Kaizen, Innovation, Information Technologies and Data Center Thermodynamics

August 24, 2009

古郷や四五年ぶりの煤払 (furusato ya shi go nenburi no susu harai)

My home village–
four or five years of soot
needs sweeping

—-  A Haiku from 1824 [1]


Famous Rock Garden in Kyoto and a Zen Monk in a Learning Center of a Trading Company

A haiku (also known as Haikai) is a brief structured stanza that evokes emotional images with an element of surprise or contrast.  The intolerance against decay, the recognition of the inevitability of accumulating soot over time, the need to intervene and the acceptance of sweeping as an essential part of intervention; all these emotions expressed in this Haiku, are evident in various aspects of Japanese landscape such as rock gardens and tea houses.   They are also evident in Japanese daily culture emphasizing process and continuous improvement (kaizen).

The first time, twenty years ago, when I sat there at the Rock Garden at Ryoanji with a Japanese colleague counting the stones and watching the tracks of the rake, I kept wondering how they make  those lines everywhere and circles around the rocks.  Are there 15 stones and will you really see the 15th stone only when you attain enlightenment?  Do they rake every day?  How many monks does it take to rake the Rock Garden?

Zen influence on Japanese culture is not only visible in the Japanese gardens [2] but also both in business and every day life through:

  1. Emphasis on process in business
  2. High reliance on measurements, data and analysis
  3. Hobbies such as practicing tea ceremony (Chadou), flower arrangements (Ike Bana) and the martial arts

While Zen teaches a way to approach the actions of every day life with awareness and focus on the present moment, it is not really a religion in the western sense of the word.  In fact, Japanese approach to religion itself is unique.  It is said that the Japanese are born shinto, marry like a christian and accept Buddha when facing death and funerals.  Zen practice unlike western religions does not seek to enlist others.  Instead, the Zen masters actually discourage others from entering the monasteries.  I have heard of stories where the “would be disciple” is discouraged to join and doors closed.  Often one would wait for days at the entrance even in rain  and snow showing one’s will to pursue enlightenment when the monks finally take pity and open the door.

The Zen masters recognized the role of entropy both within (affecting human thought processes) and outside (in the relationship with surroundings.)  The concept of Wa (harmony) strives to fight the tendency of entropy, (the amount of uncertainty which remains about a system after all observable states are taken into account), to increase in a closed system.  Constant awareness (or mindfulness) to reduce random thoughts in the mind, struggle to improve harmony between self and the surroundings and the acknowledgement of the need for intervention to decrease entropy (sweeping the soot) have all seeped into both Japanese daily life and business discipline through “measure, manage and optimize” philosophy.  Kaizen or continuous improvement has transformed the way the processes are optimized in manufacturing, IT data centers and even in daily life.

While Kaizen is an equilibrium phenomenon, which attempts to reduce the entropy by increasing the knowledge through measurements analysis and intervention, innovation is a non equilibrium phenomenon striving to escape from the local equilibrium to find a lower or an absolute minimum.

A Zen Master’s quest was two fold:

  1. Find an equilibrium where the self and the surrounding are in harmony and
  2. Strive to continually maintain the balance between the self and the surrounding through awarenesss and intervention.

The amount of intervention is just enough to keep the balance at equilibrium.  As my english teacher used to say – a perfect essay is one where if you add one more sentence, it is one too many and if you take away one sentence it is one too short.

A long time ago, when I was attempting to unravel  the mysteries of classical and quantum liquids using Metroplolis and Green’s Function Monte Carlo methods, I learned that there are multiple local minima in the thermodynaic state of the system and some times you have to create chaos (in this case increase the temperature) to jump to a next local minimum (see figure).



Kaizen is very effective in reaching a minimum when the system is in an equilibrium state (local minimum).  However, the system has to go through unstable equilirium (jump the peak) in order to reach other lower states of entropy.  Innovation in process or product technologies facilitates this transition but at a price in the form of associated inconvenience caused by change.  Sometimes, the system may have to transition through a higher state of entropy before finding a lower minimum.

The raison d’etre for the Information Technologies (IT) in a data center is to provide the computing, network and storage resources required to create and execute business workflows that deliver specific services to the external world.  The external world is influenced by changing business priorities, varying workloads, environmental conditions and latency tolerence of service consumers.  The success of the data center depends on optimizing the harmony between the consumers and the supply of the required resources.  In a data center, the system entropy comprises of three components:

  1. The human latency in IT management that is involved in monitoring the changes in the surrounding and reacting to them with appropriate visibilty and control [3] (e.g., assuring application availability, performance and security)
  2. The amount of shelfware that has accumulated over time (the soot accumulated over the years) that is not only not helping to reduce the latency of response but actually comes in the way through the cost and effort required to maintain them (e.g., unused licences, annual maintenance costs, labor and knowledge intensive tasks of correlating information from multiple systems) and
  3. Lack of visibility into the impact of latency of response on business (e.g., customer turnover, loss of revenue etc.)

The IT management’s mission is to seek an optimal minimum in entropy through innovation and then to establish perfect harmony between the IT systems and its surroundings that they serve using Kaizen.

This is at odds with social and economic reality in Japan where a large number of humans depend on responding to the changes in the surroundings in the form of IT server, network and storage systems management.  In the old days, when the velocity of information was low,  global connectivity was not electronic, and Japan was an island unto itself, the human latency contribution to entropy was not a significant factor because the latency tolerance of the consumers was larger than the human latency involved in responding to the changes in the surroundings.  Today, globalization, the Internet, massive scale of social networking, broadband communications, wildly varying demand and rapidly changing business priorities are straining the current IT infrastructure, and human latency has become a significant part of the entropy contribution.  The soot, that is accumulated over time in the form of a patchwork of management systems, (evolving from a server centric IT to a fully network centric IT), designed to provide local optimization in server, network, and storage domains adds an additional overlay of people, processes, and technologies attempting to integrate the silos and contributes more entropy.    To meet the changing latency tolerance requirements of IT resource consumers, the infrastructure has to transform itself and serve the new reality.  Agility through dynamic reconfiguration, and customization have to become the norm and not an exception.  Connecting the right resources to right consumers based on their latency tolerance and business priority becomes a differentiator.  Changes in consumer demand at electronic speed mandates visibility and control at electronic speeds and no less.

The advent of switching technology in the first decade of the 20th century, eliminated the human latency in operator based manual switching in telephony introduced in the late 19th century. Will a “Cloud Switching technology” eliminate human latency in the 21st century data center?  If history is any guide, the disruption is inevitable.  One can only minimize the impact with careful design and planning.  Japan has witnessed such transformations before and has led some of them.  Japanese management has successfully managed human network connections with great organizational ability, adopted Total Quality Management,  and established leadership in telecommunications infrastructure in the past.  How will the new generation of managers establish harmony between the IT systems and their global surroundings? Will they move from Kaizen, with which they feel so comfortable, and cause planned chaos required for innovation? Or will Japan become an island unto itself again or reclaim its past position in global technology play.  Will their ambition go beyond selling 500,000 servers?  This is the theme of my study. I am looking for input, comments, and collaboration. I invite anyone with appropriate insight to participate.

[1] http://haikuguy.com/issa/search.php?keywords=sweep&year=

[2] http://learn.bowdoin.edu/japanesegardens/gardens/intro/index.html

[3] http://www.soacenter.com/?p=189
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