Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations – Part 5

Continuing the set of six tiny essays inviting reflection about the construction of the conditions and situations in which wisdom can be cultivated and exercised in organizational settings.

“Inventing” Waste

Historic inventions are often built from historic difficulties, and they always involve the invention of new distinctions. We have posted about the “Five Great Wastes” before, here.

Let us give two examples in which critical new distinctions of historic inventions have to do with what people at the time thought of as “wastes.”

Henry Ford, Mass Production, and the Model T

At the turn of the 20th century automobiles were expensive toys available only to the very rich. Henry Ford invented practices that we summarize as “mass production” and the “Model T.” He succeeded thereby in making automobiles less expensive and more accessible to the average American worker. At the same time, he produced a way of doubling the income of American Workers, thereby giving them the income to purchase the Model T. Ford’s new system produced cars quickly and so efficiently that it considerably lowered the cost of assembling the cars. He decided to pass this savings along to his customers, and in 1915 dropped the price of the Model T from $850 to $290. That year, he sold 1 million cars. (Parts of the story from

Taiichi Ohno and the Toyota Production System

At the end of the Second World War, the people of Japan were in terrible trouble, their morale, productive capacity, and international relations demolished. An engineer named Taiichi Ohno, in the enterprise today known as Toyota, began the task of building a new capacity for Japanese production on top of Henry Ford’s designs, with some important additions. For example, Ford incorporated everything into one plant; Ohno designed for operation in a network. The operational heart of Ford’s designs was the way the engineers designed the coordination of the work on the assembly line (the employees found the repetition boring and only stayed because of what Ford called the ‘wage motive.’) Ohno centered his design in processes that built the capacity of each person on the production floor to take responsibility for the quality and coordination of their work. His invention became the foundation of the quality movement that swept the world starting in the 1970s and 80s.

To keep workers thinking, Ohno invented a collection of new “wastes” for them to observe and eliminate. Waste, like wisdom, is an assessment, an interpretation. For example, inventories, he said, were waste, as was time that workers spent waiting – for parts, others to complete work, and so forth. By inventing these new interpretations, Ohno was able to trigger important revisions in the way the people of Toyota thought and acted. What we in the West now call “just-in-time logistics,” and many other innovations of the last 50 years were born in these inventions.

The biggest barrier to reducing waste is people’s common sense about how they interpret waste. If something is not identified as waste, no action will be taken to eliminate it. Waste is an assessment that has power in organizing action in enterprises. Our interpretations of what is wasteful are founded in the concerns of the observer, and what the observer thinks will contribute to supporting those concerns (value) or impeding or damaging those concerns (waste). One person’s meat is another’s poison. One person’s flat tire is another’s business bread and butter. We declare the wastes that we want to put our attention on. The ‘right’ wastes for years ago are likely not the right wastes for next year. Management as well as those who work in institutions has the opportunity to affect the reduction of waste, but first, it must be brought to the forefront with the proper attention.

The wastes with which most enterprises have orchestrated their employees’ interpretations of work for the last 50 years – wasted movement, wasted time, wasted resources, and so forth – were invented in the traditions of the industrial revolution. I am convinced that they will not be the most important organizational wastes of the next 50 years. Here is my own list of what will be the five most important wastes for the time that is coming:

Not Listening:

  • We tolerate working in conditions in which people cannot effectively listen to each other, in the midst of moods of mistrust, resignation, and resentment.
  • We allow ourselves to be satisfied with shallow conversations in which we don’t involve ourselves with the concerns of our colleagues, customers, investors, and others important stakeholders.
  • In our everyday work, we have no appetite for developing our capacity and practices for listening to each other.

Bureaucratic Styles:

  • We interact with each other as if we were machines doing tasks—sequences of movements, activities, and things to do. (See earlier postings on the “compumorphic interpretation.”)
  • When something goes wrong, we add steps, rules, signoffs, supervisors, systems, auditors, and we assign blame and punish those we have elected “offenders.” We don’t realize that our results come from our design of our interactions, and we don’t ask how we have designed our interactions to produce the effects we got.
  • Rather than doing the hard work of discovering the competences and skills we are missing and developing those, we take the “easy” path of convening meetings and taking votes. We don’t recognize that the apparently easier path is formidably expensive and terribly ineffective.

Worship of Information:

  • We live in the illusion that the essential matters of our work can be invented, managed and sustained through the creation, storage, retrieval, display and publication of information.
  • Rather than developing and celebrating the capacity of human beings to learn to exercise judgment and take care of important concerns (and working with discipline to ground our assessments with assertions), we join in the nonsense that we cannot (and need not) manage anything that we cannot measure.
  • We use statistics to discount the interpretations of our most gifted and innovative colleagues, and to pretend to ourselves that we can predict the future. We pretend that “information” is always more important than the judgments and assessments of competent and involved actors.

Suppressing Innovation:

  • We fear, reject or avoid what is different, unusual, or new so that it becomes all but impossible to develop flexibility and evolve practices for dealing with a changing world.
  • We take action out of habit and as a result, we become tranquilized to what those habits produce in our work and in our lives. When we fail to purposefully question our habitual ways of doing things to see if they still serve us, we can easily produce waste.
  • Human beings have a tendency to fear failure so they often do not stretch themselves. Before even trying, they take themselves out of the game because they don’t want to embarrass themselves if they don’t win. As a result, many organizations make experimentation high risk, limiting those who will have the courage to do so.
  • We lack practices for purposeful speculation; instead we tell ourselves we don’t have time to be so impractical, seeing such conversation as “pie in the sky.”
  • We too easily accept our own excuses for not committing to change our practices. We tell ourselves we are too old and can’t easily learn. We convince ourselves that it would take too much effort.
  • We teach our young people not to make offers by scolding them for their

    naïveté when they offer to do things that we have failed to do in the past. We secretly don’t want them to show us we were wrong!

Work as Toil:

  • The familiar phrase “Thank God it’s Friday” echoes a prevalent or dominant background for most workers in Western organizations: the interpretation that people are trapped into largely meaningless and unsatisfying occupations by their need to make a living, prepare for retirement, support families, and so forth.
  • We ignore, diminish, or distort the ways in which work can bring meaning to people’s lives and take care of things that matter to us.
  • We don’t take the time to reflect on and design ways of being at work that are consistent with meaningful relationships with our work. (Are you grateful for the opportunity of your work? Do you consider your work a privilege and a blessing?)

This list of wastes consists of more than simple wastes. They are “Super-Wastes,” each acting to generate collections of practices that are themselves wasteful. Each of the five names a fundamental social force that generates huge quantities of derivative wastes in all modern organizations. None of our “modern” accounting systems yet help us watch these wastes. Until we modify our accounting systems to begin to track these wastes, we have no hope of leaving the era in which we manage systems that observe obsolete wastes.

Stay tuned. More to come.

© Copyright Chauncey Bell, 2003-4. All rights reserved worldwide.
Copyright © 2005, Idea Group Inc. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of Idea Group Inc. is prohibited.

With the permission of the publishers of the book, Idea Group, Inc., I’m sharing this chapter in a series of postings, to see what kind of conversation it generates. Idea Group’s copyright prohibits copying the text in any written or electronic form. Please help me protect this copyright by referring people to the blog, but don’t copy the text that is here.

2 thoughts on “Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations – Part 5

  1. Bob Wilson

    I too look forward to more on the design of conditions that eliminate the above wastes and how to convey the existence of the wastes to people.

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