One of the most business applicable concepts from the science of complex adaptive systems is that of emergence – the way a chaordic system produces order from apparent chaos. An example of this is the movement of a flock of birds or a school of fish. For a dramatic view of starlings flocking, watch www.vimeo.com/31158841. Notice how new members join seamlessly, how the flock divides, explores the sky, and comes crashing back together only to set of in a new direction without loss of momentum or injury!
Flocking results when a few simple rules are applied to a large number of independent, moving individuals producing coordinated behavior. Moviegoers have seen the results of computer programmers’ use of three flocking rules to create the coordinated movement of bats and penguins:
- Keep up with your neighbors
- Don’t bump into another
- Don’t stray too far from the group
The key to flocking is that each individual is free to choose their own course of action based on a few simple rules, hence their application to business. These rules must be designed to allow individuals to navigate the local dynamic environment and yet maintain their connection to the group as a whole.
Synchronizing Organizational Activities using Flocking
To make this real, let’s examine continuous improvement and create simple rules that capture its essence using Mike Rother’s book Toyota Kata as a guide.
Rule #1: Improve today in order to improve tomorrow.
Flocking rules are based on the interactions between the behaviors of individuals, or at least those behaviors that allow individuals to be part of the flock. Rother points out early in the book (p.38) that the Toyota Continuous Improvement Kata is fundamentally a philosophical stance – an infinite game (see James Carse) one that seeks to continue the game (improving) rather than win (solve a problem). This rule provides direction and vision without defining or determining what is happening “on the floor.” It sets up the key managerial action that Toyota employs for Continuous Improvement, go and see (p.135). The rule also creates a bounded space in which employees and managers can determine “how to do” something rather than try to define “what to do” (p.51).
Rule #2: Let the target condition, not the desired outcome, define the problem.
This replaces the concept that problems define the improvement. “[The] target condition is a description of a process operating in a way – in a pattern – required to achieve the desired outcome [a target].” (p. 103) The context that this rule creates help managers and employees find and use real obstacles that emerge from the process as a means of achieving the ideal state described by the target condition. (See p. 82-84 for a good example of this.) “It is the striving for target conditions via the routine of the improvement kata that characterizes what we have been calling ‘lean manufacturing’.” (p. 101) This rule focuses behavior without defining it.
Rule #3: Only work on what you need to work on.
This rule is complex and applied to diverse situations because it captures human activities (teamwork) as well as activities of work. For example, if a team cannot move forward in deciding how to design an integrated assembly line, the first target condition may be the team’s ability to think collectively rather than the design of the line (p. 108-111). A second example of using this rule asks: who needs to know? When posting work standards (p. 114) who is actually using this information – the manager or the line. Toyota believes it is the manager, so that they can “see what the true problems are and where improvement is needed.” The final example of this rule is its application to creating the target condition (p. 117-121). Rother emphasizes the need to accept a target condition that is vague when you don’t fully understand the current situation that is producing the obstacles you’re facing. By working on understanding the situation first the details of the target condition become clearer and options remain open even while specificity emerges.
Rule #4: Notice what does not go as planned.
Try as I might, continuous improvement needed four rules! As each step in continuous improvement is taken the “system responds” allowing learning and future steps to emerge. To make the most of this, managers need to see small problems or inconsistencies early and constantly experiment with production. These weak signals are moments of surprise that trigger a go and see inquiry as well as a rapid prototyping experiment. Key to this rule is to attend to the signal immediately while the experience is fresh and a quick experiment can be constructed to test your hypothesis.
Test these four rules of flocking and write your own. See what they teach you about how to lead by instilling new behaviors on your organization.
Rother, Mike. Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results. McGraw Hill, New York, 2010.
Reynolds, Craig. Flocks, Herds, and Schools: A Distributed Behavioral Model. Published in Computer Graphics, 21(4), July 1987, pp. 25-34.
Carse, James. Infinite Games. The Free Press, New York, 1986.