The Zoo or why many improvement initiatives on shop floor fail to deliver noticeable results at company level

The zoo is one of the metaphors used in the book “Thinking in Systems” by author Donella Meadows (1941-2001) and one of my favorite takeaways from her book.

Told in my way, the zoo is a convenient way to observe animals that would not be that easy to observe in their natural habitat. In a zoo animals are usually grouped by families, fenced-off from one another, fed, and given care. This makes the observation convenient for visitors but isn’t truly reflecting the usual behavior of the animals.

When antelopes graze quietly and offer the visitors the opportunity to watch them at will, it’s because the predators are kept away, food and water is provided. In their natural habitat, the antelopes would be on constant watch for danger, run away if sensing anything threatening or roam the land looking for their food and water. A very different behavior than the one in the zoo.

The same happens when observers look on parts of a system and draw conclusions about what they saw when the system was in a specific state that eases the analysis. It isn’t the real system’s behavior when interactions with other parts are cut off or aren’t taken into account. It’s like looking to the antelopes protected from their predators, the fence and zoo arrangement cutting-off the dynamic interactions that otherwise take place in their real habitat.

The conclusions about antelopes observed in the zoo would turn out to be far from what is observed in the savanna. Hence the zoo-based observation is largely unfaithful, incomplete, biased and potentially misleading compared to the observation of the antelopes in their real habitat. Nevertheless, the zoo visit is convenient and allows to gather a lot of knowledge about the animals.

To me, the zoo metaphor is a strong reminder that looking at static parts of a complex system, overlooking or ignoring the dynamic interactions with other components does not represent the true system.

And as convenient the partial and static view is, it should not be used to draw general conclusions about the whole system.

That is probably why many improvement initiatives on the shop floor fail to deliver noticeable results at the company (which is the system) level. A Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is a great way to pinpoint local wastes and improvement points, but only on a part of the system  and in a given set of circumstances.

VSM are usually drawn for some product families only and the situation observed is assumed to be representative of the process usual behavior, just like the antelopes in their zoo enclosure.

As long as wannabe Lean Thinkers keep visiting their zoo, chances for real, meaningful and sustainable improvement will remain low.

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

About the author, Chris HOHMANN


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One thought on “The Zoo or why many improvement initiatives on shop floor fail to deliver noticeable results at company level

  1. Hi Chris,

    No SYSTEM that I’ve ever encountered – in any form, 2D or 3D or in real-life – has been TOTALLY comprehensible. Why? It’s for two reasons… 1) the geographic distribution of all the parts/elements is simply too vast to take-in at one time; and 2) the complexity of all the various interactions and interdependencies is too great for any one individual to grasp. Ergo, snap-shots and facsimiles have to make due. Even the practice of “going-to-the-gemba” cannot and will not provide a SYSTEMIC perspective.

    The only viable way to gain a close to a systemic perspective as possible to spend the time observing all the various components in as many different situations as possible. Over time, if one is truly lucky, one will begin to comprehend the complexity and the overall workings that a SYSTEM is capable of exhibiting… and why.

    BTW – the best Zoos in existence today are merely approximations of the real-world environments that the animals on display are from. So too, from the standpoint of comprehending any man-made SYSTEM, it’s impossible to observe it in its entirety. And where approximations must be employed, the higher their level of fidelity, the greater the likelihood of being able to develop a more accurate and complete understanding of the SYSTEM of interest… or at least the part(s) under observation.

    Bottom line: Regardless of how one goes about viewing any SYSTEM, the realization that any observation(s) being made is/are limited is essential to one’s understanding of the TOTAL SYSTEM. The second requirement is that of an open an inquisitive mind. The role that such a disposition/mindset plays is indispensable for the practice of TRUE LEAN THINKING AND BEHAVING.


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