Tag Archives: Ackoff

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)

Children are Amazingly Creative At Solving Problems

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

Preschoolers Outsmart College Students In Figuring Out Gadgets

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

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

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

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

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

And as Daniel Boorstin said:

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

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

Continue reading

Ackoff: Corporations Are Not Led By Those Seeking to Maximize Shareholder Value

If I had to limit myself to a handful of management experts, Russel Ackoff would definitely be in that group. Thankfully there is no such limit. Ackoff once again provides great insight with great wit in the above clip.

A corporation says that its principle value is maximizing shareholder value. That’s non-sense. If that were the case executives wouldn’t fly around on private jets and have Philippine mahogany lined offices and the rest of it. The principle function to those executives is to provide those executives with the quality of work life that they like. And profit is merely a means which guarantees their ability to do it.

If we are going to talk about values, we got to talk about what the values are in action, not in proclamation.

Related: Ackoff, Idealized Design and Bell LabsDr. Russell Ackoff Webcast on Systems ThinkingA Theory of a System for Educators and ManagersCEOs Plundering Corporate Coffers

Web Seminar with Gerald Suarez: Better Thinking About Leadership

In2In offers some great opportunities for those interested in management improvement. Their conference is excellent. They also offer various conference calls with speakers knowledgeable about Deming and Ackoff’s ideas. These normally take the form of conference call presentations (similar to a podcast) followed by some question and answers. The consistently get remarkable people like, Gerald Suarez, and earlier: Peter Scholtes and Brian Joiner.

Gerald Suarez is kicking off the new InThinking Network monthly webinar series. I worked for Gerald at the White House Military Office. He is one of the best presenters and most knowledgeable experts on Deming and Ackoff’s ideas working today.

Gerald Suarez will present on February 9th on the topic of “Better Thinking About Leadership.” This is a great opportunity and there is no cost to participate. If you participate from outside the USA you can connect via Skype (from the USA you will be given a toll-free number to connect with – or Skpye, if you wish). If you can’t join the call, audio downloads will be available at some later date. Register here. If you can’t make the live event, I strongly recommend listening to the audio download once it is made available.

The format of these sessions is a 90-minute session, each month – from February through November. They are held the second Thursday of the month, from 11:30 AM to 1 PM Pacific Time.

Future sessions that we have to look forward to include:

  • Paul Hollingworth will present in March: An Introduction to Systems Thinking
  • Graham Rawlinson, in May to explore “Thinking About Thinking”
  • Gipsie Ranney, in September: “Cause(s) of Concern,” a session designed to present and advance the understanding of common causes and special causes of variation.

Gerald is currently a professor on the faculty of the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith business school and works as a consultant and keynote speaker. Look for him to share his expertise in leadership, which includes 8 years of service in the White House under Presidents Clinton and Bush, as the Director of Presidential Quality — the first such post in the institution’s history.

Related: Transformation and Redesign at the White House Communications AgencyManaging FearThe aim of leadership is not merely to find and record failures of men

A Theory of a System for Educators and Managers

Excerpts from The Deming Library Volume XXI, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Dr. Russell Ackoff and David Langford demonstrate that educators can begin a quality transformation by developing an understanding of the properties and powers of systems-oriented thinking. You can order the entire video, as well as the rest of The Deming Library.

Great stuff! If you enjoy this blog (the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog), you definitely should watch this webcast. This video has some great insight into education, learning and systems thinking. It also provides a good explanation of systems thinking compared to analysis. Dr. Ackoff: “You cannot explain the behavior of a system by analysis.” “The performance of the whole is never the sum of the performance of the parts taken separately: but it’s the product of their interactions. Therefore, the basic managerial idea introduced by systems thinking is that to manage a system effectively you must focus on the interactions of the parts rather than their behavior taken separately.”

Dr. Deming: “You may reduce defects to zero and go out of business.”

Dr. Ackoff: “Most discussion of education assume that the best way to learn a subject is to have it taught to you. That’s nonsense… Teaching is a wonderful way to learn. Therefore if we want people to learn we have to make them teach.” If you want more on this see David Langford’s work which provides great advice on how to improve learning and education.

Related: Dr. Deming Webcast on the 5 Deadly DiseasesAn Introduction to Deming’s Management Ideas by Peter ScholtesHow to Manage What You Can’t MeasureMarissa Mayer Webcast on Google InnovationTraffic Congestion and a Non-Solution

Russell L. Ackoff: 1919 -2009

photo of Russell Lincoln Ackoff

We lost another of the absolutely best minds in management history, this week. Somehow, many managers, do not know of Russell Ackoff’s ideas. I find that amazing. Dr. Ackoff is one of two management thinkers that any manager, that is serious about improving management results in their organization, must study (the other is Dr. Deming).

The Curious Cat management library includes many articles by Russell Ackoff. Transformation and Redesign at the White House Communications Agency by March Laree Jacques is a great articles exploring adopting his ideas.

Like many management greats he had no limit to the great ideas he put forth. He believed in the value of people and the importance of social systems. He is well known his ideas on systems thinking and specifically human systems. He understood to create effective management structures the human element must be at the heart of the system. He firmly believed in respect for people and his management ideas built on providing the opportunity for people to flourish.

We lost another great management mind. But by reading Ackoff’s books and articles and learning from him we can continue the improvements he brought to management during his life. His ideas will continue to provide those that adopt them great success for a long long time. And the management community will continue to build on his work and that of others to help managers improve their organizations.

Earlier this year we lost Peter Scholtes, another management leader and friend of Russell Ackoff. Russell wrote the forward to Peter’s Leader’s Handbook.

Peter Scholtes is an education, not a guru. A guru is one who develops a doctrine and seeks disciples who accept and transmit it without modification. No deviation is acceptable…
Educators, on the other hand, encourage and even try to inspire progressive deviations from what they have said. Their objective is not to remove the need for further learning, as is the guru’s, but to initiate it

Those words also describe Russell Ackoff perfectly. He inspired those he worked with to adapt and transform his ideas as they worked to improve their organizations. Take this opportunity to learn more about his ideas, you will not be disappointed.

Related: Russell L. Ackoff, Management Consultant & Systems Thinker, 1919 -2009Ackoff, Idealized Design and Bell LabsQuotes By Dr. Russell L. AckoffDr. Russell Ackoff Webcast on Systems ThinkingFrom Mechanistic to Social Systemic ThinkingTraffic Congestion and a Non-SolutionWrite it Down to Improve LearningDesigning a New OrganizationAckoff’s New Book: Management f-LawsThe Importance of Management Improvement

Dr. Russell Ackoff Webcast on Systems Thinking

Dr. Ackoff is one of two management thinkers that any manager, that is serious about improving management results in their organization, should study (the other is Dr. Deming). There are plenty of others that are also great resources. From part 2 of his talk: “Why-questions, about objects called systems, cannot be answered by the use of analysis… The product of explanation is understanding… The product of analysis is how things work, never why they work the way they do. Explanations always lie outside the system, never inside it.”

Synthesis (thinking about systems) involves 3 steps: 1) what is this system of which this is a part of; 2) understanding the behavior of the containing whole; 3) identify the role of function of the system in question within the containing system. Every system is defined by its role in the larger system.

Related: posts on Russ Ackoff’s ideasAckoff’s New Book: Management f-LawsWrite Down PredictionsKnowledge Management – Management is Prediction

Management Blog Posts From January 2006

photo of John Hunter John Hunter on the top of the Bear’s Hump trail in the park, Waterton, Canada. A great, very steep trail.
  • Agility vs. Six Sigma – “Process improvement should be part of a well run system, as should innovation. Deming, who many believe focused only process improvement, knew the importance of both. See several of Deming’s ideas on innovation.”
  • The Public Sector and Deming – Madison’s quality improvement efforts began after then-Mayor James F. Sensenbrenner and his staff were exposed to the teaching of W. Edwards Deming in 1983. and a follow up Public Management II: Actually Deming did acknowledge that the United States government was not designed to be as efficient as possible. From page 198 of Out of the Crisis “Government service is to be judged on equity as well as on efficiency.” He then quotes Oscar Ornati “We have forgotten that the function of government is more equity oriented than efficiency oriented.”
  • How Not to Convert Equity – “In no way does increasing their leverage convert equity that might melt away… If the value of their house fell $300,000 before or after this supposed ‘conversion’ they would ‘lose’ (on paper) the same amount: $300,000.”
  • Management Improvement LeadersRussell Ackoff – frankly I find it difficult to imagine a list management thought leader list, not including his name. Organizational development, systems thinking, management improvement, planning, policy deployment, learning. George Box: statistics, design of experiments, finding solutions (problem solving, process improvement), learning, management improvement…
  • The photo shows me from one of my most enjoyable days from 2005 hiking in Glacier Waterton International Peace Park

Write it Down

Why Write it down?

The longer I pursue Lean, the more I am amazed with its fundamentals. I may write more about this in the near future. Like the emphasis to write things down.

Right on. In meetings writing down decisions (what is the issue, who is going to do what…) is very helpful. It is very easy for people to think people agree to some somewhat clear statements made in the meeting. Only later it becomes obvious several people have different understandings (sometimes this is even really basically know in the meeting but it is easier to let things slide instead of confronting the disagreement – but this is not helpful, it just means the issue is not properly address, it might make the meeting easier but that should not be the goal). Writing it down greatly reduces the chance of miscommunication.

Russell Ackoff also has some great stuff on the importance of documenting decisions – both to serve as guide posts to future action and to serve as documentation that can be examined over time to find historic weaknesses and strengths with decision making in the organization. The Team Handbook is a very good book for improving team meetings and team performance.

Ackoff on decision making (pdf):

Preparing a record of every decision of any significance, ones that involve doing something or (of particular importance) ones that involve not doing something. This record should include the following information:

• The justification for the decision including its expected effects and the time by which they are expected…
• The assumptions on which the expectations are based…
• The information, knowledge, and understanding that went into the decision.
• Who made the decision, how it was made, and when…
Continue reading

Transformation and Redesign

Here is an excellent article from 1999: Transformation and Redesign at the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) (pdf link) by March Laree Jacques

This article describes an organizational transformation effort undertaken at the White House Communications Agency. It shares the Agency’s efforts through the period of 1992-1998, beginning with a Deming-based approach to continuous quality improvement through implementation of a total organizational redesign using systems thinking precepts. It describes the
obstacles to implementing quality concepts in a high visibility, high security organization and examines the influence of Agency’s organizational culture on quality performance and improvement. The discussion examines the applicability of several broadly accepted quality concepts to the “ultimate command-and-control” organization.

The article is informative and interesting, enjoy. A couple years after this article I I went to work for Gerald Suarez at the White House Military Office (WHMO). WHCA is one of seven operational units of WHMO, others include: Air Force One, Camp David and the White House Medical Unit.

See more management improvement articles including in the Curious Cat Management Improvement Library.

Related: articles and podcasts by Russel AckoffDeming on ManagementDeming related blog postsPublic Sector Continuous Improvement Site

Ackoff, Idealized Design and Bell Labs

Excerpt from Idealized Design: How to Dissolve Tomorrow’s Crisis…Today by Russell L. Ackoff, Jason Magidson and Herbert J. Addison: How Bell Labs Imagined — and Created — the Telephone System of the Future in the 1950s.

Great stuff and another example showing the obsession with “new” ideas is wasteful.

Idealized design is a way of thinking about change that is deceptively simple to state: In solving problems of virtually any kind, the way to get the best outcome is to imagine what the ideal solution would be and then work backward to where you are today. This ensures that you do not erect imaginary obstacles before you even know what the ideal is.

A simple idea, and a powerful one too. Ackoff always presents his ideas very well, in this book, and in many articles by Dr. Ackoff available online. I still remember Dr. Ackoff’s presenting this material at a Hunter conference years ago – great stuff.
Continue reading

Who Influences Your Thinking?

Comments on Who Influences Your Thinking?Survey results

> 1. Are people getting most of their information
> from other sources?
That would be my guess.

Similar to the phenomenon of “the long tail” which is an interesting topic in its own right. We tend to focus on the popular few (books, musicians, movies, authors, computer programs…) but often the sum of the less popular many is more significant. See:

  • The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson, Wired, Oct 2004 “The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are”
  • Continued discussion of the Amazon figures in a Chiris Anderson’s blog. “I’ve now spoken to Jeff Bezos (and others) about this. He doesn’t have a hard figure for the percentage of sales of products not available offline, but reckons that it’s closer to 25-30%.”
  • The long tail – a secret sauce for companies like Amazon.com, Netflix and Apple Computer, Motley Fool, NPR Audio Recording

Getting back to the question raised by the “Who Influences Your Thinking” post; More importantly I believe they (we) are just failing to get all we should.
Continue reading

Designing a New Organization

re: What about Designing New Organizations?

Guidance for “designing a new organisation and not for analysis of an existing one?” (edited)

I would add Russell Ackoff to the top of the list of those to consult. Start with his book Re-Creating the Corporation and continue to quite a few of his other books. After Ackoff, I would look to Deming and Senge. Other interesting folks would be Dee Hock, Brian Joiner, Peter Scholtes, Robert Rodin…

Few truly think about designing a new organization. Most people are interested in how to improve their existing organization. Therefore, it follows most people interesting in having an effect in the real world have focused on how to help those who are looking to be helped. Ackoff has done a huge amount of work in idealized design and thinking about the big ideas that can drive dramatic change. His ideas are exceptional. He even offers a plan for modeling the idealized organization and then a plan for how to transform the organization based on practical ideas that are feasible in the real world.

Deming’s ideas are very difficult to fit into most existing organizations easily because they require so many changes in the traditional style of management. However in designing a new organization from scratch you can adopt many of the ideas from the beginning. Free, Perfect and Now, by Robert Rodin, is a great book showing the adoption of these ideas by a company. When the leader is convinced it is possible to transform an existing company.

For a manufacturing organization I would look to Lean ideas (Toyota and Womack). Lean thinking is, of course, valuable to any organization but especially so in manufacturing.

You can find more on the ideas of those I list above through the Curious Cat Management Improvement Library.

John Hunter