Category Archives: Process improvement

The Importance of Critical Thinking and Challenging Assumptions

There are many factors that are important to effectively practice the management improvement ideas I have discussed in this blog for over a decade. One of the most important is a culture that encourages critical thinking as well as challenging claims, decisions and assumptions.

I discussed this idea some in: Customers Are Often Irrational. There is a difference between saying people wish to have their desires met and people act in the manner to maximize the benefits they wish to receive.

It is important to study customer’s choice and learn from them. But being deceived by what their choice mean is easier than is usually appreciated. Often the decision made is contrary to the ideal choice based on their beliefs. It is often poor decision making not an indication that really they want a different result than they express (as revealed versus stated preference can show). People that ignore the evidence behind climate change and condemn coastal areas to severe consequences don’t necessarily prefer the consequences that their decision leads to. It may well be that decision to ignore the evidence is not based on a desire to suffer long term consequences in order to get short term benefits. It may well be just an inability to evaluate evidence in an effective way (fear of challenging ourselves to learn about matters we find difficult often provides a strong incentive to avoid doing so).

Knowing the difference between choosing short term benefits over long term consequences and a failure to comprehend the long term consequences is important. Just as in this example, many business decisions have at the root a desire to pretend we can ignore the consequences of our decisions and a desire to accept falsehoods that let us avoid trying to cope with the difficult problems.

photo of me with a blackboard in my father's office

Photo of me and my artwork in my father’s office by Bill Hunter

It is important to clearly articulate the details of the decision making process. We need to note the actual criticism (faulty logic, incorrect beliefs/assumptions…) that results in what some feel is a poor conclusion. But we seem to find shy away from questioning faulty claims (beliefs that are factually incorrect – that vaccines don’t save people from harm, for example) or lack of evidence (no data) or poor reasoning (drawing unsupported conclusions from a well defined set of facts).

Critical thinking is important to applying management improvement methods effectively. It is important to know when decisions are based on evidence and when decisions are not based on evidence. It can be fine to base some decisions on principles that are not subject to rational criticism. But it is important to understand the thought process that is taken to make each decision. If we are not clear on the basis (evidence or opinion regardless of evidence) we cannot be as effective in targeting our efforts to evaluate the results and continually improve the processes in our organizations.

Describing the decision as “irrational” is so imprecise that it isn’t easy to evaluate how much merit the criticism has. If specific facts are called into question or logical fallacies within the decision making process are explained it is much more effective at providing specific items to explore to evaluate whether the criticism has merit.

When specific criticisms are made clear then those supporting such a decision can respond to the specific issues raised. And in cases where the merits of one course of action cannot be agreed to then such critical thought can often be used to create measures to be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the decision based on the results. Far too often the results are not examined to determine if they actually achieved what was intended. And even less often is care taken to examine the unintended consequences of the actions that were taken.

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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)

Applying Toyota Kata to Agile Retrospectives

HÃ¥kan Forss, King (interactive entertainment games), presentation at the GOTO Copenhagen 2015 conference.

I strongly recommend Mike Rother’s book: Toyota Kata.

Description from Workshop description “The Toyota Kata Experience”

Kata means pattern, routine, habits or way of doing things. Kata is about creating a fast “muscle memory” of how to take action instantaneously in a situation without having to go through a slower logical procedure. A Kata is something that you practice over and over striving for perfection. If the Kata itself is relative static, the content of the Kata, as we execute it is modified based on the situation and context in real-time as it happens. A Kata as different from a routine in that it contains a continuous self-renewal process.

I think the great number of worthwhile conference presentations we can all now get sitting wherever we are provides us a great opportunity (and lets us avoid missing out of good ideas because “How could they know“).

A point made in the presentation that is very simple but still constantly the source of failure is that the current system isn’t supporting improvement. Retrospectives are a good method to help improve but if there is no time to think about the issues raised and come up with experiments to improve and review of whether those experiments worked or not and why failure to improve is the expected result.

Creating a culture where it is expected that any improvement ideas are tested and evaluated is one of the most important changes on the path to a company that will be able to continually improve. If not, what happens is some changes are good, many are not and soon people lose faith that any effort is worth it because they see how poor the results are. By taking care to evaluate what is working and what isn’t we create a process in which we don’t allow ad hoc and unsuccessful changes to demoralize everyone.

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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

Peter Drucker Discussing The Work of Juran, Deming and Himself

In this clip Peter Drucker talks about Japan and his work there as well as the work of W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran.

His discussion highlights how he remembers the Japanese were so willing to take new ideas and implement them immediately. There was not a reluctance to try things that “were not invested here.” They were also ready to abandon ideas if they were tried and didn’t work.

Drucker talked about the shared importance he, Deming and Juran put on the importance of valuing all employees and creating management systems that capture all the value they can offer. He spoke of all 3 of them tilted against those that believed in command and control business organizations. Sadly the lack of respect for all workers is still common today; but it is much better than is was due to the work of these 3 management experts.

In this clip Drucker mentions Just-In-Time works well for Toyota but companies trying to copy it find it doesn’t work for them because they are trying to install it on top of a system that doesn’t support it. The exact same point was made in a clip I posted in my post on Monday to the Deming Institute blog.

Peter Drucker speaking of Juran’s ideas on quality

You don’t start with putting in machines. You start with looking at the work process… You start with engineering the work, not engineering the machines and not engineering the material flow

In the clip, from the early 1990’s, Drucker says

GM wouldn’t be in the pickle its in if it hadn’t pour $40 billion in automation before, without, analyzing the work process which is just wasting $40 billion. Thats why GM is in trouble today.

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Root Cause, Interactions, Robustness and Design of Experiments

Eric Budd asked on The W. Edwards Deming Institute group (LinkedIn broke the link with a register wall so I removed the link):

If observed performance/behavior in a system is a result of the interactions between components–and variation exists in those components–the best root cause explanation we might hope for is a description of the interactions and variation at a moment in time. How can we make such an explanation useful?

A single root cause is rare. Normally you can look at the question a bit differently see the scope a bit differently and get a different “root cause.” In my opinion “root cause” is more a decision about what is an effective way to improve the system right now rather than finding a scientifically valid “root cause.”

Sometimes it might be obvious combination which is an issue so must be prevented. In such a case I don’t think interaction root cause is hard – just list out the conditions and then design something to prevent that in the future.

Often I think you may find that the results are not very robust and this time we caught the failure because of u = 11, x = 3, y = 4 and z =1. But those knowledge working on the process can tell the results are not reliable unless x = 5 or 6. And if z is under 3 things are likely to go wrong. and if u is above 8 and x is below 5 and y is below 5 things are in trouble…

To me this often amounts to designing systems to be robust and able to perform with the variation that is likely to happen. And for those areas where the system can’t be made robust for some variation then designing things so that variation doesn’t happen to the system (mistake proofing processes, for example).

In order to deal with interaction, learn about interaction and optimize results possible due to interactions I believe the best method is to use design of experiments (DoE) – factorial experiments.

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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.

Practicing Mistake-Promoting Instead of Mistake-Proofing at Apple

Mistake proofing is a wonderful management concept. Design systems not just to be effective when everything goes right but designing them so mistakes are prevented.

I have had several bad customer experiences in the short time I have had my iPad mini. One of the most pitiful is caused by mistake-promoting process design. As the name implies that isn’t a good idea. Mistake-proofing processes is a good practice to strive for; processes that create extra opportunities for failure impacting customers negatively are a bad idea.

My experience below is but one mistake-promoting practice that has caught me in its grips in the short time I have owned my iPad mini. I want to view books on the mini but can’t find any book reader. So I decide, fine I’ll just install the Kindle reader app.

I go to do so (run into additional issues but get through them) and then Apple decides for this free app, on an iPad I just bought with my credit card a week ago, to block me from getting what I need and force me to revalidate my credit card. This is lame enough, but I am used to companies not caring about the customer experience, so fine, what hoops does Apple want to force me through?

But guess what, the unnecessary steps Apple decided to force me through are broken so I can’t just waste my time to make them happy. No. They have created a failure point where they never should have forced the customer in the first place.

So they not only didn’t mistake-proof the process they mistake-promoted the process by creating a unnecessary step that created an error that could have been avoided if they cared about mistake proofing. But instead they use a mistake-promoting process. As a consumer it is annoying enough to cope with the failures companies force me through due to bad management systems that don’t mistake proof processes.

Companies creating extra opportunities to foist mistakes onto customers is really something we shouldn’t have to put up with. And when they then provide lousy and then even incomprehensible “support” such the “change your name” vision Apple decided to provide me now it is time to move on.

After 5 years of buying every computing device from Apple, they have lost my entire good will in one week of mess ups one after the other. I knew the reason I moved to Apple, the exceptional Macbook Air, was no longer the unmatched hardware it once was; but I was satisfied and was willing to pay a huge iPad premium to avoid the typical junk most companies foist on you. But with Apple choosing to make the process as bad as everyone else there isn’t a decent reason to pay them a huge premium.

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Interview on PDSA, Deming, Strategy and More

Bill Fox interviewed me and has posted part one of the interview on his web site: Predicting Results in the Planning Stage (sorry, the link has been hijacked to forward to an unrelated page [so obviously I removed the link], I have posted the interview which can now be reached here):

Bill: John, what is your best process improvement strategy or tactic that has worked well for you or your clients?

John: I would say the PDSA improvement cycle and a few key practices in using the PDSA properly like predicting the results in the plan stage—something that a lot of the times people do not do—to determine what would be done based on the results of that prediction.

People discover, especially when they’re new to this stuff, regarding the data that they’re collecting, that maybe even if they got the results they are predicting, they still don’t have enough data to take action. So you figure that even if that number is 30, they would need to know three other things before they make the change. So then, in the plan stage, you can figure that you need to address these other issues, too. At any time that people are collecting data is useful to figure out, for instance: “What do we need to do if the result is 30 or if the result is 3?” And if you don’t have any difference, why are you collecting the data?

Another important piece is the D in Plan, Do, Study, Act. It means “do the experiment”. A lot of times, people get confused into thinking that D means deploy the results or something like that, but thinking of D as ‘doing the experiment’ can be helpful.

A really big key between people that use PDSA successfully and those who don’t is that the ones that do it successfully turn the cycle quickly.

Another response:

Bill: What is the biggest misunderstanding about the Deming Management System you think people have?

John: I would say that there are a couple. The followers that want to pin everything to Deming tend to overlook the complexities and nuances and other things.

The other problem is that some of the critics latch on to a specific quote from Deming, something like a one-sentence long quote, and then they extrapolate from that one sentence-long quote what that means. And the problem is that Deming has lots of these one-sentence quotes that are very memorable and meaningful and useful, but they don’t capture every nuance and they don’t alone capture what it really means (you need to have the background knowledge to understand it completely).

They are sort of trying to oversimplify the message into these sound bites, and I find that frustrating. Because those individual quotes are wonderful, but they are limited to one little quote out of hours of videotape, books, articles, and when you don’t understand the context in which that resides, that’s a problem.

See the full interview for more details and other topics. I think it is worth reading, of course I am a bit biased.

Related: more interviews with John HunterInterviews with John Hunter on his book: Management MattersDeming and Software DevelopmentLean Blog Podcast with John Hunter