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Purpose, Process, People

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Dr. Womack’s simple construct to analyze companies – Purpose, Process, People – is familiar to you by now. I’ve toyed with it more and more since he first brought it up during informal discussions of the “LEI point of view” and his subsequent introduction of it in his e-letter of June 2006.

I used it in my column to explore the question I often get of “Why didn’t GM learn from NUMMI?” My answer to that question remains that GM actually learned far, far more than most people realize about Process but didn’t get very far with the people part. Regarding purpose, I suggested that perhaps Toyota and GM have all along had different purposes and further that perhaps purpose simply isn’t something you just learn.

So, at last month’s Lean Transformation Summit in Atlanta, I decided it would be interesting to introduce a simple model. Everyone knows the TPS house. Well, here is the LEI 3P “balance scale.” Maybe it’s not perfect. The idea I was trying to get across was that the lean enterprise is a socio-technical system. STS theory has been around for a long time and I like to refer to the Toyota Way as a socio-technical system on steroids. You have to work BOTH the social side and the Process side to be successful with it. It has to be an integrated, balanced, total system. The thing I like about the idea of depicting the model as a scale is that it emphasizes the fact that the two – Process and people – must be in balance. And I must say that I find that companies never get this right. They may err in either direction, on the social side or on the technical side, but they always err to one side to the detriment of the other.

As you can see in the model, I’ve substituted “People” for “social” and “Process” for “technical”. Seems to work.

And it’s the role of management to balance the two. Of course, “management” are people, too, so you could say the model is a little funky in that regard. But, it seems to work for me.

3 P's

So, how does your company look on this scale? In which direction is it tilted?

I ask “which direction is it tilted?” because I’m betting it’s tilted one way or the other.

In my view, when “continuous improvement” started, the initial emphasis was heavy on the social side. Teams, teamwork, empowerment, and all that. Sounded and felt good. But a lot of those companies never DID anything. And companies wondered why they didn’t get results.

Then we had the imbalance in the opposite direction. Companies slammed the tools and processes in place, worker involvement and employee understanding be damned. So, we had andon boards (very expensive andon boards) in place but turned off and kanban posts posted but collecting cobwebs (literally – I’ve seen it, you’ve seen it, too). And companies wondered why they didn’t get the sustained results.

We can identify those trends over time – over the past 20-30 years. But what’s more interesting and disturbing – but a useful insightful – is that even today companies are divided into these two camps: social companies and technical companies.

It’s the balance that makes the difference. The integrated balance. Toyota – when it’s operating like the high-performing Toyota we know so well – gets it right. They manage to do BOTH.

To circle back, it’s management’s role to balance those. But, management – managers – can only accomplish that with success depending on how well they can align them with the company’s basic purpose.

Suppose a company is really only in it for the short haul. Make as much money as we can as quickly as we can. How will the balance look?

So, how does your company look? How’s the balance? Is management working on it? Does the purpose allow it? Does the purpose even encourage it? Does that make a difference? I’m betting it does.


John Shook
Senior Advisor
lean enterprise Institute, Inc.

5 Comments | Post a Comment
Thomas March 30, 2009

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?

T. Karn April 1, 2009
I would like to see a scoring system that can be used to determine how my company is balanced.
Mark April 6, 2009
I agree with your post 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 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?
Greg Thompson April 6, 2009
I agree with T.Karn but in the interim, much like the Supreme Court said about pornography - 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.
sid joynson November 6, 2015

 Purpose needs two other companions to create the energy to make it a sustainable reality. They are Passion and Persistence. These are the 3P’s that should guide your personal activities and performance; Purpose, Passion and persistence. Organisational performance requires two additional P’s; Practised by all your People --- Purpose, Passion, Persistence – Practised by all your People. Job done! The leader’s job is to define the Purpose, create the Passion, support the Persistence and ensure all their People are engaged in the Practise


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