Code Breaking and Lean Manufacturing

I’m reading this book, Blackett’s War, about the WWII code breakers in England and their fight against the German U-boats.  It seems that in 1940, before the German Enigma machine was fully “broken into”, Great Britain was making some progress in its code breaking efforts.  German communications to its army offices were intercepted that indicated a possible German invasion of Norway.  When told of this interception, British officials ignored the news saying that the code breakers didn’t know what they were talking about because information about ship movements would certainly be transmitted to navy, not army, offices.  The thing was…the ships were carrying army troops.

This, of course, is a case of nearly criminal lack of curiosity and imagination.  I know that hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to judge leadership’s reluctance to accept and analyze this new information but how difficult would it have been to ask, “What are the possibilities here?  Why might this be happening?  What might this information be telling us?”  Rather the information was filtered out, discarded, because of rigid preconceptions.

So, what does all this have to do with lean manufacturing?  Well, it speaks to how very difficult organizational change is.  Leaders necessarily develop filters for information, which is coming at them in a variety of forms from all directions, all at once.  They can’t respond to everything they hear or see or they’d put their organizations into chaos. The problem is, of course, that some of that information is vital, conveying new opportunities or threats.  When leaders develop filters that are too “strong”, this information gets rebuffed, perhaps with grave consequences, as was the case in the illustration above.

Kodak invented the digital camera.  Xerox pretty much invented the personal computer and the GUI interface.  But new information was filtered out because of rigid preconceptions as to what was good for the company and what wasn’t.  The companies suffered as a result.

Leaders, then, are continually between the proverbial rock and hard place.  If they filter out nothing, they risk creating chaos.  If they filter out too much, they risk failing to respond to important information.

What’s the answer, then?  There’s no easy one but it starts with an activity that, in my experience, managers have a tough time engaging in: philosophical discussion and conversation.  In particular, discussion and conversation about “warm and fuzzy” topics like organizational vision, values, principles, that sort of thing.  Discussions about what matters and what doesn’t.  Discussions about possibilities and options and scenarios.  Conversations that start with “What if…?”  and “How could we…?” and “Might it be possible to….?”

Do these sorts of discussions guarantee that leaders’ filters will be strong enough to prevent chaos but not so rigid that they prevent action when necessary?  Of course not.  But lack of curiosity and introspection pretty much guarantees that leaders will resist change, even when the data indicates that change is needed, until it’s too late.