SmallSmartFast Organizations

  • Written By: Bill McBeath
  • Published: March 18 2004


At ChainLink we have talked a lot about the advent of SmallSmartFast technologies—ever-smaller and ever-smarter devices and software that is fast to implement and give us information and answers in real-time. It includes things like RFID, IM, software agents, etc. This is part of a much broader transformation. Figure 1 illustrates the sweeping changes, mirrored in both private and military sectors, as we move from the Industrial/Cold War era of economies-of-scale to the twenty-first century era of "economies-of-agility".

Size Matters ("Small is Beautiful")

As any integrated circuit engineer will tell you, size matters. The relentless shrinking of semiconductor feature size has been the primary driving force in the seemingly never-ending, dramatic improvements to chip performance. The smaller the elements of the chip get, the faster, cheaper (per unit of performance) and the less power (per unit of performance) they consume.

It turns out that there are many advantages to small teams as well (see sidebar "Small's Competitive Edge"). As a former software engineer, I noticed that a small team of 3-4 engineers was sometimes more productive (produced more working, quality code that met the end customers' needs) than a large team of 30-40. Part of this can be attributed to differences in the individual engineer's performance, but there is more to the story. In the small team, the communications were much easier and faster, changes could be made more quickly and easily, and there were fewer chances for miscommunications. Even in projects that really did require dozens of engineers, it was really important that a very small, tight-knit core team of 2-4 software architects really had their collective minds unified around the entire architecture. Otherwise, the project was doomed to spread its tentacles like an uncontrolled weed and become an unintegrated, multi-headed monster.

As well, the shift to cellular manufacturing reflects a recognition of the agility that comes when you break up massive manufacturing operations into small, flexible teams. This allows smaller batch sizes, but it requires very faster changeovers, as well as teams that are cross-trained to do different functions. This is actually one of the key attributes of smaller teams—people become a lot more multi-talented and cross-functional—e.g. in startups, everyone wears many hats. In SmallSmartFast teams, most people have a much higher job satisfaction, because they have more variety, see more of the whole picture, have more direct responsibility for improvements, have the freedom and responsibility to innovate, and end up with a much greater sense of their own contribution and self-worth.

The real power of the small teams of cellular manufacturing is in the agility and flexibility they bring. This is essential for things like mass customization and build to order. It reduces or eliminates problems like line balancing and allows for building much smaller lot sizes economically.

Speed Matters ("Fast Wins, Slow Loses")

Col. John Boyd, a very influential but not widely recognized military strategist, created the OODA Loop theory, which essentially says we: Observe (see what's going on), Orient (figure out what it means), Decide, and then Act. During any dynamic activity (such as war or competitive business) we are continually going through this cycle again and again. Col. Boyd asserted that if you go through the OODA loop faster than your enemy, you'll win and they'll lose. Our rapid success in the Iraq war can be attributed to a large extent to the successful application of this theory.

In successful supply chains, there's a relentless hammering at cycle times, and for good reasons. As cycle times speed up, inventory levels fall, factories and delivery systems become more agile to change when the market demands it, quality improves (mistakes are discovered and corrected sooner and you make fewer of the bad parts/products) and there is less obsolescence and waste.

A similar thing is happening in IT implementation and SW engineering efforts. Gone are the days of the multi-year mega-project. Today's successful IT teams will set long term vision and architectures, but then deliver in rapid small chunks, 90 days or less for roll out of production systems, and then delivering added functionality in small incremental pieces. This allows them to be much more agile and adapt to changing business requirements and new technologies, rather than being married to a 3-year-old plan and product.

There are even faster cycle times in some of the newer Agile Development methodologies for software engineering, such as the XP (Extreme Programming) approach where you develop, test, and deliver real, usable production code (not prototypes) incrementally in 2-3 week cycles. The whole focus is: think small—what's the smallest possible useful/usable functionality I can build, then deliver it very quickly[1]. This allows much more reality-based progress indicators, since measurement of actual vs. plan for the overall project can start almost immediately, rather than not knowing about delays until very late in the project. It also allows the end user to start seeing the end product and give feedback right away, rather than after tons of code has been written. This enables continual adjustment throughout the project, rather than the usually hopeless goal of trying to nail down all your requirements to 100% accuracy before writing a line of code. This is a SmallSmartFast way of doing things. Start small, implement and learn fast; continually adapt.

[1] When I was a software architect at Wang back in the '80's, one of the fellow architect/engineers I respected the most (Bruce Patterson) advocated a very similar approach. He strongly believed in the power of simplicity and delivered very frugal stripped down functionality very rapidly, then incrementally built only what was really needed to get the job done. That was sort of an "Occam's Razor" approach to software engineering, and a refreshing change from rampant over-engineering. I thought this was way smarter than the mega-project approaches, which were too often cancelled after spending millions of dollars.

Intelligence Matters ("Vision in Action")

The intelligence of SmallSmartFast teams is not theoretical it is manifested in timely action. The vision of the team is validated by their actions and results. This intelligence comes from being attuned to and intimately understanding their ultimate customer. The customer may even be an integral part of the team. But it also comes from independence of thought, the ability to innovate and realize new possibilities. The SmallSmartFast team combines free thinking with the discipline of meeting deadlines and producing real results.

ChainLink Research, a Real-World Example

ChainLink is a good example of a SmallSmartFast organization. We are highly virtual and have a small footprint, yet have attracted and built a level of talent, expertise and knowledge rarely found even in the largest of organizations. Our approach with clients is for us to get smart very quickly about their business, get the right people together in a room (or virtual room), and go through rapid prioritization and decision-making processes, coming out of 1-3 day workshops with consensus around an action plan. By keeping our overhead extremely low through things like leveraging electronic communications, we've been able to build a small organization that has influence and reach far beyond our size.

Transforming organizations requires a new way of thinking. Not all undertakings are small, but fresh approaches can reveal opportunities to do things differently and realize the advantages of being small, smart and fast.

—— Feedback ——

We are interested in your views and comments. Have you worked in or seen SmallSmartFast organizations in action, and if so what were the circumstances and results? What do you think are the main obstacles to becoming SmallSmartFast? How does this apply to your company?

Please write us at

This article is from Parallax View, ChainLink Research's online magazine, read by over 150,000 supply chain and IT professionals each month. Thought-provoking and actionable articles from ChainLink's analysts, top industry executives, researchers, and fellow practitioners. To view the entire magazine, click here.

About the Author

Bill McBeath, Chief Research Officer of ChainLink Research, leads ChainLink's research efforts, as well as the procurement, strategic sourcing, design collaboration, and online marketplaces practices.

Bill McBeath can be reached at:

ChainLink Research is a bold new supply chain research organization dedicated to helping executives improve business performance and competitiveness.

comments powered by Disqus