Finding Sustainability on an Auto Assembly Line

One of the keys to attaining sustainability is learning to attack problems at their roots. To continue to address only the symptoms fails to produce the desired results and often leads to serious unintended consequences. In the case of modern cultures, the result is the arrival of unsustainability. In complex systems, the unintended consequences can be very large and threatening.

It is difficult to recognize when fixes that fail have become a problem all of their own, and even more difficult to learn how to get beyond them to the core. As is frequently the case when seeking wisdom about such complexity issues, one should look to the way that Toyota makes cars. Matt May provides a wonderful example in a recent blog post about the current financial crisis..

For roughly three months, I have been watching, reading, and trying to understand the current financial crisis. I have listened and read all the silver bullet solutions by various and assorted far removed from the front line of action, and watched as a "ready, fire, aim"-"shoot from the hip" approach has been taken. I have been doing what Taiichi Ohno would do. If you're not familiar with Taiichi Ohno, he is the famed Toyota manufacturing engineer masterminding the vaunted Toyota Production System.

In the days of Ohno, a new associate in a Toyota plant would be asked to observe a particular operation while standing within a circle drawn on the floor known as an “Ohno circle." Ohno often would draw a circle on the floor in the middle of a bottleneck area, and make a line employee stand in that circle all day to watch the process, directing them to observe and ask Why? over and over. Ohno believed that new thoughts and better ideas do not come out of the blue, they come from a true understanding of the process. Typically what happens during this exercise is that you quickly become familiar with the process, and start to see problems, gaps. Because you can’t move or take action, you start to ask Why is this occurring? Finally, you come to understand the root cause. Then, and only then, can you offer a solution. When the person would report to him what he had observed, the problems he had seen, and the solutions he recommended—as well as the rationale for them—Ohno would just look at him and say, “Is that so?”

By requiring keen observation before action, by demanding that one look beyond the obvious surface symptoms to better see the deeper causes, by never giving answers and only asking questions, Ohno taught people to stop and think. That's what I've been doing. I never met Ohno-san, he was before my time, but I learned from someone who did.

SO, what would Ohno do (WWOD) with regard to the current mess we're in? He'd want us in the Ohno circle for a while, observing and asking questions.

Mai goes on to pose questions he thinks Ohno might have asked, but wonders if they have been posed during the machinations behind the rescue action of recent weeks. Here's the last one:
If these kinds of questions relating to sources and causes of the problems have not and cannot be answered with a modicum of consensus, why have solutions been proffered and executed?
If the answer to this last question is the doctor’s stock reply of: “We don’t really know what’s causing your disease, we can only treat the symptoms,” then we’re in deeeeeep doo-doo. Because treating symptoms ALWAYS has potentially serious side effects and unintended consequences.

Gregory Bateson expressed a similar sentiment in Steps to an Ecology of the Mind, "Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished."