Tweaking Corporations

I tweak companies for a living.

When I was a child (about 7) I was constantly taking things apart. Telephones, televisions, light switches (to my parent's horror), and putting them together again. I wanted to know how they worked. Then I would try putting them back together with fewer parts, and see if they would still work. Then I'd try fine-tuning them. It appealed to me.

I am a born optimizer. Constantly fascinated by systems and how to make them better - always have been.

Not surprisingly, I now optimize organizations for a living - for ThoughtWorks. It's a strange and interesting job. But simpler than you might think.

Most medium-to-large organizations today are over-complicated. They are siloed, segmented, and specialized, and there's so much cruft and waste and hand-off and arbitrariness that it obscures the big picture: how work progresses all the way from start to finish.

Thus, one of my primary tasks when I first arrive on site is to draw a map of the progress of work - the organization's throughput - and show it to the client. They are always surprised. Things are never what they believed them to be. This is a very important and powerful step in creating change - and I do it all the time, but I never thought to communicate succinctly why it's so powerful and important.

Yesterday I saw a presentation from Matthew May, a talented speaker, and he summarized it beautifully:

“A bad system is one that you can't learn from. You can't see cause and effect.”

That's it. The structures and processes are so large and complicated that no-one can track effect back to cause. That's why drawing the map is so important.

What a wonderfully elegant explanation of one of the primary bows in my quiver. Thank you, Matthew.

I highly recommend his presentation, “The Elegant Solution: Toyota's Engine of Innovation” (free online version, opens in a new window).

PS. If you need a tool for visualizing that big picture I was talking about, take a look at Value Stream Mapping [wikipedia] - it simply plots the course of the product (or design, or service) all the way from start to finish, distinguishing between work and waiting.