I am frequently asked about the meaning of systems perspective or about the difference between aligned processes (alignment) and integrated processes (integration). I recently read an HBR blog post entitled "Optimizing each part of a firm doesn't optimize the whole firm." A key point was that improving each part of an enterprise does not necessarily lead to improving the whole enterprise or to operational excellence. Several examples were given of failures and successes achieved by either looking at only the parts or at the whole enterprise, respectively. Looking at the optimization of individual parts led not just to sub-optimization, but frequently to overall system failures.
While not touched upon in the blog post, there was an accompanying picture of a large professional kitchen with many sous-chefs. I realized that here was an opportunity to describe the concepts of alignment, integration, and systems perspective.
Let's consider the preparation of a set of meals for three diners at a table in the large restaurant served by this kitchen. Each sous chef upon arrival of an order could execute his or her piece of the dinner perfectly. They have optimized their piece of the meal. Unfortunately the hot fish appetizer for one of the guests may be available five minutes after the ice cream dessert which is either served first or sits melting away. This restaurant has a random collection of independently well-functioning processes. They will soon be out of business!
Next consider the aligned kitchen. The sous chef responsible for sauces begins her sauce when the fish is cooked, so that she can take the assembly line hand-off and prepare a hot sauce to go on top of the fish. She then sends it to the garnish chef who adds the finishing touches. Timing is exquisite. Everyone knows when to start their process, immediately on arrival of the plate. Processes are aligned in sequence, but the guest receives a cold piece of fish because of the time lag since the fish was first put on the plate.
Now let's consider that all three chefs know the fish preparation takes eight minutes, the sauce two minutes, and the garnish two minutes. The sauce sous chef begins her preparation six minutes after the fish chef so that the sauce is ready as the fish is put on the plate. The garnish sous chef begins his preparation seven minutes after the fish preparation begins, allowing one minute after the fish is done for plating and addition of the sauce. The result is an integrated appetizer preparation process with a total time lapse of nine minutes and a happy diner! Or is she happy?
There has been no coordination of the fish preparation with the escargot appetizer preparation of her two table companions. The escargot takes fifteen minutes to prepare. So either the appetizers are served and eaten at different times or the fish sits and gets cold while waiting for the escargot. In a fully integrated appetizer section, the fish preparation would start six minutes after the escargot preparation begins so that all appetizers are completed and served hot at the same time.
But the diners may still be unhappy at the end of their meals. While they all received their appetizers simultaneously, their main courses simultaneously, and their desserts simultaneously, there was a 40 minute gap from the completion of their appetizers to the dinner service, and then only two minutes from completion of their main courses until arrival of desserts. Not particularly good pacing for our three guests!
Now, consider the ultimate dining experience. Not only are the three separate kitchen departments individually integrated, but the head chef, who has purview over the full kitchen, sequences the orders so that the gap between courses matches the desires of the diners at each table. A true systems perspective orchestrated at the enterprise level. I am getting hungry already!