Our Story

From Expansion to Compression Thinking

The Compression Institute was founded to extend and put into practice many of the ideas that Robert “Doc” Hall summarized in the book, Compression (2009). That book differs from others that address the problems of environmental sustainability. Doc looks at it broadly from an operational view more than from an environmental view.

The Story of Doc and the Book, Compression

Doc was curious about environmental clean up in college in the 1950s. His senior project in chemical engineering was design of a particulate scrubber for smokestacks.

In high school, he worked two summers in a machine shop with belt-driven machines, which was nearly a museum then, so his direct experience with technology covers more than a century of practice. After college, he worked in engineering, becoming involved in manufacturing. He decided to get an MBA; continued for a doctorate in Production Management; then extended a temporary teaching job into 32 years at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business.

Doc’s early research interests were in R&D and innovation – studying communication patterns and information systems for R&D organizations, but in 1977 he “fell” into the Toyota Production System. Visitors from Japan came to take one of his classes. He paid a return visit to Toyota and other companies to see what we now call lean manufacturing and related concepts. That was the beginning of a parallel career in lean thinking. In 1982, he wrote one of the first books on the subject, Zero Inventories, probably his best-known work in that genre over a 30-year period.

But Doc’s interest in innovation pushed him to question exaggerated claims about continuous improvement. Some were obvious. Operational excellence could not long compensate for obsolete products or business models. Japanese senseis said that lean techniques were really methods to speed collective learning, but very few managers grasped what they meant. Defining waste as anything a customer would not pay for limited it. If customers paid for waste, why bother? And environmental waste that no one paid for didn’t enter the Value Stream Maps.

Short-term, rigid financial controls stunted efforts to develop a long-term workforce, skilled in problem solving, long before such development reached maturity. Worse, short-term profit emphasis created incentive to “externalize” costs. Why make any expenditure that someone else will pay for you, and why accept any liability that can be hived off on someone or something else? By that logic, wring everything you can out of both suppliers and employees, send work to the cheapest location (as recorded in your books), and never voluntarily admit to any environmental damage.

Doc covered a few of these concerns in a 1992 book, The Soul of the Enterprise, which was not popular. He had no time to research topics in depth, but did have the advantage of being able to draw on cases of very well managed companies as editor of Target, the publication of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence.

The book Compression began gestating after writing The Soul of the Enterprise. (The late Sherrie Ford, co-owner of Power Partners, Inc., was one of the few executives to read Soul, get the message, and attempt to convert its thinking to practice. Sherrie soon began encouraging Doc to develop something beyond Soul of the Enterprise. But Doc could not complete the personal research necessary to document Compression until after retirement and release from responsibility for a very ill wife, Kay.

To write Compression, Doc researched some very troubling questions. The questions and briefly what he found were:

Q: How serious are our environmental concerns?

A: More serious than most environmental scientists pronounce. Environmental science suffers from many afflictions, beginning with politicized denial of environmental risk assessments. Most big global models depend on incomplete data, hard to gather. Different modeling approaches are not consistent, so honest conclusions are always tinged with doubt. However, projections for these models are consistently unfavorable. The differences are a matter of how unfavorable.

Unknowns are scarier still. For example, the workings of carbon cycles are constantly being challenged and revised. Studies of endocrine disruption are not extensive, but frog disappearance research, for instance, is pretty damning (we could be rendered incapable of reproduction). Evidence from many other directions signals disaster in the making without considering any evidence from big global models.

In addition, “peak” use rates of many common fuels and material are projected if we continue at a 2% compound annual growth rate of extraction. This is another “boiling frog” situation in which human psychology works against us. Fishery collapses are well-known examples. Denial persists until we’re in a major pinch.

For all these reasons, we have to learn how to live while using a fraction of the “stuff.” That’s no slow growth or steady state. That’s a big reduction from current usage rates. No way can we do this and continue business-as-usual.

Q: If work organizations really have to address these issues, what must they do?

A: Legacy lessons from our very best operations may help us learn what to do. However, these patterns of thought contradict the “common sense” of millions or billions of managers. We cannot escape this situation with technology alone. We have to change us.

The current system of economic and managerial thought is unsustainable. We cannot merely make substitutions and continue to expand physical consumption at an accelerating rate. We have to dramatically reduce physical consumption. To do that we have to displace the expansionary thinking that drives physical growth. Technology to do is a challenge, but not the toughest. Our nemesis is our slow, conflict-ridden processes to change how we think.

That’s a desperate recommendation, made only because we are out of alternatives.

The big problem is how to dramatically transform our thinking and our work organizations faster than we are closing in on the brick walls of disaster. This recommendation is desperate, made only because we are out of alternatives.

This prospect is so daunting that for a time Doc thought that another semi-pedantic book would be useless. Some other approach to garner attention might prompt quicker action. But none came along, so he wrote the book and began attempting to set up some kind of learning organization to convert our operational thinking (and especially business thinking) from instinctive expansion to Compression Thinking.

The Compression Institute emerged. It’s struggling to get going. Its mission is to create and support learning action groups to transform work organizations and communities using Compression Thinking. The idea is to support pioneer organizations learning how to function very effectively while greatly reducing the use of resources – and dealing with other environmental threats as well. Once there are stories to tell, spread them. Create a cascade system of learning. Make successful approaches “go viral.”

Given the normal resistance of humans and organizations to change, Doc figures that the first 5-10 years of this transformation will be mostly pioneering and adaption of the different mind set by a critical mass of people. If minds and hearts take Compression as a challenge and not the end of their old way of life, the technology and operational changes will come along quickly.

Q: How deep a change is needed?

A: Nothing less than very fundamental change. We are practically wired with expansionary instincts and instincts to compete on different patches of earth. Thinking of earth as a whole, as one big spaceship is a very different view.

This shift is highly emotional. We can try to approach it rationally, but it affects values that most of us hold dear. If we are to greatly reduce global consumption, most of that reduction has to take place where consumption is high – in the industrialized economies. People do not like to lose what they have, or think that they have. So the magic has to be in learning how to be highly effective using what is available to us.

Much of the agitation to improve ecological sustainability has been with producers – mining, agriculture, manufacturing, forestry, and fishing – where major ecological damage has occurred. However, without someone consuming at very high levels, these operations would be much smaller. Therefore, opportunity exists for every kind of work organization – including perhaps households – to rethink what it would mean to be very effective using much less. Service industries are voracious consumers of resources. Such transformation prompts the most fundamental of questions:

  • How does what we do relate to these huge global problems? What should we do here?
  • What is quality of life to all our stakeholders?
  • What is money?
  • What is efficiency?
  • What is economy of scale, and using what scale?
  • Should we grow? If so, in what sense? How will we stay financially solvent?
  • What is the actual operating objective of a work organization?
  • What is employment? What should responsible employees do?
  • What kind of leadership is required?
  • How do we measure results?

However, all organizations can only start from where they are, doing what they do now. Even when eager to change, transformation is not instantaneous. We have to unlearn old habits and learn new ones. In most cases, organizations have to navigate their way out of the systemic traps of an expansionary financial and social system. Pioneers will certainly go against the flow.

Q: How to organize for rapid learning and transformation?

A: A relevant history exists. The economy may be expansionary, but a few of its very best companies are great learning organizations. Doc summarized observations from 25 years of doing case studies into a composite called the Vigorous Learning Organization (or Enterprise). It has five major aspects:

1. Meta-vision, seeing from outside the organization and outside yourself. (Regarding the operation as just one corner of a big spaceship is certainly a view different from most.)

2. Common mission related to Compression. To “stay on the same page,” but function nearly autonomously, people must genuinely share the same goals.

3. Rigorous learning system. All methodologies are based on scientific learning (PDCA, C4, etc.) Coaching all employees in this is important if the organization is to have a common language. Beyond that we need a system to record and teach prior learning, so we do not solve the same problems over and over. In a work organization, as in science, prior resolutions or countermeasures may “stop working,” prove to be flat wrong, or be superseded by new possibilities. There is no such thing as a permanently solved problem.

To think this way for practical purposes, think of a work environment as a learning laboratory. Part of work responsibility beyond accomplishing tasks is to report on what was learned that others may find useful. (When properly done, the genius of TPS was to convert every workstation to a learning lab, and the workstation did not have to be in production.) However, not all issues are addressed factually.

4. Behavior for learning. One aspect of this is a code of conduct that promotes respect for people, and that has teeth – sanctions for violation. Another is a code phrase to cue people “getting personal” to get back on track in discussions of problems that should be addressed objectively. Developing people for this is one of the major objectives of mentoring, and mentoring is crucial to developing a learning organization.

But the woolliest of these are situations in which people don’t agree on objectives, priorities, or that a problem actually exists. They think on colliding tracks, probably rely on different indicators, and may embrace totally different worldviews of cause and effect. This is the so-called “wicked problem” arena.

5. Servant Leadership. The leadership of a learning organization has to regard it foremost as its people, and that their responsibility is to see that it performs to mission to the best of everyone’s ability. (The conductor of a professional orchestra is a good example. All his musicians are pros. He brings out the best in each one and blends the combination. Sounds easy, but what is not in the waving baton you see is important.)

So far as is known, no real organization embodies every aspect of the VLO composite to perfection. It’s a very hard thing to create. Took Ventana about four years of leadership effort to get to their stage, for example. Don’t know how long Sekisui has been developing in this way – 20 years that I know of.