businesses to encourage mutual long-term benefits. How can you make your customers more successful – and – at the same time make a sustainable profit?
How do you build long term win-win relationships with your customers?
Thriving in uncertainty, blossoming in volatility, enjoying noise – that is being anti-fragile.
Taleb has written yet another peculiar book about randomness and nonlinearity. He invented a new word to describe the phenomenon that sometimes occurs – when there is a limited downside and a great upside to variation.
When there is a convex nonlinear effect – or a limit to losses – then the output will be better with more variability.
One (loathed) example is that of a corporate manager. The basic salary is good, whether the company makes money or loses money, but profit-sharing bonus can only be positive. If the company makes a small profit year-on-year, there is almost no bonus. However, a great profit one year followed by a loss-making year will give at least one year’s full bonus payment. Much better for the individual corporate manager. He/she benefits from variability and noise. The more, the better – at least on short term.
Taleb shows that the banking industry as a whole operates in a similar way. When there are “good years”, profits are distributed to the owners. When the banks collapse, the tax-payers take the bill. Therefore, the banking sector as a whole enjoys variability and encourages this chaos.
The problem is of course that these patterns destroy other areas in society.
In my view, Taleb’s main contribution is to make the patterns visible and to give names to the phenomena. He builds a simplified nonlinear dynamic framework in which we can discuss these systemic patterns. We need to understand the structures to make good decisions in designing new and better systems.
Dynamic phenomena are difficult to understand, and this book is an important contribution. I also recommend “Limits to Growth” and “The 5th Discipline”.
The two examples above are win-lose systems, but that is not necessary. We can design win-win structures that benefit from the natural disorder of things. We can challenge the established organizational patterns using the concept of anti-fragility and re-invent the way we work together.
One way of increasing robustness and aiming for anti-fragility is to ensure that all players in a structure have a personal stake – skin in the game. To quote Fat Tony, one of the colorful characters of the book, “Only get on a plane if the pilot is on the plane”.