Every organization has its own language. At RBB we use the term swarm to describe how we behave whenever some task or activity needs extra help. But don’t think of kids swarming on
the beach on a summer afternoon. Think instead of piranhas attacking a fresh kill.
Our own special notion of swarming grew out of RBB’s implementation of LEAN manufacturing methods. Simply put, LEAN is all about eliminating anything a customer is unwilling to pay for. Like most small companies who bought into the idea of continuous improvement decades ago, RBB embraced LEAN.
Unfortunately, early results were limited: we implemented many projects (known as kaizen events) before we discovered that LEAN in a job shop environment is simply not the same as LEAN anywhere else. We found that we needed to swarm.
The basic idea is this: we perpetually reassign our people and other resources to where the work is temporarily heaviest. Since job shops like RBB operate in a world with unpredictable/unforecasted demand, we cannot afford to design a rigid, hyper-efficient system for satisfying customer orders. As with card games like gin rummy, the best hand is the one with the most tactical options as new cards turn up. If you’ve ever waited in vain for that one right card to appear, you know what I mean.
As our daily shop floor situation changes, we reconfigure and reallocate resources once again. That’s the other dynamic of any swarm in nature – it changes direction quickly and seemingly effortlessly.
Swarming behavior is easy to recognize – you know it when you see it – but it’s almost impossible to describe. So we don’t spend time precisely defining it; instead whenever we see things that prevent us from doing a fast, smooth job of swarming, we take action to knock down these barriers.
Examples of things that can’t coexist with good swarming techniques include:
- Long product changeovers
- Stubborn, inflexible employees
- Stubborn, inflexible equipment
- Specialists that don’t cross-train or share knowledge (aka egos)
- Complicated procedures
- Too many levels in the company hierarchy
- Lack of cash, materials
- Customers who don’t pay their bills
- High employee turnover
All of these cause the swarm to stop everything and ask for directions.
Where Will It Go?
Like real swarms, once the energy is flowing nicely it can be amazing where it will spread. Not satisfied with just swarming on the shop floor, RBB-ers decided to keep going and swarm the new product quoting process as well. And the product documentation system. And the purchasing of materials. And month-end closing. A highly motivated and skilled workforce – with few energy barriers – can combine the best LEAN principles with a hungry attitude.
I can share from personal experience that watching a swarm at work in your company is a joy to behold. But be prepared for the morning when you realize that your job as a leader has completely changed. You now work for the swarm. Your new role: point the swarm, clear away their obstructions, and lead the cheers.
Bruce Hendrick has been a leader of major change in corporations and small business alike for the past 25 years; currently he's the owner of RBB Systems and Organizational Development Services, LLC; noted speaker, author, active church member and community volunteer.