Seeing the Whole Elephant

[Putting Peter Senge’s Fifth Principle to Work at Regal Boats]

I’ll admit that I may be like one of the blind men feeling the elephant, and grabbing hold of the tail, declares an elephant is long and whip-like.  Marty feels the trunk and says an elephant is like a long straight pipe.  Glen feels the ear and says an elephant is like a rug.  Duane feels the elephant’s back and says an elephant is like a broad, flat rock.  Tim has hold of the leg and describes the elephant as being mighty and firm like a pillar.  We all have our different paradigms and tend to see the organization’s problems from the perspective of our position in the company.


I see similar things happening on the shop floor.  An Assembly team leader was recently transferred into Lamination.  I was dumbfounded when I heard him use the same argument for rework originating from Lam as I had heard longtime Lam leaders use.  Two days prior, this same rework was driving her nuts and there was absolutely no excuse for it in her mind.  Now it was completely acceptable.


Here’s the axiom I see at work:  “When placed in the same system, people, however different, tend to produce very similar results.  To counter this we must look into the underlying structures which shape individual actions and create the conditions where types of events, actions, and states of mind become likely.” – condensed from Senge’s The Fifth Discipline.


We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us

Does the following resemble us?

  1. Because we’re centered on the goals in our own areas of responsibility, we often don’t see how our actions affect other’s positions.
  2. Consequently, when problems arise, we quickly blame each other.
  3. When we get “proactive”, we often make matters worse.
  4. Problems build up gradually and we don’t realize the direness of the situation until it’s too late.
  5. By and large, we don’t learn from the most important consequences of our own actions because the problems occur somewhere else, eventually coming back to create the very problems we blame on others.
  6. We end up spending large amounts of energy blaming others and defending our own positions.


The Obvious Isn’t

Today we’re puzzled by our inability to be more profitable.  Like Boxer in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, we’re all working harder, but the harder we work the more work there is to do. Our well intentioned interventions call forth responses from the system that cancel the benefits.  We glorify the suffering that ensues which makes us work harder; blinding us to the obstacles we’re contributing ourselves.   It seems like the real issue always lies somewhere or with someone else.

Case in Point:

  1. I’m feeling good because we have only 7 indirect employees in Valdosta. Not bad, I think, if we can maintain at 8.5 units per week.
  2. Chip comes to me complaining he and Tom can’t keep up if we continue to experience the inordinate amount of back orders.
  3. He continues to try to keep up because, like many of us, he has a hero complex. I praise him one-on-one and in meetings etc. when the opportunity presents itself.
  4. Chip ends up working 6 days a week at the plant and takes home a couple of hours’ worth of work on Sunday. Both Chip and Tom become much stressed.
  5. Some of the little things don’t happen on time like entering the counter log and receiving all the back ordered items on the day they arrive – which is a big thing. But they’ll get to it “real soon”.
  6. Some of this falls through the cracks.
  7. This creates more back orders which get blamed on someone else. After all, we could keep up if we didn’t have back orders in the first place, which depending on where you work, originated in another department.
  8. So I blame Marty who blames Glen who in turn blames me.
  9. We don’t get to the root of the problem and Manufacturing struggles to keep up having to take employees out of station to install back orders.
  10. We end up hiring several extra employees in assembly to keep up.
  11. Leadership spends an inordinate amount of time chasing issues associated with having people out of station and figuring how to keep the line on schedule instead of concentrating on the process and taking work out.
  12. Short cuts are taken which contribute to the back order problem.
  13. We become less profitable still.
  14. We feel the need to decrease overhead to increase profitability.
  15. In the meantime Gerardo Delgado and Joe Valladares in Engineering continue to do all they can to keep up with the Bill of Materials. Overworked like Chip and Tom, some information doesn’t get to Purchasing on time, or at all, which contributes more to the problem.
  16. Glen and Marty get charged a ton of hours for all of the above.
  17. More finger pointing.
  18. We change the reporting structure in Engineering.
  19. Gerardo gets pulled off to do the BOM for model year. The PD BOM needs work so short cuts are taken so model year gets the attention it needs.
  20. The new 32 is developed but little to no time can be spent on the BOM presently.
  21. Information gets set aside, and over time, needs to be redeveloped (like so many other tasks associated with the BOM) causing much frustration for everyone.
  22. More work for Chip and Tom keeping up with PD option picks and the counter log.
  23. More back orders, less profit, more frustration.
  24. Everybody is working so hard, no one holds anyone else accountable which only contributes more to the problem.


We get so engrossed in solving the immediate problems that we fail to realize that all of us contribute to the above.  And I’ll bet almost everyone will have a different take as to the root cause depending on where they work.  I see it from my view at the rear end of the elephant, so I acknowledge the above may not be accurate at all.  But this much I do know:  we continue to experience pretty much the same problems year after year.  We haven’t gotten to the root of our problem.


We all desperately try to fix the problem, unaware that the fix is causing more and bigger problems further down the road in unexpected places.  It seems we’ve failed to realize that cause and effect is not always close in time or space.

However, small changes can produce big results – but considering we keep encountering many of the same symptoms – in our case the area of highest leverage seems to be the least obvious.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Here’s where I think we start:

  1. Drop our preconceived ideas of each other and the motives we contribute to each other’s’ actions. In other words, realize if we were in each other’s shoes, we’d be acting in much the same way.  We’re fond of saying people don’t fail, systems fail.  But it doesn’t seem to me that we’re looking at it like that from a Senior Management perspective.
  2. Look at our organization as a whole. We need to look at the organization as a series of relationships and not just “snapshots”.
  3. Realize that problems in Engineering may not start in Engineering, problems in Purchasing may not start in Purchasing, problems in Manufacturing may not start in Manufacturing, etc. Also, that cause and effect is often not close in space or time.
  4. Realize that what we need to manage is complex. We need to realize that when we take cost out of one area, we may be adding even more to another.  We need to be able to see patterns of behavior and interrelationships as well as the static details.
  5. We need to approach our cure from the perspective that none of us has the answer, but as we freely share our assumptions and have rigorous dialogue, we can come up with a solution that goes beyond any one person’s understanding.
  6. Then hopefully we’ll be able to identify areas of high leverage where small changes can make a big difference making us much more profitable.