In most Japanese production lines you will find two cords dangling every few meters along the line: one yellow, one red.  The yellow sounds an alarm.  This is a call for help when a problem has arisen.  But if the red string is pulled, the whole production line comes to a standstill.  This is used when a problem is deemed so serious that it cannot be resolved within the cycle time without disrupting the smooth pull flow of production.  This instigates a review of the situation, remedial action to get the line flowing again and action to ensure the problem does not recur.

This system is called “Andon”.  Every employee is empowered to pull the red cord and stop the whole production line – even though every minute of line stoppage represents a significant productivity loss. This empowerment of each frontline worker to stop the line to avoid major errors is at the heart of Japanese product reliability.

The Andon system is rarely discussed in Lean or Agile circles – perhaps because it represents the limits of executive power.  Giving employees at all levels power over production is deemed more important than “efficiency”, corporate power structure or shareholder value.

As companies here become more collaborative and responsive to user needs, employees will need this kind of direct power. This ability to halt the line and raise objections is at the heart of sociocracy.

Sociocracy

Sociocracy is a simple way of structuring and governing organisations to enable full participation from all their members.  Sociocratic organisations manage themselves as organic systems and make smarter decisions by tapping into collective wisdom. The key benefits are:

  • cyclical feedback processes keep them in tune with stakeholders and the environment
  • high levels of engagement and productivity
  • advanced ability to learn, transform and adapt

Fundamentally, sociocracy enables people to live and work together as different and unique persons on the basis of mutual equivalence in decision-making.  The main purpose of the sociocratic structure and processes is to ensure this equivalence when major decisions are taken.  This focus on difference and uniqueness is crucial and contrasts to the more equality-driven ‘democratic’ alternative approaches often in use. Sociocracy recognises that people are not actually ‘equal’, but does give everyone an equivalent voice in decision-making.   The simple structure and processes of sociocracy are designed to ensure this equivalence.

Sociocracy does not match adversarial command and control style, but it does match the new collaborative, team network approach coming to the fore.  While many of the new leadership approaches emerging are already sociocratic in spirit, they often have no mechanisms in place to manage human difference.  Such informal, loosely ‘democratic’, flat structures work because they tend to be composed of like-minded people.  Sociocracy alleviates the need for like-mindedness, and indeed celebrates diversity, by guaranteeing equivalence where it counts.

Consent

One of the three core principles of sociocracy is consent.  Unlike consensus, which asks for almost impossible agreement, consent is simply the absence of strong enough objection(s) which could jeopardise a team’s or circle’s aims.  Objections are always in relation to aims, never for their own sake or adversarial in manner.  All policy and role decisions are made by consent and given a term by when they must be reviewed, so no decision is ever permanent.  This enables a flexible “good enough for now” approach, with design and prototype thinking.  Objections are not blocks, but rather invitations to improve and enrich the decision being taken.

In short, objections are welcomed in sociocracy. They point to potential problems ahead, and all decisions are refined to resolve those objections, making for wiser decisions. The experimental ‘good enough for now’ approach in turn allows for complex perspectives to be considered in decisions, warning signs to be heard and respected much earlier, and agility to be generated through an iterative process.  It also makes meetings more productive and effective, because with every voice heard equivalently, people do not feel the need to speak just for the sake of having a say.

Change

Spark the Change looks at how individuals and organisations can change. Of course, in many organisations, employees aren’t given the power to object and so many change management or system implementations tend to focus on buy-in and managing resistance.  The change enthusiasts are encouraged, the followers are put to work with the enthusiasts and the objectors are initially ignored so that they may later follow by pure peer pressure.  In effect this is a kind of tyranny of the majority, and for the resisters that often means reluctant compliance or exit.

Imagine the company you work for has decided to go into some unethical trade, or to use slaves for part of its work.  This is the new working order and you had better get used to it.  Suddenly you find yourself on the other side of the fence, you are now the resister.  How does that make you feel?  Does it make you a baddie?  How do you manage the situation?

Many change programmes tend to disrespect the resisters, as obstacles or blockers.  They become even more resistant,  because they resent not being asked or involved in the change.  Is this really the best way to change organisations?

Resistance is usually a form of objection.  Sociocracy welcomes objections.  Objections are “emergent wisdom seeking expression” (J Priest).  Often people are not able to articulate their objections well , they may have a hunch, or feel uneasy, without being clear why.  The job of a good sociocratic facilitator is to probe  these areas of uneasiness, not just the well articulated arguments, and elicit or dig deeper to find out exactly what the root objections are  – and once these are clear a decision can be modified, or measured trials undertaken.

Dealing with resistance – sociocracy style

  • Never antagonise Resisters, treat them with respect.
  • Resisters should not be singled out, rather integrated within the whole workforce to co-create the change.
  • Briefly ‘stop the line’ and let everyone take stock of the current situation.
  • Dig deeper and explore what the issues are.  The quickest way is by using the ‘5-whys’ technique.
  • Once you have uncovered the real reason why something might jeopardise the program aims, modify plans accordingly.
  • Ask the team to try out the revised change on experimental basis, using science and measurement to evaluate iteratively.
  • Convert resistance into reasoned objections, which can then be resolved and integrated in new innovative solutions

In small circles, this solution can be achieved using simple sociocratic processes – which initially have to be learned.  Individually it can be done through coaching, and on a larger scale it can be achieved in an Open Space Technology framework forming self-organised learning circles.  In all cases it involves giving the affected persons, those doing the work and adding value to the client or user offering,  the opportunity to temporarily stop the line and object equivalently.

If this seems rather abstract, think about organisations you know where the power to object would make a real difference.

Wouldn’t it be better, if NHS nurses and staff were empowered to pull the cord and halt hospital malpractice as it happens?  Wouldn’t it be better if transformation programmes delivered what they promised rather than being secretly resisted? Wouldn’t sustainability have a better chance, if we were all empowered to stop environmental toxicity as it happens? Wouldn’t our workplaces improve if stress from internal politics could be exposed, not endured?


By François Knuchel. This originally appeared on the SparkLDN website.

François Knuchel of Open2Flow is an experienced trainer and consultant, a recognised sociocracy practitioner and a founding member of Sociocracy UK. He is also involved in Lean thinking and in Open Space Technology involving peer-based Self-Organising Learning Environments. Having worked in Japan for a long time, he is inspired to explore a multitude of different approaches to collaborative working and participative decision-making. He is particularly troubled by the rough and tumble way change programs and organisational transformations are often imposed without consultation, and has co-developed a more participative co-creative approach using Open Space Technology in Caterfly. Shortly after the Spark the Change event, on 21 July 2015, he is co-hosting a full day open discussion event (in Open Space format, so without presenters) on Why Aren’t Organisations Shifting?