Category Archives: Creativity

Human Proof Design

Human proof design is design that prevents people from successful using the item.

cover of book, Design of Everyday Things

It is similar to mistake proofing except instead of prevent mistakes it prevents people from using it.

When you see human proof design you will often see signs to tell people how to use the device that has been human proofed. Common instances of this are hotels that have shower designs so opaque they need instructions on how to use a device most people have no problem using if they are not human proofed.

Human proof design is often created by a subset of designers that care about how something looks more than how it is used.

Most people prefer designs that are beautiful without being human proofed. The Design of Everyday Things is a great book on designing beautifully with customer focus.

A sign your design is human proofed is that a sign or manual is needed for people to use it.

Most human proof design can be identified very simply by having regular people try to use the item. Watch what they do and when they struggle to use it, many problems will be very obvious. You can’t use people in this effort that are significantly different from the normal users.

In several areas I see these failures quite often. Hotel rooms are a common source of problems. The light switches are often very odd and I have to search all over to find out how to turn on or off different lights.

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The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Wonderful advice and so poignant. But actually, if you read the whole poem, what we take from the quote isn’t what the poem was saying. Earlier in the poem it says

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same

view out windows of a temple

photo from a temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia by John Hunter

Robert Frost was poking fun at his friend who would obsess over what fork to take in the path as they walked when in reality the choice made no difference.

And “that has made all the difference” is poking fun at self justifications of our actions; congratulating ourselves for doing something not really worthy of accolades.

Still the top three lines do seem like insightful advice. Of course what is really needed is insight into when choosing the road less traveled is wise (or at least a sensible gamble) and when it is less traveled for very good reasons.

I do believe we far too easily slip into habits encouraged by the well worn path most people take. And therefore think balancing that tendency with at least considering the road less traveled more often is wise. But I actually like that when you read the full poem it really isn’t saying that.

Related: Chomphet Hike, Luang Prabang, LaosOlympic National Park PhotosThe Aim Should be the Best Life – Not Work v. Life BalanceMaking Better DecisionsRhinoceros Hornbills on Mount Santubong

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Children are Amazingly Creative At Solving Problems

This story at NPR reminded my of Russell Ackoff talking about the creativity kids show in solving problems* – and how school often stifles that creativity.

Preschoolers Outsmart College Students In Figuring Out Gadgets

Children try a variety of novel ideas and unusual strategies to get the gadget to go. For example, Gopnik says, “If the child sees that a square block and a round block independently turn the music on, then they’ll take a square and take a circle and put them both on the machine together to make it go, even though they never actually saw the experimenters do that.”

This is flexible, fluid thinking — children exploring an unlikely hypothesis. Exploratory learning comes naturally to young children, says Gopnik. Adults, on the other hand, jump on the first, most obvious solution and doggedly stick to it, even if it’s not working. That’s inflexible, narrow thinking. “We think the moral of the study is that maybe children are better at solving problems when the solution is an unexpected one,” says Gopnik.

And that flexibility may disappear earlier than we think. Gopnik’s lab has also compared toddlers and kindergartners in doing these tests of abstract thinking, and found that the diaper set are actually better at focusing on the relationship between the objects, rather than on the things.

To those, like me, that use Deming’s ideas to help understand and improve management it is apparent these findings relate directly to two areas of Deming’s management system: psychology and theory of knowledge (how we know what we know).

Understanding how our psychology limits are effectiveness can be used to counter those tendencies.

And as Daniel Boorstin said:

“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Understanding the limits of our knowledge and our tendency to become rigid in our thinking can help us avoid blinding ourselves to options. Our brains overrule options without us consciously even knowing that is happening; it takes effort to overcome this tendency.

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George Box Webcast on Statistical Design in Quality Improvement

George Box lecture on Statistical Design in Quality Improvement at the Second International Tampere Conference in Statistics, University of Tampere, Finland (1987).

Early on he shows a graph showing the problems with American cars steady over a 10 years period. Then he overlays the results for Japanese cars which show a steady and significant decline of the same period.

Those who didn’t get to see presentations before power point also get a chance to see old school, hand drawn, overhead slides.

He discusses how to improve the pace of improvement. To start with informative events (events we can learn from) have to be brought to the attention of informed observers. Otherwise only when those events happen to catch the attention of the right observer will we capture knowledge we can use to improve. This results in slow improvement.

A control chart is an example of highlighting that something worth studying happened. The chart will indicate when to pay attention. And we can then improve the pace of improvement.

Next we want to encourage directed experimentation. We intentionally induce informative events and pay close attention while doing so in order to learn.

Every process generates information that can be used to improve it.

He emphasis the point that this isn’t about only manufacturing but it true of any process (drafting, invoicing, computer service, checking into a hospital, booking an airline ticket etc.).

He then discussed an example from a class my father taught and where the students all when to a TV plant outside Chicago to visit. The plant had been run by Motorola. It was sold to a Japanese company that found there was a 146% defect rate (which meant most TVs were taken off the line to be fixed at least once and many twice) – this is just the defect rate before then even get off the line. After 5 years the same plant, with the same American workers but a Japanese management system had reduced the defect rate to 2%. Everyone, including managers, were from the USA they were just using quality improvement methods. We may forget now, but one of the many objections managers gave for why quality improvement wouldn’t work in their company was due to their bad workers (it might work in Japan but not here).

He references how Deming’s 14 points will get management to allow quality improvement to be done by the workforce. Because without management support quality improvement processes can’t be used.

With experimentation we are looking to find clues for what to experiment with next. Experimentation is an iterative process. This is very much the mindset of fast iteration and minimal viable product (say minimal viable experimentation as voiced in 1987).

There is great value in creating iterative processes with fast feedback to those attempting to design and improve. Box and Deming (with rapid turns of the PDSA cycle) and others promoted this 20, 30 and 40 years ago and now we get the same ideas tweaked for startups. The lean startup stuff is as closely related to Box’s ideas of experimentation as an iterative process as it is to anything else.

Related: Ishikawa’s seven quality control tools

He also provided a bit of history that I was not aware of saying the first application of orthogonal arrays (fractional factorial designs) in industry was by Tippett in 1933. And he then mentioned work by Finney in 1945, Plackett and Burman in 1946 and Rao in 1947.

George Box Articles Available for a Short Time

A collection of George Box articles have been selected for a virtual George Box issue by David M. Steinberg and made available online.

George E. P. Box died in March 2013. He was a remarkably creative scientist and his celebrated professional career in statistics was always at the interface of science and statistics. George Box, J. Stuart Hunter and Cuthbert Daniel were instrumental in launching Technometrics in 1959, with Stu Hunter as the initial editor. Many of his articles were published in the journal. Therefore we think it is especially fitting that Technometrics should host this on-line collection with some of his most memorable and influential articles.

They also include articles from Journal of the American Statistical Association and Quality Engineering. Taylor & Francis is offering these articles freely in honor of George Box until December 31st, 2014. It is very sad that closed science and engineering journals block access to the great work created by scientists and engineers and most often paid for by government (while working for state government universities and with grants organizations like the National Science Foundation[NSF]). At least they are making a minor exception to provide the public (that should be unlimited access to these works) a limited access to these articles this year. These scientists and engineers dedicated their careers to using knowledge to improve society not to hide knowledge from society.

Some of the excellent articles make available for a short time:

The “virtual issue” includes many more articles.

Related: Design of Experiments: The Process of Discovery is IterativeQuotes by George E.P. BoxThe Art of DiscoveryAn Accidental Statistician: The Life and Memories of George E. P. Box

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Innovative Thinking at Amazon: Paying Employees $5,000 to Quit

Amazon continues to be innovative not just in technology but with management thinking. Jeff Bezos has rejected the dictates espoused most vociferously by Wall Street mouthpieces and MBAs that encourage short term thinking and financial gimmicks which harm the long term success of companies.

Most CEOs and executives are too fearful or foolish to ignore what they are told they must do because Wall Street demands it. CEO’s and boards often ratchet up the poor management thinking by tying big bonuses to financial measures which are much more easily achieved by gaming the system than by improving the company (so companies get the games there boards encouraged through their financial extrinsic motivation focus).

Amazon does many good things focused on making Amazon a stronger company year after year. These innovative management practices seem to largely be due to the thinking of the strong willed founder and CEO: Jeff Bezos. Jeff was smart enough to see the great things being done at Zappos by Tony Hsieh and bought Zappos.

Jeff Bezos has added his letter to shareholders to Warren Buffett’s (for Berkshire Hathaway) as letters worth reading each year. In the latest Amazon letter he includes many worthwhile ideas including:

Career Choice is a program where we pre-pay 95% of tuition for our employees to take courses for in- demand fields, such as airplane mechanic or nursing, regardless of whether the skills are relevant to a career at Amazon. The goal is to enable choice. We know that for some of our fulfillment center employees, Amazon will be a career. For others, Amazon might be a stepping stone on the way to a job somewhere else – a job that may require new skills. If the right training can make the difference, we want to help.

The second program is called Pay to Quit. It was invented by the clever people at Zappos, and the Amazon fulfillment centers have been iterating on it. Pay to Quit is pretty simple. Once a year, we offer to pay our associates to quit. The first year the offer is made, it’s for $2,000. Then it goes up one thousand dollars a year until it reaches $5,000. The headline on the offer is “Please Don’t Take This Offer.” We hope they don’t take the offer; we want them to stay. Why do we make this offer? The goal is to encourage folks to take a moment and think about what they really want. In the long-run, an employee staying somewhere they don’t want to be isn’t healthy for the employee or the company.

A third inward innovation is our Virtual Contact Center. It’s an idea we started a few years back and have continued to grow with terrific results. Under this program, employees provide customer service support for Amazon and Kindle customers while working from home. This flexibility is ideal for many employees who, perhaps because they have young children or for another reason, either cannot or prefer not to work outside the home.

The first point reinforces Dr. Deming’s words encouraging companies to do exactly that – pay for education even if it wasn’t related to the work the employee was doing or would do for the company. Still quite rare decades after Deming’s advice.

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Taking Risks Based on Evidence

My opinion has long been that football teams are too scared to take an action that is smart but opens the coach to criticism. So instead of attempting to make it on 4th down (if you don’t understand American football, just skip this post) they punt because that is the decision that is accepted as reasonable.

So instead of doing what is wise they do what avoids criticism. Fear drives them to take the less advantageous action. Now I have never looked hard at the numbers, but my impression is that it is well worth the risk to go for it on 4th down often. In a quick search I don’t see a paper by a Harvard professor (this article refers to it also – Fourth down: To punt or to go?) on going for it on 4th down but I found on by a University of California, Berkeley economist (David Romer wrote called “Do Firms Maximize? Evidence from Professional Football.”).

On the 1,604 fourth downs in the sample for which the analysis implies that teams are on average better off kicking, they went for it only nine times. But on the 1,068 fourth downs for which the analysis implies that teams are on average better off going for it, they kicked 959 times.

My guess is that the advantages to going for it on 4th down are greater for high school than college which is greater than the advantage for the pros (but I may be wrong). My guess is this difference is greater the more yardage is needed. Basically my feeling is the variation in high school is very high in high school and decreases with greater skill, experience and preparation. Also the kicking ability (punting and field goals) impacts the choices of going for it on 4th down and that dramatically increases in college. So if I am correct, I think pro coaches should be more aggressive on 4th down, but likely less aggressive than high school coaches should be.

But in any event the data should be explored and strategies should be tested.

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Jeff Bezos: Innovation, Experiments and Long Term Thinking

Jeff Bezos, bought the Washington Post. He has long showed a willingness to take a long term view at Amazon. He is taking that same thinking to the Washington Post:

In my experience, the way invention, innovation and change happen is [through] team effort. There’s no lone genius who figures it all out and sends down the magic formula. You study, you debate, you brainstorm and the answers start to emerge. It takes time. Nothing happens quickly in this mode. You develop theories and hypotheses, but you don’t know if readers will respond. You do as many experiments as rapidly as possible. ‘Quickly’ in my mind would be years.”

The newspaper business is certainly a tough one today – one that doesn’t seem to have a business model that is working well (for large, national papers). I figured the answer might be that a few (of the caliber of Washington Post, New York Times…) would be owed by foundations and supported largely by a few wealthy people that believed in the value of a strong free press and journalism. Maybe Bezos will find a business model that works. Or maybe he will just run it essentially as a foundation without needing a market return on his investment.

The Guardian (where the article with the quote was published) is an example of good journalism by a foundation. ProPublica is another (though I guess it is really a non-profit but most of the funding seems to be via foundations).

Related: Jeff Bezos and Root Cause Analysis (2009)Amazon Innovation (2006)Jeff Bezos on Lean Thinking (2005)Jeff Bezos Spends a Week Working in Amazon’s Kentucky Distribution Center (2009)

You are a Fool if You Do What I Say

Guest post from Mark Graban

There’s an interesting quote from Taiichi Ohno in “Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management,” which I was re-reading today…

“You are a fool if you do what I say. You are a greater fool if you don’t do as I say. You should think for yourself and come up with better ideas than mine.”

The best examples of Lean in healthcare are examples where leaders and organizations learned, but did not blindly copy. Sami Bahri DDS (the “lean dentist”) read Deming, Shingo, Ohno, etc. and had to figure this out himself, rather than copying some other dentist.

ThedaCare is the first to say “don’t directly copy what we do.”

We can learn from others, run our own experiments to see what works, and keep improving to make it better than even Ohno or Shingo would have imagined.

Related: Two resources, largely untapped in American organizations, are potential information and employee creativityRespect People by Creating a Climate for Joy in Work

What is the Explanation Going to be if This Attempt Fails?

Occasionally during my career I have been surprised by new insights. One of the things I found remarkable was how quickly I thought up a new explanation for what could have caused a problem when the previously expressed explanation was proven wrong. After awhile I stopped finding it remarkable and found it remarkable how long it took me to figure out that this happened.

I discovered this as I programmed software applications. You constantly have code fail to run as you expect and so get plenty of instances to learn the behavior I described above. While I probably added to my opportunities to learn by being a less than stellar coder I also learned that even stellar coders constantly have to iterate through the process of creating code and seeing if it works, figuring out why it didn’t and trying again.

The remarkable thing is how easily I could come up with an new explanation. Often nearly immediately upon what I expected to work failing to do so. And one of the wonderful things about software code is often you can then make the change in 10 minutes and a few minutes later see if it worked (I am guessing my brain kept puzzling over the ideas involved and was ready with a new idea when I was surprised by failure).

When I struggled a bit to find an initial explanation I found myself thinking, “this has to be it” often because of two self reinforcing factors.

First, I couldn’t think of anything else that would explain it. Sometimes you will think right away of 4 possible issues that could cause this problem. But, when I struggled to find any and then finally came up with an idea it feels like if there was another possibility I should have thought of it while struggling to figure out what I finally settled on.

Second, the idea often seems to explain exactly what happened, and it often feels like “of course it didn’t work, what was I thinking I need to do x.” This often turns out to be true, doing x solves the problem and you move on. But a remarkable percentage of the time, say even just 10%, it doesn’t. And then I would find myself almost immediately thinking, of course I need to do y. Even when 10 seconds ago I was convinced there was no other possibility.

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The Art of Discovery

Quality and The Art of Discovery by Professor George Box (1990):


Quotes by George Box in the video:

“I think of statistical methods as the use of science to make sense of numbers”

“The scientific method is how we increase the rate at which we find things out.”

“I think the quality revolution is nothing more, or less, than the dramatic expansion of the of scientific problem solving using informed observation and directed experimentation to find out more about the process, the product and the customer.”

“It really amounts to this, if you know more about what it is you are doing then you can do it better and you can do it cheaper.”

“We are talking about involving the whole workforce in the use of the scientific method and retraining our engineers and scientists in a more efficient way to run experiments.”

“Tapping into resources:

  1. Every operating system generates information that can be used to improve it.
  2. Everyone has creativity.
  3. Designed experiments can greatly increase the efficiency of experimentation.

An informed observer and directed experimentation are necessary for the scientific method to be applied. He notes that the control chart is used to notify an informed observer to explain what is special about the conditions when a result falls outside the control limits. When the chart indicates a special cause is likely present (something not part of the normal system) an informed observer should think about what special cause could lead to the result that was measured. And it is important this is done quickly as the ability of the knowledgable observer to determine what is special is much greater the closer in time to the result was created.

The video was posted by Wiley (with the permission of George’s family), Wiley is the publisher of George’s recent autobiography, An Accidental Statistician: The Life and Memories of George E. P. Box, and many of his other books.

Related: Two resources, largely untapped in American organizations, are potential information and employee creativityStatistics for Experimenters (book on directed experimentation by Box, Hunter and Hunter)Highlights from 2009 George Box SpeechIntroductory Videos on Using Design of Experiments to Improve Results (with Stu Hunter)

Quality Processes in Unexpected Places

This month Paul Borawski asked ASQ’s Influential Voices to explore the use of quality tools in unexpected places.

The most surprising example of this practice that I recall is the Madison, Wisconsin police department surveying those they arrested to get customer feedback. It is obvious that such “customers” are going to be biased. Still the police department was able to get actionable information by seeking the voice of the customer.

photo of a red berry and leaves

Unrelated photo from Singapore Botanical Garden by John Hunter.

Certain of the police department’s aims are not going to match well with those they arrest (most obviously those arrested wish the police department didn’t arrest them). The police department sought the voice of the customer from all those they interacted with (which included those they arrested, but also included those reporting crimes, victims, relatives of those they arrested etc.).

The aim of the police department is not to arrest people. Doing so is necessary but doing so is most similar in the management context to catching an error to remove that bad result. It is better to improve processes so bad results are avoided. How the police interact with the public can improve the process to help steer people’s actions away from those that will require arrests.

The interaction police officers have with the public is a critical gemba for meeting the police department’s aim. Reducing crime and encouraging a peaceful society is aided by knowing the conditions of that gemba and knowing how attempts to improve are being felt at the gemba.

All customer feedback includes bias and personal preferences and potentially desires that are contrary to the aims for the organization (wanting services for free, for example). Understanding this and how important understanding customer/user feedback on the gemba is, it really shouldn’t be surprising that the police would want that data. But I think it may well be that process thinking, evidence based management and such ideas are still not widely practiced as so the Madison police department’s actions are still surprising to many.

Quality Leadership: The First Step Towards Quality Policing by David Couper and Sabine Lobitz

Our business is policing, our customers are the citizens within our jurisdictions, and our product is police service (everything from crime fighting and conflict management to safety and prevention programs.)

If we are to cure this we must start to pay attention to the new ideas and trends in the workplace mentioned earlier that are helping America’s businesses; a commitment to people, how people are treated — employees as well as citizens, the development of a people-oriented workplace, and leadership can and does make a difference.

If we change the way in which we lead the men and women in our police organizations, we can achieve quality in policing. However, wanting to change and changing are worlds apart. The road to change is littered by good intentions and short-term efforts.

This article, from 1987, illustrates the respect for people principle was alive and being practiced 25 years ago; most organizations need to do a great deal more work on applying practices that show respect for people.

Related: Quality Improvement and Government: Ten Hard Lessons From the Madison Experience by David C. Couper, Chief of Police, City of Madison, Wisconsin – SWAT Raids, Failure to Apply System Thinking in Law EnforcementMeasuring What Matters: Developing Measures of What the Police DoThe Public Sector and W. Edwards DemingDoing More with Less in the Public Sector – A Progress Report from Madison, Wisconsin

Using Incentives to Guide Social System Improvements

When confronted with the challenge of managing a social system (or market) I like to find ways to use a few simple rules that will guide the system to find improvements. I favor allowing participants in complex social system to determine how to adapt. So I support, for example, a carbon taxes where the market can decide where it is most effective to invest to reduce carbon use (both to reduce our depletion of the resource and to reduce pollution leading to climate change).

I like to try and keep prescription rules as limited as possible and instead set simple rules that will allow people to make choices. These rules will often allow for people to judge when they need to temper the extremes (in management examples) and in economic situations they often can have costs that escalate as the system is strained (so low pricing if the road is currently not heavily used and increasing the cost to users as congestion increases). The more prescriptive the rules the less ability people have to find creative solutions.

Traffic congestion is a perennial problem with high very costs to society. I very much like congestion pricing. You set a rule that puts increasing costs on those creating an overload on the system (which has costly negative externalities). Then allow people to figure out how to adapt.

The video also provides a very good example of why leadership is important. In Stockholm people were against congestion pricing (70% to 30%). This isn’t surprising they see a new tax that only is a cost. They don’t understand that the system performance is going to improve – the cost will provide a benefit. Leadership is required to push forward when the benefits are not obvious to everyone. Once people saw that congestion was greatly decreased 70% supported congestion pricing.

Jonas Eliasson: “Don’t tell people how to adapt. Nudge them. If you do it correctly – they’ll embrace the change”

Related: The Case for Physically Separated Bike LanesUrban Planning in Northern VirginiaDisregard for People by FedEX and UPS – Systems thinking allowed the engineers to design a solution that wasn’t about enforcing the existing rules more but changing the system so that the causes of the most serious problems are eliminated. – Using Outcome Measures for Prison Management

New Deadly Diseases

Management and the economy keep evolving. Many good things happen. In the last decade the best things are probably the increased deep adoption of lean thinking in many organization. and the adoption of lean and Deming methods in software development (agile software development, kanban and lean startup [which I do realize isn’t limited to software development]).

Sadly all the deadly diseases Dr. Deming described remain. And, as I said in 2007, I think 2 new diseases have become so widespread and so harmful they have earned their place alongside the 7 deadly diseases (which started as the 5 deadly diseases). The new deadly diseases are:

  • extremely excessive executive pay
  • systemic impediments to innovation

In my view these 2 diseases are more deadly to the overall economy than all but the broken USA health system. The systemic impediments to innovation are directly critical to small percentage (5%?) of organizations. But the huge costs of the blocks to innovation and the huge “taxes” (extorted by those using the current system to do the oposite of what it should be doing) are paid by everyone. The costs come from several areas: huge “taxes” on products (easily much greater than all the taxes that go to fund our governments), the huge waste companies have to go through due to the current system (legal fees, documentation, delayed introduction, cross border issues…) and the denial of the ability to use products and services that would improve our quality of life.

The problems with extremely excessive executive pay are well known. Today, few sensible people see the current executive pay packages as anything but the result of an extremely corrupt process. Though if their personal pocketbook is helped by justifying the current practices, some people find a way to make a case for it. But excluding those with an incentive to be blind, it is accepted as a critical problem.

More people understand the huge problems with our patent and copyright systems everyday, but the understanding is still quite limited. Originally copyright and patents were created to provide a government granted monopoly to a creator in order to reward that creator for contributing to the development of society. Copyrights and patents are government granted interventions in the free market. They are useful. They are wise policy.

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Motivation, Rewards, Performance Appraisals and Your Career

In this interview Dan Pink again makes some great points relating to psychology, managing people and managing your career.

Q. What kinds of programs can managers and companies put into place to motivate their workforce?

Assuming companies are paying people fairly, they should do what they can to foster autonomy, mastery, and purpose. One of my favorite specific ideas is this: The Australian company Atlassian conducts what they call “FedEx Days” in which people work on anything they want for 24 hours and then show the results to the company the following day. These one-day bursts of autonomy have produced a whole array of fixes for existing products, ideas for new ones, and improvements to internal processes that would have otherwise never emerged. For creative tasks, the best approach is often just to hire great people and get out of their way.

I agree. Focusing on motivation is wrong, as Douglas McGregor detailed in the Human Side of Enterprise over 50 years ago. The problems with theory x management (motivation through fear and rewards) has been detailed over and over again decade after decade. I get tired of us ignoring very well done work to help us manage better for decades 🙁

Q. Are you suggesting that offering someone a 50 per cent raise won’t motivate him or her to work harder?

…most organizations dangle what I call “if-then” rewards — as in, “If you do this, then you get that” — bonuses, commissions, and like. Fifty years of social science tells us that “if-then” rewards are great for simple, routine, algorithmic work [but not creative work]… The best use of money as a motivator is to hire great people and then pay them enough to take the issue of money off the table.

By the way, even that juicy, non-contingent 50 per cent raise has some serious limits. People will be thrilled in the short-run, but over the long term (say, the third paycheck) the thrill will become the status quo…

Again I agree: When Performance-related Pay Backfires, Righter Incentivization, Build an Environment Where Intrinsic Motivation Flourishes.

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Learn to Code to Help Your Career

I believe there are big benefits to knowing how to code (programing, software development). What is possible for your organization is often significantly impacted by understanding how to properly use software (and create it, coding, when needed). The lack of understanding of software is a significant problem not just for those wanting a job coding (that are available for those with the right skills) but also for those making decisions about what the organization should do.

The profound ignorance (meant not in a pejorative way but in the descriptive way) of software is a significant problem for managers today. The critical role of software in our organizations is only growing. And the importance of understanding software (which coding provides in a way no other learning does) is only increasing. My guess is a decade or two or three from now a understanding of coding will not be nearly as critical for managers. I am just guessing the nature of coding will be significantly changed and not understanding the details needed to code will not be as critical as it is today. Maybe I am wrong about the importance of understanding coding fading over time (it is more a feeling than a chain of logic I can clearly explain easily).

There are many indirect benefits of learning to code. In the same way that those with an education in engineering do very well in their careers overall, even if they take a path where they are no longer engineers a background in coding prepares you well for your career. Actually, similar to engineering, part of this effect may well be those that can graduate with an engineering degree and those that can be employed for several years as a software developer have skills and abilities that would have made them successful even if they didn’t pass through those experiences (still I think, those experiences to add to their success).

Good programmers have a strong tendency to think in ways that those interested in management improvement need (and, sadly, often lack): systems thinking, customer focus, efficiency focused [good coders often hate wasting their time and naturally despise non-value added steps], a willingness to speak up about things that need to be improved, a desire to make a difference, passion for what they do…

If you work along side good programmers these traits will be reinforced every day (this was my favorite part of my last job – working with great programmers that pursued these principles and re-enforced my doing so also). Yes there are also things you might have to temper in dealings with non-coders (being a bit kinder/less-direct about perceived failures, for example). Also some coders can be so engaged they expect an unsustainable commitment from peers (this is one of the great benefits of a good agile software development system – a focus on creating an environment for sustainable development [not expecting unreasonable effort/hours on the part of coders]).

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Psychology of Improvement

Even if ideas are good and have significant importance (high value to customers, reduce waste dramatically, improve safety…) implementing the ideas can be difficult. Getting people to make an effort to improve a situation by simply laying out the dry facts is not very effective. You need to engage in the management system to make your ideas something other people care about and want to do (you need to consider the psychology of getting things done in human systems).

Often a good way to do this is not to just think what is best for the performance of the system, but figure out what people want fixed/improved… and then figure out what I think could help. Then pick among various options to improve based upon the advantages to the performance of the organization, desires of decision makers and the ability of an improvement effort to build the capacity of the organization for customer focused continuous improvement.

Few places I have worked just want to adopt Deming’s ideas (which is my belief for what is the best way to improve performance). But they have things they care about – reducing the times people get mad at them, increasing cash flow… I find it much easier to help them with their desires and slowly get them to appreciate the benefit of Deming’s management ideas, lean thinking and quality tools. Though even this way it isn’t easy.

Even if the organization I am working with doesn’t think based on Deming’s ideas, I do. So I believe any effort to improve the management system must consider all 4 areas of Deming’s management system. In the beginning of an improvement effort psychology is very important for the change agent to consider and deal with. With an understanding of psychology and an understanding of the organization you can build appropriate strategies to improve and build the capacity of the organization to improve over the long term.

I also think about the long term as I am thinking of how to help. It is important to not just solve the current dilemma but to improve the organizational capacity to improve in the future. And for me that means increasing people’s understanding of the ideas I explore in the Curious Cat Management Improvement blog.

Related: Building the Adoption of Management Improvement Ideas in Your OrganizationStop Demotivating EmployeesHow to Improve

You’ve Got to Find What You Love

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

– Steve Jobs

Watch this great commencement speech by Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005.

We lost a great person today, when Steve Jobs died at the age of 56. His words are just as important today: you have got to find what you love to do. Keep looking until you find it. It won’t necessarily be easy to do. But life is too short to waste merely getting by.

My father found what he loved and pursued that throughout his life. He also died young. They both died young, but they both had great lives because they took charge to make the most of their lives. By doing what they loved they made the world a better place for many others, and themselves. Take that message to heart and make your life the best it can be.

Related: Quotes from Steve JobsPeter ScholtesPositivity and Joy in WorkBuild an Environment Where Intrinsic Motivation FlourishesRemembering Bill Hunter

Visual Management with Brown M&Ms

When you hear about rock musicians having a clause in their contract that they must have a bowl of M&Ms in their dressing room with all the brown M&Ms removed you could be excused for thinking: what will these crazy celebrities do next. Well it might just be those crazy celebrities are using visual management (granted I think there could be better methods [a bit more mistake proofing where the real problems would be manifest] but it is an interesting idea). Basically if they didn’t have the bowl of M&Ms, or if the brown M&Ms were not removed, they could distrust the thoroughness of the contractors. And they would check to see what other, actually important, contractual requirements were not followed.

Righting The Wrongs: Van Halen and M&Ms

The staff at venues in large cities were used to technically-complex shows like Van Halen’s. The band played in venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden or Atlanta’s The Omni without incident. But the band kept noticing errors (sometimes significant errors) in the stage setup in smaller cities. The band needed a way to know that their contract had been read fully. And this is where the “no brown M&Ms” came in. The band put a clause smack dab in the middle of the technical jargon of other riders: “Article 126: There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation”. That way, the band could simply enter the arena and look for a bowl of M&Ms in the backstage area. No brown M&Ms? Someone read the contract fully, so there were probably no major mistakes with the equipment. A bowl of M&Ms with the brown candies? No bowl of M&Ms at all? Stop everyone and check every single thing, because someone didn’t bother to read the contract. Roth himself said:

“So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.”

Related: The Importance of Making Problems VisibleVisual Work InstructionsGood Process Improvement PracticesGreat Visual Instruction Example