Why Would an Elephant Waltz?

Once upon a time a large industrial group wanted to set up a large, modern and efficient cement plant as a greenfield project. It was an ambitious plan that would help the company capture a big untapped market. Hence, they wanted to bring up the plant as fast as possible.

So, first things first. They got the land and the limestone mine of relatively good quality. And they also got a CEO who they thought would deliver the project on time. Since it was a greenfield project they thought that a very disciplined person would fit the bill nicely. Therefore a senior retired army Colonel was selected for the purpose.

As soon as he was appointed, he set about the task with all seriousness of an army officer. He understood about projects and engagements. He has done that all his life in the army. He understood command and control very well. That was his forte. But though he was an engineer by training he had absolutely no idea what a cement plant was made of.

Hence to deliver a quality project in time, he hit upon a splendid plan backed up by an 'infallible' logic. The logic was that he would get the best machines or sub-systems of the plant from the best suppliers of the world and then he would just put them together so that the plant performs the best right from the first day. But how would he understand what was the 'best'? He would survey the existing plants go through their records of performance and reliability, collect data to find out what part or sub-system of the system worked best for Plant X and then what worked best for Plant Y and so on. Reliability would be his benchmark and vision.  

So he decided that he would buy the kiln from supplier A and the cooler from supplier B and the hammer crusher from supplier C and the conveying system from supplier D and the cement mill from supplier E and so on.. When he placed his ideas before the board they found his ideas to be wonderful. They were convinced that it would take the minimum time for procurement and set up since they would avoid lengthy negotiations and hassles if they decided what to buy and from whom to buy these from. After all it would not pose any problem. They were buying the best things from the best possible suppliers around the world. 

The Colonel went about the task with gusto, precision, efficiency and great care carrying just the right attitude of going to war. None needed to teach him what 'war footing' was.

Soon, the best pieces of equipment and sub systems were purchased and erected. Time flew past quickly. In no time the modern cement plant was set up. His bosses were extremely happy with the good job done and awarded the Colonel a good bonus and a promotion for completing the project much before time and within budget. Everyone was happy and the plant began operating much before the planned starting date. It was key to capturing the untapped market before others got in.

But very soon a problem emerged. The plant was unable to produce the designed capacity at all. They kept trying harder and harder but the plant refused to change its behavior. They coaxed people to work smarter and come up with good ideas. Nothing happened. They called in experts. The experts took their fees but the system did not improve. They started training people to no good effect. Then they brought more or the best people to leadership positions. But they also could not make the desired change. People were sacked. New blood was inducted. The system did not budge an inch. 

In addition to this another problem surfaced. The plant suffered innumerable breakdowns. One after the other. People were busy fixing things up as soon as things failed. And they kept doing this for years.

12 years passed. The fate of the plant was sealed. Or so it seemed. People were blamed and they were demoralized. The President of the plant was sacked. New leaders took over. A time came when people stopped talking about this plant about which they were so proud of a few years back. People fought. Blamed each other. Worked hard. And prayed often. 

What was happening? What went wrong?

The problem precisely lay in the interaction of the parts of the system. They did not 'dance in harmony' or simply did not match or fit together as one whole. Why was that?

For example, they had the best kiln. Now this best kiln retained more heat than other kilns and therefore was energy efficient and reliable. It meant that the kiln lost less energy and most of it was used to form the clinker. That was good news. Then what was the bad news…?

The clinker that came out of the kiln went over a 'cooler' whose function was to cool the clinker. Now this cooler was not designed to match the performance of this kiln or in other words the cooler was not designed to handle the temperature of the clinker that came out this kiln. So by the time the clinker passed over the cooler it did not cool sufficiently enough. After the clinker passed the cooler it entered the hammer crusher. With more than the expected temperature of the 'cooled' clinker the hammer crushers performed badly. This was because the hammers wore out in no time owing to the 'hot' clinker. They were not designed to handle these 'hot' clinkers. The clinkers were still hot enough after being broken into smaller pieces. Now the broken clinker traveled over a rubber belt conveyor (RBC) to the silo for temporary storage. The RBC wasn't designed to handle the additional temperature and the rougher edges of the clinkers (produced by the bad performance of the crusher). So they often went down necessitating frequent maintenance and replacement and stoppage of the entire system. 

Since the production pressures were up the clinker did not stay in the silo for a long time (that also caused defects in the silo) the clinker was taken out in relatively hot condition to be fed to the cement mill. And surely there too, it produced frequent problems. The ripples of the systemic problem was felt right up to the bag house (pollution control mechanism). In fact it was everywhere and the whole plant looked so dirty and dusty that people often did not like to work in such places.

So, in short, every part of the system got affected and strange system behaviors abounded in plenty (emergence). Such emergence inhibited production and the plant could never run as desired. Everyone was busy looking at the parts of the system and trying to improve the parts and make them very efficient. And as expected it never worked. The Elephant refused to dance.

Till a time came when a very talented engineer was placed as the head of the plant. He kept looking at the system for days and started to understand the 'strong' relationships between the different parts that caused the problems. He then systemically tackled the issue with lot of patience and right motivation. He started changing, modifying and replacing the parts of the system as needed with the eye to match them well. His focus was not on purchasing the best things or the best parts. He simply went on matching one part to the other so that they can 'dance in harmony'. So after a time, he transformed the 'strong' relationships into 'weak' relationships.

And the plant started performing extremely well. It started winning prizes for best productivity, least energy consumption, best quality, etc. etc. People were again proud and happy to work. The top corporate management was so pleased with the sudden change in performance that they decided to expand the capacity of the plant by putting up a new system along with a new limestone mine.

From then onwards there was no looking back for this plant — sorry the 'Elephant' …

The Elephant danced after a long time and continues to waltz merrily.

But is that so? For how long would that be?

Would the Elephant continue to waltz so gracefully even after say five years?

Lessons learned:

a) It does not matter whether each part of the system is strong and reliable. What matters is how well they harmonize to produce the whole. The 'relationship' must 'dance in harmony'.

b) Strengthening parts individually does not help a system to perform at its best.

c) Strong relationships between parts cause strange emergence, while 'weak' relationships between parts provide stability and reliability. 

d) When people work too hard or fight or blame each other or pray too often it simply shows that the system is broken and needs attention.

e) Lever points can be used to effectively to change system behavior.

f) System behavior or emergence changes over time. It is difficult to predict but we can certainly watch when the Elephant starts showing the first signs of strain.  

g) One can't create a splendid design for the future by analyzing past records and data. 

h) To make an Elephant waltz look at the big picture and the relationships between parts of the system and never at the parts. 

i) Anything more…?

 

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