How Strong Is Your Immune System?

Each day you are exposed to an unimaginable number of viruses and bacteria. Any one of them has the potential to overwhelm your body and kill you. But your immune system detects the foreign body, responds, swarms the source of infection, defeats it, and learns so that your immunity is actually strengthened in the process.

Some people, for various reasons, have weak or suppressed immune systems. They suffer from chronic infections. Even if their immune system keeps the infection under control, it is not strong enough to eliminate it. Things which someone else might not even notice take a daily toll on their energy and life.

Your immune system represents your body’s strength to deal with the unanticipated and the unexpected.

In your organization, people encounter unanticipated and unexpected things every day. A small inconsequential defect causes some inconsequential rework. A missing part causes a search and expedite. Each of these things, in turn, propagates more variation, like expanding waves, into the system around it. The variation becomes an infection in your processes, and it has the potential to grow without bounds.

Most organizations have very weak immune systems. They are chronically sick, and expending incredible amounts of time and energy dealing with these “infections.” Because each “infection” is, at best, accommodated rather than eliminated, they tend to accumulate. More and more of the organization’s energy is expended coping.

In the work place this means that the success of the process becomes totally reliant on the vigilance of each individual, working pretty much alone, to see problems and control them enough that some form of output can continue. Worse, many organizations build elaborate systems to assign blame when one of these thousands of opportunities for problems is missed.

Ironically, a lot of “blitz” type kaizen activity actually makes the the system more sensitive to these kinds of problems. If there is no corresponding effort to strengthen the response (swarm, fix, solve) to these problems, it is no wonder that things slide back pretty quickly.

Variation is an infection. And like the viruses and bacteria we are exposed to every day, it will always be there. It is only your ability to quickly detect variation, rapidly contain it, and then deal with its cause that strengthens your organization’s ability to deal with the next one.

5 Replies to “How Strong Is Your Immune System?”

  1. Hi Mark,

    That’s a very interesting analogy. I suppose the engineers in their lab coats running to the line stopper are like the T cells containing the problem. The andon lamp is the fever. What is the biological equivalent of 5 why and root cause corrective action? Creating antibodies?

  2. Jon –
    I think the short answer to your question is “Yes.”

    Over the years I have seen several organizations do this just a little better than others, and pretty quickly gain a significantly higher level of performance.

    At the same time, I have seen some of those organizations slide, just a little, in how well they detect, fix, and solve problems, and their performance deteriorates rapidly.

    I really think managers / leaders grossly underestimate the cumulative effect that small variations have on the organization; or conversely the cumulative positive effect of systematically eliminating them.

  3. We consistently see the truth in what you have described. The efforts to execute kaizen as daily, small, consistent improvements is changing the culture to what we do instead of a blitz, which is usually not sustained. We are working on identifying, and eliminating waste as we go. Kaizen blitzes are not a tool for us at this time due to the need for daily reinforcement of behavior for constant change. I like your analogy. Great post.

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