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When Aristotle took on Metaphysics he wrote about four causes with which an object can be explained; material, efficient, formal and final. A material cause is the stuff a thing or system is made of, the efficient cause is the thing which made it or changes it. The formal cause, and now it gets interesting, is the system’s essence or arrangement and the final cause is the purpose of the thing or system.

Now, if operations management with (or without) SAP underlies the still irrefutable laws of metaphysics, then I want to ask the question about how much of the formal and final causes we care about in our efforts to run and continuously improve supply chains. Obviously we do care a lot about the material and efficient causes. As a consequence we pay a lot of attention to the study of business process and product development, but underlying business dynamics and purposeful outcomes fall through the cracks.

All too often we can see slogans, buzzwords, ‘philosophies’ and entire movements with little or no final or formal goal orientation. Speaking of the goal: Eliyah Goldratt had formulated a final cause with his book ‘The Goal’ almost 30 years ago. His interpretation of The Goal for a manufacturing operations system (our final cause here) was: “to make money now and in the future”. Wallace and Hopp updated this essential purpose by adding “…in ways that are consistent with our core values” in their book ‘Factory Physics’.

Once we consider the final cause in our operations management system, we need a way to get there. This is where the formal cause comes into play. The formal cause of a manufacturing operations system is its structure; its underlying principles, governing laws; its essential ‘form’. When constructed the right way, it provides a framework of reference, a scientific basis, a guiding model with which policies may be simulated so that we can anticipate what steps need to be taken to achieve The Goal.

Maybe we can now agree that any improvement or change efforts guided by material and effective causes only, may be exclusively driven by experience and guesswork. Once we are adding the final cause to have a purpose to work towards to and a formal cause with a model, where we can practice and simulate policies… then we can develop intuition, anticipate results, measure progress and generally move into a better world.

So please allow me at this point to add my own little ‘philosophic’ part so that we could say: “…the final cause or essential purpose of a manufacturing operations management system is to make money now and in the future in ways that are consistent with our core values and…the formal cause or scientific basis of a manufacturing operations management system provides us the framework to construct policies to achieve the final cause”

In that sense it might be worthwhile to consider – next to material and effective causes – a well defined goal and employ a scientific approach in any business improvement program. Easier said than done… but what’s the alternative? eliminate muda? that’s like saying “I want to be a better cook” and does not provide any guidelines or goals on how good you want to become or how you can get there.

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