What came first – the chicken or the egg?

Jun 14, 2017

The generally accepted answer to this age old question is that the egg came first. This is based on the thinking that two things which were very much like chickens (but were obviously not) could create an egg containing a chicken. However, no amount of eggs containing things that are very much like, but not, chickens will give you a chicken.

I’ll give you a minute

I have always liked this question. It’s simple in construction and has a multiple choice answer. (Had my final year thermodynamics exam taken this approach there’s a good chance I would now be the invisible car designer I always wanted to be). So I was delighted when discussing Lean transformation recently when I was asked a similarly simple and analogous question which replaced the chicken with people and the egg with the process what comes first when improving an organisation, the people or the process?

I spent years as an Engineer who applied process re-design methodology with rigour on the premise that if you look after your processes then your outputs look after themselves. If you wanted repeatability in cost, quality and delivery you need to reduce waste and variation in processes. Find a six sigma guru they’ll draw you a graph to prove it.

The thorough application of root cause analysis and mistake proofing principles creates processes that can only be undertaken in the desired manner. Fix the processes properly and job done.

However, many many organisations have been spending many many millions on doing this very thing for years, Lean tools are taught and diligently learnt, data collected, improvement activity held, success celebrated. Yet still the target gains are not being hit.

The most common reason we hear for this is a lack of sustainability.

Things change “Customer requirements, materials, information sources, our people, our own requirements for profit or growth” these all have the ability to very rapidly change what our processes produce and so they all have the ability to undo all of the good improvement and standardisation work that was done.

To manage these inevitable changes, we need flexibility in our approach which is often not afforded us by rigid processes. We need to create the capability to continually assess and reassess the requirements and deliverables of our processes and to do this rapidly we need this capability everywhere. We need to develop our people to be able to manage our ever changing processes.

The truth is that for sustained continuous improvement we need to build an environment of cohesive process understanding from which rapid improvement is generated by the people within it. Process improvement tools and techniques can only accelerate the benefit. In our world of sustained gains, I’m afraid the chickens most certainly come before the egg.