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Imagine you are sitting at the table, the linen table cloth spread out before you, the glass of Cabernet sparkling in the candle light, and the waiter approaching your table with the most delicious apple and pork roulade you’ve ever had. The roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts only enhance the dish for you. Pork may not be considered a “noble meat” the way beef is, but who cares when it tastes this good?
As the plate is set before you, you realize you just aren’t going to enjoy it the way you have in the past. Why? Because you have a dilemma on your hands, albeit a fascinating one. Your department has just been given the task of ramping up the production of pork at your conglomerate’s operations in North Carolina. This is your job, it’s what you do; solving problems is how you make a living, and you live a good life. But this particular mission provokes an anxiety in your chest that you don’t quite know the source of. You’re confident you can rise to the challenge, but you haven’t yet figured out how.
The outlook is good at your company. The word company doesn’t feel like it does us justice, you think to yourself. To describe the top pig-slaughtering operation in the US, a vertically integrated, multinational enterprise producing pig products “from squeal to meal,” with nearly 50,000 employees generating over $10 billion dollars in revenue a year, behemoth feels more appropriate.
And demand for the behemoth’s products hasn’t just been steadily climbing; it has taken a sharp turn northward. The CEO has informed you that this new demand must be met as quickly as possible. That fact in itself is cause for concern—every business must continually adapt to changes in supply and demand. But the marching orders issued by the CEO had an undercurrent of urgency, and a further twinge of anxiety hits your gut as you take the next bite of your roulade. Do I have all the information I need? you ask yourself. Or is there more to this story?
A move like this isn’t as simple as pressing on an accelerator and feeling the engine pick up speed. Roadblocks along the way are practically guaranteed, along with natural delays that will make the process lengthier than the corner offices will like. In nearly all circumstances, growth in demand is an excellent development in business. But having seen companies collapse under the weight of their own success, you know that increasing operational output is often more easily mandated by Corporate than actually achieved by the people on the ground surrounded by live animals.
Those live animals won’t stay that way for long. Soon they’ll be on their way to dinner plates across North America, Europe, and—this may come as a surprise to most outside the industry—even China.
China! You can’t help but shake your head in amazement when you think of the role the People’s Republic plays in the pork industry. We think of the United States as a land of opportunity, but if you happen to sell pig products, China has quickly become the New World, ripe for conquest. As the Chinese middle class has expanded, so too has its pork consumption, and more is consumed there than in all of North America and Europe combined. Twenty years ago, who would have anticipated that a country responsible for producing and manufacturing nearly half a trillion dollars’ worth of goods for the United States would become a cash cow for American pig farmers? China has the advantage of cheap and plentiful labor, but even that is trumped by our consolidated operations, streamlined supply chains, and low-cost feed. What a world we live in.
As you chew through the final bite, you look forward to tomorrow’s meeting, the first of many yet to come. But this one will be of particular importance. Complex systems are highly sensitive to initial conditions, so tomorrow will be your chance to set the tone.
Let’s get started.
The next morning you sit at the conference table and briefly glance at each of the members of your team. You’ve assembled a great group of people, all of whom share certain qualities and behavior profiles despite coming from different academic backgrounds. You almost feel like the CEO of your own little company, and here is the rest of the C-suite.
Maurice can speak in numbers and understands cash flow as the lifeblood of any business; he’d be your chief financial officer. Katie has a keen eye for powerful messaging, and her natural empathy helps her easily understand the shared concerns of groups of people; she’d be the perfect chief marketing officer (and it helps that she grew up on a farm in Georgia, you think to yourself). Jake is a real smooth talker who understands what motivates people to make decisions. You bring him along any time you need to close somebody on making a difficult change. You’d make him chief revenue officer. For chief technology officer, the obvious choice would be Ricardo. His knowledge of the software and hardware that make a plant run and a business operate fluidly is second to none. Vera feels a bit like your right hand. She’s indispensable—someone who’s always there to support you when you’re struggling but not afraid to take you aside and tell you how wrong you just got something. You can easily see her as president of the company.
You present the mission to the team and confidently describe it as a jigsaw puzzle with “maybe about ten pieces.” In your hand you have a pad of yellow sticky notes, and your team knows from past experience that before you can discover how the pieces fit together, you have to know what they are. You direct them to start with the obvious ones. Katie humors you by offering “swine.” To meet an increase in demand for pork products, you obviously need to start with more of the animals themselves, essentially the raw material your end product is manufactured from. You stick the note to the easel pad standing in front of the white board on the wall.
“But, as you know, there’s more to swine than just swine,” Katie continues with a slight Southern drawl, and you reflexively pick up the pad of pink sticky notes that will be associated with the yellow ones. “Sows, boars, and piglets, for starters.”
“The makeup of the herds is affected by the specific demand itself,” says Vera. “What products are we talking about: cured or uncured? Bacon, ham, gammon, sausage, suckling? Pork belly has become very popular.”
You write end products on a note.
“We also need to consider exactly how we’re going to increase the population of the herds,” Ricardo adds. “Are we breeding them, or are we purchasing them on the market?”
Breeding and market get sticky notes.
Maurice looks concerned. “Breeding is much more cost efficient, but purchasing stock will get us there faster. We need to know how much demand we’re to fill, how soon we need to fill it, and what our budgetary restraints are. I don’t imagine we’ve been given a blank check …” His sarcasm trails off as the others smirk. If only it were that easy.
You set down the sticky notes for a moment and turn to the white board.
“What products driving demand?”
“How much demand to be filled?”
“How much $$ do we have?”
“Guys, I don’t mean to slow your roll,” interjects Jake, “but you can’t breed or buy more pigs unless you’ve got somewhere to put them.”
“And people to take care of them,” adds Katie.
“And feed to … well, to feed them,” Vera says, and smiles.
“And capacity to process them,” says Maurice in his typical serious tone. “That’s more people, facilities, and machinery.”
You haven’t been able to keep up with the sticky notes, let alone the questions on the white board. You’re beginning to think ten pieces to this puzzle may have been a conservative estimate.
The list continues, and as you catch up, you recommend to the team that the focus be on the edge pieces that require direct and immediate attention: farmers, farm employees, processors, and processor employees. These are the pieces that will frame all your considerations further down the road. The challenge now is to get your team working on the ways in which each of these pieces need to evolve in order to meet the increased demand. By defining this evolution, you will be able to identify those changes that will affect each piece individually, as well as the interrelatedness of those changes in regard to all the other pieces.
When you build a puzzle, you see that each piece contains a part of the larger picture, details that are crucial to the end result. As you identify the image on each piece, you can see how it interacts with the other pieces on the table and the larger picture as a whole. By bringing the related pieces together you begin to see your way more clearly. You decide to operate by posing a simple question, one that might have been asked in grade school, “How did my dinner get to my plate last night?”
The first piece you set aside is the place that represents where it all begins—the farmer. In order to meet your new demand, you need your farmers to increase the number of pigs they raise each year. You know that most of your farms are already operating at capacity, and increasing their production will seem impossible. You need to find a way to increase the size of your farms and the number of hogs that each produces on a yearly basis. However, being open to every challenge, you realize that you will need to manage the push to increase production with the time it will take to secure more land, increase the breeding capabilities of your livestock, and negotiate new contracts with suppliers. You will also need to find ways to deal with the additional waste produced by the significant increase in the number of hogs being produced by each farm.
Ten pieces was a VERY conservative estimate, you remark to yourself, as your brain takes a mini break from the action.
The next piece of the puzzle, you notice, fits directly with the first piece; this one involves the farmer’s employees. Increasing production is going to require you to either hire more employees or have your existing staff work longer hours. Both of these present significant issues that will need to be resolved as part of the process of increasing each farm’s size and capacity. If your geographical location offers a wealth of potential employees, there may not be much delay associated with this puzzle piece. On the other hand, if there is a small pool of potential new employees, you may not be able to ramp up production until you can get adequate staff to manage and run the farm operations.
The delay concerns you. Getting everything right will be a challenge at this point, and the results of your efforts won’t be immediate. You fear you won’t know if you’re succeeding or failing until you’ve already done one or the other, and failing isn’t really an option.
You realize that your team—who have lapsed into conversation among themselves while you’ve been thinking—have grown silent and are looking to you for guidance. The complexity of the challenge is becoming overwhelming due to all the moving parts and cascading sets of relationships.
So you make a decision to convene the meeting, explaining that everyone is to meet at the same time tomorrow in order to look at the situation with fresh eyes.
What you don’t mention to them is that in the meantime, you need to put in a call to Dave.
“This is Dave!”
It’s not that he speaks loudly. Having worked in journalism and broadcasting before becoming an industrial engineer, Dave’s love for top-of-the-line recording equipment and microphones means that when he answers the phone, his voice sounds like it’s inside your head.
Dave has been a mentor of sorts since the time you worked together at a national chain of automobile parts retailers and service centers. Pleasantries covered, you ask if you’ve caught him at a good time to discuss your current mission. He tells you he has a few minutes before his next call, a planning session with an architect. Evidently, he’s working on his thirty-fourth facility design project, a 300,000 square foot distribution center in Las Vegas for a rapidly growing stage production equipment rental company. I bet he has fun rifling through their inventory, you think … but do not say aloud.
“So, how can I help?”
You boil down your team’s new mission to a sixty-second summary of some of the complexity you’ve already encountered in building a plan.
“You’re right, there are a lot of moving parts here,” he confirms. “But since we don’t have a lot of time, let’s start by focusing on just one thing: What’s the first strategic problem that jumps to mind? What’s worrying you?” He must have noted some of the anxiety in your voice.
You know Dave is clean with his language. If he asks for a strategic problem, you’d better not give him something tactical like the question of bacon versus ham production.
After a brief moment of silence, you tell him you’re worried first about the delay. No matter what plan your team implements, there will be a lapse in time before you know the result of your efforts. How can you be sure you’ve made the right decision? What if you put drastic changes into place only to see the problem worsen?
“Your concern is justified,” Dave says, and his voice takes on a reassuring tone. “The delay is a force to be reckoned with. There is no process, no system, no causal relationship that doesn’t exhibit a delay, because cause and effect cannot be simultaneous. How we react to that delay can make all the difference in a successful output. Let me give you an example of how this works. It may or may not be based on a true story.”
As you nod your head, it hits you that you that an onslaught of tremendously valuable information is about to hit you and you’ll need to take notes to capture it all. You scramble about looking for your notebook, which seems to have gone missing, so you jump up and grab a whiteboard marker.
“Once upon a time there was a little domestic struggle between a husband and wife and”—Dave pauses for dramatic effect—“the thermostat. Arriving home after a jog, the husband turned down the temperature to cool off the house. A few minutes later, the wife also noticed the house was feeling a little too warm, so she went to the thermostat and turned it down even further.
“The air conditioning slowly kicked in. Residential climate control is a process that naturally requires some time to make a noticeable difference. But as the couple prepared dinner, the heat from the stove and oven in the kitchen kept both their body temperatures up. Thinking the AC still wasn’t on high enough, the husband lowered the thermostat once again!
“But by the time dinner was eaten and they had cooled off, the air in the house was positively frigid, and that night, they both went to bed cold. And they did not live happily after.
“So what’s the moral of the story?” Dave asks. You tell him you have a feeling it has something to do with patience.
“Precisely. You know, one of the most common causes of car accidents is over-correction. Attempting to avoid an obstacle in the road, a driver may wrench the steering wheel too far and inadvertently strike something else on the side of the road or cause the vehicle to roll over.
“Failing to acknowledge and account for the delay in a given process can result in thwarting the coming success or pushing it beyond the desired outcome with detrimental results. A process must be balanced against the inevitable delay.
“And that, my friend, is the first systems archetype: ‘Balancing Process with Delay’.”
You confirm your understanding so far, but your curiosity is piqued. The “first” systems archetype? What are the others?
“We’ll come back to that in another conversation. The more important question right now is what to do about the first one.”
You write furiously as Dave continues.
“In the balancing act between process and delay, you must remind yourself that patience is key, even in light of tremendous pressure to show results. Don’t overreact. Rather, invest in improving the system’s response where possible. Look for ways to shorten the time it takes to reach the desired goal, or measure your results based on smaller changes, which will allow the system to reach the desired state faster.”
Smaller changes! That’s brilliant! You’ve spent the past twenty-four hours worrying incessantly about a grand solution to the overall problem. But even increasing production a small amount to meet demand is a big deal. We should start small!
“But not too small,” Dave asserts. “When balancing process with delay, starting small in making changes or in measuring results is definitely a good option. But as you tackle this problem overall, I actually recommend you go big … big picture, that is.”
You ask Dave what he means.
“You went through the sticky note process of identifying the elements at play and the moving parts, yes?”
Of course, you tell him. You’d never call him before at least getting started with that process. But you didn’t get very far because you got bogged down in the details. Swine was the obvious starting point, but then you and the team immediately started discussing breeds of pigs and the specific products you produce.
“That’s a very common pitfall. You went granular too soon. That’s a recipe for confusion and frustration.
“Instead, start big. Imagine you’re building the storyboard for a movie. You don’t worry about the lighting or dialogue when you’re storyboarding; you just go for the big plot points. Do the same for the series of steps that encompass producing one of your products—just one. Got it?”
You’ve got it.
“Do that with your team tomorrow and then call me at exactly 4:02 p.m., Eastern time. Gotta run!”
And with a click, you hang up the phone and take a deep breath. There’s not much room left on the whiteboard for notes. A feeling of relief sets in. You know the next step, and it’s one you’re comfortable taking.
You set an alarm on your smartphone for 4:01 p.m. tomorrow, to ensure that you call Dave at precisely 4:02. You know that if you call a minute before or after, he won’t pick up.
“I simply don’t understand what more they expect from us,” you hear Jake say as you open the conference room door.
You step into the meeting room to find that your team has beaten you there and an impassioned discussion is already in progress. You haven’t been listening long enough to know the context, but you don’t need the antecedent to know exactly who “they” are. You can tell from the tone of the conversation: an equal mix of frustration, righteous indignation, and ridicule. It’s a conversation you’ve all had before.
You ask what “they” are up to this time. “PETA blocked one of our trucks on the way to Tar Heel this morning,” Maurice explains. Tar Heel, North Carolina is home to your company’s main slaughterhouse, the largest in the world. “They tried to forcibly break open the trailer. The hogs were so frightened they were climbing the walls.” You ask if there were any injuries.
“It wasn’t too bad,” Katie responds. “Two hogs with broken legs, and one that appeared to have just keeled over from the stress. One of the protestors had their finger bit by a frightened pig, bless his heart.”
Jake pipes up again. “That’s one of the things that frustrates me so much about activists. In an attempt to ‘save’ the animals, they end up doing much more harm than good.”
And the driver? To this, Ricardo answers, “They threatened Gus. You know Gus—great guy, the tall one with the Missouri State cap. But he was too busy being a professional to care about that. He reported the incident the moment he saw the blockade on the road ahead of him. Our Rescue Unit was on the scene before the authorities arrived. They avoided those good-for-nothing criminals until the cops got there, but wound up covered in red paint anyway.”
Rescue Units are part ambulance, part rescue squad, and part clean-up crew. The company has developed a network of teams and vehicles to respond to any incidents that may occur when transporting livestock. If a truck is in an accident or breaks down—or, as in this case, is forced to stop by protestors—the Rescue Unit is equipped and trained to respond to the emergency. Rare as they are, when they such incidents do occur, they usually present some pretty complex logistical challenges. Composed of both EMTs and veterinary techs, the Unit will address injuries, manage the care and transport of the animals involved, and work with authorities to contain the situation.
What about the media? Ricardo continues. “The locals came by, took some pictures and interviewed a cop. There were only two arrests, but the coverage was favorable to us, for once.” Media coverage usually favors the protestors, bringing more attention to their rallying cries of animal injustice than to the costly and criminal disruption—and occasional outright destruction—that often comes of their efforts. “But in this case, they resisted arrest, and even the liberal media can’t spin an assault on a police officer.”
Jake is obviously still frustrated and venting. “So again, I have to ask: what more do they expect from us? Our farms are climate controlled, roomy, quiet, and clean. We seriously have the Ritz Carltons of pig farms.”
Maurice nods with him. “This is very true. I’ve worked as an order picker in warehouses that were dirtier and more oppressive than the worst of our facilities, be it a sow farm or wean-to-finish.” Wean-to-finish. You remind yourself to bring that subject back up once the team dives into the day’s work. You sense there’s a little more steam they need to let out first.
Jake goes on. “We’ve implemented the vast majority of the good husbandry practices Dr. Grandin recommended.” Jake is referring to Temple Grandin, a world-renowned expert in animal behavior and consultant on safe, practical, and humane practices in animal husbandry. Her work has brought about paradigm shifts throughout the industry. She is loved by most and admired by everyone.
“She has toured our facilities,” Jake continues, “and she says they are exemplary for the good treatment of our animals, and that our competitors ought to model themselves after us. And if there was ever a trustworthy source, it’s Dr. Grandin.”
Temple Grandin is known for being a high-functioning person with autism, and many people on the autism spectrum are unable even to comprehend deceit, let alone employ it. It’s rumored that the more unscrupulous among your company’s competitors have tried to buy her off, only to find themselves completely written off and shunned. “The only thing we don’t do for our pigs is bake them cakes and sing them Happy Birthday!” Jake exclaims.
“They don’t generally make it to their first birthday,” quips Katie.
“I’m aware of that,” Jake replies, “but you know what I’m trying to say!”
A few chuckles can be heard from around the table, and you watch your team settle into their chairs as the discussion dies down. It’s time to get some work done. You explain that today you and the team are going to start not from the beginning, but from 30,000 feet up. It’s time to clean the slates and look at the company’s business processes with fresh eyes.
While you work with the whiteboard and sticky notes, you are going to pretend you know nothing about pork production, and you want them to teach it to you. You want them to treat you like an intelligent fifth-grader. You don’t need things spelled out for you necessarily, but you don’t want them to assume too much; that said, neither do you want them to get bogged down by details. Not only will this exercise help everyone present, but you also have a telephone conversation scheduled that afternoon with someone whom you need to walk through the same process.
“Would that be Dave?” asks Vera.
You confirm this. The team has heard you speak before of Dave, and about the lessons you’ve learned from him over the years, but they haven’t met him. Yet.
You ask who wants to get us started.
“It all starts at the sow farm, in the gestation crates,” Maurice offers.
You immediately interrupt. As a fifth-grader and industry outsider for the moment, you need terms defined.
“Okay, I can be a bit more detailed for you,” he continues. “Sows are female pigs old enough to have babies. They are the mother pigs. And we have special farms for them where we keep them each in their own stall. Those are called gestation crates because they are where the mother stays while she’s pregnant, when she gives birth, and while her baby piglets are nursing.”
You write terminology and definitions on sticky notes and start drawing the process map on the whiteboard. What’s next?
“In a few weeks, the piglets should weigh about fifteen pounds, and it’s time for them to move to their next home, the wean-to-finish farm. We load them on a truck and take them over.”
What does wean-to-finish mean?
“Well, to understand wean-to-finish, you have to understand how we used to do things. A couple of decades ago, it was common practice for there to be four stops on a pig’s journey from squeal to meal.”
You interrupt again. From “squeal to meal?” You note a little frustration and discomfort on Maurice’s face. But you explain that you’re not trying to be pain in the butt. Rather, you need to go through this process slowly, laboriously even. Assumptions will inhibit you from freeing your minds to solve new problems in different ways. And the team has a serious problem to address.
Maurice nods, takes a deep breath, and visibly summons patience.
“From squeal to meal refers to our vertically-integrated business model”—he catches himself—“which means that we are in charge of the complete process from the time the pig is born—when it squeals—all the way to the point when the pork chops you had for dinner last night—the meal—were delivered to your local grocery store.”
More definitions. More sticky notes. Okay, back to wean-to-finish.
“The four facilities our pigs would pass through were the sow farm, the nursery farm, the finishing farm, and finally the slaughterhouse.”
Now it’s Vera’s turn to interrupt. “I prefer the term abattoir to slaughterhouse. It makes what we do sound classy.”
After a few snorts and chuckles, not dissimilar to what you’d hear in one of the pens at a farm, you ask Katie to describe the four-part journey.
“So the piglets grow to about fifteen pounds, at which point they’re ready to be weaned off their mother, which is to say they don’t need to suckle but can eat on their own. At that point, we used to transport them to a nursery farm, where we would care for them in smaller pens for about seven weeks until they reached fifty pounds. Then we’d move them to the finishing farm, where they’d be kept in larger pens with more pigs. That’s where they’d ‘finish’ growing—hence the name—before we moved them to their final destination with the classy French name.”
The snorts are sounding more and more like pig sounds. You ask Ricardo what’s different about the process now.
“Today we’ve removed one stop from the journey. We don’t use nursery farms anymore; rather, the weaned piglets are transported once and grow to market weight in one facility, the ‘wean-to-finish’ farm.”
Why did we change our process, and what benefits did we see from it?
“There are a multitude of reasons. Each time you move livestock it puts stress on the animals. They don’t enjoy it. The fewer times they move, the happier they’ll be. And happy pigs actually grow faster. With the old system, it took them twenty-six weeks to reach market weight. This way, it only takes twenty-four. Furthermore, each time the pigs are moved into a new group with other pigs, they have to scuffle for dominance. Who’s the alpha of the group? Nobody gets hurt, but it’s stressful. This way they only have to establish the pecking order once, not twice.
Consolidating the nursery and finishing farms means we cut out one leg of the trip that our trucks have to drive. That means reduced labor, less fuel used, and less risk of any mishaps like this morning’s. All of that reduces the company’s costs.
“Furthermore, the two-week reduction in the full growth cycle means we use less feed, which means less grain and fertilizer, which means fewer resources used and emissions generated in the planting, growing, and transport of the grain and the production of feed."
“The pigs win, the people win, the environment wins, the corporation wins. Everybody wins. Caring for your stock-in-trade is not only humane, it’s good business.”
The whiteboard is beginning to fill with both the process and the list of benefits. You thank Ricardo, and ask Jake to finish the story.
“Easy-peasy. We transport the full grown hogs to the a-bat-war, or whatever you call it. We tattoo ‘em and put ‘em in pens to rest for a while. Then it’s a one-way ticket to Venice, and the hogs say the Lord’s Prayer as we gas ‘em till they’re out. Then we stick ‘em, bleed ‘em, and the sleepy heads are off to piggy heaven. Then we clean the carcasses and it’s out with the innards. We cool ‘em overnight, and yesterday’s Wilbur becomes tomorrow’s bacon. Dee-lish.”
You shake your head and give Jake a wry grin. He gets the picture.
“So the tattoos are for keeping track of the animal throughout the slaughter. The fine folks at the USDA require that, and we happily oblige. After they’ve rested, we take them to the anesthetizing station where we put them to sleep with carbon dioxide. CO2 is heavier than air, so we keep it in a pit and the hogs enter a compartment that lowers them into the pit and then brings them back up when they’re out. The compartment is called a gondola, and that’s why we call it Venice. And the Ferris wheel contraption the gondola is attached to is called a paternoster, which is why we say the pigs recite the Lord’s Prayer. Is this too in the weeds for you, boss?”
You tell him it’s not entirely necessary, but to please continue.
“Well, the rest is pretty straightforward. I don’t know if it’s classy or not, but the next term for your sticky notes is exsanguinate, which means we drain the unconscious hog of its blood and it dies painlessly, or at least we hope it does. Then we remove the primary organs and put the carcass in a fridge overnight, which makes the butchering process possible the next day.”
You thank Jake, and ask how we can sum up the last and most distasteful part of the process.
Ricardo responds. “I’ve actually explained the slaughter process to my daughter, Giselle—who happens to be an actual fifth-grader, by the way—and she gave me the most brilliant analogy. ‘So it’s kind of like a dis-assembly line, then,’ she says. I asked her what she meant by that. She tells me that she’d been learning about Henry Ford and assembly lines in school. ‘Car factories put cars together and sell the whole thing. You guys take pigs apart and sell the pieces.’ I told her that’s exactly what we do. I was so proud I was practically in tears.”
“Does she have an updated resume?” Vera quips. “We need to hire her immediately!”
And this time it’s not just snorts, but all-out laughter. You finish your work on the whiteboard and then go to thank everyone and close out the meeting, but are interrupted mid-sentence by your smartphone’s wailing alarm.
It’s 4:01 p.m.
To be continued...
Systems Thinking and Mowing the Grass