Self-Organisation and Kyocera’s Amoeba Management System

A couple of weeks ago Maria and I ran a two-day international seminar on Customer Experiences with Soul at Sustentare Business School in Joinville in the south of Brazil. We love teaching there and we always love discussing Holonomics with the students.

Source: Pixabay

When we discuss cultural transformation, new ways of working, and the evolution of business from command-and-control to more agile ways of working, we always discuss the way in which we can be inspired by the systems we find in nature, one in particular being slime mould.

The picture of Maria above is one of the slides from our seminars, and it asks the question “Why is it that people have so much difficulty behaving like slime mould?”

Slime mould is a fascinating organism to study, since 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 begin 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.

When we mediate on what is happening, we discover some interesting observations.

  • There is top-down command and control centre. The system is self-organising
  • ‘Information’ flows freely throughout the system
  • In times of scarcity the individual entities are able to undergo a rapid transformation
  • New structures emerge in a way in which can not be determined simply by a study of the individual parts. What is that causes one cell to transform into one new kind of cell, and the same type of cell to transform into something entirely different?
  • All cells contribute to the success of the community

Scientists are studying slime mould in many different ways. For example, this simple amoeba with no nervous system and no brain is able to solve maze problems and is able able to design food networks very similar to our most intelligently-designed transport systems. And they are now also inspiring us to think about the way in which we can self-organise, even inside some of the world’s largest enterprises.

Source: Kyocera

Kyocera is a highly diverse global organisation, trading as a group of 229 companies, with around 75,940 employees, and generating an operating profit of $850 million from sales of $14,110 million (for the financial year ending March 2018). 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 business 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:

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

The 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)

Simon Robinson is the co-founder and CEO (Worldwide) 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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