Monday 22 November 2021

Plastics Industry: Using the Laws of the Fifth Discipline as Management Success Enabler (Leadership Series)

Over the past years I found that the fifth discipline – systems thinking approach useful in my different roles in the plastics industry. In this post, I bring the fifth discipline closer to you and the one or other element may be interesting for your daily operations as well.

What is the fifth discipline?

Coined by Peter Senge, the fifth discipline (=system thinking) focuses on group problem solving by using the systems thinking method in order to convert companies into learning organizations.

What are the other four disciplines?

A shared Vision, Mental Models, Team Learning, and Personal Mastery.

What are the Laws of the Fifth Discipline?

Let us start with an overview and then I will provide you my take on each of the laws: 

Plastics Industry: Using the Laws of the Fifth Discipline as Management Success Enabler 

1.    Today's problems come from yesterday's "solutions."

Solving problems is daily business for polymer engineers and business leaders, however intended and unintended consequences are sometimes too less considered. The solution may strike back and in turn create new problems (for instance, the new selected injection point fills the part however may result in weld lines).

2.    The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.

Most discussions are built on disagreeing with the argument of the other involved opponent. However, with this we strengthen the opponent's positions since he tries to fight harder to bring his argument through. In general, systems need to find their solution on their own and not be pushed into one. Problems cannot be solved in this way and listening to the opponent to better solve a problem can be the key.

3.    Behavior grows better before it grows worse.

In essence, we succeed in the short term but will struggle in the long term. Plastics price increases in the short run can bring more revenue, however if you want to develop sustainable business with your customer such a short initiative may be a roadblock in the long run.

4.    The easy way out usually leads back in.

An example of law number four is the quality certificates of plastic compounds. Over time, certain plastic compounds tend to enlarge their product specification such as tensile strength and elongation at break. This allows the manufacturer to use more production campaigns compared to products with tight tolerances. However, the broadening of specification will not stay uncovered by customers and even more stringent quality specifications will be demanded as a consequence.

5.    The cure can be worse than the disease.

In case a change of material of a plastic part is needed, we have to ensure that the new chosen material (“cure”) does not impact the entire system (processing, purchasing, etc.) causing even more problems.

6.    Faster is slower.

This law relates for example to the approach of bringing in an external consultant or new manager to fix certain things. Such a quick fix results often in a slow healing process. It takes up some time to find sustainable solutions in big corporations.

7.    Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.

We learned not to touch an open flame since it will burn us. There is a clear and visible relationship between cause and effect. However, in business situations, this is not always the case. Especially, for chemical investment decisions, current situations are mistaken with future demands. For instance, current demand for a certain polymer is high and new production capacities need to be added. Investment plans were made and the decision to invest in a new polymer production plant was signed off. However, the plant will be on stream only in three years and by then the demand situation may have changed completely. This is also an example of the so-called pig cycle.

8.     Small changes can produce big results—but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.

This law reminds me of one of the quotes of Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology: “That which you most need, will be found where you least want to look”. If you find the right place in a system, then small and focused actions can have a much bigger leaver which in turn produce bigger changes.  Often, this is referred to as the law of leverage.

9.    You can have your cake and eat it too—but not at once.

Here the key approach is to move away from an either/or problem solution towards a both/and solution. This in turn needs more engagement and creativity of involved stakeholders.

10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.

The plastics industry is one giant elephant and what works well for a compounder might not work so well for a material manufacturer. It is important to keep different view angles and not fall into Maslow’s hammer “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail".

11. There is no blame.

Over the past years, accelerated by globalization and digitalization, we are faced with complex problem solving. Overseeing the responsibility for such complex systems is difficult for the individual manager. Therefore, inviting relevant parts of the company to support with problem solving is a way forward and will not create the headwinds, often so frightening by management.

Thanks for reading and #findoutaboutplastics


Herwig Juster

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[1] Peter Senge - The Fifth Discipline



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