Category Archives: Management

Continually Improving Using a Focus on Delighting Customers

ASQ asked the ASQ influential voices to respond to this question: What is the best way to ensure quality and customer integration grow together?

When I first got involved in the quality field that name (quality) seemed to vague for me. And different people and organizations seemed to have vastly different meanings in mind for efforts they all grouped under the heading of quality. What I came up with to capture what I was interested in was customer focused continuous improvement. Continual is actually a better word than continuous for what I had in mind, I now know.

But that phrase has held up in my mind (unfortunately it is a bit long and so isn’t ideal either). Focusing on continually improving with a deep understanding of customer needs and the marketplace will do you well. Customer integration is required in the customer focused continual improvement framework I have discussed on this blog and in my book: Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

Beach with reclining chairs and thatched toped umbrella looking into the ocean with small boats in the view

Wonderful beach near Hoi An, Vietnam where you can order food and drinks in peace. See more photos by John Hunter.

Accepting that as a wise course of action leaves the question of how to continual improve with an integrated deep focus on customers. These shouldn’t be two isolated activities. And even to continually improve without worrying about customers requires viewing the organization as a system is critical in my view (which further enhances integrating the customer into the organization’s DNA). As anyone reading this blog knows my beliefs build on the work of W. Edwards Deming, so appreciating the importance of a systemic view is to be expected.

A deep appreciation for the long term needs of your customers and potential customers should guide where in the system to continually improve. And my belief on how to continual improve is to create and continually improving management system with principles of experimentation (with the necessary understanding of what conclusion can be drawn from results and what cannot), an understanding of the organization as a system and respect for people as principles to be guided by to achieve continual improvement.

Quality practices of experimentation directed at continually improving management practices and internal processes need to be completely integrated with the efforts to continual improve customer delight. Those efforts should be one process and therefore they automatically grow together.

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Bell Labs Designing a New Phone System Using Idealized Design

I remember hearing this same story when Russ Ackoff spoke at the Hunter Conference on Quality (which was named in honor of my father) in Madison, Wisconsin.

If you haven’t heard this story you are in for a treat. And if you haven’t heard Russell Ackoff before you get to enjoy a great storyteller.

"Tape" of Ackoff’s Bell Lab Lecture at the US Navy.

If you would limit yourself to paying attention to 5 thinkers to advance your understanding of managing organizations Ackoff should be one of them. Of course, many managers don’t even try to learn from 5 leading management thinkers to do their jobs better over their career. So for many people just learning from Ackoff, Deming, Scholtes etc. they would be far ahead of the path they are now for their career. Of course you are not limited to learning from 5 people so you can learn from more if you want to be a better manager and leader.

I probably remember a great deal from maybe 5 talks from the more than 5 years I attended the Hunter Conference (and they were the best conferences I have attended – this might explain why the last conference I attended was maybe 7 years ago). This was one of them. And I realized that Ackoff was someone I could learn a great deal from and it caused me to learn a great deal from Russ Ackoff over the next decade.

Watch the video for much more but the basic idea of idealized design is to create a new design for a product, service or the organization based on existing feasibility but without the constraints of the existing setup. Then you can use that ideal to figure out a plan to move from the existing state to that idealized design. Russell Ackoff co-authored a good book on the topic: Idealized Design.

Related: Ackoff, Idealized Design and Bell Labs (2006)Corporations Are Not Led By Those Seeking to Maximize Shareholder Value, Russ AckoffTransformation and Redesign at the White House Communications AgencyRussell L. Ackoff: 1919 -2009Dr. Russell Ackoff Webcast on Systems ThinkingDesigning a New Organization (2005)

Burning Toast: American Health System Style

Democrats and Republicans have created a health care system in the USA over the last 40 years that “burns toast” at an alarming rate. As the symptoms of their health care system are displayed they call in people to blame for burning toast.

Their participation in the “you burn, I’ll scrape” system is even worse than the normal burning then scraping process. They create a bad system over decades and ignore the burnt toast just telling people to put up with it. And when some burnt toast can’t be ignored any longer they then blame individuals for each piece of burnt toast.

They demand that those they bring before them to blame, scrape off the burnt toast. And they act shocked that the “toaster” burns toast. It is the same “toaster” they designed and maintain at the behest of those benefiting from burnt toast and of course it burns toast (those results are the natural outcome of the system they designed and maintain).

We need to fix the decades old broken toaster that the Democrats and Republicans built and have maintained. Dr. Deming called excessive healthcare costs a deadly disease decades ago yet Democrats and Republicans allowed it to continue harming us year after year and decade after decade.

We don’t need distractions blaming a few individual for what the two parties have created and maintained for decades. We need leaders to address the real issues and stop the distraction that those benefiting from the current system want to continue to see from those in Washington.

You don’t fix the system if all you do is blame individuals for each piece of burnt toast. Fixing blame on each piece of burnt toast is exactly what those that have continued to make sure the system is designed to continually burn toast love to see. It is a good way to make sure the fixes needed to the design of the toaster are not addressed. Both political parties have done well by those they receive payments from to ensure that the current toaster isn’t changed.

For decades the data shows the USA health care system costs are nearly double that of other rich countries with no better results. And we are not comparing to some perfect ideal, those efforts we compare to need much improvement themselves. So how bad much the USA health care system be to cost nearly twice as much as those systems that have plenty of room for improvement themselves?

Related: EpiPen Maker Also Hiked Prices on a Slew of Other MedicationsUSA Health-Care System Ranks 50th out of 55 CountriesDrug Prices in the USA, a system continually burning toast (2005)USA Heath Care System Needs Reform (2009)2015 Health Care Price Report – Costs in the USA and Elsewhere

Lead by Building Organizational Capability

The result of a recent interview with me has been posted: How to Lead From Any Level In the Organization

2. Help people solve their problems.

Similar to helping other people grow their careers is the idea of helping other people to solve their problems. Again, this starts with a clear understanding of your sphere of influence. “It determines what strategies you can pursue, and building your sphere of influence should be part of your decision making process.”

What it comes down to is proving yourself in this way—and doing so consistently. “It isn’t some secret sauce. Prove yourself to be valuable and you will gain influence. Help people solve their problems. They will be inclined to listen to your ideas.” And helping people to solve their problems doesn’t mean you are giving them the answer. It may mean you asking empowering questions.

John says if you focus on building the capability in the organization to understand variation and to appreciate how to use data—then you are on the right path, and can increase your influence in addition.

“You need to build into the organization things like a focus on pleasing the customer instead of pleasing your boss.” When combining all of these methods, that is when your leadership is going to be most effective.

Hopefully you will find the entire post worthwhile.

More links related to interviews with me about improving management: Leadership While Viewing the Organization as a System, Business 901 Podcast Deming’s Management Ideas Today, Meet-up: Management Improvement Leader John Hunter.

Integrating Technical and Human Management Systems

ASQ has asked the Influential Voices on quality management to look at the question of integrating technical quality and human management systems. How do different systems—technical or human—work together? How should they work together?

My view is that the management system must integrate these facets together. A common problem that companies face is that they bring in technical tools (such as control charts, PDSA improvement cycle, design of experiments, kanban, etc.) without an appreciation for the organization as a system. Part of understanding the organization as a system is understanding psychology within this context (as W. Edwards Deming discussed frequently and emphasized in his management system).

To try and implement quality tools without addressing the systemic barriers (due to the management system and specifically the human component of that system) is a path to very limited success. The failure to address how the organization’s existing management system drives behaviors that are often counter to the professed aims of the organization greatly reduces the ability to use technical tools to improve.

If the organization rewards those in one silo (say purchasing) based on savings they make in cutting the cost of supplies it will be very difficult for the organization to optimize the system as a whole. If the purchasing department gets bonuses and promotions by cutting costs that is where they will focus and the total costs to the organization are not going to be their focus. Attempts to create ever more complex extrinsic incentives to make sure the incentives don’t leave to sub-optimization are rarely effective. They can avoid the most obvious sub-optimization but rarely lead to anything close to actually optimizing the overall system.

image of the cover of Managmenet Matters by John Hunter

Management Matters by John Hunter

It is critical to create an integrated system that focuses on letting people use their brains to continually improve the organization. This process doesn’t lend itself to easy recipes for success. It requires thoughtful application of good management improvement ideas based on the current capabilities of the organization and the short, medium and long term priorities the organization is willing to commit to.

There are principles that must be present:

  • a commitment to treating everyone in the organization as a valuable partner
  • allowing those closest to issues to figure out how to deal with them (and to provide them the tools, training and management system necessary to do so effectively) – see the last point
  • a commitment to continual improvement, learning and experimentation
  • providing everyone the tools (often, this means mental tools as much as physical tools or even quality tools such as a control chart). By mental tools, I mean the ability to use the quality tools and concepts. This often requires training and coaching in addition to a management system that allows it. Each of these is often a problem that is not adequately addressed in most organizations.
  • an understanding of what data is and is not telling us.

An integrated management system with an appreciation for the importance of people centered management is the only way to get the true benefit of the technical tools available.

I have discussed the various offshoots of the ideas discussed here and delved into more details in many previous posts and in my book – Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability. An article, by my father, also addresses this area very well, while explaining how to capture and improve using two resources, largely untapped in American organizations, are potential information and employee creativity. It is only by engaging the minds of everyone that the tools of “technical” quality will result in even a decent fraction of the benefit they potentially can provide if used well.

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Unintended Consequences

Using data to understand your processes and improve them is very useful.

But using data often results in unintended consequences. If you don’t have a good understanding on the pressures collecting data will bring to bear on the system you can create pressure for results that damage the delivery of value to customers.

In this example there are requirements to take action if certain conditions are present. In this case, if the airplane is pushed back from the gate for more than 3 hours without taking off passengers must be given the opportunity to get off.

The Tarmac Delay Rule in 2010 has led to a jump in the rate of flight cancellations

Indeed, to avoid the fines, airlines are now far more likely to cancel flights that are sitting at the gate or on the tarmac than they once were, explains Vikrant Vaze, an assistant professor of engineering at Dartmouth and a co-author of the study. That means you’re now more likely to board your plane, sit there, and then still have the flight canceled.

It doesn’t seem the conditions imposed are unreasonable to me. But the expectation was for airlines to make sensible adjustments and not force customers to wait so long in the airplane sitting on the ground. The system could be improved by having more gates in operation, not pushing loading planes if you knew plane wasn’t going to leave for more than 30 minutes, etc.. But when customer value is taken very lightly (as USA airlines do) it isn’t surprising the USA airlines would take a very customer unfriendly method to avoid the issue that was the source of the new rules.

Distorting the system or distorting the data are often the result, instead of the process improvement that is desired and expected.

Related: Bad Weather is Part of the Transportation SystemPoor Customer Service at USA AirlinesData is Important and You Must Confirm What the Data Actually SaysUnited Breaks GuitarsRespect for Employees at Southwest Airlines

Support Theatre

Support theatre provides the appearance of supporting customers when in fact it is just treating customers poorly based on a management system that disrespects customers. It is a similar idea to security theatre that has become so popular for government in the USA for the last 10 years.

Dilbert does a good job of illustrating “support theatre” in this webcast:

I have had the exact experience Dilbert does of tech support refusing to think about the actual symptoms of the problem and insisting on following some script and wasting my time – repeatedly. This is not some accident. Management has designed systems with the attitude that customer’s time doesn’t matter.

Companies that practices support theatre are usually very focused on cutting the company’s cost and not “wasting” the companies time fixing the problems they create for customers or even helping customers put on “band-aids” to cope with the injuries the company has inflicted on the customer. Those companies also don’t learn from their failures to improve and stop future customers from suffering the consequences of their poor processes.

It is painful to interact with such companies. I find that most large companies I am forced to interact with are deeply into support theatre and only very superficially concerned with customers. It is a shame that the type of customer focus that those interested in management improvement have been advocating for decades is ignored by so many companies today.

If you care about your customers and want to build an organization that prospers by delighting customers go to the customer (user) gemba. Focus on how to improve the customer experience. You likely will have many easy opportunities to improve how things operate since the experience for customers today is often so bad.

Related: Making Life Difficult for CustomersPracticing Mistake-Promoting Instead of Mistake-Proofing at AppleCustomer Service is Important (2006)Simple Customer Care Strategy: CommunicateUse Urls, Don’t Use Click x, Then Click y, Then Click z InstructionsHow to protect yourself from your credit card companyVerizon Provides Lousy Service = Dog Bites Man (2008)Is Poor Service the Industry Standard? (2006)Incredibly Bad Customer Service from Discover Card

Acting Without Theory Often Results in Wasted Effort

When you act without theory you can find yourself beating your head against the wall, in ways similar to this woodpecker bangs its head against this sign.

This bird may have copied the pecking behavior without understanding the theory. Pecking steel won’t lead to it uncovering insects to eat. Alternatively, it may be pecking to make noise and attract a mate or tell other woodpeckers this territory is claimed. If mates and others acknowledge the metal pecking noises then the behavior may be rewarded (the noise is louder than pecking wood so it may even be an innovation with improved results), if not, the beating its bill against the sign is wasted effort.

If you don’t understand why you take action you will find yourself wasting effort. You must have a theory that you can test in order to test what is working, what changes actually lead to improvement and to learn. If this bird wants to find food it will discover this method isn’t effective.

I wrote about a similar example before: Experience Teaches Nothing Without Theory.

Related: We are Being Ruined by the Best Efforts of People Who are Doing the Wrong ThingEffort Without the Right Knowledge and Strategy is Often WastedThe Illusion of Knowledge

Transform the Management System by Experimenting, Iterating and Adopting Standard Work

In this short video, Dr. John Toussaint describes how ThedaCare applied leadership standard work to create a successful management transformation. The changes to the management system were tested by applying standard work for all positions in 2 parts of the organization (including all senior management positions) and learning and adapting and then spreading the new methods to the rest of the organization.

Changes to the management system require the same testing and piloting of changes on a small scale as other process changes. Experiment by going an inch wide and a mile deep, iterate over PDSA cycles, and once we have a solution that works adopt it widely (the A in PDSA).

Related: Systemic Workplace ExperimentsTransforming a Management System, A Case Study From the Madison Wisconsin Police DepartmentTransformation and Redesign at the White House Communications AgencyCulture Change Requires That Leaders Change Their BehaviorStandard Work InstructionsHow To Create a Continual Improvement Culture

Most Popular Management and Leadership Quotes on Our Site in 2015

These were the most popular quotes on the Curious Cat Management and Leadership Quotes web site in 2015 (based on page views). Follow the link on the quote text for the source and more information on the quote.

  1. Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.Taiichi Ohno
  2. Managers who don’t know how to measure what they want settle for wanting what they can measure.Russell Ackoff
  3. Don’t look with your eyes, look with your feet. Don’t think with you head, think with your hands.Taiichi Ohno
  4. The answer to the question managers so often ask of behavioral scientists “How do you motivate people?” is, “You don’t.”Douglas McGregor
  5. Performance appraisal is that occasion when once a year you find out who claims sovereignty over you.Peter Block
  6. A bad system will beat a good person every time.W. Edwards Deming
  7. People who can’t understand numbers are useless. The gemba where numbers are not visible is also bad. However, people who only look at the numbers are the worst of all.Taiichi Ohno
  8. We believe customer number one, employee number two, shareholder number three… Because you’ve take care of the customer, take care of the employees, shareholder will be taken care of.Jack Ma
  9. A leader is a coach, not a judge.W. Edwards Deming
  10. Real benefits come when managers begin to understand the profound difference between “cost cutting” and “eliminating the causes of costs.”Brian Joiner
  11. Standards should not be forced down from above but rather set by the production workers themselves.Taiichi Ohno
  12. A problem never exists in isolation; it is surrounded by other problems in space and time. The more of the context of a problem that a scientist can comprehend, the greater are his chances of finding a truly adequate solution.Russell Ackoff
  13. 95% of changes made by management today make no improvement.Peter Scholtes
  14. blame the process not the person. We need to ask, “how did the process allow this to happen?”Brian Joiner
  15. Good execution of performance appraisal is not the solution. More people are realizing that improving how performance appraisal are done is an attempt to do the wrong thing better. If you insist on doing the wrong thing, I suppose you might as well do it better but how about just not doing the wrong thing at all?John Hunter
  16. A system is more than the sum of its parts; it is an indivisible whole. It loses its essential properties when it is taken apart. The elements of a system may themselves be systems, and every system may be part of a larger system. – Russell Ackoff
  17. All Models Are Wrong But Some Are UsefulGeorge Box
  18. It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.W. Edwards Deming
  19. the aim of leadership should be to improve the performance of man and machine, to improve quality, to increase output, and simultaneously to bring pride of workmanship to people. Put in a negative way, the aim of leadership is not merely to find and record failures of men, but to remove the causes of failure: to help people to do a better job with less effort. – W. Edwards Deming
  20. There are three ways to get better figures… Improve the system… Distort the system… Distort the figuresBrian Joiner