Category Archives: Innovation

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)

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

Accept Taking Risks, Don’t Blithely Accept Failure Though

For discussion by ASQ’s Influential Voices this month, Paul Borawski looks at Risk, Failure & Careers in Quality.

There is a bias toward avoiding the possibility of failure by avoiding actions which may lead to failure or even any action at all. This is a problem. The need in so many organizations to avoid failure means wise actions are avoided because there is a risk of failure.

Many times the criticism of such cultures however gets a bit sloppy, in my opinion, and treats the idea of avoiding failure as bad. Reducing the impact of failure is very wise and sensible. We don’t want to sub-optimize the whole system in order to optimize avoiding as much failure as possible. But we don’t want to sub-optimize the whole system by treating failure as a good thing to welcome either.

Part of the problem is sloppy thinking about what failure is. Running an experiment and getting results that are not as positive as you might have hoped is not failure. That is going to happen when run experiments. The reason you run PDSAs on a small scale is to learn. It is to minimize the cost of running the experiments and minimize the impacts of disappointments.

Running an experiment and having results that negatively impact customers or result in costs that were not planned may well be failure. Though even in that case calling it failure may be less than useful. I have often seen that a new process that eliminated 10 problems for customers but added 2 is attacked for the 2 new problems. While those new problems are not good that you have a net gain of 8 fewer problems should be seen as success, I would argue, not failure. However, often this is not the case. And the attitude that any new problem is blamed on those making a change, regardless of the overall system impact does definitely hamper improvement.

As I said in a previous post, Learn by Seeking Knowledge, Not Just from Mistakes:

It isn’t an absence of people making mistakes (including carrying out processes based on faulty theories) that is slowing learning. People are very reluctant to make errors of commission (and errors of commission due to a change is avoided even more). This reluctance obviously makes learning (and improvement) more difficult. And the reluctance is often enhanced by fear created by the management system.

The culture I want to develop is one where systems thinking leads to optimizing the overall system. And to the extent that to do so it is wise to take risks that may include some failures taking risks is good. But we need to also use the long known practices to reduce any costs of adverse results.

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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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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

The Need to Improve Management While Building Organizations Fit For Human Beings

Gary Hamel: Reinventing the Technology of Human Accomplishment

I agree with Gary Hamel that we need to adopt new management strategies. I happen to believe most of new strategies we need to adopt have been known for decades, we just fail to implement many of them.

He argues it is hard to retain knowledge advantages (within companies). I agree. However execution advantages it seems to me are not that difficult to maintain. Few companies actually focus on the customer and continual improvement. Toyota can be incredibly open but still few others are not willing to actually put in the effort to execute fully.

The reverse accountability idea he discusses I don’t love as much as he does. I do believe it is good to value the entire workforce more and not base decisions on HiPPOs. Accountability is a loaded term, in my opinion. Even in he talk he focuses on the “fear” – if the supervisor doesn’t fix the issue to the reporters satisfaction in 24 hours it is escalated to the next level. The process could be better, without what seems like driving in fear, to me.

I agree that the best management strategy is to adopt the thinking he captures with “you cannot build a company that is fit for the future, without building one that is fit for human beings.” The part I don’t agree with is phrase he lead that quote with: “Because I think for the first time since the industrial revolution…” isn’t right. I think Dr. Deming taught that idea to Japan in the 1950’s and as we all know Toyota adopted as the core “Respect for People” principle. That concept was important in 1950. That management idea is needed. Adopting that principle would be new for many of our organizations. But it also is true that the idea has been known for decades.

I return to this theme frequently. We don’t need many new ideas. We just need to adopt the good ideas that have been proven for decades. The new ideas are mainly just a bit of flavoring to tweak the good ideas we have had available and just chosen to ignore.

Related: Respect People by Creating a Climate for Joy in WorkManagement Advice FailuresPositivity and Joy in Work