April 25, 2016 JV

The Rise (and Fall) of the Machines

For about a decade (1996 to 2007), I had the privilege of travelling the world to assess the maturity and performance of various steel, mining and mineral processing businesses.  I met many interesting people along the way and experienced a variety of fascinating cultures and flavours.  However, being away from home so much was difficult.  Upon reflection, one of the most perplexing, common threads that I found was that despite being in business for many years, all of them suffered from a low level of maturity in some very important aspect of how they worked (e.g. planning, doing, analysing, improving etc.).  Since then, I’ve learnt that it’s not just a BHP B thing.

Recently, I was set the challenge of designing and implementing ways of doing work for a green-field project.  I was excited by the prospect of seeing and even helping to design how “it all comes together” (equipment, processes, work methods, values etc.)  I surmised that all of the businesses that I’d previously investigated suffered from a poor beginning; an operational “un-readiness”.  Some critical element must have been overlooked.  The integration of the equipment, work methods and social / individual considerations must have been lacking.  This was my chance to put things right!  In a very, very, very small way, I felt a little like Stephen Hawking attempting to discover the theory of everything (well, at least for a new business).  It didn’t happen.

Rise of the Machines imageWhen I said that “it didn’t happen,” I don’t mean that the project was unsuccessful.  The equipment was commissioned, product was transported from input to output and sold to the customer.  Members of the business teams were left with systems, processes, documentation etc., etc. that were used to a degree.  What was missing for me, was that it didn’t seem to “all come together” like I’d imagined.  That is, there were still many ways of doing work that needed to mature.  There seemed to be little evidence of a “unifying theory” that explained everything adequately and made it come together elegantly.

I’ve been studying the development of Operational Readiness since my BHP days.  We did everything pretty much to the book, so what went wrong?

On the surface, it seemed obvious.  Construction was late, commissioning was rushed, product was arriving and so the people who were meant to be integrating business practice, considering people and making the equipment work, focussed on the latter.  But was there something lurking beneath the waters?

In the Arie de Geus book, “The Living Company,” Peter Senge describes (in the Foreword), two diametrically opposed ways of seeing a business; two “worlds” so to speak:

  1. Seeing the business as a machine; and
  2. Seeing it as a living being.

He goes on to describe the entailments of the competing worlds:

“Seeing a company as a machine implies that it is fixed, static. It can only change if somebody changes it. Seeing a company as a living being means that it evolves naturally.

Seeing a company as a machine implies that its only sense of identity is that given to it by its builders.  Seeing a company as a living being means that it has its own sense of identity, its own personhood.

Seeing a company as a machine implies that its members are employees or worse, “human resources;” humans standing in reserve, waiting to be used.  Seeing a company as a living being leads to seeing its members as human work communities…”

In a similar way to Hawking’s exclusion of anything that cannot be expressed in a mathematical formula, most of us tend to avoid the messy intangibles and focus on the bricks and mortar, steel and wires.  Most people naturally gravitate to that which can be seen and touched and leave the things that require a semi-transcendence of the material world e.g. leadership, understanding and cooperation, to someone else.  Obviously, the equipment needs to work, but the intangibles (which despite having no mass) are the weightier of the two.

Most blindly see business as a machine and I believe that is what impacted most on my most recent endeavour; nay, every business I’ve assessed.  Despite various appeals to the importance of the intangibles, the machine-centric view prevails.

Borrowing from the “Terminator” film franchise, we are at war with the machines.  Those who believe in the “living being” model of business must continue to defend their views and fight for what is best.  I am convinced that there will always be a remnant of believers.  There are signs of life at my most recent project.  We must seek John Connor (JC).  While he is alive, there is always hope.

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