A Tale of Two Projects and Other Stories

Just-in-time, it could as easily have been called “just enough,” but its name was inspired; a fine tuned clock with all parts moving in order, with no waste or useless motion.  As the production manager surveyed his facility, he was delighted with the benefits this Japanese system had brought him.  There were no pallets full of raw materials and the big tables to fix faulty parts had been dragged out and thrown away.  Their first experiments with JIT had been painful but, as they learned, it got better and better, like rolling a snowball down a hill.  It was a satisfying state of affairs.  The employees were happy, he could make product changes in much less time and, best of all, it was cheaper.

This morning, he had had a meeting with the buyers.  He had been trying for months to get their biggest suppliers involved too.  If they could ship more often, in smaller deliveries, and invest in better communication with his factory, then he would really be rocking and rolling.

Then it happened.  The leading buyer said their biggest suppliers could only join in if they got some better guarantees.  Most of all, they wanted to be the only ones.  They wouldn’t play ball if the production manager’s company could change partners at the drop of every hat.  In short, they wanted monogamy.

Senge Limits to GrowthThat was the moment, the production manager understood his JIT project would never be fully realised.  He could viscerally feel the levers within the company pulling it to a halt.  His boss used to be the chief buyer and had decided years ago that they must have more than one supplier for everything.  Competition gave them the best prices and kept suppliers on their toes.  JIT would remain a project that stayed in the production manager’s own department and would go no further.  His bosses project of multi-sourcing over-ruled him.

Projects have their own momentum, which the systems expert Peter Senge described as involving three component relationships; acceleration, braking and a time lag.  Searching for a job is a good example of that.  There is a fair measure of acceleration as enthusiasm and interest builds during the application and interview process, time lags while waiting for news, and braking as reorganisations and competing candidates cut our prospects back down to earth.  Building up from these elements, Senge observed a number of common “archetypes.”   They are easy to recognise from our personal projects and their more public cousins, business projects.  The one I’ve described above is called Limits to Growth and is the first project archetype from his wonderful book, “The Fifth Discipline.”

Two other archtypes he described are Shifting the Burden and Tragedy of the Commons.  Like the archetype above, they reappear in projects again and again.

Senge Shifting the BurdenIn another company, a young manager has recently been promoted.  He’s struggling though, because it is expected that he continue to help out with his old work and take on the responsibilities of his new role.

An early area of difficulty is dealing with personnel problems.  There are long-standing disagreements between some employees that have started to affect performance among the other employees.  The manager looks for help from the Human Resources manager.  The HR manager is confronted with two choices.  If he solves the problem promptly, the new manager will lean on him too quickly in future to manage his team.  He’ll be prevented from developing the skills himself to solve problems.  On the other hand, returning the problem unsolved will cause delays and other problems in the short term.

The question becomes who will solve these problems in future.  Both the HR expert and manager are confronted by conflicting personal projects.  How they come to see themselves both personally and organisationally is laying a blueprint for future orientations of their personal projects towards either coaching or fixing.  One of them will “shift the burden.”

Senge Tragedy of the CommonsThe problems with lack of trust and taking opposing positions can be seen in Tragedy of the Commons.  The original version of this story goes way back to “commons,” an open area shared by people living in medieval villages to feed their animals.  This approach gradually collapsed as some villagers over farmed the fields, marginalising resources for their neighbours and limiting the time available for grass to grow back.

The same problem can be seen in a Shared Service Centre (SSC) whose resource planning is being increasingly driven by management escalations from customers and their internal representatives.  Eventually additional resources are hired in the SSC to deal with the higher demands and costs spiral upwards.  The confluence of each customer’s personal projects eventually makes the SSC too expensive and the work is transferred to a low wage country.

This eventual outcome from tragedy of the commons is explored by the behavioural economist Dan Ariely in his book “Predictably Irrational.”  He describes how participants were no longer certain the sun was yellow or a camel was bigger than a dog when these statements were associated with politicians (p263).  Breaches of trust lead people to doubt even basic statements.  It can also lead them to act in ways that are detrimental to everyone, including themselves.

Projects in conflict is a rich vein of research.  These same issues can occur in our own lives, for example between domains like health and work, or between people like in the examples described.  The way Senge, and most other organisational experts, suggest to solve this is to restore trust by helping an organisation to visualise each party’s objectives and projects, test the assumptions used to underpin their personal projects, and finally look for a “third way” of mutually beneficial compromise (“win-win” in the language of Stephan Covey).  This has a number of challenges, not least of which is getting people to understand and be honest about their own projects.  In the pursuit of projects, people often act first and rationalise later the most favourable reasons for their actions.  Senge’s system of diagrams can be particularly helpful to capture the interplay of each project’s orientations, constraints and dominance and the three basic relationships with them.

By understanding the project relationships of acceleration, braking and delay we can bring clarity and help restore trust in serious conflict situations

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