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The Future of Lean Manufacturing through the World of Warcraft

October 5, 2011 3 comments

Any seasoned Lean manufacturing expert will tell you that implementing lean is not about JIT, Heijunka or any sort of tools. It is about implementing a lean culture of continuous improvement. In fact in Toyota, they consider their ultimate competitive advantage is the “intoxication of improvement” by every employee from shopfloor to top floor. Thousands of improvement ideas are created every day even for the smallest mundane tasks. This is in big contrast to “don’t fix what is not broken” mindset prevails in most other organizations. Well, what they believe is one thing. Have any of these been scientifically proven? Can we simulate this kind of organizational behavior and measure its output? And if we can, what can we learn from such about managing thousands of ideas and distill them to actions every day?

In this video, Dr. John Seely Brown, one of my favorite business writer talks about the innovation dynamics within the World of Warcraft (WoW), which also happens to be my favorite on-line video game. At the end, Brown said “This may be for the first time that we are able to prove exponential learning … and figure out how you can radically accelerate on what you’re learning”. Indeed, I have found this game could interestingly cast light on the social dynamics of lean culture and how it will evolve in the future.
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Guild structure and QC circles

“There is too much information changing too fast…The only way to get anything done seriously is to join a guild” said Brown. These guilds in WoW are groups of 20-200 people helping each other to process ideas. This greatly resembles the Quality Circle movement, in which employees are not just hired to perform a task but rather to form part of small groups that constantly seeking ways to self-improve. The differences of QC circles to these guilds could be the technology that they are using as indicated below.

Everything is measured; everyone is critiqued by everyone else

In the WoW, it is easy to record every action and measure performance. There are after-action reviews on every high-end raid and everyone is critiqued by everyone. This resembles the typical PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) process used by QC circles. The challenges however in the manufacturing world are that too much information is still recorded on paper or if recorded electronically, on multiple segregated systems. This inhibits the sharing, retrieval and analysis of information that enabled the rapid group self-improvement dynamics of WoW.

Personal dashboard are not pre-made, they are mashups

Another key learning from the WoW is that you need to craft your own dashboard to measure your own performance. Brown even said that the Obama administration is stealing the idea from WoW and trying to do the same. So much for the software companies who are trying to sell pre-packaged KPIs to measure corporate performance.  Imagine a new manufacturing world that every operator and supervisor has real-time feedback on his/her own performance. Seeing how minute by minute idle time or over-production is affecting bottom-line and return on capital. The future of performance measurement technology is detail, real-time and personalized.

Exponential learning

The last slide in the video shows learning speed exponentially increases as one goes up the level in WoW. The high performance guilds need to distill what they have learnt from their own guild and share with other guilds throughout the network. Those who can do that effectively tend to move up level faster. In the manufacturing world, there are many companies trying to share best-practices across and within organizations. However, manufacturing executives may not realize that effective continuous improvement and best-practice sharing can lead to a state of exponential learning that constitutes an ultimate competitive advantage.

In a sense, the computer world of WoW is able to simulate the social dynamics of how individuals could form groups to process and create ideas, how groups could measure and improve within themselves and how groups could interact with each other in order to accelerate learning that results in high performance. Such social dynamic also resembles that of the lean culture, long promoted within companies like Toyota. Looking forward, the promises of manufacturing 2.0 are technologies to enable almost everything to be measured, allow information from individuals to interact freely as groups and also empower groups to effectively share best-practices. Such multi-tier collaboration from shopfloor to topfloor will bring about a new form of highly competitive organization that harnesses the power of exponential learning. On that note, the future evolution of lean culture may not be that much different from the present World of Warcraft.

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