Engineers, Architects, and Other Questions of Identity – A Summer’s Even Dinner with John Shook

July 20, 2014 • ILE LAB • Boaz Tamir

Every time I visit MIT, I am amazed anew at the pace of construction of new, modern buildings and the changing coffee shops and restaurants in Kendall Square, on the east side of the campus.  One summery Friday night in July, the local residents, the high-tech workers in the dozens of start-ups and veteran market leaders of the biotech industry, electronics had all escaped from their air-conditioned offices with typical American alacrity and were enjoying the caress of the breeze along the Charles River.  It was hard to find a table, and as John Shook crossed lightly from coffee shop to coffee shop, the waiters greeted him with that special smile that they save for their regulars.

“John,” I said after we found a table, “It’s hard to even recognize the place.”  In 1982, when I first came to this neighborhood, there was just a small truck selling hotdogs and beer where the students and faculty staff would gather ’round on Friday nights.”  John burst out laughing.  “I’ve been living in a building nearby for four years, and I amazed at the pace of change.  The architecture of the neighborhood, the building and the public spaces all reflect a dynamic point of view.  Here people live in the present with a futuristic orientation. For example, take a look at the MIT community center on the north-east corner of the square, which was designed by Frank Gehry.  It’s a post-modern hybrid, which you can get inspired by or criticize, that clearly wants to be the lookout point over the city.”

This was a good segue to continuing our discussion about the Lean Global Network (LGN) Value Proposition activities in the framework of the initiative that I have been leading over the past year – putting together our thought about the value and purpose of the community of Lean activists in LGN.

“Organizational architects – that’s a precise definition of our work,” John began our conversation.  “They make use of anthropological tools, working in a stormy geopolitical-social-economic space and trying to face reality as it changes and design appropriate patterns of activity.”

“The image of the architect covers only part of our activities as value-creators for business and industrial communities in which we work,” I insisted. “The image of our work as architecture is important, but in reality, most of our work focuses on construction engineering.  Not that the engineer’s work is unimportant in my opinion, and I would never take a chance and live in an inspirational building whose construction had not been approved by a construction engineer, but at the same time, I am afraid that life in a building designed by an engineer will be disconnected from the lifestyle I would wish for myself and my family. And anyway, anyone who hands the interior design over to a strict and dominant construction engineer will discover that over time, the stability of the building stifles opportunity for change and adaptation to changing circumstances.”

John was thoughtful.  “That’s the right way to think.  I’m afraid that Toyota, which has developed a managerial tradition based on strict engineers and has built a stable and sustainable organizational structure [known as the Toyota Production System – TPS] could find itself in a situation in which it continues to create products that are perfect in terms of engineering and technology but don’t meet the inspirations of tomorrow’s customers.”  I was surprised at his openness and that he was willing to even question the management of Toyota, which has become an iconic model for Lean Thinking.  John, who in the past was a prominent leader of Toyota, understands the future challenges facing a successful company that cannot allow itself to rest for even a moment and must constantly adapt itself anew to the changing circumstances of the market.  The dramatic changes in Kendal Square enable us to see the landscape of the future.  A wave of innovation will disrupt and wash over the world business and economic systems.  Paradoxically, structures built out of light and flexible materials will be less fragile – in the age of constant change, construction engineers must develop technology, materials and operational system that will be simultaneously stable and changeable.

Flexibility and agility are necessary to survive in a changing environment.  Even if they were planned by the best minds in engineering, organizations with a thick, inflexible structure will find it difficult to adapt themselves to tomorrow’s challenges.  Value for the Lean community will be based on a flexible organizational architecture, capable of developing stable organizational capacities, ability to withstand the storms of time, and creation of open spaces for modular change and adaptation to reality.

John nodded his head in agreement.  “Holistic, inclusive thinking is at the basis of the Lean philosophy.  The (horizontal) value stream process comprised of varied professional units, especially architects and engineers, is a requirement for the creation of value.”  From there, the conversation continued as we exchanged ideas: the organizational architect is responsible for defining the organizational purpose [or mission] which stems from an humble understanding of the customer needs and inspirations  – purpose is the entrance key to the space in which value for the customer is created and in which organizational efficacy will be assessed.  In general terms, the architect defines the system of interactions and the composition that makes up the five dimensions of a Lean Enterprise;1 the organizational architecture stems from the purpose and the four central process components – organization of resources for value-producing processes; definition of managerial perceptions and leadership; creation of a strategy to build capabilities and resources; and designing of thought-processes and organizational culture.

While the organizational architect is dealing with designing the organization based on the definition of the purpose of its existence (the question of “Why?”), the construction engineer translates the building blueprint (which are based on the “Why?” question) to detailed plan – questions of “How?” while leading the organization towards the construction of Value Streams, which then flow into Value Creation (products and services) that center around the question of “What?”

Learning from Toyota, Lean activists have made impressive achievements in coping with rapidly-changing market conditions by developing and implementing a methodology of Value Stream Improvement; problem-solving through scientific research and the PDCA method (Plan–Do-Check-Act) in order to built organizational capacity; training of manager/change-leaders; and development of Humble Inquiry that welcomes critical open thinking in order to learn and understand the current situation – these are just some of the foundations of the building.

“While the capabilities of the construction engineers in the Lean community are developing rapidly,” I summed up what I understand to this point, “I can identify a weakness in the development of the overall architectural organization – the ‘Lean Architecture.’ We haven’t learned to develop a regular process for development of purpose (to provide an inspirational response to the customers, employees and the rest of the stake-holders).  How are we to deal with the challenge of development of thinking and capacity for innovative management that combines the work of the development system with production to provide competitive ability in an open global market?  That is the challenge the research team at MIT, headed by Susan Berger,2 has put down in front of us.  As architects, we are called upon to design an effective organization with the ability to develop comprehensive innovativeness that can be translated into a value-producing product or service in the market, that is, capable of an Innovation to Market process.  We need in-depth research in order to develop and manage ‘Pull Marketing’ strategies and to build a systemic composition that combines the five dimensions of the Lean Transformation Model.

As is his wont, John nodded with a smile. “Yes, it’s a problem.  And we welcome problems.  We’ve got a long road ahead of us.”


1 Lean Transformation Model:  The five dimensions that make up the systemic process of transformation from an organization based on traditional perceptions of management to an organization based on the Lean perception are: 1) Consolidating an inspirational purpose; 2) Organizing resources as a horizontal process (crossing vertical professional units); 3) updated definition of the role of the manager and the meaning of leadership; 4) organized process for building expertise capabilities and organizational flexibility in order to cope with the constantly-changing arena; 5) creation of appropriate thinking processes, working glossary, vocabulary and organizational culture.

2The Findings of the MIT research have been summed up in Susan Berger’s book, Making in America – From Innovation to Market, and in an anthology of articles edited by Richard Lock, “Production in the Innovation Economy”.

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