Working in the garden can teach us a lot about the natural course of plants, trees, and weeds. Indeed, there are many corollaries between weeds in the garden and defects in a business setting. What can we learn from the natural world that are applicable in business?
The Garden is the Gemba
To properly care for a garden requires that you are in the garden, watering, nurturing, planting, cleaning, and enjoying. You can’t garden from your couch.
In business, you must go to where the value is added or where the work is done. You cannot do this from an office alone, but you must be where the work is done — wherever that might be in the context you’re in — go to where the work is at, for that is what it means to be a responsible steward.
Tiny Seeds become Big Plants
All plants and trees start as a simple seed, planted into fertile soil.
In business, most defects, cultural challenges, or financial problems all started out as small acts:
- letting a defective part pass through to the next process
- a habit of throwing money at problems instead of solving them creatively
- a habit of finger-pointing and blaming started with one pointed finger and one blame, then it becomes infused in the culture
You can think of more, but the corollary between seeds and business are hard to ignore.
Dormancy is not Inactivity
Plants grow when it may not be visible to the naked eye. For example, we have a tree in the backyard that appeared to not grow at all for several seasons. Then, this summer, it grew in a major way. What was it doing all that time? The roots were going deeper, broader, and the foundation was growing while the part of the tree above the ground appeared not to be growing. But, in truth, it was growing the entire time.
Transformation in business follows the same natural course. Changing the worldview, thoughts, and behaviors of people, companies, and a culture takes time. While the change might not be visible, it is sometimes the case that the change is happening in people’s hearts and in people’s minds.
Be patient; have hope; nurture and demonstrate the behaviors you want others to emulate. You will see the change soon enough.
Weeds Are Hard to Find
Weeds often masks themselves to appear like a non-weed or its surroundings. This makes it difficult to spot or tell between weed and plant. Weeds know, full well, that the gardner will try to pluck it out when it’s discovered, so it does its best to hide by hiding in the layers.
In business, defects act just like weeds. As most of us know, most defects and complexities are hidden or become hidden over time. For example, if a defect is known or a process is difficult to accomplish, then human behavior will find the easiest course of action by creating a workaround. This workaround, then, becomes the process. In business, this is often called a “Hidden Factory”, or a factory within a factory. Turning a blind eye to problems causes defects and business problems to be hidden — hidden by an act of commission or omission.
When You Water the Plant, You also Water the Weeds
Weeds and trees consume the same resources. In other words, if weeds are thriving amongst plants and trees, then when you water your plants and trees, you are also watering the weeds.
When defects and business problems aren’t completely solved, they continue to burden the company and its people. Most insidious of all, these defects become “accepted” in a way as the company compensates for their costs. For example, suppose you know that suppliers are providing unreliable parts or products to you, but you see that as a live-with business challenge — you have to put-up with it. You might compensate for this by providing higher-than-normal warantees, customer service, or failure costs. This costs is then baked-into the budget, year over year, until something is done about it.
If It’s Barren, the Weeds will Thrive
We have a spot in our front yard where the sprinkler doesn’t quite reach. Guess where most of the weeds are? Indeed, if you give weeds room to grow, they will. The good cannot choke-out the bad.
If leadership stops paying attention to certain parts of the company or is overweight on some parts of the company but underweight on others, then that provides conditions for complexity, defects, and problems to grow. Attention and awareness are critical for a healthy operation.
You must visit the Gemba, otherwise defects will continue to go unseen and continue to thrive.
Kill the Weed and Collateral Damage
Sometimes to kill the weed, a gardner also kills some of the plant. For example, in our grass are holes where some grass died in my attempt to remove the weeds. This is not always the case.
When we let problems, defects, etc. continue in business, they will eventually catch-up to us. But by then, it is sometimes too late and the company has to take drastic measures to make things right again. Most layoff’s are because of this — if the company had been prudent in how they operate, then layoff’s are likely avoidable. Only when it’s too late, then the company has to take dramatic measures to stop the financial bleeding by cutting the easy costs — unfortunately, that is often people.
Find the Root
If you do not pull the roots, then the weeds will come back. If we hack at the branches and do not attack the root, then the weeds will grow back and will continue to be a problem for your garden. Start with what you can see — the branches. Then follow them to the roots of the weeds, then pluck the weed out from the root.
In business, when we attack the symptoms and not the root causes, then the problems will reappear and the employees and the company and the company’s finances will continue to be burdened.
Asking the 5-Whys is not difficult to do, but the simplicity and effectiveness of it is a stumbling block to many people. Start with what you can see and what you know, but don’t stop there. Continue until you arrive at the root causes of your problems.