Last week I watched for the first time in many years Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, ‘Full Metal Jacket’.
Amongst the many parts of the movie that struck me, were the scenes in the first half where Gunnery Sargent Hartman is calling cadence as the platoon marches and runs.
These scenes sparked a complex series of thoughts about the nature of co-operation, collaboration and authority as it drives performance in our enterprises.
I often talk about ‘Rhythm and Flow’ as being an essential ingredient of any successful organisation, it is one of the three foundations of a successful enterprise I look for when conducting a StrategyAudit. There has to be a rhythm to the operations in anything bigger than the corner shop, a series of rhythms that together make up the flow that drives the strategic development at the top, down to the daily tactical implementation with customers. In addition every process has a flow, it begins, moves through a set of stages to completion. The less interruption to the natural flow the better the process will work, the more efficient it will be.
All manner of things get in the way, and even when working really well, at 100% efficiency, some processes will not be optimised. You can get a flawed process working as well as it can work, peak efficiency, that does not make it a good or optimised process.
Processes evolved to enable us to scale operations, to do the things that needed doing repeatedly, the same way every time, reducing errors, time taken, and effectively ‘dumbing down’ the process. While the evolution started the first time someone made any sort of automated tool, it took off when Frederick Winslow Taylor started developing and testing his ideas while running the Midvale Steel works in Pennsylvania, first published as a paper called ‘A piece rate system‘ in 1896.
Organizations have almost by definition, a set of procedures, and varying levels of authority, that when bundled together become labelled as a ‘Bureaucracy’. The evolution of bureaucratic processes is what has enabled the scaling of businesses over the last 100 years. Things get organized into silos where there are specialists who can solve problems from the routine to the strategic, and pass the knowledge on in a consistent manner. As a result even the most efficient process had a cycle time as it moved from one level of an organisation up for decision, then back down for execution. That works until the time required to respond to the challenge/problem/opportunity is less than the bureaucratic cycle time, or something out of the ordinary happens, something that has not been prepared for. Then you get the process equivalent of waste, as the opportunities pass by, and problems overwhelm.
This is a reflection of the speed of operation required by the operating environment, in most cases, driven by customers. In Lean thinking terms, is called ‘Takt Time’ which is effectively the cycle time of demand in the market.
Cycle time and Takt time are two ideas from manufacturing whose time has come in organizational development.
The environment in which we operate has been disrupted absolutely by the march of technology. Speed is increasingly the difference between success and failure, so enterprises must find ways to adjust their operating cycle time to less than the decreasing Takt time demanded by the market place.
Optimising a bureaucratic process will not be enough in the future, as it still requires deference to the levels of authority, rather than enabling those at the coal face to use their initiative and intimate knowledge of the situation to be able to play what is in front of them.
At the core you have this paradox of organisation structures being vertical, organised into functional silos for efficiency, while the processes that serve the customer being horizontal and cross functional. As the requirement for speed increases, the time a vertical structure takes to respond becomes increasingly less satisfactory to customers, they move onto those who meet their time requirements, as they do not give a fig about your approval processes, they add no value at all to them, but they do suck value away.
The successful organisations of the future will be more ‘biological’ in nature, with the power to respond in Takt time devolved to the fringes where the intersection with the competitive environment occurs on a daily basis. The challenges of this change to the current management orthodoxy will make most very uncomfortable indeed, and therein lies opportunity for those who can reverse the location of tactical decision making, and put it at the ‘front lines’, where it should be.