Category Archives: quote

Leading Improvement and Enjoying the Rewards

The better job you do of managing the easier your job becomes.

As a manager your primary responsibility is to improve the system: both the systems within your sphere of control and those outside of it. The more effectively you do so, the less firefighting you have to do. The less firefighting the less hectic and chaotic your days are. And the more time you have to focus on improving the system.

The better you are at leveraging your efforts, the greater your impact, and more quickly your job gets easier. Most effective leveraging involves improving the system. Improvement to the system continue to deliver benefits continuously.

A specific form improving the system is coaching people so they are able to be more effective at improving the system themselves. One valuable role you can play is to help avoid the existing traps that prevent improvements. Early in a transformation to a continual improvement culture there are significant barriers to improvements. Those not only prevent the system from improving rapidly they can easily derail the motivation people have to improve. It is hard to maintain a desire to improve if every effort to do so feels like a long slog through quicksand.

As you create a system where people have the knowledge, drive and freedom to improve you get to enjoy continual improvement without any direct action by you. As this happens you are able to spend more time thinking and learning and less time reacting. That time allows you to find key leverage points to continue the progress on improving the management system.

Related: Engage in Improving the Management SystemKeys to the Effective Use of the PDSA Improvement CycleGood Process Improvement Practices

Management Blog Posts From November 2006

I have selected a few great posts from the Curious Cat Management Blog back in November 2006.

  • What Could we do Better? – There are many important ideas to improve management. This is one of the most important tips to aid improvement that I know of: it is easy to do, brings huge benefits and most organizations fail to do it. Ask your customers: “What one thing could we do to improve?”
  • Ackoff’s F-laws: Common Sins of Management presents 13 common sins of management, such as: Managers who don’t know how to measure what they want settle for wanting what they can measure
  • Common Cause Variation – “Every system has variation. Common cause variation is the variation due to the current system. Dr. Deming increased his estimate of variation due to the system (common cause variation) to 97% (earlier in his life he cited figures as low as 80%). Special cause variation is that due to some special (not part of the system) cause.”
  • Sub-Optimize by Interrupting Knowledge Workers – “The general consensus is that the loss from interrupting [software] developers is much greater than for interrupting most other forms of work and therefor a great deal of effort is placed on improving the system to allow developers to focus.”
  • Amazon Innovation – “I believe Amazon uses technology very well. They have done many innovative things. They have been less successful at turning their technology into big profits. But I continue to believe they have a good shot at doing so going forward (and their core business is doing very well I think).” [Amazon announced great sales numbers today, continuing their long term tread. They are also continuing to be very slow to grow profits (CEO, Jeff Bezos remains willing to challenge common practices – such as his willingness to build business and sacrifice current profits)].

The Customer is the Purpose of Our Work

photo of poster with Gandhi quote

Quote from Gandhi on customer focus at the Chakra restaurant

A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.

Mahatma Gandhi

A snapped this photo at the Chakra restaurant in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. Ironically the food is great but the service isn’t what I would like. But I will gladly go back many times. I’d like a bit more attentive service but I love the food and that is more important to me.

I think service at restaurants is one of the tricker things to do well: different customers have different desires. I basically want great food, my water to be filled up and my bill to be given to me before I finish so I don’t have to wait around to pay. But lots of people will find it annoying to get a bill early, feeling that they are being rushed out the door.

Still there is a certain standard I share with lots of people for things like not having to wait around for a long time to get the bill after I am done. Getting water filled up as needed, pleasant decor, etc..

In Johor Bahru there are a fair number of Japanese restaurants (the food is very good and the service is also good). Several of these restaurants have buzzers on your table to press when you want service. I love Indian food. I must say I like the Japanese service (it did take me a bit to warm up the buzzer idea – it is very practical). It do believe some of the things I would see as weaknesses in customer service are partially a cultural difference (it is interesting to see the different customer service experiences at the different restaurants here).

The quote from Gandhi is great. “He is the purpose of it” is something we would all benefit from taking to heart. To do so, I think we are wise look at how we can better meet customer desires every day.

Related: Delighting Customersquotes by Mahatma GandhiPaying New Employees to Quit

Keys to the Effective Use of the PDSA Improvement Cycle

The PDSA improvement cycle was created by Walter Shewhart where Dr. Deming learned about it. An improvement process is now part of many management improvement methods (A3 for lean manufacturing, DMAIC for six sigma and many other modifications). They are fairly similar in many ways. The PDSA cycle (Plan, Do, Study, Act) has a few key pieces that are either absent in most others processes of greatly de-emphasized which is why I prefer it (A3 is my second favorite).

The PDSA cycle is a learning cycle based on experiments. When using the PDSA cycle prediction of the results are important. This is important for several reasons but most notably due to an understanding of the theory of knowledge. We will learn much more if we write down our prediction. Otherwise we often just think (after the fact); yeah that is pretty much what I expected (even if it wasn’t). Also we often fail to think specifically enough at the start to even have a prediction. Forcing yourself to make a prediction gets you to think more carefully up front and can help you set better experiments.

An organization using PDSA well will turn the PDSA cycle several times on any topic and do so quickly. In a 3 month period turning it 5 times might be good. Often those organizations that struggle will only turn it once (if they are lucky and even reach the study stage). The biggest reason for effective PDSA cycles taking a bit longer is wanting more data than 2 weeks provides. Still it is better to turn it several times will less data – allowing yourself to learn and adjust than taking one long turn.

The plan stage may well take 80% (or even more) of the effort on the first turn of the PDSA cycle in a new series. The Do stage may well take 80% of of the time – it usually doesn’t take much effort (to just collect a bit of extra data) but it may take time for that data to be ready to collect. In the 2nd, 3rd… turns of the PDSA cycle the Plan stage often takes very little time. Basically you are just adjusting a bit from the first time and then moving forward to gather more data. Occasionally you may learn you missed some very important ideas up front; then the plan stage may again take some time (normally if you radically change your plans).

Remember to think of Do as doing-the-experiment. If you are “doing” a bunch of work (not running an experiment and collecting data) that probably isn’t “do” in the PDSA sense.

Study should not take much time. The plan should have already have laid out what data is important and an expectation of what results will be achieved and provide a good idea on next steps. Only if you are surprised (or in the not very common case that you really have no idea what should come next until you experiment) will the study phase take long.

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Agile Story Point Estimation

In agile software development tasks are documented as user stories. Then the level of effort for those stores can be estimated by assigning each story points. The velocity that can be produced in a period (called a sprint, for us 2 weeks) can be estimated. Thus you can predict what can be delivered in the next sprint (which can help business managers make priority decisions).

I have found estimation to be worthwhile. In doing so, we accept there is a great amount of variation but points give a hint to scale. They can help prioritize (if you have 5 things you want but 1 is much harder you may well drop that to the bottom). I have always accepted a great amount of variation in the velocity, worry about the variation I don’t find worthwhile. I do think trying to act as though the velocity is precise can lead to problems. At the same time having a measure of velocity, even accepting understanding variation was present, was useful.

Over time reducing variation (probably largely through better estimation and perhaps a few better tools, reduced technical debt, better documentation, testing…) is helpful and laudable. We made improvement but still lots of variation existed. The biggest help in reducing the measured velocity was breaking down large stories to more manageable sizes. The challenge of estimating user stories, I suspect, has some fairly high variation (even with good system improvements that can help reduce variation).

Large stories just can hide huge variation in what is really required once getting into implementing it.

The way we did estimation (discussing in a sprint planning meeting) did take some time (but not a huge amount). It was agreed by those involved that the time spent was worthwhile. Sometimes we did slip and spend too much time on this, that was an area we had to pay attention to. The discussions were educational and helped provide guidance on how to approach the story. The value of discussions around estimations was probably the biggest surprise I have had in implementing any agile ideas. The value of those discussion was much higher than I imagined (I basically anticipated them just as non-value added time to get the result of an estimate, but they were a source of learning and consensus building).

Related: Assigning Story Points to Bug FixesMistake Proofing the Deployment of Software CodeChecklists in Software Development

These thoughts were prompted by: Story Points Considered Harmful – Or why the future of estimation is really in our past…

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Trust But Verify

The following are my comments, which were sparked by question “Trust, but verify. Is this a good example of Profound Knowledge in action?” on the Linked In Deming Institute group.

Trust but verify makes sense to me. I think of verify as process measures to verify the process is producing as it should. By verifying you know when the process is failing and when to look for special causes (when using control chart thinking with an understanding of variation). There are many ways to verify that would be bad. But the idea of trust (respect for people) is not just a feel-good, “be nice to everyone and good things happen”, in Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge.

I see the PDSA improvement cycle as another example of a trust-but-verify idea. You trust the people at the gemba to do the improvement. They predict what will happen. But they verify what does actually happen before they run off standardizing and implementing. I think many of us have seen what happens when the idea of letting those who do the work, improve the process, is adopted without a sensible support system (PDSA, training, systems thinking…). It may actually be better than what was in place, but it isn’t consistent with Deming’s management system to just trust the people without providing methods to improve (and education to help people be most effective). Systems must be in place to provide the best opportunity to succeed. Trusting the people that do the work, is part of it.

I understand there are ways to verify that would be destructive. But I do believe you need process measures to verify systems are working. Just trusting people to do the right thing isn’t wise.

A checklist is another way of “not-trusting.” I think checklists are great. It isn’t that I don’t trust people to try and do the right thing. I just don’t trust people alone, when systems can be designed with verification that improves performance. I hear people complaign that checklists “don’t respect my expertise” or have the attitude that they are “insulting to me as a professional” – you should just trust me.

Sorry, driving out fear (and building trust – one of Deming’s 14 points) is not about catering to every person’s desire. For Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge: respect for people is part of a system that requires understand variation and systems thinking and an understanding of psychology and theory of knowledge. Checklists (and other forms of verification) are not an indication of a lack of trust. They are a a form of process measure (in a way) that has been proven to improve results.

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Dr. Deming in 1980 on Product Quality in Japan and the USA

I posted an interesting document to the Curious Cat Management Library: it includes Dr. Deming’s comments as part of a discussion organized by the Government Accounting Office in 1980 on Quality in Japan and the United States.

The document provides some interesting thoughts from Dr. Deming and others; Dr. Deming’s statements start on page 52 of the document. For those really interested in management improvement ideas it is a great read. I imagine most managers wouldn’t enjoy it though (it isn’t giving direct advice for today, but I found it very interesting).

Some selected quotes from the document follow. On his work with Japan in 1950:

This movement, I told them, will fail and nothing will happen unless management does their part. Management must know something about statistical techniques and know that if they are good one place, they will work in another. Management must see that they are used throughout the company.
Quality control must take root with simple statistical techniques that management and everyone in the company must learn. By these techniques, people begin to understand the different kinds of variation. Then quality control just grow with statistical theory and further experience. All this learning must be guided by a master. Remarkable results may come quick, but one has no right to expect results in a hurry. The learning period never ends.

The statistical control of quality is not for the timid and the halfhearted. There is no way to learn except to learn it and do it. You can read about swimming, but you might drown if you had to learn it that way!

One of the common themes at that time was Deming’s methods worked because Japanese people and culture were different. That wasn’t why the ideas worked, but it was an idea many people that wanted to keep doing things the old way liked to believe.

There may be a lot of difference, I made the statement on my first visit there that a Japanese man was never too old nor too successful to learn, and to wish to learn; to study and to learn. I know that people here also study and learn. I’ll be eighty next month in October. I study every day and learn every day. So you find studious people everywhere, but I think that you find in Japan the desire to learn, the willingness to learn.

You didn’t come to hear me on this; there are other people here much better qualified than I am to talk. But in Japan, a man works for the company; he doesn’t work to please somebody. He works for the company, he can argue for the company and stick with it when he has an idea because his position is secure. He doesn’t have to please somebody. It is so here in some companies, but only in a few. I think this is an important difference.

At the time the way QC circles worked in Japan was basically employee led kaizen. So companies that tried to copy Japan told workers: now go make things better like the workers we saw in Japan were doing. Well with management not changing (and understanding Deming’s ideas, lean thinking, variation, systems thinking…) and staff not given training to understand how to improve processes it didn’t work very well. We (those reading this blog) may all now understand the advantages one piece flow. I can’t imagine too many people would jump to that idea sitting in their QC circle without having been told about one piece flow (I know I wouldn’t have), and all the supporting knowledge needed to make that concept work.

QC circles can make tremendous contributions. But let me tell you this, Elmer. If it isn’t obvious to the workers that the managers are doing their part, which only they can do, I think that the workers just get fed up with trying in vain to improve their part of the work. Management must do their part: they must learn something about management.

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Manufacturing Skills Gap or Management Skills Gap?

I stumble across articles discussing the problem of manufacturers having difficulty finding workers with the skills they need (in the USA largely, but elsewhere too) somewhat regularly. While it is true that companies have this problem, I think looking at the problem in that way might not be the most insightful view. Is the problem just that potential workers don’t having the right skills or the result of a long term management skills gap?

To me, the current manufacturing skills gap results directly from short term thinking and disrespect for workers practiced by those with management skills shortages over the last few decades. Those leading the manufacturing firms have shown they will flee the USA with the latest change in the wind, chasing short term bonuses and faulty spreadsheet thinking. Expecting people to spend lots of time and money to develop skills that would be valuable for the long term at manufacturing firms given this management skills shortage feels like putting the blame in the wrong place to me.

Why should workers tie their futures to short term thinking managers practicing disrespect for people? Especially when those managers seem to just find ways to blame everyone else for their problems. As once again they do in blaming potential workers for their hiring problem. The actions taken based on the collective management skill shortage in the manufacturing industry over the last few decades has contributed greatly to the current state.

If managers had all been managing like Toyota managers for the last 30 years I don’t think the manufacturing skill gap would be significant. The management skill gap is more important than the manufacturing skill gap in my opinion. To some extent the manufacturing skill gap could still exist, market are in a constant state of flux, so gaps appear. But if their wasn’t such a large management skill gap it would be a minor issue, I believe.

That still leaves companies today having to deal with the current marketplace to try and find skilled workers. But I think instead of seeing the problem as solely a supplier issue (our suppliers can’t provide us what we need) manufacturing firms would be better served to look at their past, and current, management skills gap and fix that problem. They have control over that problem. And fixing that will provide a much more solid long term management base to cope and prosper in the marketplace.

Another management issue may well be the hiring process itself. As I have written about many times, the recruitment process is highly inefficient and ineffective. When you see workers as long term partners the exact skills they have today are much less significant than their ability to meet the organizations needs over the long term. In general, information technology recruiting has the worst case of focusing on silly skills that are really not important to hiring the right people, but this also can affect manufacturing hiring.

Related: IT Talent Shortage, or Management Failure?Dee Hock on HiringManufacturing Jobs Increasing for First Time Since 1998 in the USA (Sept 2010)Building a Great Workforcemanufacturing jobs have been declining globally (including China) for 2 decadesImproving the Recruitment Process

Rethinking or Moving Beyond Deming Often Just Means Applying More of What Dr. Deming Actually Said

Don Reinertsen – Is It Time to Rethink Deming? from AGILEMinds on Vimeo.

I feel very strongly about the value of Deming’s ideas. I am glad people challenge those ideas and try to push forward management thinking. Helping us manage organizations better (to get better results and allow people to better enjoy their jobs and lives) is why I value Deming’s ideas. To the extent we find better ideas I am very happy. I understand I will disagree with others on the best ways to manage, and believe healthy debate can be productive.

What Don Reinertsen discusses in the video, about special and common cause is not the best way to look at those ideas, in my opinion (though I would imagine it is the most common view). For data points that are common cause (within the control limits and not a special cause pattern) it is most effective to use common cause tools/thinking to improve. For indications of special cause (points outside the control limits or patterns in the data, such as continually increasing results that indicate a special cause) it is most effective to use special cause tools to improve.

This does not mean that a point outside the control limits is caused by a special cause (also know as assignable cause). It is just best to use special cause tools and thinking to address those data points (and the reason this is true is because it is most likely there is an assignable cause). The control limits do not define the nature of the point, they define the type of improvement strategy that should be used.

Don also says repeatedly that you don’t “respond to random variation” in Deming’s view. That is accurate. But then he implies this means you don’t address system performance, which is not. You work on improving systems (that are in control) by improving the system, not by responding to individual common cause data points (random variation) as if it were assignable cause variation.

The purpose of the control chart (that Shewhart developed) was to help you most effectively take action (knowing if special cause thinking, or system improvement, was the best improvement strategy). The control chart shows if the results are in control and tells you that the system is preforming consistently (and identifies a special cause so special cause tools can be used immediately, this is important because special cause improvement strategies are time sensitive). It tells you nothing about if the results are acceptable.

Continual improvement was also central to Deming’s management philosophy (based on the business value of the many improvement options available in every organization). For Deming this meant working on improving the system, if the results are in control, instead of trying to deal with finding a specific assignable cause for one data point and acting on that. If the issue is one of the system performance (no indication it is a special cause) the most effective strategy to get better results is to improve the system, rather than approach it as a special cause issue (examining individual data points, to find special items in that event to be improved). You can use special cause thinking, even where system improvement thinking would be better. It will work. It is just not very effective (improvement will be much slower) compared to focusing on system improvement.

I agree with Don that the United States mentality, not only in nuclear plants but everywhere, is to apply special cause thinking as the strategy for process improvement. This is one the areas Deming was trying to change. Deming, and I, think that setting your improvement strategy based on a common cause (system improvement) or assignable/special cause (learn what is special about that one instance) is the most effective way to achieve the best results. We believe in continual improvement. We believe that the effective way to improve, when a system is in statistical control, is by focusing on the whole systems (all the data) not assignable cause (special cause) thinking where you look at what is special about that bad (or good) individual result.

The economic consideration of whether the costs of improvements are worth the benefit is sensible (and I do not see Dr. Deming arguing against that). That is separate from the best method to improve. For Deming the best method to improve means using special cause thinking for assignable cause issues and common cause thinking for systems issues.

The idea of where to focus improvement efforts is not something Dr. Deming made as clear as he could have, in my opinion. So I see the argument of Deming not prioritizing where improvement should occur voiced occasionally. This is a weakness in Deming’s content, I believe, more than his philosophy (but I can understand it causing some confusion).
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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