Monday's Wall Street Journal had a fascinating article on how companies are using "social-network analysis" to understand communication patterns within the firm. A software program shows the informal ties among employees by creating a map of their interactions.

As global organizations struggle to improve cooperation between geographically disparate teams and also among the functional silos that often don't communicate well, this kind of tool might be valuable. The engineering firm MWH, for example found that communication flowed well within offices, but not between them. To break open those bottlenecks, one of the company's executives

sent U.S. workers to fill vacation openings in the U.K., because the analysis showed those groups didn't talk much. He hired executive coaches for his top managers to help them become less authoritarian and more collaborative. When the director of the Pasadena group resisted, he re-assigned her engineers to others.

The maps help individuals adjust and improve their own performance as well:

Ken Loughridge, the director of technology-support services, checks the maps to make sure he's not a bottleneck. Mr. Loughridge says he wants his employees to talk directly to colleagues in other groups, without routing every communication through him.

The image below shows the growth in interactions among individuals from the various overseas offices of MWH.

The benfits of this analysis look very much like a value stream improvement project. Just as a VSI project might eliminate handoffs between staff and functional silos, at MWH, it now takes technology workers on average 2.4 steps to get needed information, down from 3.2 in 2003.

I'd hesitate to call this is a "lean" tool. But it certainly has the potential to reduce muda. By helping to break down barriers between groups, it might facilitate the work of a "chief engineer" in coordinating a company's energies. It should also help employees figure out the best/fastest way to get information. Finally, it can help guide the company in disseminating needed skills and knowledge throughout the organization.