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Recapture Human Control Over IT Systems

Contributor post by Michael Ballé,  co-author of The Lean Strategy.

What do a hospital, an airport and a train station have in common? I’ve recently had the opportunity to make “on the ground” visits with the management teams of each of these types of large organizations and what struck me is that the management in place no longer has a clear understanding of how things work.

At that level of responsibility, managers are both highly skilled and highly committed. Against expectations, the personnel I met were not bureaucrats. They understood the requirements of leading so many ground staff in so many different professions (and with so many contractors). They really meant well, exploring and discussing leadership issues as well as management of the day to day operations of the organization.

Surviving Is Not Enough

And yet, when I walked in their customers’ shoes, all I could see is one thing going wrong after another. The places operate, but survive rather than live. Every day, new incidents crop up, making life hard for customers and staff alike —ruining the reputation of the institution—even though, in the end, patients are treated, trains run and planes lift off. The deeper question is “how can patients be treated well, trains and plains run on time, and customers helped when there are so many problems?”

In all three cases, the management teams expressed that they were so busy fighting fires and just keeping things from collapsing into chaos that they had no time to think ahead or work together.

Replacing Human Management with IT Systems

Another common element of the three organizations is that over the past generation, they had progressively replaced human management with IT systems – to the point that the systems themselves manage operations with a degree of opaqueness and complexity no one really masters or fully comprehends.

Talking to these teams, I realized that indeed, the people in the room spent their days responding to the demands of the systems and handling on the ground crises. When it came to leading, their actions focused on projects to replace, upgrade or patch these systems—all with the desperate hope that fixing the systems would cure the problems.

As the boomer generations retires for good, organizations are losing the memory of the people who set up the systems in the first place. We’re now left with complex, highly coupled, high volume operational systems with only a vague memory of why they were created in the first place. What’s more, the current business leaders lack the strategic vision of what of where to take them, other than to replace one technology with another through piecemeal projects.

Creating the Space to Think Together

The antidote is remarkably simple: create a special room with whiteboards, pen and paper dedicated to creating a shared vision of how the place should work. One of the airport leadership team managers took on this project and she set up a room that clarifies the intent of the airport (planes take off exactly on time), lists customer complaints of daily incidents, and visualizes other key challenges—all expressed by quantified objectives. She also made a list of thinking projects for the management team to tackle in sub-teams of two or three to rekindle teamwork.

The real challenge we face is not one of more action plans or more disciplined execution, but one of creating the space to think together to recapture an understanding of how things work, should work, and where we want to move them in the next ten years.

Michael Ballé, PH.D. is a best-selling author, speaker and co-founder of the Institut Lean France. He holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. He is also a renowned lean executive coach. His latest book is The Lean Strategy (with Dan Jones, Jacques Chaize and Orry Fiume).

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