April 17, 2014

The connection: Mura, Muri and Muda

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Typically, work is about about rising to meet a challenge.  The normal way of doing things involves high-pressure cycles where work goes along slowly, only to be snowplowed into month-end, quarter-end and year-end pandemonium as we try to complete a sackful of activities in order to meet management targets and fiscal reporting requirements.  Those who continually rise to the challenge and display great mental and emotional toughness are considered high performers, while those who try to work at a steady pace and understand the nature of their work are cast aside.  Of course, those who display toughness are either opportunists, or desperate, or both.  Although they may gain the attention of senior managers, they often are the source of derision and resentment from peers and subordinates.

Hurry up! Do something! Move on to the next crisis!

Since we depend upon these high-pressure cycles to get things done, even those people who are just trying to get by inevitably grow anxious, frustrated, bored and burned out.  The last week of the month, no one can communicate with production because they’re pulling out all stops trying to get those last precious sales in the bag and shipments out the door.  The next week, no one is even allowed to talk to accounting as they try to close the books for the previous months.  In between the first and last weeks of the month, these departments relax slightly while buyers, planners, financial administrators, market analysts, and mid-level managers burn extra calories trying to deal with vendors, customers, auditors and senior executives in order to acquire material, meet reporting requirements and conduct the necessary management reviews before the end-of-month crunch hits yet again.

Without the ability to step back and look at all the interconnected subsystems, it appears to each person as if the parts of the system act independent of each other.  For example, what occurs in production doesn’t directly affect what occurs in accounting so, by and large, the groups operate independently of each other.

Imagine, however, an environment where each person was, somehow, physically connected to every other person in the organization.  If a cable was constructed, reaching from each person outward in a web to the next person, until all were somehow connected, how would we behave?  In such an environment, a hurried, frantic procurement team would be in the way of the assembly team, who would be thrown off pace by the inconsistency of the accounts payable group, who would need to be wary of the movements of the marketing group, who would be tripped up by the haphazard movements of the stock room.  Everyone would suffer some physical impediment, as well as constant interruptions and irritations, straining the mental and emotional ties as well.  Over time, our imaginary cable connecting everyone in the workplace would wear out, but probably not before the people in the “network” did.

As human beings, we react, positively or negatively, when we see trouble and people struggling.  If we know folks in areas outside of our own are hurried and miserable, we will either seek to help them or, unfortunately, seek to avoid them.  Often while at work, we are told that it is not our problem, and we learn to ignore problems in other areas.  We still know that those problems are there, however, and we lose focus on our own work as a result.  Of course, this is when we are told to keep our minds on our own work and “be professional” and we learn to develop the the “toughness” to worry only about our own work.  This results in groups of people who lack knowledge of the operations of the overall system, and who are unable to appreciate their place in it, or understand the systemic difficulties that cause any group in the system to perform poorly.  When any group inevitably becomes overburdened,  they will not seek help, because they’ll be told to handle they own problems and they will suiffer from their own detachment.

Through mechanisms such as this, mura (unevenness in operations) and muri (overburdening of people) become a part of the workplace.  While trying to plow through a cycle of high pressure and, consequently, worry and fatigue, we are not busy looking at the muda (waste & inefficiency) with an eye for improvement.  Instead, we are focused only on getting through the day, only to come back tomorrow and do it again the next day.  We stop creating, breathing, living and we start only existing, hoping only to survive.  Improvement becomes impossible as concern for one another is replaced with detachment and indifference.

Each of us is connected to every one of us.

The truth is, however, that we ARE all connected through powerful, emotional bonds.  When we embrace these ties, we engage our creativity and look for ways to help each other – our co-workers, our managers, our customers, suppliers, families and friends.  We assist others because we are compelled to, because we can’t imagine NOT to.  Simply put, we embrace our humanity.  By doing this, we find new ways to create and innovate, in order to ease our burden and that of others.   From concern for others comes action to reduce physical, mental and emotional strain, out of which pours efficiency and, ultimately, increases profitability.

Whether we choose to embrace these things, or not, is a critical component of our organization’s culture.  When we choose to engage and understand the human beings around us, we build an environment free of fear, which is the most important ingredient for creating the opening necessary for creativity &  innovation to take place.  When we choose, instead, to sever this connection and allow ourselves to become detached, or force others to detach from the people around them, we create an environment where waste festers and the organziation rots from within.

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