Distributed Leadership anchored in the Power to Object

Andon: Halting the Line

In most traditional Japanese ‘lean’ manufacturing plants you will find sets of two cords dangling from above every few meters along the production line, within everyone’s reach, one yellow one red. If the yellow is pulled an alarm sounds, orange lights flash and the affected workstation number affected is displayed on an overhead board. This is a call for help when a problem has arisen. If the red cord is pulled, however, the whole production line comes to a standstill. This is used when a problem is deemed serious enough that it cannot be resolved within the cycle time without disrupting the smooth pull flow of production. This instigates a quick ‘gemba’ review of the situation to decide remedial action in order to quickly get the line flowing again, while at the same time ensuring the problem does not recur.

This system is called “Andon”. It is significant in that every production line employee is empowered to pull the red cord and stop the whole production line in order to deal with any quality or safety problem immediately as it arises. In a typical car plant every minute of line stoppage represents approximately one car less produced, not an insignificant productivity loss. The Andon philosophy considers it more important for shop-floor staff to stop the whole line, pausing production, to ensure each product is “perfect”, rather than lose customers later on through poor quality reputation. This empowerment of each front-line worker to stop the line is at the heart of Japanese product reliability.

The Andon system is rarely discussed even in Lean or Agile circles or literature in the West. To the Japanese, entrusting all employees at all levels with the power to stop the line for the sake of customer satisfaction is deemed more important than “efficiency”, corporate power structure or shareholder value. Nowadays, as companies here become more collaborative and responsive to user needs, the ability of every employee to temporarily ‘halt the line’ will increasingly be required. Workplace democratization, distributed leadership thinking and networked responsive organizations need Andon. This ability to ‘halt the line’ and raise objections is also at the heart of sociocracy.

Beyond Democracy

Reaching beyond democracy with its internal flaws, sociocracy offers one possible way for organisations to engage staff in decision-making and governance in a manner that democracy cannot. Sociocracy is a simple method for structuring and governing whole organisations employing the full participation of their members. Sociocratic organisations manage themselves as organic systems and make smarter decisions by harnessing collective wisdom. They rely on objections and cyclical feedback loops to stay in tune with stakeholders and the environment. They thus benefit from high levels of engagement, very productive teams and an uncanny ability to learn and transform autonomously, easily adapting to complex, interrelated and changing surroundings.

The purpose of sociocracy is to enable people to work together as different and unique persons on the basis of mutual equivalence in decision-making. Its structures and processes are designed to ensure this equivalence is maintained when major decisions are taken. This focus on diversity of uniqueness is crucial and contrasts more equality-driven ‘democratic’ approaches: Sociocracy recognizes that people are not actually ‘equal’, but different and unique, and it celebrates this diversity of perspectives for the richness in collective thought and innovation it can bring. By ensuring everyone has an equivalent voice in decision-making and every perspective is heard, sociocracy avoids the democratic flaw which suppresses and ignores the “losers” through voting.

This differs from the adversarial command and control style found in many conventional organisations. While many of the new collaborative network leadership approaches emerging recently vaguely embody an eco-centric spirit, they often do not have structure or procedures in place whereby they can clearly demonstrate that team decisions are taken with equivalence. Start-ups and more experimental enterprises are often informal, loosely ‘democratic’, flat, sharing-oriented, open source and with mutual understanding, and this works (for a while at least), because they are composed of like-minded people. Sociocracy alleviates the need for like-mindedness and homogeneity, with its associated risk of group-think. Rather it respects and embraces diversity through its efficient decision-making process guaranteeing equivalence. The trigger that enables a group to refine its decisions by tapping into collective wisdom, is not democratic opposition, but paramount objections.

Consent

One of the three core principles of sociocracy is consent. Unlike consensus, which painfully asks for communal agreement, an almost impossible and laborious feat, consent is simply the absence of strong enough objection(s) which could jeopardise a team’s or circle’s ability to achieve its aims. Objections are always in relation to aims (hence “paramount”), never for their own sake. Policy and role decisions are made by consent and given a term by when they must be reviewed, so no decision is permanent. This enables a flexible “good enough for now” approach, with design prototype thinking. An objection is not a block, but an invitation for all to improve and enrich a decision being taken. Likewise Andon is not a block to production, but invites those affected to refine the system to enable a zero-defect production flow.

Objections in sociocracy are gifts: they alert one of potential problems ahead. They function a bit like hormones in the body — they send feedback data which enables the body system to stabilize. Proposals are refined to resolve those objections, making for wiser more balanced decisions. The experimental ‘good enough for now’ approach allows for complex perspectives to be considered, warning signs to be heard and respected early, and agility to be generated through iteration. Meetings are more productive and focussed, because with every voice listened to equivalently, people do not feel the need to speak just for the sake of being heard — egos are kept in check.

For some managers giving front-line staff the power to object, to halt the line, may seem radical. I happen to think it is the other way round, if it serves to generate wiser more considered decisions, or better more reliable products or services. Surely it is denying front-line people the power to object which is radical, brutal and destructive. Why? Because it stifles the very feedback mechanisms which enable organic systems to work. This is like preventing hormones from doing their job. What we need is for people doing the value-creating work to be engaged and free to object to issues that hamper goals. While some of us talk of democratizing organizations, I don’t believe “democracy”, based on opposition and win-lose, is such a good model, what we need is one based on objections and win-win.

So what’s wrong with democratic debate?

The UK government’s granting everyone a blunt either-or voice in the recent Brexit vote to decide a highly complex issue, essentially expunging any form of nuanced thinking, has had a devastating effect. The lack of subtlety, making people pitted against each other in a bellicose way, inciting hate and bigotry, reveals the limitations of democracy. How different things might look, if the issues had been dealt with through a process of consent, resolving each issue through objections and refinement, issue by issue. However irresponsibly UK politicians may have behaved, side-lining bigger problems like the environment, and inciting acrimony in the population, Europe has to shoulder some blame, too, as it does not have a system for people to raise objections. When there is no forum to object and concerns to be heard, people start to oppose. What could have been an invitation for all parties to refine and improve Europe amicably has turned into a battleground for radicalized protest voting, and has left everyone, on both sides of the channel, hollowed out and bewildered.

Democracy has reached its limits, and it is time we turned to more sophisticated approaches. No wonder organizations have shied away from turning to democracy as a governance model, not unreasonably. Compared to the barbaric either-or red-blue approach of democracy, the more subtle both-and inclusive approach of sociocracy for instance — based on halting the line and raising objections — seems far more civilized. So let’s stop the Churchillian nonsense of claiming democracy is the best we have; it isn’t — there are better ways! Democratic adversarial debate, amplified through media exaggeration, is divisive and alienating. Democracy excludes minorities, subjecting them to ‘the will’ of a majority — in effect metaphorically only allowing some of our hormones to work, or only some brain cells to think. Sociocracy, on the other hand, is inclusive, enabling all views to be considered and incorporated, so co-creating richer decisions. Isn’t it time we moved beyond democracy?

Most businesses, universities, churches, civic bodies and other institutions are even more archaic, they are not democratic, but still run autocratically, with big decisions taken by an “elite” cadre at the top. The top cadre are not even elected by its members or staff, but are self-serving at the top. Yet, however antiquated this is, democracy is not the answer, because it is based on opposition, with a survival of the fittest culture where the loudest wins. The either-or win-lose mind-set of democracy itself incites animosity, back-stabbing and violence (to varying degrees), and the effects of this are clearly visible in our troubled world today — the real enemy is within. Organisations and communities wishing to move to a more symbiotic organic framework need not take this adversarial route, but should jump straight to a more collaborative open approach, with alternative models like sociocracy.

Objections, not Opposition, for Distributed Leadership

Wouldn’t it have been better, if the NHS nurses and staff, those closest to the value work being done, at Staffordshire hospital had been empowered to pull the cord and halt hospital malpractice they knew was occurring? Wouldn’t our workplaces improve, if employees were empowered to halt the stress and nonsense arising from executive suites? Wouldn’t sustainability have a better chance, if we were all empowered to stop environmental toxicity as it happens? Wouldn’t we be more innovative and productive, if we could work with each other collaboratively, rather than against each other antagonistically? Couldn’t we create a more fruitful world if instead of people having the right to oppose, they applied the power to object and be heard, thus tapping into the collective wisdom?

As forward thinking organizations move towards more organic distributed leadership forms of organizing (lean, agile, teal, conscious, emergent, responsive, etc.), so front-line staff will increasingly need the power to object in a meaningful way. Meaningful does not imply “freedom of expression” (after all what’s the point of freedom of expression if no-one is listening?), but rather objections which relate directly to common aims (and everyone’s ability to attain those aims), and which are heard and acted on in decision-making. Inclusive templates like sociocracy, rather than democracy, need to take center-stage.

Democracy is based on opposition, which is blunt; it incites belligerent positioning and lobbying. Despite involving everyone ‘equally’, by “defeating” a minority democracy effectively only makes use of a ‘half-collective wisdom’, and a lob-sided one at that. Objections, on the other hand, enable people to consider the issues equivalently and more deeply, and for them to refine the way forward; it enables feedback to flow in a symbiotic organic manner. What is most needed in our troubled world is not more opposition, but the power to object, to halt the line, take stock of where we’re at and work towards a more fruitful collaborative world. Everyone in organizations and in communities should have the right to object!

Because of the bipolar democratic world we live in, however, most concerns and objections raised by staff (with good intentions of improving the system) are typically misinterpreted by managers as opposition, and even rebelliousness, an attack on their authority. Rarely is the binary mind-set of democracy itself viewed as the problem. Fortunately, however, sensing that both the authority-based system and the democratic opposition paradigm are not working any more, many organizations are beginning to get it, and are striving to re-invent themselves, to re-imagine new ways of working.

There are many alternative models out there. Which one should they choose, how do they take the first step and who decides? If there is one step I would recommend organizations seeking to reinvent themselves should take before even anything else, before embarking on any one new system, then it is that they should warrant safety to all their employees or organizational members for them to object. To object, not to oppose! Indeed they should invite them to object….. and then, and this is absolutely crucial, they should create serious space for those objections to be heard, issues to be explored more deeply and gradually for new patterns to be able to emerge. Hold plenty of space and listen deeply; let go and see what new world evolves! The future is for those organizations that are brave enough to engage their people to ‘halt the line”, open space and converse deeply.

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