Sunday, January 16, 2022

Continuous corporate course corrections

You have seen The Epic Split, haven’t you?

As a marketing video it was a great success. It went viral. Countless parodies were made (including one from Höganäs kommun).

What captures your attention in the video? The split as such? The celebrity? The music? The sunset? Or the combination of it all? Watch it again.

Did you notice that the trucks are going backwards?

Everyone who has driven a car with a trailer, and tried to maneuver while reversing, will know the challenge. Which way should you turn the steering wheel to make the trailer move to the right? And why is it so hard to simply reverse in a straight line? When you drive a trailer forward you have a stable system. When you drive in reverse you have an unstable system. The approach is not as simple as “turning the steering wheel in the opposite direction compared to where you’d like the trailer to go”. You actually will find yourself doing constant small adjustments in both directions in order to balance the “unstable system”. 

Still, when you read about the Epic Split video a majority of the writeup is about the “viral video”-aspect, not about the “driving backwards” aspect. However, the video is after all a commercial for “Volvo Dynamic Steering”, which supports the drivers in the steering. Although I have been told it is easier with a semi-trailer, it is still an achievement to drive the two vehicles in the video backwards, at 25 km/h, while the stunt is performed.

A vehicle with a trailer usually travels forward, as a stable system, and has one degree of freedom (left/right). When occasionally maneuvered backwards it is a challenge to manage this unstable system.

What about a vehicle that is designed to travel in the unstable direction, at high speeds (higher than highway speed), and with more than one degree of freedom to balance (besides left/right also up/down)? Sort of like driving your car with a trailer, backwards, on a highway - but even worse.

One such vehicle is the JAS39 Gripen aircraft. It is designed to have “negative inherent stability in the longitudinal axes for improved performance”.

Not an easy stunt to pull off. You might remember what happened during one of the early flights, or at a public air show..?

Now, what does a pair of trucks and a fighter jet have to do with companies and “continuous corporate course corrections”?

In all three cases they are systems where you cannot simply “decide where to go, and then point the steering wheel in that direction”. You need to do continuous course corrections. Small deviations from the optimal course at every moment tend to self-enforce and throw you further off-track. In order to do continuous course corrections you need continuous feedback data. Feedback data fed and processed with minimum delay. If you correct today's course based on feedback from yesterday you are probably doing the wrong course correction.

The three systems and not exactly the same system, perhaps not even the same category of systems, but they share this joint overall characteristic. In the JAS 39 case there is a processing system that uses the feedback data to aid the pilot. In the Epic Split case it is the drivers that process the feedback data (the dynamic steering system supports in a different way). You can find many articles on how to process feedback data to drive a truck backwards.

What about companies? One of the main methodology areas that are relevant in this context is the area of management systems. A management system is “the way in which an organization manages the interrelated parts of its business in order to achieve its objectives” (which is applicable also to the other two system types). However, a corporate management system is often less “continuous”, and feedback loops often have long delays between the actual event that is measured and the analysis and decision. I argue that a big, and often neglected, part of the popular activity of “digital transformation” is to design a management system that is more natively built upon feedback loops and continuous course corrections than the management system frameworks that are used in a majority of today's organizations.

There are of course exemptions, and some operational frameworks have characteristics of this kind. One such thing is the whole area of “agile”, which is centered around “continuous course corrections”. However, the agile frameworks are struggling to find a scalable approach that enables this across large organizations, without negative side effects.

Once we accept that an organization, and its operations and its business is a complex system we can start to build upon the insights from other similar systems when we evolve the principles of a management system. 

What does a management system that natively has these properties look like? How can such a management system be constructed? What existing management system frameworks that fits this description exist? Any ideas? Drop a comment! 

(Going back to the start of this post, the Epic Split video is part of a series of promotional videos called “Live Test”. While the Epic Split was the one that went truly viral and the one that made suitable intro to the reasoning in this blog post, I think this one, The Technician, is also worth a look. And perhaps a separate blog post.)


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