Lean Systems: Antifragile Applied

“Systems subjected to randomness—and unpredictability—build a mechanism beyond the robust to opportunistically reinvent themselves each generation”

– Nassim Nicholas Taleb

In a previous post I introduced the concept of Antifragility – systems that benefit from shocks, randomness and disorder. Classifying the world in the triad of Fragile – Robust – Antifragile helps us understand and manage the potential impact of the uncertainty surrounding us.

It’s initially hard to imagine that anything useful could benefit from disorder, so the first thing to realize is that although objects and things can be Fragile or Robust, they can’t be Antifragile. Systems, on the other hand (which if course includes Product Development Systems) are made up of multiple interacting components. Systems exhibit behavior as they respond to their surroundings, and can be Fragile, Robust or Antifragile. It is this ability to respond and interact that opens the door to antifragility. Antifragility can bee seen as a type of evolutionary mechanism, continuously picking the best of the available options. So, when we look for examples of antifragility we need to look at systems, not objects.

Stressors: the fuel of Antifragility

A stressor is something that puts a strain on the system, pulls it away from its equilibrium. It’s the system’s response to stressors that classifies the system as either Fragile, Robust or Antifragile.

A system that gets weaker from the encounter with the stressor is Fragile. For example, a pyramid scheme collapses when exposed to the light of day. Not only dictators (the individual) but the foundation of the dictatorship (the system) crumbles when the forces of democratic thought are applied. The best-laid project plan with all its gantt-charts has a best-before date sometime before the first problem is discovered.

Robust systems neither gets weaker nor stronger in the presence of a stressor. Most government bureaucracies seem to fall in this category – their inability to learn and evolve astounds me, as does their unequaled staying power. Many companies operate in this way too. New ideas get rejected and expelled by the corporate immune system, allowing the company structure to stay the same even in the face of certain bankruptcy. Remember Kodak? GM?

Antifragile systems on the other hand enjoy randomness and stressors, at least up to a point. Shocks and disruption make them stronger because they keep the system alert and in shape. Stressors exercise and improve the system the same way physical activity stresses and improves your body. Strength training, for instance, involves pushing your muscles just past their breaking point. Your body is able to repair this damage and even over-shoots in the repair effort. The result is that you are left with a little more muscle mass than you had before. This is how Schwarzenegger became Schwarzenegger and Ahnold was again a cool and acceptable name for your first-born. Without these stressors the system would stagnate, much like a couch-potato grows the wrong kind of body mass and ends up with clogged arteries.

Of course, there is a limit to how much stressors are beneficial. Running at a reasonable effort level puts you in better shape; the first marathoner supposedly expired at the goal line, having historically over-exerted himself to deliver with his last gasp the one-word message to the king: “victory”.

(hang on – if they won the battle, then why the life-and-death rush? Good news would still be reasonably good the next morning, right?)

The next important thing to understand about Antifragile Systems is that they work in layers. It is not enough that individual members get stronger, the system as a whole needs to be able to survive and thrive. It needs to be able to learn and select.

It’s in the DNA of the System

Going back to our example of Mother Nature as the ultimate antifragile system, we can observe that the individual member of a species are inherently fragile. In fact, each member will eventually die off, no matter how strong it is. There is a natural turnover to make room for the newer and more fit members. By natural selection and replacement of individuals the system becomes more and more fit. There is a layering effect here. Individual members (at the lowest layer) compete with each other. The strong propagate their DNA and have (presumably) stronger offspring, the weaker gradually (or abruptly, as the case may be) exit the gene pool. The system as a whole (at a higher layer) grows stronger as a result. The system survives the demise of each of its members because the information that makes up the system is preserved in its DNA, surviving generation after generation of individuals.

By evolution such a system improves gradually even if there is no master plan and things happen at random. The system continuously Inspects and Adapts, and the current “best recipe” is carried forward in our DNA. As long as we recognize and seize opportunity, even a random walk will be beneficial. Antifragile systems love errors and variation for that reason.

Lean Systems: Fragile?

Lean systems are called Lean because they deliberately operate with very small error margins. For example, Lean Manufacturing systems are sometimes called “zero-inventory” systems because they have almost no buffer inventory to absorb variations and problems at individual stations. If there is a problem somewhere on the production line, the whole system could shut down. This is by design: in a tightly coupled system small problems are amplified to make them painfully obvious, and every problem becomes an urgent matter.

In one sense Lean systems are therefore very fragile to disorder and error so one might be tempted to simply put Lean in the Fragile category. But it’s not that simple. The antifragility of Lean is in the DNA of the system.

Lean Systems: Antifragile

So we need to reconcile the apparent fragility of the small operating margins of a Lean system with the claim that Lean systems are antifragile.

I like Steven Spear’s (The High Velocity Edge) summary of a good Lean implementation:

  1. Build a system of “dynamic discovery” designed to reveal operational problems and weaknesses as they arise
  2. Attack and solve problems when and where they occur, converting weaknesses into strengths
  3. Disseminate knowledge gained from solving local problems throughout the company as a whole
  4. Lead by developing capabilities 1, 2 and 3

The ingenuity and beauty of Lean is that even small problems become intolerable at the system level. Lean Systems use this fragile tight coupling as a way to accelerate system-level learning. If a problem develops, it immediately becomes painfully obvious that something is wrong.

Rather than working around or ignoring these small problems, the team in charge is obligated to immediately seize the opportunity to improve the way the system works before the small problem becomes a big problem. A good lean team will swarm the problem to get it fixed, and put in place measures to ensure that similar problems don’t occur in the future. The result is that the particular process step which failed now has improved and is less likely to fail in the future.

Antifragile systems love errors, and so do Lean systems. The fragility of small error tolerances acts as a forcing function which brings problems to the surface, causing the old faulty processing step to evolve and be replaced with a new and more fit one. Each small failure alters the DNA of the Lean system just a little bit, evolving and improving. One more problem spot has been eliminated, and the probability of future defects is reduced.

So here is a perfect example of a system that is designed evolve over time, to learn from mistakes and to grow more capable after each error. It needs no top-down direction other than living the Lean Principles. There is no master plan, yet Lean systems evolve on their own to become the most competitive and effective man-made systems we have on our planet.

Evolving. Learning. Antifragile. Lean. Wonderful.

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