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Weighing in on Balance

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I’ve received a lot of questions about my recent argument for a balance of people and process. So, many questions that I thought you’d enjoy seeing some of the written ones.

Below are four insightful posts from readers. Following these four posts is a list of questions that came in during the Forward to Fundamentals webinar I did with Jim Womack. All relate to the process-people balance matter.

Thomas said ...


An insightful post that leaves me with a question: If companies "always err to one side to the detriment of the other" -- have you found that companies erring to the social side fare better than those that err to the technical side, or vice versa?

John: That’s a fantastic question. And one that would make a great research question. My guess is that technical/process-focused companies might fare better in the shorter term and socio/people-focused companies would do better longer term. But, that’s just a hunch.

Hmm, to offer a counterpoint to my own hunch, your question prompted me to recall a heavily “socio/people focused” company that I happen to know well and which struggled mightily with its early lean efforts, about ten years ago. The company couldn’t do anything on the plant floor without the total consensus of the workforce, which had developed an incredible sense of entitlement, from decades of having been consulted with on every move by management. It was a non-union shop with a stronger workforce voice than any union company I’ve ever seen.

Well, the lean initiative lagged and lagged until finally the company began losing and losing market share to its competitors (which were having good success with their lean initiatives). Only well after the financial numbers worsened to the extent that layoffs finally occurred (tremendously traumatic to such a people-oriented company) did the company manage to start making headway in process (manufacturing, distribution, sales, design) improvements. I think the company now has a pretty good balance between its socio/people systems and its technical/process side. But, it had to almost go out of business for that balance to emerge – just in the nick of time.

T. Karn said ...

I would like to see a scoring system that can be used to determine how my company is balanced.

John: An interesting, probably useful, idea. I don’t exactly disagree, but see Greg’s comment below…

Mark said ...

I agree with your post (about Purpose, Process and People) but am still stymied by the “how to” in the need for balance. If nature abhors a vacuum and always re-balances itself, how do we get people to lean where it counts; “lean between the ears?” As an expat in China, I feel up against it maybe even more so than at home in the States. What can we learn from GM's NUMMI people failure?

John: Yes, the lessons there are huge. Therein lies the deepest lessons of NUMMI, lessons which are usually missed even by insightful observers. At NUMMI, we took what was arguably GM’s very worst workforce and turned it into GM’s (well, it wasn’t exactly “GM” anymore, it was NUMMI, but it was still UAW) best in less than a year. The number one key to that key piece of NUMMI’s overall success was the people-process balance. Hmm, I really should write that up more completely one day…

Greg Thompson said ...

I agree with T. Karn but in the interim, much like the Supreme Court said -- you'll know you have balance "when you see it." Your honest evaluation will tell you most of what the science will show, even if you don't have a "98% in balance" score to back it up.

John: Yes, I know this answer fails to satisfy many, but I agree with your view. Certainly a “balanced scorecard to measure balance” might help, but I think we can learn to see and smell this balance very easily and more deeply than a score would demonstrate. When we see people struggling with jobs, with machines, with software, with computer tools, with company regulations that just don’t make common sense -- we know things are out of balance. Steve Spear states it well, “there is no substitute for direct observation.” I’d rather put the effort and time into developing observation skills than scorecards. But, when we’re working at the broader enterprise levels, the scorecard could play a useful role.

Not only Steve Spear…

Yogi Berra, “You can observe a lot by watching…”


And now, the webinar questions. At least half of the total number of questions related to this topic of people and process balance. I will respond directly to two. The first one below is an information point. The second captures succinctly the point everyone else was getting at, I think.

“I’ve been out of touch for awhile so this is the first reference I have seen to STS. When did you first draw this link with the lean approach?”

John: I drew the link a very long time ago. I think anyone with direct Toyota experience would feel the connection, where or not they ever heard of STS theory. It’s obvious once you think of it that way. Basically, “socio-technical” refers to the interrelatedness of social and technical aspects of an organization. For those of you who would like to explore socio-technical system theory further, just Google it and you can easily “waste another perfectly good evening” (to paraphrase the great sensei from the “Car Talk” radio program). But, for a succinct introduction to the concept within a lean organization context, please read Chapter Two of the excellent book of my good friends Jim Morgan and Jeff Liker, Toyota’s Product Development System” (Productivity Press, 2007). Jeff’s initial academic background involved STST and Jim’s deep research on lean PD makes the linkages clear, even if you have no background with it.

“I like the answer to the Social and Technical aspects on how they are joined, good answer that I understand now. I never looked at the social side when doing the technical side.”

“Can you provide an example of a place where you have seen an imbalance between Technical and Social dimensions?”

“What are the signs that a company is too focused on either the social or technical aspect of lean?”

“How is it possible to recognize the imbalance between the social and technical aspects?”

“Can you provide a couple of suggestions to achieve the balance between social and technical?”

“Tips for aligning the right people to process?”

“The "People" issue is basically an internal communication issue, isn't it?”

“In regards to gaining social and technical balance, how do you decide what to work on first? Will one gain you more than another?”

“Arguably social step required before technical step. What is the first social step? Is it a commitment from top manager at facility saying we, as a group, have to do something different?”

“What is the relationship between balancing the social and technical systems in the company with the current crisis?”

“You speak of management balancing process and people - on what basis should management do this?”

“If management needs to balance the socio and technical side what is the socio training put on first line supervisor?”

“Is mentoring part of technical or social part of balance?”

“How do metrics promote social engagement for continuous improvement?”

“I like the Kanban example. What about electronic Kanban? There is no social part there, isn't it?”

“Is your technical host a technical or social problem?”

John: They are all insightful but I love that last question: “Is your technical host a technical or social problem?”

What do you think?


John Shook
Senior Advisor
Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.


Here again are the socio-technical balance scales recast into the LEI language of People and Process.


Social and Technical Scale




Management Scales and Purpose

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