Learning from Nature: Kyocera’s Amoeba Management System

Credit: Farnishk, Wikipedia Images

Slime mould is a fascinating organism to study, because it has two distinctive phases in its lifecycle. When food is plentiful, in the form of bacteria, this species exists as free-living and independent amoeba. However, as soon as food becomes scarce, something quite extraordinary happens; the previously independent amoeba begin to act as a coherent whole. After an eight-hour interphase process, some of the amoeba start to aggregate around cells, which act as centres, sending out chemical signals consisting of cAMP.

There are two forms of action. In the first instance, cells which receive the signal then repeat the signal by sending it out to other cells. In the second instance, cells receiving the signal move towards the origin of the signal. This behaviour is shown in the beautiful black and white films of biology professor emeritus John Bonner, who has studied slime mould for almost forty years.

Around each centre, several thousand cells will amalgamate and start to form a new, multicellular organism. Previously identical cells will begin to differentiate into different cell types, forming a fruiting body. This new organism consists of a base, a stalk which rises up from the base, and a fruiting body made up of a ball of live spores, which will be able to survive the absence of food and water. Therefore, not only do the cells differentiate, but those making up the stalk will eventually die, sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the whole.

In the case of slime mould, it is cAMP which acts as a catalyst, stimulating its own production. However, if all cells started to send out cAMP as a signal, the entire area would be awash with the chemical, and this would serve no purpose. An enzyme, phosphodiesterase, is secreted by the amoeba and destroys the cAMP, resulting in there being a direction of signal, which controls their movement. The signalling works in such a way that it cannot travel backwards, and so a form of order arises spatially.

The behaviour of slime mould can be referred to as ‘self-organisation’. This is where a system has the capacity to generate patterns spontaneously, without any specific instructions telling it to do so. There is no plan or blueprint which exists prior to the system acting as it does. The patterns are the result of the dynamic relationships which exist between the parts. As we have seen in two very different physical systems, it is not the nature of the molecules involved which determines this behaviour, but their dynamical properties in relationship.

Kyocera

Kyocera is a highly diverse global organisation, trading as a group of 229 companies, with around 71,600 employees, and generating an operating profit of $785 million from sales of $13,065 million (for the financial year ending March 2013). The range of products that it manufactures includes ceramic components and products, semiconductor components, telecommunications, printing and imaging equipment, chemicals and optical equipment.

Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation, Wikipedia Images

The company was founded in 1959 by Dr. Kazuo Inamori, who, at the age of 27, established from the start a deep philosophical foundation for the company, the most essential part being articulated by the question: ‘What is the right thing to do as a human being?’ This stems from four basic principles: ‘Don’t be greedy’, ‘Do not cheat people’, ‘Do not lie’ and ‘Be honest’.
Inamori developed Kyocera’s ‘Amoeba Management System’ which was explicitly based on organisational principles found in cells, the building blocks of nature.

Amoebas are the profit centres, and these can expand, divide and disband as necessary. This creates a highly flexible structure, each cell being between three and one hundred members, who self-manage and self-coordinate their activities. Kyocera is dominated by a philosophical learning culture, where psychological rewards are emphasised above pure financial rewards. An important component of this learning can be seen in the daily routine of the amoeba teams, which have five daily operating procedures: Planning, Doing, Controlling, Acting and Checking.

It is not just a case, however, of subdividing a large organisation into small units. Creating amoebas depends on a deep understanding of the organisation as a whole, and for Inamori, there are three conditions which have to be met for an amoeba to form:

    1. Amoebas must have clearly definable revenues and cost of sales in order that they can be fiscally self-supporting.
    2. Amoebas must be self-contained business units.
    3. Subdivision of the organisation must support the goals and objectives of the company as a whole.

This management philosophy recognises that top-down management becomes inefficient in large organisations. Each team is responsible for creating their ‘hourly efficiency reports’. While this may sound like a throwback to the days of Taylor’s scientific management, they are not. These reports are created by each team, and through simple and transparent accounting procedures, they provide rapid feedback via morning meetings on how well each team is doing. This is what Kyocera calls ‘Management by All’, whereby all employees fully understand and fully participate in the business.

This is a holographic view of the employee; indeed, the corporate motto is holonomic: ‘Respect the divine and love people’. It is extremely rare to find the word ‘love’ in any literature from such a large global corporation. Their motto is designed to inspire their vision: ‘Preserve the spirit to work fairly and honourably, respect people, our work, our company and our global community’.

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Extract taken from Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson (2014)

Maria Moraes Robinson Maria Moraes Robinson is the cofounder of Holonomics Education, helping organisations to think and innovate beyond business-as-usual, and to help companies align their purpose and business strategies with today’s most critical challenges. She is an internationally recognised educator and keynote speaker and consultant in strategy, change management, sustainability, human values and the Balanced Scorecard methodology. As a business consultant based in São Paulo, Brazil, Maria has helped to introduce Robert Kaplan and David Norton’s Balanced Scorecard methodology into Brazil and Latin America across many sectors including telecoms, technology, petrochemicals, steel, energy, transportation and education.

Simon Robinson is the co-founder of Holonomics Education, a strategy and innovation consultancy based in São Paulo whose mission is to help organisations to implement great customer experiences, powerful and effective strategies, and develop purposeful, meaningful and sustainable brands. He is the co-author of Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design and his research examines how the dynamic conception of wholeness in hermeneutics and phenomenology can deepen our thinking on innovation, customer experience design and the circular economy.

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