Friction, gaps, and countermeasures

By David

In Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale the authors introduce the concept of friction. The idea first appeared in On War by Carl von Clausewitz. He wrote about the uncertainty faced by actors in rapidly changing environments acting on limited information about the environment as a whole.

Basically, von Clausewitz describes friction as the acclimation of unexpected events that prevents reality from unfolding as we expect it to. It is an excellent metaphor to understand the behaviour of any human organisation, including ourselves:

Friction is ultimately a consequence of the human condition – the fact that organisations are composed of people with independent wills and limited information. Thus friction cannot be overcome.

In The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions, and Results, Stephen Bungay writes that friction creates three gaps:

  • a knowledge gap – resulting from acting on incomplete information,
  • an alignment gap – resulting from misunderstanding between people,
  • an effects gap – resulting form outcomes that differ from what we expected.

Bungay continues that in complex systems with a lot of friction scientific management techniques don’t work. It makes the gaps bigger. The premise of Lean Enterprise is that big enterprises can use lean and agile practices1 as countermeasures to reduce friction by creating cultures of continuous improvement.

Accepting friction as a fact of life frees you up from trying to make it go away. Instead, identify friction that is healthy, and friction that is unhealthy, and when you find the latter, start implementing your own countermeasures to improve the situation, but don’t expect to close the gap.

  1. From Lean Enterprise on lean and agile practices: However, too often these are adopted as rituals or “best practices” but are not seen for what they really are – countermeasures that are effective within a particular context in the pursuit of a particular goal.