In manufacturing and industry, a supply concept called Kanban(Japanese for card or sign), invented and developed by Taichi Ohno in the Toyota factories of the 1950s, has established itself worldwide. Like the swarm intelligence, the Kanban principle relies on decentralised control of processes and process chains. From an analytical point of view, the initial impulse comes from the end customer of the process chain, who ultimately triggers production through the pull principle – with consistent penetration of the industrial production chain.

Each process step is carried out by the respective employees in the process chain exactly when the respective downstream location makes a material request. As soon as the material request is initiated by means of the kanban card, the upstream link in the process chain is requested to produce and supply the used part again. If the local knowledge of those involved in the individual process steps is consistently used and controlled decentrally, it results in a resonance wave. Thus the classical central control can be omitted as long as the process runs continuously and there are relatively constant and non-structural requirements. The resonance wave mentioned can be compared to a domino.

The new manager controls decentrally

The manager of a Kanban team now “only” has to set the right framework, and in case of certain – extraordinary – problems the manager has to act as trouble shooter of the extravagant problems. The ingenious thing about this control is above all that the entire Kanban team

  • is based exclusively on local knowledge,
  • the whole supply chain is controlled decentrally,
  • the control is ultimately self-regulating unless exceptional events disturb the process flow,
  • for which the manager acts as a problem solver,
  • so that the manager assumes the role of moderator,
  • as well as the role of the coach for the team members.

Further advantages result from the decentralised control and the self-control in combination with the pull principle. In comparison to the push principle with classical central control, this enables the reduction of considerable stocks. That way, waiting times are minimised and the system shows typical characteristics of open living systems, e.g. increased robustness and flexibility compared to classical central control. Nobody needs to know about the entire process chain. Only the open Kanban container is filled at the respective local location. Not only does a large part of the industry have supply control on Kanban, which is a specific form of the just-in-time principle, but also companies such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut & Co.

“Organise self-organisation!”

Local knowledge forms the basis for self-regulating, self-organising, decentrally controlled (cognitively) simple rules. Not only does one find all characteristics of swarm intelligence, but also a good indication on how managers in swarm-intelligent systems should take on their new role. First and foremost, it is the manager who sets the framework conditions so that such a process chain can function at all. That is the one large challenge, which lies in the conception. But also the conception of such a resonance wave often requires the use of the wisdom of the many. The second big challenge is the new role finding of the manager. Functional fulfilment no longer lies in the execution of the role-specific tasks but the leadership of the team. The manager as a team manager, comparable to a football trainer who does not play along with himself alone, but above all acts as a moderator, motivator, coach, coordinator and conflict manager or as a troubleshooter and protects the external boundaries of the team and promotes the team process. That way, the manager provides for the balance of processes.

The manager’s new roles are thus clearly defined in swarm-intelligent, decentrally controlled systems. What is remarkable about such self-directed, self-organising teams with all the necessary elements of the system (just-in-time, decentralisation, local knowledge, pull principle, lean management, cognitively simple rules, visualisation of the rules, etc.), is the mutual conditionality of the individual elements of the system (Niklas Luhmann). Ultimately, as managers, we must learn to “organise ourselves”.

For more information see the article Logistics Management and Swarm Intelligence – Leading through Result Expectations.

Image source: Stux, License Creative Commons CC0.

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