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Welcome to the Open2Flow Mini-blog

This section is about leadership that matters to us, the people.  They are short digestable blogs of maximum three paragraphs for the busy person.  Longer blogs are in the Open Blog section, which is open to all registered users.


Andon: Halting the Line

In most traditional Japanese ‘lean’ manufacturing plants you will find sets of two cords dangling from above every few meters along the production line, within everyone’s reach, one yellow one red. If the yellow is pulled an alarm sounds, orange lights flash and the affected workstation number affected is displayed on an overhead board. This is a call for help when a problem has arisen. If the red cord is pulled, however, the whole production line comes to a standstill. This is used when a problem is deemed serious enough that it cannot be resolved within the cycle time without disrupting the smooth pull flow of production. This instigates a quick ‘gemba’ review of the situation to decide remedial action in order to quickly get the line flowing again, while at the same time ensuring the problem does not recur.

This system is called “Andon”. It is significant in that every production line employee is empowered to pull the red cord and stop the whole production line in order to deal with any quality or safety problem immediately as it arises. In a typical car plant every minute of line stoppage represents approximately one car less produced, not an insignificant productivity loss. The Andon philosophy considers it more important for shop-floor staff to stop the whole line, pausing production, to ensure each product is “perfect”, rather than lose customers later on through poor quality reputation. This empowerment of each frontline worker to stop the line is at the heart of Japanese product reliability.

The Andon system is rarely discussed even in Lean or Agile circles or literature in the West. To the Japanese, entrusting all employees at all levels with the power to stop the line for the sake of customer satisfaction is deemed more important than “efficiency”, corporate power structure or shareholder value. Nowadays, as companies here become more collaborative and responsive to user needs, the ability of every employee to temporarily ‘halt the line’ will increasingly be required. Workplace democratisation, distributed leadership thinking and networked responsive organisations need Andon. This ability to ‘halt the line’ and raise objections is also at the heart of sociocracy.


Beyond Democracy

Reaching beyond democracy with its internal flaws, sociocracy offers one possible way for organisations to engage staff in decision-making and governance in a manner that democracy cannot. Sociocracy is a simple method for structuring and governing whole organisations employing the full participation of their members. Sociocratic organisations manage themselves as organic systems and make smarter decisions by harnessing collective wisdom. They rely on objections and cyclical feedback loops to stay in tune with stakeholders and the environment. They thus benefit from high levels of engagement, very productive teams and an uncanny ability to learn and transform autonomously, easily adapting to complex, interrelated and changing surroundings.

Self-organisation in Action

Self-managing teams, organisations or systems, also referred to as ‘teal’, could become the next management fad. As more organisations are intrigued by the concept, largely introduced by Frederick Laloux’s book Reinventing Organisations, more and more managers, coaches and consultants will no doubt show up as “experts in self-management”. Yet if self-management is to be true to its principles, by definition there will be no need for managers or consultants. Certainly not the sort who micro-manage or control, for sure. So as more and more managers introduce self-management there is a danger that it becomes an empty meaningless concept, which will then go out of fashion as quickly as it came in. This would be a pity. It is important to distinguish between a superficial linear fad and the transformative power from curved ‘letting go and letting come’ emergence. Self-organisation works best for pull demand-driven value creation, rather than the conventional push value extraction found in most current management thinking.

Some organisations may recognise this and seek help in implementing genuine self-management.  As the world becomes more complex, ambiguous and unpredictable, so a more organic approach is required.   Many organisations may try to move towards self-management as its organising principle, and will seek guidance in implementation. There is a paradox, however, in that it is an oxymoron to “manage” the implementation of self-management.   What you can do, however, is enable it. There is a role for leaders, a more facilitative role, one of enablers. This means creating the right conditions for self-management to unfold. The ‘right conditions’ may involve spatial, temporal, conceptual, educational and attitudinal elements, involving for example transparency, self-determination and especially giving staff the tools to self-manage in peer-centred autonomous iterative environments. New collaborative tools will be needed, such as shared decision-making and responsibility, lean-flow operations (pull-based value flow), kaizen, plasticity learning, and many more participatory or facilitated elements.

Towns and cities are self-organised, and tend to thrive in energy and innovation. At the centre of all movements and transactions in cities are the markets or the market place. Most things in towns resolve around the market place. Even the internet centres around virtual market-places, which are completely self-organised. The market place is also at the heart of Open Space Technology (OST), a self-organising system for running high performance transactions, interactions and deep conversations. OST is based on transparency, synchronicity, connectivity, serendipity and conversational leadership emerging out of an ‘Open Space’ market-place. While OST, celebrating its 30thanniversary this year, has long been applied as a way or running large meetings and deliberations, its founder, Harrison Owen, has always argued that OST is applicable beyond ‘unconferences’, and that the principle of self-organisation should be the backbone principle of managing any organisation. In his book Wave Rider (Leadership for High Performance in a Self-organizing World) he extols the virtues of emergence through self-management. Increasingly OST will indeed be seen as a central approach to both implementing self-management as well as a tool for complex problem-solving, accelerated learning and ultimately for organisational transformation. OST may become a central ingredient to self-organisation in action.

First published in Linked In Pulse on 22 October 2015 here.

Innovation and Kaizen

After any change program or adoption of a new system it is recommended that "Competence and Innovation / Kaizen" phase be run. Competence relates to the successful mastery of the adopted approach to a degree that it is practically second nature to the organisation and does not require a lot of attention beyond maintenance. Innovation / Kaizen refers to the integration of a Kaizen culture continuously seeking small improvements.  We recommend to integrate an occasional intensive burst of Innovation activity, using an Open Space event.

Kaizen is often contrasted to Innovation – the latter representing big steps, big leaps, mega ideas. Innovation is more dramatic and produces spectacular improvements which, however, are not necessarily sustainable. Big innovation and small Kaizen can be compared to the hare and the tortoise, the hare being innovation running fast in big leaps, the tortoise in little steps one step at a time. Both approaches are required. In a Kaizen culture one must be careful to avoid a Kaizen-only approach - that is an organisation extremely adept at finely improving and perfecting methods or products, which are, however, completely out of date (e.g. the fax machine). It is therefore important for a kaizen organisation to sometimes break out of its Kaizen mode and do some substantial out-of-the-box radical thinking.

We believe this is best achieved using Open Space Technology. Since disruptive out-of-the-box thinking cannot be pre-planned, it has to be done in a platform which is totally open and self-organised, both in terms of content as well as of participation. Pre-planning and organisation by definition defeat innovation. Serendipity and collective sensing are paramount. Open Space is based on self-organisation, opt-in participation and a market-place of ideas where people are free to follow their curiosity and passion through various clusters of interest. In the third phase, therefore, we recommend an ongoing platform or culture of Kaizen continuous improvement, interspersed once or twice a year, or as needed, with a mega-burst of radical innovation activity through an Open Space Innovation event to which the whole relevant workforce is invited.

What is Kaizen?

'Kai'-'zen' means 'good change', or change for the better, done by everybody, everyday, everywhere. Kaizen is a mind-set permeating throughout an organisation, which fosters a continuous search by all employees at all levels and departments to find small improvements in the workplace, the products, services or processes. This kaizen mind-set creates an organisational platform or culture which is fed by one question asked by everyone at least once a day: 'What is one small step you can do to improve the product or process you work on?'

"Kaizen is a customer-driven strategy for improvcement... In Kaizen, it is assumed that all activities should eventually lead to increased customer satisfaction." Masaaki Imai

Kaizen is about improving products or services, but it is also about constantly improving processes such as operations, standards, office workflow, production, efficiency or sustainability, or indeed anything that may speed up, embellish, eliminate waste, simplify, reduce a step, remove toxins or fool-proof a process. Kaizen is particularly useful in reducing human mistakes in routine work, by considering small steps that would prevent human errors recurring. By continuously focussing on small improvements the whole workforce is a state of continuous innovation and change – this in turns makes the organisation nimbler, and more responsive and adaptable to change.

In Kaizen there may be no immediate results. But like compound interest, invisible to begin with, the benefits are enormous in the long run.

Kaizen applied across the company creates a culture, a "kaizen culture", of participation and development. Kaizen helps improve the services or products of an organisation, but it has an even greater impact on strengthening the personal development of everyone. Kaizen is a form of personal development that is directly relevant to, as well as emanates from the work being done. Kaizen enables experimentation, and requires leaders to listen to those doing the work with positive reinforcement. Kaizen not only allows innovation to flourish, it also motivates and engages the whole workforce.

Kaizen is a platform for change, innovation and engagement across an organisation.

It is said that in a democracy rule is determined by numbers.  Numbers count.  This is odd, as mathematically this may be a very poor solution.  Say in a 2-party vote there is a 50% chance of winning.  But winning what?  You're most likely to favour the party with the most appealing promises at the time of election.  If we say, for simplicity's sake, that what a party promises only prepresents the first of four years of government, this in effect this represents only a fourth of your vote, so 25%.  Combined with the 50% chance of winning, we're now at 12.5%.

Let's furthermore remember that you vote for the party which has more policy proposals you concur with than the other party, not that you agree with all of them.  So if we say you only agree with half of them, another 50%comes off the 12.5%, making it 6.25%.  Bearing in mind that politicians lie and make promises to gain votes, that not all those promises actually get implemented, your representation is reduced by say another 50%. Half of 6.25% is 3.125%.  In short, in very crude terms, mathematically speaking only about 3% of your beliefs are represented in the government you vote in.

The above is not very scientific and is based on various possibly erroneous assumptions.  Nevertheless, most would agree that the level of representation one gets through voting is very low.  Whether is is really 3% or as high as 20% it is still low.  The situation is completely different in a direct democracy where youn can vote on each issue, issue by issue, independently of any party line.  But in a representative democracy you have to gamble on a party, and you may find it only represents about 1% - 5% of your views.  Is it any wonder then if you feel disengaged?


No-one else had done more harm to the development of political leadership than Churchill.  When he declared that democracy was crude and messy, but that it was the best we had, he inadventently created a license not to look further, not to look beyond.  The evolutionary development of democracy to better ways of ruling came to an end with that utterance.

For more the 50 years British, European, indeed world concepts of democracy have stagnated, in the hybris that it is the "best we have", not requiring us to look further and beyond.  And yet there are so many better ways which have evolved.  But for now they remain obscure, having been swept under the carpet by Winston's remark.  His license not to think further has blinded us from better forms of governance.

For example, most Brits are blissfully unaware that just 500 miles away direct democracy is practiced, where the people vote on each issue, issue by issue.  Most Brits do not realise how resctrictive their representative democracy is.  Yet there are many better systems around.  Apart from direct democracy there is: consensus building, wisdom councils, facilitative governance, the Japanese catchball deployment and the greatest jewell: sociocracy.  My future blogs will be exploring these approaches, beyond Churchill, beyond democracy.



Leaders, business schools, politicians, communities and organisations around the country seem to agree that after the 2008 crash the societal system as we know it no longer works, and our way of living and running our organisations is not sustainable. All seem to be grappling to find new ways of doing things, yet in the vacuum everything seems to revert to the status quo. Of course, as Einstein said, you don't solve problems with the same ideas that created them, so our current leaders may not the best people to ask for solutions and ideas for the future.

Indeed it is unlikely the models of the future will be found in current mainstream practices. It is now time for the more 'obscure' approaches to come to the forefront. Indeed is it not now time for approaches like Sociocracy to come to the fore - and over time become mainstream? Certainly in Britain I feel there is a deep sense amongst the population of people wanting to take things back into their own hands, to decide the direction of their companies and communities themselves, not just in their spare time, but at work too - democracy in the workplace, as I call it. Yet at the same time there is a malaise, probably because we don't know how to go about it exactly. Sociocracy could fill the vacuum.

What is currently happening in the Arab world is quite phenomenal, young people taking matters into their own hands irrespective of old antagonisms. I have a hunch that these motions might not stop in the Arab world, the movement could well move into Europe over time, with our younger generations wanting to take charge of their lives. Not only are people here disillusioned with our representative democracy, which doesn't really seem to be very representative, but also in the work place (where most people spend more than half their awake day) democracy is to a large extent non-existant. With an economy in tatters and society no longer working well, well that's plenty of fuel for things to happen here in the West. Of course it could go both ways, and we could find ourselves in dark ages of horrible repression. But I am more optimistic and believe we now have an opportunity to change things for the better - and sociocracy, I believe, offers a magnificent tool to enable us to do that!


First published on SociocracyUK website 5 February 2011 (just after Arab Spring)