Sociotechnology and Lean Have a Lot in Common

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Lean is a method of working that relies on decentralized and self-organized teams. Sociotechnology and lean are closely related.

A lot of criticism has been levied at lean for causing stress and contributing to a negative working environment. Some Swedish researchers link lean with a reborn form of Taylorism. One reason for this criticism is that a lot of what is marketed under the label lean in reality comes from Taylorism and bureaucratic traditions. The result of this is documented in the book Lean i Arbetslivet (translation: Lean At Work).

Lean is Daily Management and Decentralization

As I wrote in previous entries, lean consists of two principles: visual management and “deal with problems as they appear” (fault tolerance).

Visual governance means the use of visual signals to coordinate work rather than forecasts and plans. These signals create a real-time management that is based on the current situation and plan for the next couple of hours. There is considerable less uncertainty in visual governance when compared to traditional large-scale planning. Less uncertainty at work means less interruptions, which leads to higher productivity.

Fault tolerance refers to the implementation of mechanisms to catch and deal with problems and troubles that appear without pausing operations. The problems should be taken care of by the people closest to them. In production the people closest are the operators and within projects it’s project participants. When problem-solving is distributed within the organization, decision-making is given greater “bandwidth” regardless of whether decision-making and problem-solving is done by management, project leaders or experts.

Visual governance and fault tolerance are principles that need to be converted into appropriate methods that suit the organization with implemented together with lean.

Misconceptions About Lean

There are many misconceptions about lean and one reason for this is because the uncertainty that’s present in long-term forecasts only becomes apparent many years later. One common misconception is that lean requires the invention of standardized processes in production and constant improvements.

However, this has been known since the 18th century. Some people also believe that standardized processes are vital for lean to work but that isn’t true. On the contrary, a rigid thought process in a social organization creates large problems, as demonstrated by sociotechnology research.


Sociotechnology was born at the Tavlstock Institute following World War II. In sociotechnological system theory, the organization is divided into two systems: technical and social. The technical system consists of equipment, machines, tools and methods. The social system consists of people, interactions and knowledge. The technical structure affects the social organization.

Concept for a sociotechnical system

Research conducted by the Tavlstock Institute demonstrated the negative consequences of Taylorist solutions, including problems with unclear work duties, individually designed tasks, top-down management, constricted thinking with clearly defined roles and standardized working methods.

Sociotechnology proposes self-organized teams where tasks and responsibility are determined by the work that is accomplished. Research shows that sociotechnology leads to higher productivity compared to Taylorist solutions and the explanation for this is found within the human equation: people working in teams were more motivated.

Today, thanks to complexity theory and systemized thinking, we have a slightly different explanation. Taylorist solutions don’t lead to high productivity as was thought; on the contrary they lead to inefficiency.

The reason for this is that in a social system, standardized processes with little room for freedom lead to chaos. In order to create order in whole systems and keep up high productivity, a large degree of freedom at the individual level is necessary. That is one needs a multidimensional system for both management and workers.

This means that a certain lack of order at the individual level leads to order within the organization as a whole. This is far from intuitive but the results of complexity theory are convincing and backed up by empirical organization research.

The problem with the sociotechnological system school is the lack of suitable methods. This is where lean enters the picture.

Implementation of Sociotechnology and Lean

A correct implementation of Lean can be characterized by the following:

    • Duties are broken down into manageable sections since that facilitates the distribution of the workload. In Taylorism, duties are separated.
    • With Pulse, we use manageable sections with larger, related duties.
    • Work is done in groups, teams and projects to complete the sections. In Taylorism, work is done individually.
    • Within FoE we work in projects and teams. At Pulse these are self-organized.
    • That the people who work in groups, teams and projects are encouraged to be able to take care of several different duties since that makes it easier to distribute work and problem-solving. Taylorism requires maximum specialization.
    • With Pulse, there are few roles. Cooperation is the key. No activities are dedicated to a specific role or position. People choose what to work on.
    • There are few permanent roles. In Talyorism, the defining of different roles is very important. Within Pulse, there are just a few permanent roles.
    • Increase individuals’ and groups’ ability to act so that everyone can adjust their actions to the current situation and unforeseen events. The goal of Taylorism is to decrease the ability to act through standardization and optimization of processes.
    • With Pulse there is no standard way to work or process thinking. Pulse is a part of the technological structure and it is within this structure that visual management is used.

The above list, which details the components necessary for a successful implementation of Lean stands in contrast to Taylorism and bureaucracy. Instead, it aligns with sociotechnical systems. When correctly implemented, lean is a way to realize the ideas behind sociotechnology.

Socioteknik och lean - produktion
Within production, the system is shaped to facilitate teamwork. Visual management and distributed problem-solving are utilized.


In production, the kanban is used for visual management within the technical structure.

Socioteknik och lean - FoU
Within strategy and development a network of Pulse meetings are used to facilitate teamwork. The Pulse meetings use visual management.

Within strategy and development, the physical spaces in the form of the team room, Pulse room and Pulse boards make up the technological structure. The Pulse meetings form a network that we call an agile network organization.

Sociotechnology was created in the 1960’s and is based on the knowledge available then. The past decades have seen a fast development within organizational theory based around complexity research. The main tenants of sociotechnology, including self-organized teams, have strengthened in recent years while the explanation models have changed considerably.

Today there are methods to implement sociotechnology with the help of Pulse.

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