Maple Trees, Systems and Bureaucracy

I have a maple tree in my yard. It is dying a slow death. Eventually, it will have to be cut down. We have worked to save this tree for the last few years, but to no avail. We could not figure out what the problem was. We searched the web, spoke with arborists and shared images of our sick and dying tree, but to no avail. But in a happenstance conversation with friends who have maple trees in their yard, we learned something interesting.

Compacted Soil

Maple trees do not do well in hard compacted soil. We live in an where the soil is made primarily of clay. When the maple tree started out, it seemed healthy enough. We watered and pruned it and it started to fill out. It started getting quite large. We thought it would be glorious when mature, but the branches began to sag. The leaves now always look wilted. The tree no longer looks full and healthy. Rather, it looks weak and sickly.


We learned from our friends that as maple trees mature, and the root systems develop accordingly. Where the soil is compacted, such as with clay, the roots seeking an easier path and start to tangle around themselves causing the tree to choke itself. Once this process starts, it seems there is little that can be done to correct it. Eventually, our friends cut down their dying maple tree, as we will have to do with ours.

Systems and Bureaucracy

In organizations, systems operate in much the same way. For example, an organization may have a quality system they put in place, but an external escape, allowing a defective product or service to reach the customer occurs. An investigation takes place, root cause is identified, a countermeasure implemented and voilà! All is right with the world… For the time being.

Another external escape takes place and the cycle feeds itself. Countermeasures, including new or revised procedures and more training (I personally hate this one) are implemented. Overtime, the quality system has become a bureaucracy. Like my maple tree, the system has countermeasures, new, revised or more complicated procedures, and more and more training (I really hate this one, a lot). And the system itself starts to choke the productivity of the organization. This is bureaucracy, which is defined as excessively complicated administrative procedure, and known as red tape. From a lean perspective, bureaucracy is non-value added. NVA. Waste.

Now consider that an enterprise is made up of not one, but many systems that interact with one another. Consider also that these systems all run a similar risk to choke productivity within the organization. Finally, consider the compounding impact of these systems each having a choking effect. The choking effect of bureaucracy. You can see an organization’s health and ability to produce the desired results is dependent on the health of its systems. The lack of bureaucracy. Like a healthy maple tree needs healthy roots, a healthy organization requires healthy systems.

Unlike my maple tree, it is not necessary to cut down the organization. It is necessary to understand how systems work. To do this one must understand what types of systems exist and the fundamental components that make up those systems.

Three Essential System Types

The Shingo Institute has defined three essential system types for a healthy organization. Managers, which are typically system owners, should concentrate their efforts on designing, aligning and improving systems, rather than fighting fires. By default, this approach should reduce the amount of bureaucracy and increase value to the customer. To design, align and improve systems requires an understanding of them. Following are the three system types identified by the Shingo Institute.

Work Systems

First is Work Systems. This is how the work in an organization gets done. There may be several work systems for large organizations and perhaps only one for a small simple start up. Regardless of the number of Works Systems, these systems define the work that is to be done, and which create value for the customer. A healthy focus on Work Systems from a lean perspective eliminates waste, increasing value for the customer.

Management Systems

Supporting Work Systems are Management Systems. The focus of Management Systems is to develop system leaders. This may seem a bit odd as the focus of a management system, especially when we think about quality systems or financial and reporting systems as management systems. However, if the primary function of managers is to design, align and improve systems, then this process alone helps develop leadership and prepares managers for leadership of successively more complex systems.

Improvement Systems

Also supporting Work Systems are Improvement Systems. The focus of Improvement Systems is to make the organization better. This is where a keen focus on the health of the organization will provide significant benefit. It is necessary for Improvement Systems to be given opportunity to conduct fair and unvarnished evaluations of the other systems and overall health of the organization. Otherwise, Improvement Systems themselves risk becoming bureaucratic as well.

Five Required Communication Tools for Systems

For systems to function optimally, the Shingo Institute also defines five required communication tools each system should have.

Standard Work

First is Standard Work. This seems obvious but needs stating for the following reason: It eliminates non-random variation, and thus can be measured. Operators and associates often balk at the idea of standard work. They sometimes feel their way is the best way. With my own teams in the past, I used to say that I did not care if they were all doing it the wrong way if they were all doing it the same way. This minimized bruised feelings and allowed the opportunity to teach the value of measurement for improvement and open the way for standardizing the work.


Second is Reports. Reports are a snapshot in time. They tell us the state of the system at the precise moment for which the report is pulled. Reports are the first one second for huddle boards. They tell us whether we are winning or losing right now, or for the time the report was pulled.


Third is Feedback. Feedback is associated with trends. You can think of a trend as a time series of reports. Feedback, or trends, tell us whether we are getting better and improving, or not. For huddle boards, feedback is the thee seconds of 1-3-10. Any observer of a huddle board should know in three seconds whether things are improving or not. Found on huddle boards and other locations, control charts are a form of feedback. We may have rules or guidelines we have adopted as to how we respond to feedback so we can ensure the optimal productive and quality output of the system. In addition, feedback can be qualitative feedback from users and customers (internal or external) of the system to help determine what improvements should be made.


Fourth is Schedule. This is defined as the frequency that we review the other aspects of the system, and the system itself. One organization I visited has its teams review their huddle boards “quarterly”. This is defined as at the beginning of the shift, after first break, after lunch and after second break. There should also be a measure of frequency defined for reviewing each system. This schedule allows for the periodic evaluation of the health of the system. It helps in determining if there are required changes or modifications to ensure it is still valid and robust. It will also help eliminate any non-value add activity within the system. Ignoring the scheduled review of a system, or worse yet, not scheduling a review at all, ensures that the system will eventually become a bureaucracy.

Improvement Log

Fifth is Improvement Log. Keeping track of improvements serves two purposes. First, it serves as an historical record of what we have done to keep the system relevant and valid. Second, we can pin improvements to the time they were implemented and determine if they were successful or not. Not all improvements are successful in terms of intended outcome. All improvements are successful in allowing us to learn from them. Keeping a log generates a historical view of the improvements for that system. If something goes wrong, it can also provide critical data for root cause analysis.


All of this is great from an academic sense. But in practice, how does it work? One of the easiest ways to understand a system is to map it. You can create a system map on a white board or an Excel spreadsheet. The idea is to have a space on the map for each of the five communication tools. Start listing (and reviewing) each of the communication tools on the map. You will shortly get a sense of where bureaucracy lies. Typically, it is in the standard work (procedures, SOPs) section, which also includes training. Standard work instructions that are too long are bureaucratic, as are redundant work instructions. Excessive training is also bureaucratic. In reviewing the systems, ask the question, “What is the fundamental objective of this system?” Then measure all your observations against that question. As a note, if associates must spend time cross-referencing or referring to multiple procedures to perform a series of tasks, you may have a problem.

You will begin to see areas that are weak. Improvement logs often fall into this area. But any of the communication tools run this risk to one degree or another. Strengths can often be easily seen as well. However, if the strengths appear too strong, i.e., too many procedures and training, you may need to work hard to find balance across the system.

Where to Begin

So where do you start? It is easiest to start with the Work Systems. In doing so, you will inform what should be next between Management and Improvement systems. Pick one system and focus on it. Include as many stakeholders as is practical for the enterprise. Be thorough in your mapping so you get an honest view of the system. Support your findings, if necessary, with value stream maps, spaghetti diagrams or other tools. Ask your team what the fundamental purpose of the system is and then measure against that standard. Once a system review is completed, close it for review until the next scheduled review period and then begin to work on the next system. It will take time, but it will drive measurable benefits for the organization. 

I will likely cut down my maple tree this fall or next spring. Like a system within an enterprise, I will not remove it until I have evaluated carefully what I will replace it with. I will do the work to understand what type of trees do well in thick clay soil so that the root systems don’t wrap around themselves and choke the new tree, as was the case with my maple tree. You can do the same with your organization’s systems as you take each one of them on, one by one, so they remain valid, vibrant and don’t choke the organization.

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