“Disruption” has become another business buzzword that obviates the need for prudent, careful thought and consideration. If something is “disruptive,” then it must by definition be good. But when it comes to internal operations at least, disruption is often both bad for business and for employees, because it causes unevenness in work.

Taiichi Ohno, one of the fathers of the Toyota production system, described three manufacturing evils that companies should avoid: mura (unevenness), muri (overburden), and muda (waste). In fact, unevennness is often a cause of overburden, which leads to the much of the waste that companies are so eager to eliminate. Unevenness in any aspect of a business—customer demand, process time, quality of raw materials, staffing, etc.—results in overburdening some resources at the expense of others, or alternating between overburdening and underutilizing a resource over time. For example, the spike in toy demand at Christmas puts enormous pressure on factories, warehouses, and logistics providers, to say nothing of front-line retail staff. Similarly, unevenness in machine availability will cause workers and machines in downstream processes to be alternately starved and overburdened with work. 

Unfortunately, while pursuing industry disruption for a better share in the market, leaders are often oblivious to the disruptions that their personal actions and business practices create for their organizations. These disruptions generate enormous unevenness for employees and processes, and make it more difficult for the organization to excel.

In this five part series, I’ll describe five types of disruption that can undermine a company’s performance.

Management By Walking Around
in their seminal book In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Bob Waterman popularized the concept of “management by walking around” (MBWA), encouraging leaders to get out of their offices and randomly walk around the company to see firsthand what’s going on. They specifically advise managers to make their walks unpredictable, both in terms of where they go and when they go. Peters and Waterman believe that if frontline workers are expecting management’s visit, they won’t see what’s really happening on a regular basis. They argue that frontline staff will work differently; they’ll clean up their work area; they’ll cover up small problems. Leaders won’t get an accurate picture of how the processes are operating. 

But this kind of unpredictability is a powerful form of disruption for the worker. If a senior leader randomly shows up, the workers will inevitably be anxious and stressed. They’ll work differently under the watchful eye of the boss, possibly creating variability in quality of their work. Or worse—they’ll stop working while they answer questions, affecting the timing of a production line, and creating unevenness for downstream workers. 

In contrast, organizations that have embraced lean thinking, like JD Machine, Stanford Medical Center, Lantech, and others, substitute standardized “gemba walks” for random MBWA. At these places, the leadership team has a regularly scheduled walk through the various departments to see first hand what’s happening. There are no surprises for the staff—they know who’s coming and when, with the result that these visits are smoothly integrated into daily work without disruption. Moreover, it’s both helpful and rewarding for front line staff to know that they’ll get to talk with the CEO or VP of Operations on a regular basis. 

Next week: sales incentives and volume discounts.