This post was triggered by a post that Harish Jose wrote on purposeful and purposive entities in systems thinking (see: The purpose of purposeful entities in purposive systems). In that post, an autonomous entity was defined as an entity that has freedom of choice and is free to make its own rules. This triggered me, as autonomy has always been a key concept in the Lean organizations that I have worked for and with. But there, it never meant that these teams or departments would be free to make their own rules; were free to make their own laws. So, what do we mean by “autonomous”, and why pursue it?
Purposeful and Purposive
In the mentioned post, Harish Jose states that “purposeful” in systems thinking means that the entity is autonomous and has freedom of choice. The entity is free to make its own rules. “Purposive” on the other hand implies that the entity’s purpose is chosen by somebody else, and they do not have the freedom to make choices, he writes.
Earlier, Checkland (1993) described purposeful behavior as behavior that is willed – there is thus some sense of voluntary action. A purposeful system is a system that can articulate and seek its own purpose. The other is purposive behavior – behavior to which an external observer can attribute purpose; a purposive system is a system that has an imposed purpose (from the outside).
When reading Harish’s post, I was particularly triggered by the use of the concept of “autonomous” in relation to the supposed freedom of choice an entity has, in seeking its own purpose, and in the freedom in creating its own rules.
Autonomy, for me, has always been a key concept in the Lean organizations that I have worked for, and that I co-developed with my clients. I often speak about autonomous areas, autonomous teams, and autonomous departments. Additionally, in the context of organizational design, the words autonomy, self-directing, and self-governing can be come across frequently, without always being very specific or clear in what is meant with them; almost assuming they are self-explanatory.
Sure, autonomy stems from the Greek “autos”, meaning “self”, and “nomos” meaning “law”, together meaning “having its own laws”. But despite the frequent use of the words autonomy and autonomous in the Lean organizations I worked for and with, it never meant that these teams or departments would be free to make their own rules; were free to make their own laws.
To me, self-determination, and having individuals and teams within a larger organization making their own laws and rules, goes against the self-reinforcing effect of organized individuals and teams working together, aligned with, and sharing the same common purpose. In the end, isn’t that why people organize themselves in the first place: to achieve a certain shared goal? Otherwise, why organize, if not purposefully?
Autonomy in Lean
But the word “autonomous” is also often used in the sense of “capable of operating without direct control” or “being able to function independently”, without the reference to the entity making its own laws. In fact, to evaluate an individual’s or entity’s capability or ability, one even is in need of a yardstick, a standard, a law, if you will.
Autonomous in that regard, therefore, is not so much about self-determination, but more about a certain capability of an object to function independently, without external intervention and assistance, similarly to the use of the word autonomous when speaking of self-driving cars. And clearly, cars do not themselves seek their own purpose, create their own rules nor do they have full freedom of choice.
Autonomous from this perspective, meaning “capable of operating without direct control” or “being able to function independently”, is much more like the use of the concept of autonomous in Lean organization, about which I have written quite a few times before:
Autonomy: Condition for Continual Improvement (2011)
Respect for People: Lean’s Forgotten Third Pillar? (2016)
Creating Ownership: Six Forms of Autonomy (2016)
To summarize, in these blog posts I describe autonomy in terms of an individual or a team with the responsibility, authority, and ability to satisfactorily perform, thereby contributing to the common goal. Entrusting capable workers with the responsibility and authority to run and improve their work is even seen as one of the key elements of the “respect for humanity” pillar within Lean.
Autonomy involves responsibility for all aspects of performance, not only one (like safety, or productivity) and for a sensible part of the value stream. It also means teams themselves track and evaluate their own performance (in other words, the PDCA loop is – to a large extent – contained within the team) and have the authority and ability to maintain and further improve their own performance.
I guess I mostly compare autonomous teams with a module in a modular system. It is a more or less self-contained unit within a larger organization, performing a distinct and independently operable function within the larger whole. It also means to me, that most interactions are within the module, not with other, external entities.
Autonomy in Lean is pursued not only because it fundamentally respects human needs, but also because it best fuels team-based continual improvement towards a common goal.
Lean, Autonomous Teams
Bringing it all together, autonomy in Lean does not mean purposeful in the meaning of systems thinking. It does not imply the entity can articulate its own purpose. The team is part of a larger organization that is purposeful.
Does it then mean that an autonomous team in the Lean context is “purposive” in the systems thinking sense of the word? Probably more than purposeful, but not entirely either, as an autonomous team is very well allowed and able to come up with (“bottom-up”) improved standards that may serve the overall organization.
So, what are they? In more common language terms, I think autonomous teams are both purposeful (in the sense that it has a meaningful purpose, and shows resolve and determination to achieve its objectives), and purposive (meaning the team serves a useful function, and that the team’s efforts are deliberate, intended, conscious and done with a purpose in mind). But I’m interested to understand the systems thinking point of view on the above.
To conclude, autonomous teams in Lean are not characterized by self-determination, but by self-management.
Some of the best material I have found on autonomy, as it related to the workplace, is found in the writings of Drs. Deci and Ryan as they describe their psychological construct, Self-Determination Theory (SDT). They define autonomy as having a sense of volition over the things that affect you. It is very context dependent. Autonomy is vastly different than freedom or independence, for example, this is not commonly appreciated. If you are interested, you can search SDT on the internet. Like all internet materials, some people do not get it, but most of the material is good. The best article is “Self-Determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation social development and well-being” (American Psychologist). My book “Sustaining Workforce Engagement – How To Ensure Your Employees are Healthy, Happy and Productive (Wilson, 2019) addresses the intersection of SDT, intrinsic needs and Lean Manufacturing.