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  • Philippe Bailleur

Organizational Trauma by Design

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

Visual by Hans Hoegaerts

As an organizational coach, I work with a very diverse range of organizations, often in very different and/or difficult circumstances. Over the years I began to distinguish a number of laws or principles that seem to contribute to the overall health of organizations. Logically, non-compliance with these principles leads to illness. Indeed, I approach organizations as living systems and luckily this is starting to become more and more accepted in the thinking about organizational development. Why is this distinction so important? Well, a machine can break down and you can replace or repair it. A living system can become ill and often requires much more than a quick-fix solution to get it back on track. Yet I still see many attempts to restore 'sick' organizations as if they were machines. Unfortunately, that technical way of working usually works counterproductive. That's how I came across the theme of organizational trauma.

Organizational Trauma on the radar

Just like an individual or a family, an organization can get traumatized. This idea is starting to come to the forefront of organizational experts. Even more, several academics are starting to explore this corporate phenomenon. Mind you, as an organizational coach, I am not constantly looking for trauma, but I have developed a kind of sixth sense through the years, a kind of radar that warns me that trauma could be one of the reasons why a company is kind of getting stuck in its journey. You can read more about that in my latest book "Stuck? Dealing with Organizational Trauma."

Before the publication of my books on organizational trauma I was not explicitly invited to work with trauma. Most of the time I was invited by a Board or Management Team to facilitate a certain change that turned out to be much more viscous than had been hoped for. And by ending up in these kind of projects, I learned - step by step - to recognize signals and symptoms that point in the direction of organizational trauma, being the organization or part of the organization being stuck in the past. And when organizational trauma is the case, approaching it as a technical problem will not be very helpful. In that case something else is needed.

"You can not solve a living system, it needs healing."

The origins of Organizational Trauma

To get started with this wicked phenomenon, it is good to gain some insight into how organizational trauma can arise. In that sense I made a distinction between 4 different categories which I will briefly describe below:

Visual by Hans Hoegaerts

1. Sudden & External

Clear examples of radical events are the terrorist attacks that we have been confronted with in recent years. They come from nowhere, cause a great deal of damage and suffering and are very clearly delimited. There is a clear external party in this case. A natural disaster - e.g. an earthquake, a flood or a volcanic eruption - also belong to this category. We often fail to realize that these kinds of events can also have a huge impact on the well-being of organizations.

2. Sudden & Internal

A radical incident can also have its origin in the organization: a bankruptcy, a fatal accident, a serious medical error, fraud, an explosion, ... These kinds of events often lead to a kind of 'shock' that does not stop after the radical event. These kind of events can cause damage and pain to the relational fabric of the organization in a way that it can become part of the culture of the organization. Often, it takes years before this can come to light and be healed.

3. Insidious & External

Over the years, I learned that organizational trauma can also seep in slowly. In that case an organization can get stuck step by step. Examples of external, stealthy factors could be: ever-changing regulations, unexpected droppings of funding, inadequate legislation, ... . This can lead to the fact that an organization can barely remain competitive in an increasingly global market. These measures can come from one or another regulatory authority such as the government, but I also saw certain local branches - from international organizations - being strangled by their headquarters. Local branches, plants or sites are sometimes put in a killing competition with each other so that they can no longer function properly. Logically this leads to performance problems. A closure is a logical and often foreseeable result in this kind of situations. So, in this category you mainly see contextual factors that ruin the eco-system in and around the organization in a way that the organization itself is ultimately pulled into the dark too.

The fourth category: Organizational Trauma by Design

I wish it was different, but unfortunately I - more often than I'd like to - bump on this fourth category in my coaching work. Often the origin of getting stuck is inside the organization itself. Certain choices do not seem harmful - in the short term - but often they become so because they continue to gnaw permanently until something breaks. Think of frequent, unsuited changes or remediations, poorly supervised mergers or acquisitions, continuous exposure to illness or human suffering, long-term overload, mismanagement, unreasonable savings, exploitation, ....

In addition, I also see many organizations and teams that are not ready for their emerging future. Anyhow, the management keeps expecting the same output from their teams. Many managers lack the knowledge and skills to do organizational development while it has become more and more clear that the most important output of a management team or Board of Directors is just that: a culture and an organizational design fit for the mission and the strategy of the organization. When this is not on the radar of the Board or the Management Team (as being their core output) the risk for "trauma by design" is pretty high. Or the design of the organization starts standing in the way of a healthy way of operating or it can even become the root cause of organizational trauma. Exactly in this area, a lot of learning and work is to be done ...

Organizational Design

Throughout the years, I also immersed myself in what makes organizations - as living systems - healthy. Most of the keys that support healing are the keys to getting started with sick organizations. I guess you already heard one of the following labels in this context: teal, agile, scrum, holacracy, sociocracy, lean start-up, Forces for Good, ... A lot of coaches and managers are inspired by those concepts but they often do not look deeper then the 'tools-level'. By doing so, they copy or implement practices without really respecting the underlying principles or without taking into account the individuality of their organization. This too is an expression of implementing in a mechanistic way versus systemic way.

"A fool with a tool, remains a fool," Buckminster Fuller

Something I started noticing when looking for patterns in all the approaches mentioned earlier, is the fact that they all are inspired by Lean Manufactering (mainly known as the TOYOTA WAY). But here too, many organizations have vainly copied without following the deeper principles, which often made it 'Lean and Mean'. Working according to Lean principles anyhow helps to find the right balance between 'managing' (machine thinking, top-down, ...) and 'organic' (living systems, self-regulation, bottom-up, ...). That's why I will conclude this blog with three beautiful Lean principles that could be very supportive to get a sick organization back on track ...

The three M's: MUDA - MURA & MURI

The first M is the most famous, especially MUDA. MUDA stands for 'waste' or work that does not contribute to added value for the customer. This means that employees put their time and energy into something that the customer is not waiting for or would not pay for. That does mean, however, that the organization puts in resources, money, time, ... while it is actually waste. There are different types of MUDA:

  • Errors that do not come to the surface or only come to the surface much later in the process and so have to be rectified by someone else (or have to be reported by the customer)

  • Redundant transport

  • Particularly long waiting times while the work in itself takes only a few hours

  • The making of more bells and whistles than asked by the client

  • ...

Often, work processes (or value streams) are stuffed with this type of MUDA. And the organization keeps dragging this as a thick layer of fat. MUDA is often designed in the organization to protect territories, to maintain the status of one or the other person or simply because managers prefer to engage in other, more exciting, matters than the clean-up of their processes. Remember, MUDA can make an organization sick, albeit drop by drop.

The second M stands for MURA. As much as you would like it, the customer's demand - whether it is about products or services - is entering in a volatile way: today many orders, tomorrow none, the day after tomorrow a unexpected peak, ... Compare it to a restaurant that is fully booked one day and half empty the other day. Whatever the situation, the company will stay with its fixed costs. Are you going to hire people at full capacity, are you going to plan a buffer or are you going to work - again and again - with too tight staffing and assume that they will manage it.

Implementing the principle of MURA will help you to build a more balanced workflow. This gives you a more stable process flow and less over- or under-capacity, even if the customer's demand remains volatile. Restaurants that work with reservations, for example, apply this MUDA principle. Organizations that neglect this principle, will become victim of their circumstances and will constantly lag behind the facts. They will get stuck in a fire-fighting dynamic that will - step by step - exhaust the workforce. The proactive work to keep the company in good shape will be neglected. A well-known vicious circle for a lot of companies ...

The third M stands for MURI. As you probably are starting to notice, the three M's are connected. Neglecting MUDA and MURA will lead to MURI or the overburdening of machines, people and teams. The consequences of overburdening are becoming more and more clear. For people this can lead to exhaustion or even burn-out. In that sense, the chronic overburdening of people is a symptom of more structural problems.

"A good person always beaten by a bad system," Deming

These three M's are particularly easy to understand or to explain. Implementing them in your company or team will be a lot more difficult. Anyhow, integrating these principles will be a good help to heal from Trauma by Design ... or help you to avoid it.

Learning more about Organizational Trauma?

If you're confronted with Organizational Trauma or you'd like to learn more about this wicked phenomena, order my book via the following link. Feel free to connect with me to explore this topic.

Philippe Bailleur

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