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Modular Thinking for Service Variation



Modular Thinking for Service Variation

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler” – Albert Einstein

Today’s organisations are under incredible strain to deliver consistent operational processes. On one hand, standardisation allows efficiency but on the other reduces flexibility. Demanding customers want a personalised process that is right for them, at an affordable cost.

One of the best ways we observe complexity is in nature and we see that nature tends to be modular, i.e. the connection between smaller components creates the complexity while the component itself remains simple. This is clear when we see fractals, which are simple patterns replicated across dimensions.

Contradictions with managing complexity result in the desire on how to keep things simple in execution but adapt to complex conditions. We also face two further issues; complexity can’t be built into a repeat process quickly, and complex activities cannot always be simplified.

Lets take an example of a tree and its modular parts:

  1. Seeds  – Aare essential for germination. There are always more seeds then trees so fault tolerance is already built into the survival of species.
  2. Leaves – Are standard in shape and widespread so they can absorb sunlight from many directions. They also diminish in autumn, when they don’t serve a purpose, but without damaging the tree in any way.
  3. Trunk – Allows the tree to grow in the direction of the strongest rays of sunlight and support branches.
  4. Branches –Allow variation to tree growth without damaging the core purpose of growth.
  5. Roots – give a strong foundation and can withstand threats (wind, rain, kids climbing etc).

In addition, the whole tree is part of a bigger system providing shades for smaller plants, and the Oxygen-CO2 cycle that keeps the Earth alive.

So the main things we learn from the tree is how it manages its parts/processes to:

  • Have parts that support the overall purpose
  • Ensure a foundation that allows flourishment and withstanding of threats
  • Build in fault tolerance
  • Cope with variation and demand cycles
  • Have standard components

Modularity is a key component and way of allowing complex adaptive systems (HBR1).  However, we need to think how we can apply modularity in different dimensions in a business.

Here are three examples of modularity in organisations, but I am sure further ones can be identified.

1) Flexible Teams

We know that small teams can be more flexible, adaptive and can pick up complex problems more nimbly then larger teams (functional mindsets) and individuals (skill mindset).

Having flexible teams that work to demand, rather than purely functional teams is possible. These teams weave to have multiple capabilities.  For example, for a Bank Operations team, in their daily lives, will be running an administrative function, but when required the whole team can pick up and add capacity to a call center.  This means teams the organisation can be moved around, but as strong cohesive units.

Smaller teams that can be part of dynamic larger teams that work across functions should be the norm. This modular thinking will help organisations flourish and be more operationally resilient.

2)  Standard Work

Organisations are buried in processes that are often bypassed.  Even thought IT systems act as an enforcer to standards, over time, informal processes take over. Either the IT systems cannot adapt to what customers value or become cumbersome as every variation is ‘locked in’. Fiefdoms develop and the expert in the “system” because the sole source of the process standard.

One way round this is to have modular version of the processes. Each mega process is broken into smaller modules and that are inter-connected. Each variation in process simply means that the individual modules are “fixed” but the connections between the modules is different. Each standard module can be improved by local continuous improvement  in a localised way and with better ownership

The power of technology allows one to connect all the standard processes and see them in a visual manner, which gives better overall control. In fact Business Process Management Systems (BPMs) would thrive on this modular approach.  It also allows the opportunity to tolerate failure (as there can be several paths through the process), providing natural risk management. Standard processes that are not needed in time, simply disappear.

3) Knowledge Development

While working with organisations who need knowledge transfer, I realised that a one size fits all training, is resource intensive and often doesn’t meet the needs of the audience/differing stakeholder groups.

Since then we have been using modular training (link) approach for our work. Creating 60 building blocks of training in 4 areas to create a tailored programme, that works for each client. Each module is stand-alone but their combination makes them powerful. The stand-alone module can be used to cascade training. Together with my team, we developed a common format for the stand-alone module so that the shell is a standard. It is also much easier to maintain a module than a large set of training material.

“The sum is greater than the parts” –  Aristotle

A funny yet relevant video of teamwork based on modularity can be seen here:

I’d love to hear from readers about other ways of modularised working (in all sectors) to make organisations thrive and adapt.

Ketan Varia with support from Burcu Atay

  1. Reeves, Levin & Ueda, ‘The Biology of Corporate Survival’, Harvard Business Review, January 2016. https://hbr.org/2016/01/the-biology-of-corporate-survival