Lean and Sustainability

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. [1]

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 [1].

Permaculture ethics (Earth care, people care, fair share), surrounded by the 12 principles. [1]
Permaculture ethics (Earth care, people care, fair share), surrounded by the 12 principles. [1]
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.[3])
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 [6].
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?

Read more:
[1] Lean Thinking & The Machine that Changed the World – Womack and Jones
[2] Permaculture – Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren
[3] The Toyota Way – Jeffrey Liker
[4] Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture – Sepp Holzer
[5] Gaia’s Garden – Toby Hemenway
[6] Overshoot Day – link

Lake Baikal - a Unesco Natural Heritage.
Lake Baikal – a Unesco Natural Heritage.

Efficiency vs. Fairness – an interesting dilemma

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.”

Lifting the wagons to change the boogies.
Lifting the wagons to change the boogies.

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.

 DSC03002 DSC03003 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?

Deliver to Spec – an ethical dilemma

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.

All the embedded computers create immense problems with reliability.
All the embedded computers create immense problems with reliability.

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 [1].

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?

[1] W. Edwards Deming – “Out of the Crisis”

Scott Adams (c) - shares how it feels to deliver rubbish.
Scott Adams (c) – shares how it feels to deliver rubbish.

Antifragility – Idea and Book review

Antifragile - by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Antifragile – by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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.

Top picture - antifragile - variations have more upside than downside.
Top picture – antifragile – variations have more upside than downside.

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”.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb - good ideas and strong opinions
Nassim Nicholas Taleb – good ideas and strong opinions

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”.

Three Red Lights

“There are three little red lights that sit inside the head of the spectator”, David Williamson said, world leading close-up magician. “When the magician is holding the deck in a strange way, the first light goes off. When the card is put back in a peculiar fashion, the second one goes off. When the third light goes off, the spectator starts thinking of football.”

The three lights inside my head.
The three lights inside my head.

In a ex-DDR lecture hall in the Kulturpalast in Dresden, David Williamson [1] explained the Psychology of Magic from a spectator perspective. Full of energy and slap-stick physical humor, he visualized a very important principle about trust.
When you watch a magic trick, you open a window of trust in which the magician can let you experience something unbelievable in a wonderful way. However, it only works as long as the performer does not rub you off in the wrong way. As soon as there is something inconsistent, you start to get alert and the enjoyment is immediately reduced. The less natural the actions, the less convincing the presentation. Small clues aggregate to strengthen or weaken trust. In management it is the same. And it cuts both ways.

If an engineer in my team is doing something that feels fishy, a red light goes off, somewhere deep inside my head. And it is burning for a long time… If all three lights are on, I lose trust and confidence.
It is also true in the other way. If I as a department manager express something clumsy or insensitive a red light goes on. Three lights and I have lost a big chunk of authority…

I think this is a deeply human reaction. It is not even necessary to have fact-based observations, just indications that something is wrong. Therefore, this mechanism is not “fair” in the legalistic sense of the word. But it is usually correct.
It is captured in the old Dutch saying that “Trust comes on foot and leaves on horseback” (“Vertrouwen komt te voet en vertrekt te paard” [2]).

This energy can be both positive and negative – so we should use it in a constructive way to build stronger teams. We must also be aware of the destructive power: I speculate that this is the power of gossip. The indications are enough to change our perception of people around us.
This powerful force can be channeled to help us take care of the group and find out who needs support in difficult situations. We communicate with so much more than words. How we talk, how we say things and how timely we are say more than words. All these signals are unconsciously recorded and build momentum.

People do not see everything you do, they collect clues.
Or as my friend Ruben says, after the football philosopher JC Watts – “Character is what you do when you think that nobody is looking.”
Use the force of positive power to project energy into the people around you – and they will smile back, whether they want it or not.

[1] See more of the excellent magician David Williamson on: http://davidwilliamson.com/

[2] http://nl.wikiquote.org/wiki/Vertrouwen

[image] http://noveltylights.com

International Projects – Communication Style – Directness

One of the joys of international projects is to work with people from different communication cultures. There are many prejudices and stereotypes regarding national cultures and many are startingly true.
One of the dimensions of culture is how direct we communicate.
Direct cultures (like the Dutch) value open and honest communication, even if the message may hurt. They are feared by indirect communicators for their bluntness and lack of tact.
Indirect communication cultures (like the Chinese) value politeness and a common understanding of the topic before zooming in to the crux of the question. This can lead to boundless frustration for a direct person.

Last week I had a head-on confrontation with directness:

“So, I ask you again, shall we hire a Technical Writer or not this year?”, I said.
“If the need was big we should do that.” says HB, head of the technical center.
“Yes, but we just agreed that the need is not big now. So you mean we should not hire for this position?”
I feel that I get a bit irritated. It is the third time I ask the same question, but I do not get a clear answer.
“If the need had been big, we should hire.”, she says again.
I get hot and angry and start to fume inside. Why not just say “No” if you mean that? Are you an idiot, I think to myself. Why do we waste our time with this kind of unclear indecisions?

Suddenly I realize that I had hit my head on the boardplank of communication culture. My Chinese colleague is a master of positive, friendly, implicit communication that is crystal clear to all other Chinese colleagues. Being a blunt barbarian, I need the black-and-white statements of yes/no. She expresses her opinion just as clear, but much more politely and correctly, according to her indirect communciation culture.

The Direct style usually starts in the center with the core of the question, and then winds out towards the secondary issues and connections.
The Chinese way is to start with the context and build to the center, sometimes even leaving the obvious statement unsaid.

Indirect Communication Style starts at the outside and slowly moves to the center.
Indirect Communication Style starts at the outside and slowly moves to the center.

I used to be an expert at the indirect implicit style, but now I have lived for ten years outside of Sweden, so I am getting rusty and impatient and blunt. Working in international teams has also trained me in being very explicit, to ensure that the objectives are clear. However, the drawback is that my communication style is less eloquent and sometimes rudely impolite.

2014-01-31 04_14_06-Document1 - Microsoft Word
Direct Communication Style – starting in the middle, and only then zooms out to the wider context.

In the meeting I take a step back, and use an indirect way of getting full clarity: – “I write here in the meeting minutes that we decided to not hire the Technical Writer, at least not for the next six months. Ok?”, I say. Then I look around and get affirmative nods from everyone.
My pulse is back to normal and I smile at my colleague when we start on the next topic.

One enigma is why communication directness is not part of the classic cultural dimensions, neither by Hofstede nor Trompenaars. The work of the two Dutch authors Geert Hostede and Fons Trompenaars has been truly helpful for me in uncountable situations. They have observed behaviour in different cultures and explain it through a small set of value dimensions. However, directness is not one on their list. I wonder why?



Air Quality (cough, cough)

The first week of November has been shrouded in a hazy smog. All over Shanghai, the sunshine is dissolving into a colorful sky. It made me want to look at the numbers. It is bad, but how bad?

First of all I looked at the NOx satellite maps from the research institute in Heidelberg. They have published global maps of their measurement results. Up until the 90’s, the nitrogen oxide concentration was the most common metric for air pollution. The NO2 molecules can turn into nitric acid and acid rain.

Global NOx Air Concentration. Holland is close to Shanghai.
Global NOx Air Concentration. Holland is close to Shanghai.

But NOx is not everything. Today we can set up measurement stations to measure particulates (PM2.5/PM10), ozone, SO2, NOx etc, and calculate an “air quality index”.  A few years ago, the American Embassy started to publish air quality measurements on-line, which led to a diplomatic fight. After many rounds, in January 2013 the Chinese government agreed to the publication and started to post data from hundreds of measurement stations all across China. All our Chinese friends have smartphone apps that display the current Air Quality Index. Today it was 224. “Very Unhealthy”.

Air Quality Index smartphone app. We can follow the levels hour-by-hour.
Air Quality Index smartphone app. We can follow the levels hour-by-hour.

There is also an interesting website that publishes air quality across the world, wherever measurements are available: http://aqicn.org/

Air Pollution in Shanghai Real-time Air Quality Index Visual Map - Mozilla Fire_2013-11-08_21-54-38
Shanghai air pollution right now, Friday evening 8 November 2013. (We live next to the 158 sign, center right).

So, what if we compare to other polluted cities, like Amsterdam or New York?

Amsterdam/Rotterdam areas today.
Amsterdam area, and some Antwerpen 8 Nov 2013.  Very few measurement stations in The Netherlands.
New York Air Quality 8 Nov 2013.
New York Air Quality 8 Nov 2013.

Unfortunately, I could not find a live station in my old hometown Gothenburg, but a report stated that the year-average is 15-20 there.

The fact that numbers on air quality are published creates public awareness and political pressure to improve the situation in China. I predict a legal ban on petrol cars in the biggest cities within five years. Just like there was a ban on petrol scooters 10 years ago.

Today it costs nothing to pollute. That is a problem. This is arguably the most important challenge for Economy as a “science”, to create metrics for “externalities” and to find ways to measure and control destruction.
Part of the price for “Made in China” is the health effects and the environment impact here.
Next time you buy some cheap stuff, remember who pays.

Death rates due to urban air pollution, from WHO.
Death rates due to urban air pollution, from WHO.