OpEx Harmony

From around the age of 8 to around the age of 15 I tried to master 1st position on the Violin. Apart from pulling off a few Irish jigs and simple classics I had to admit I wasn't very good at it. It was a frustration as I had such a passion for music and anything artistic ... painting, drawing, acting ... but I was always a semitone off when trying to get my fingers onto the string in the right place. (Damn it!).

The youngest of a large working class family, it was obvious (in retrospect) that music and art wasn't anything I was ever going to make a career out of.

As was normal in 1980's England, any passion or interest was systematically ignored and 76 '2B' pencil marks on an orangy-pink multi-choice questionnaire later [A] [B] [C] [D], (Do you remember those?) I was on a technical road which led to an indentured apprenticeship and the build of some pretty impressive medical mould tools.

Today I have a Mandolin (With frets to ensure I can land the note in the right places when playing an Irish jig or two) and 29 years experience in industrial change environments across Europe.

Recent years have seen me working with people on the Top-floor as much as I used to work with those on the Shop-floor. So now, in place of Jigs, Fixtures, Tools, production engineering initiatives, R&D and Design, I now deal with strategy and deployment, leadership, change programmes and initiatives, conflict resolution, L&D and culture change, in pursuit of performance improvement for our clients.

This mixed bag of experience got me thinking ... if having frets on an instrument is like Poke Yoke, (designing the 'jig' so the mating parts [fingers] can't go in the wrong place) and the width of each fret is like SPC (top and bottom tolerance, with your finger landing 'mid-fret' on most occasions), and sheet music acts like an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), allowing more than one 'player' to perform the task and get the same result, then perhaps Tuning and cleaning the instrument is like TPM (Total Productive Maintenance = taking responsibility for the maintenance of the equipment you operate, so you maximise up-time during the performance ... replacing a worn string, bridge or peg before they break, is no different to replacing worn bearings before they break) ... If that analogy stands up to scrutiny, which it seems to me it does, perhaps the analogy could be extended to the bigger issues we face in business.

How does an entire Orchestra produce such a harmonious performance? Isn't that what we're aiming to achieve in our organisations?

Workflow. The layout of an orchestra is representative of departments and functions within an organisation. Each with a specialist skill, but having to work in concert (with a concerted effort), if they are to create 'beautiful music' together. The timing of action in a musical sense, is no different to the timing of actions required throughout any other organisation of parts. 


Get the timing wrong and the harmonies go out the window - easy to spot when everyone can see and hear what everyone else is doing in the pit... but not so easy to detect when different departments work remotely from each other, often behind closed doors with different measures used to judge their performance. Line of sight communication is crucial if we're to provide immediate feedback to allow specialists to react in context of the big picture.

In an orchestra, the judgement over performance see's everyone measured by the same standards. Accuracy of the notes selected by each individual musician (Quality), accuracy of the timing of those notes (Delivery) and the time it takes to maintain the instrument & practice, practice, practice (Cost).

A major difference between an orchestra and an organisation may be this 'Line of Sight' issue. In an orchestra, all the experts have line of sight (and sound) to each other, to the conductor and to the purpose / outcome requirements of the whole operation.

How many departments in an industrial organisation have the clarity of vision an orchestra has when performing? How many departments have total clarity, direction and support in the form of cue's from the conductor (Master production scheduling perhaps?) and who, in an organisation really understands what all the various pieces must sound like / look like when brought together to meet customer expectations?

How many functions in a business can tell immediately how other functions are performing, i.e. if they've delivered on time? If the quality is good enough?

Can this be analogous to the principles of Kanban and Value Streams? In the orchestra, all piece parts (notes) are presented when required, in the quantity required, not too many parts (notes) not too few and at just the right time (Sound familiar?) ... in a Value Stream, all functions work in sequence, with greater visibility of each other than in any departmental structure, but departments often still exist, so those of common function can practice together and maximise performance in their own area of expertise (Just like Wood wind, brass, strings and percussion may practice together).

Isn't this what we often call Matrix management, seeing strategic purchasing operate across value streams, just as the sound of the tuba or the Timpani drums carries across all the higher notes (smaller elements of operation) to help blend them all together, to help the pitch and tone have rhythm and pace.

Then there's the issue of harmony. Harmonics occur when frequencies blend to compliment each other. The speed of some parts of a production process have to move faster than other parts to ensure mixed quantities and sizes move forward together at a common pace, this is no different to the top E on a violin complimenting a low E'Chord on a piano - the vibrations of the violin string are faster than those coming from the keyboard, but they work together, they form a harmonic relationship of sound.

And what about what we don't do when playing music? There are many 'rest's' (Silent times) when some instruments don't play .. to get a melody and a harmony, we have to be aware of what we don't do and when we don't do it! It's just as important as understanding what we must do and when. Sometimes we don't take action to produce the end result. Do we recognise this need in our businesses - what do we choose not to do to make sure everything is operating in harmony?

And what of the people. Do people turn up to practice and perform in an orchestra because they are paid? I guess to some extent they do, but I wonder if the pay comes before the passion or if it's the other way around? Do they get paid for all the hours they practice, at home, in their heads, going over the music time and again to perfect it? How do we inspire passion for the end result in our companies such that our experts aim for perfection during paid hours and beyond ... what is it we're producing together, to world class standards that would make our audience give us a standing ovation at the end of each delivery? That we feel part of, proud of?

I could go on and on with this analogy, but I think i've made the point that has been congealing in my mind these last few days. 

If i've managed to put my thoughts on paper clearly, maybe you can be see how and why those 'best-practice' methods which have variously been named QC, TQM, WCM, Lean, OpEx, etc. including tools like Hoshin, Value Streams, Kanban, APQP etc. etc., work so well ... especially when applied in context and those introducing them remain conscious of the What, the How and the Why involved i.e. the philosophy behind the principles behind the tools ...

To obtain 'Orchestration' throughout a complex system of people and mechanical parts, we have to have many of the same things in industry as we have in our theaters - A common and clear vision of the end result, a clear understanding of the part we play in obtaining the ultimate outcome, clear direction, common measures and judgments of 'Good', enough time to practice, sufficient support, direction and guidance, a clear vision of what everyone else is doing and what standards are expected etc etc.

Ultimately, no matter how we perceive the principles, we have to come back to the crux of the matter. The over-arching design of the system must be in favour of the way people can work at their best ... i.e. the way the human brain responds to it's prevailing Physical, Risk, Emotional, Social and Systemic (PRESS©) conditions ... to maximise performance, we must design for motivation (aware of the neuro-psychological issues involved with that) if we're to obtain harmony and world class organisational performance.

It turns out focusing on the top and bottom lines and the tools and techniques often provokes actions which detract from that performance. How poorly our orchestras would perform if they focused on reducing the cost of the instruments, driving to get bums on seats and forgot to develop the musicians or write the music. - behind every number, there are people.


PeopleManufacturingProcess and Technology Change ManagementLeadership and GrowthStrategic Managementchange managementLean Six SigmaDavid Bovis