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Playing with Operational Excellence


For many people reading this, their experience of board-gaming will be limited to playing Monopoly or Cluedo; perhaps some might be chess players. However, over the last few years, particularly since the success of the game Settlers of Catan, there has been an explosion of ever more innovative board games aimed at adults, creating a strongly growing entertainment market.

If your experience of table top gaming ended with luck based, mass market games, you might be surprised to find that the hobbyist side is teeming with complex and deep games where players are invited to “engine build”;  creating a process of taking actions that produce the greatest number of points for the least amount of investment. Often, this requires the player to not only improve steps within a system, but to design the end-to-end system itself. And many of the tools used in Lean can also be applied here.

Reducing Waste

In “deckbuilding” games such as Dominion and Artic Scavengers, players choose to add cards to a personal deck of cards, some of which are then drawn at the beginning of their turn and played to unlock actions and buy more cards. There will generally be a range of cards available to be added to your deck, cards will trade off between those that are worth points at the end of the game, and those that allow you to take powerful actions during the game. The challenge in the game is to create a deck that allows powerful actions, so that the player can then collect points.

The challenge of the deckbuilder genre is to reduce inventory waste. As the player collects cards into her deck, the chance that any one card will be drawn decreases. The successful player will be one that is selective in adding cards to their deck and prevents powerful actions getting lost amongst all the others. A powerful deck will allow for the most efficient cards to cycle into the player’s hand as often as possible.

As those cards that the player starts with, and those that award the most points generally have the weakest, or indeed no actions attached, their appearance in the player’s hand is similar to failure demand in a service environment. A wise player will not only aim to remove the weak starting cards as soon as possible to reduce the appearance of unwanted cards in their hand, but also delay the acquisition of point scoring cards, to prevent them reducing their opportunity to gain more at a later stage.

Improving Flow (Of Wine)

In Viticulture, participants run a vineyard in pre-industrial Tuscany, make wine which awards them points and income. An efficient player will optimise through-flow through their wine making “engine”, making sure the right grapes go into the press, in the right quantities and types to make wine, which meets the criteria of the contracts that they have been asked to fulfil. Further, a good player will attempt to keep a consistent flow. In order to win, players must always be in the process of growing, crushing and fermenting grapes; making the most efficient move at the most efficient time, players must reduce the non-value add movements and focus on delivering only moves that result in value (points)

Once a contract is fulfilled the player takes another, and then changes her production to meet this contract, therefore matching production to customer demand, and pulling on the production only that which is necessary. This requires players to create a flexible process capable of adapting quickly to the demands of the customer.

Systems Thinking

The economic strategy genre of games covers some of the weightier parts of the hobbyist board game market. These games tend to ask the players to manage some form or aspect of a business. From fast food chains (Food Chain Magnate), to shipping companies (Panamax) there is even a game called Kanban. Whilst many of these games reward aspects of management such as cash flow management and profit maximisation, and others, such as Arkwright, replicate macro-economics, several others invite the players to build a co-dependent system of businesses.

In Brass: Birmingham, players succeed by building primary industries that extract coal and iron that allow you to build secondary industry. This secondary industry then requires beer to begin production of manufactured goods. All of these resources will require the players to build a transport network across Birmingham and the Black Country to move to where they are needed.

As players can use each other’s coal, iron, beer and transport network, players must consider themselves in the wider system of the game. A player may choose to not invest in raw materials, but to use other player’s, perhaps a player will focus on building a transport network that will prove useful to others. And so not only must players think about their own end to end system and the interplay of their own resources, but also their place in the wider ecosystem of the game, positioning themselves to be efficient within that.

Implications for Operational Excellence Coaching

There is a growing understanding that games play an important part in the learning of individuals, and that the better the game, the more efficient the learning can be. In a Guardian article, the issue of poor quality games is discussed, and John Coveyou tells of his drive to found Genius Games, an endeavour to create games that educate people in stem subjects

Deming knew the power of using games to explain the principles of process improvement. In the red bead experiment, Deming would illustrate the frustrations and limitations of the traditional focus on individual performance and end of line quality. Here, he can take managers with decades of experience and force them to stand back, remove the complexity of the day-to-day of the modern corporation, and get them to see clearly the underlying themes and principles of traditional corporate practice. He is able to do this because humans use play to conceptualise and explore ideas.

In our roll-out of operational excellence waves we play games, following on from the work of Baringa Consultants, with whom we have been working, we play co-operative games that invite our training delegates to work together to improve a process.

Play is of undoubted value in a learning environment. Play allows training delegates to explore ideas and strategies in a risk-free environment and also impacts positively on the learning of these with a kinaesthetic learning style. Beyond that, it helps create a team atmosphere through common language and shared experience that is helpful at the beginning of an intervention of operational excellence.

While some people struggle to think of lean outside the context of their workplace, for many, the ability to explore ideas in new or different settings help them develop concepts further and relate to their own work in different ways. The playing of games can help training delegates encountering Lean concepts for the first time to “see the woods for the trees”  on their own shop-floor. A well-designed game will also give immediate feedback that the player can intuit, that can be re-enforced by the trainer, allowing learning to happen on an instinctive and logical level at the same time.

Board games offer an OE Coach a collection of game mechanisms on which to draw, to create activities that can help their trainees explore and test lean concepts before applying their learning in the work environment.

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