Tag Archives: commentary

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

Functional Websites are Normally Far Superior to Apps

An email to I just sent to Uber

I understand the regular Uber app not having a functional website.

Uber Eats not having a functional website is super lame. It strikes me similar to Walmart 15 years ago telling people “we only have stores go to them, we just use the internet for advertising our stores.” Today for Uber: we only have apps, “we only use the web for advertising our apps.” Both you and Walmart want to use a limited function service that you both are comfortable with and want users to just put up with annoyance because neither of you want users using the connivence of the web.

When you bother to create a functional website maybe I’ll use it (I use several food delivery services now).

Using limited apps is rarely wise (unless you are crippled by the lack of a real computer and are stuck having to use just an app). Uber cars is a rare exception where the needs are so simple a limited app is ok. Picking restaurants and food on a tiny screen with a crippled app is just a lousy experience for anyone that uses real websites. The Ux for the app is horrible.

Just like old school businesses were only comfortable with their old business models and didn’t create functional websites (instead using the web just to advertise that you should go to their store, or giving you forms to complete and fax back to them…) new businesses are often stuck on only using apps even though they often provide a lousy user experience compared to a functional website.

There are some apps that are very useful and not having a functional web app can make sense, but it is fairly limited. Getting a ride apps I can see as only apps. Driving instructions and live maps using GPS to locate you is another great app use. Boarding passes can make sense (though I do question some of that whole process conceptually this could be a good example of a app with no functional website).

But most cases not having a functional website is just lousy Ux.

Now there are some times when using technology to provide good service just isn’t worth the effort. Often though businesses just are stuck in their fax-thinking or physical-store-thinking or app-thinking and fail to use a technology that would provide great benefit to their users. I find it odd how often app vendors seem stuck in their app mindset. It wasn’t so surprising old businesses that were not based on technology didn’t take advantage of the incredible opportunities provided by the internet and the web. But it is less understandable when companies that are thought of as technology savvy are as blinded by their history (can’t see out of the app-mindset).

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Giving Executives 40% of Revenue is Insane

I have previous written on my belief that excessive executive compensation had reached the level of a deadly disease of western management (building on the W. Edwards Deming’s list of 7 deadly diseases). I named excessive executive pay and a broken “intellectual property” system as new deadly diseases in 2007.

Here is a graphic from, It’s Twitter’s birthday, and its executives are getting huge stock-based gifts, showing the massive executive give-away at Twitter.

chart showing how much Twitter gave to executives as percent of total revenue

Twitter has given executives $2,000,000,000 in just stock based compensation from 2011 through 2015. Twitter’s revenue for those 4 years was only $4,709,000,000. So Twitter gave executives 42.5% of revenue. This is of revenue, not earnings, Twitter isn’t even profitable.

Granted this is an extremely bad case but this pattern of giving away hundreds of millions of dollars to executives is common. It is destructive. It is disrespectful. It is a stain on those participating in the looting of companies for the benefit of the executive bureaucrats – those that enable them to siphon off the returns generated by companies into their pockets.

Related: Toyota Post Record Profit: Splits $15 million in Pay and Bonus for top 21 Executives (2014)Business 901 Podcast: Two New Deadly Diseases for Business (2013)Massive Bonuses Encourage Executives to Take Massive Risks (leverage etc.)

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The Aim Should be the Best Life – Not Work v. Life Balance

My father had the most job satisfaction of anyone I have known. He had no separation between work and life. We toured factories on vacation. I visited Davidson College in North Carolina because he was consulting with a client in Charlotte before we went up to Duke and North Carolina for visits and asked the CEO what school I should visit. His grad students would call the house frequently.

Many of his best friends were colleagues. That is how I grew to know people like George Box, Brian Joiner, Soren Bisgaard and Peter Scholtes as I grew up. Various permutations of our family lived overseas based on his jobs in London (before kids), Singapore, Nigeria and China. Those experiences dramatically impacted all our lives and they were not about separating work from life.

The desire for a life embedded in other cultures and for travel drove decisions about work. He lived in Japan (because of his Dad’s job) for 2 years as a kid and that sparked his desire to do more of that as an adult.

My little brother, Justin, pushing me on a scooter at our house in Singapore.

My little brother, Justin, pushing me on a scooter at our house in Singapore.

The sensible aim is to optimize your life. Work is a big part of life. As with any system the results depend on the overall system not the performance of individual parts taken separately. Dad also died young. He was happy to have lived such a good life, even if he wished he could have lived longer he wasn’t bitter about missing anything.

When he learned he would die (of cancer) he mainly continued what he had always been doing living life and working on what he thought was worthwhile. One project he did take on, along with George Box, was creating the Center of Quality and Productivity Improvement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. George’s speech about Dad’s work provides a nice look at how work and life – William G. Hunter: An Innovator and Catalyst for Quality Improvement.

He honestly looked back on his life and felt he had a life that few could have topped, even though it was cut short. He was certainly optimistic and positive. But my sense was this was his honest assessment, it wasn’t just some fake front he put on for others. He had been living his life as well as he could his whole life. And continuing to live it as long as he could was all he wanted to do.

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Revolutionary Management Improvement May Be Needed But Most Management Change is Evolutionary

This month the ASQ Influential Bloggers were asked to respond to the question – will the future of quality be evolutionary or revolutionary?

I think it has been and will continue to be both.

Revolutionary change is powerful but very difficult for entrenched people and organizations to actually pull off. It is much easy to dream about doing so.

Often even revolutionary ideas are adopted in a more evolutionary way: partial adoption of some practices based on the insight provided by the revolutionary idea. I think this is where the biggest impact of W. Edwards Deming’s ideas have been. I see him as the most revolutionary and worthwhile management thinker we have had. But even so, few organizations adopted the revolutionary ideas. Most organizations nibbled on the edges and still have a long way to go to finally get to a management system he was prompting 30,40 or more years ago.

A few organizations really did some revolutionary things based on Deming’s ideas, for example: Toyota. Toyota had some revolutionary moves and adopted many revolutionary ideas brought forward by numerous people including Taichii Ohno. But even so the largest impact has been all those that have followed after Toyota with the lean manufacturing strategies.

And most other companies have taken evolutionary steps from old management paradigms to adopt some new thinking when trying out lean thinking. And frankly most of those efforts are so misguided or incredible small they barely qualify. But for those that successfully improved their management system they were mainly evolutionary.

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Out of Touch Executives Damage Companies: Go to the Gemba

When your customer service organization is universally recognized as horrible adding sales requirements to customer service representatives jobs is a really bad practice. Sadly it isn’t at all surprising to learn of management doing just that at our largest companies. Within a system where cash and corruption buys freedom from market forces (see below for more details) such practices can continue.

Such customer hostile practices shouldn’t continue. They shouldn’t be allowed to continue. And even though the company’s cash has bought politically corrupt parties to allow such a system to survive it isn’t even in the selfish interest of the business. They could use the cover provided by bought-and-paid-for-politicians-and-parties to maintain monopolistic pricing (which is wrong ethically and economically but could be seen as in the self interest of a business). But still provide good service (even while you take monopolistic profits allowed with corrupt, though legal, cash payments).

Of course, Adam Smith knew the likely path to corruption of markets made up of people; and he specifically cautioned that a capitalist economic system has to prevent powerful entities efforts to distort markets for individual gain (perfect competition = capitalism, non-competitive markets = what business want, as Adam Smith well knew, but this is precisely not capitalism). Sadly few people taking about the free-market or capitalism understand that their support of cronyist policies are not capitalist (I suppose some people mouthing those words are just preaching false ideas to people known to be idiots, but really most don’t seem to understand capitalism).

Anyway, this class of protected businesses supported by a corrupt political and government (regulators in government) sector is a significant part of the system that allows the customer hostility of those politically connected large businesses to get away with a business model based on customer hostility, but wasn’t really what I meant to write about here.

Comcast executives have to know they are running a company either rated the worst company in the country or close to it year after year. They, along with several others in their industry, as well as the cell phone service providers and too-big-to-fail-banks routinely are the leaders of companies most reviled by customers. Airlines are also up their for treating customer horribly but they are a bit different than the others (political corruption is much less of the reason for their ability to abuse customers for decades than is for the others listed above).

Leaked Comcast employee metrics show what we figured: Sell or perish [Updated]
Training materials explicitly require a “sell” phase, even in support calls.

The company’s choice to transform what is traditionally a non-revenue-generating area—customer service—into a revenue-generating one is playing out with almost hilariously Kafkaesque consequences. It is the nature of large corporations like Comcast to have dozens of layers of management through which leadership instructions and directives are filtered. The bigger the company, the more likely that members of senior leadership (like Tom Karinshak) typically make broad policy and leave specific implementations to lower levels.

Here, what was likely praised in the boardroom as an “innovative” strategy to raise revenue is instead doing much to alienate customers and employees alike. Karinshak’s assurances that he doesn’t want employees to feel pressured to sell in spite of hard evidence that Comcast demands just that are hard to square with the content of the document.

So what is going on here? Most people can easily see this is likely a horrible practice. It is a practice that a well run company theoretically could pull off without harming customers too much. But for a company like Comcast to do this it is obviously going to be horrible for customers (same for all those too-big to fail banks, cell phone service providers and other ISPs and cable TV providers).

Lets just pretend Comcast’s current leadership executives were all replaced with readers of the Curious Cat Management Improvement blog. And lets say that for now you are suppose to focus on improving the policies in place (while thinking about policy changes for later but not making them yet).

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Deming and Software Development

I am sometimes asked about how use Deming’s ideas on management in a software development context. My belief is Deming’s ideas work extremely well in a software development context. The main issue is often unlearning some assumptions that people might have about what the Deming management system is.

It really is surprising to me how many “knowledge workers” respect Deming ideas but then say his attempts to treat factory workers as thoughtful people who should be respected and involved in improving their processes doesn’t make sense for them because they are “knowledge workers.”

There are many good things being done to improving the software development process. I think many of them are very Deming-like in their approaches (but to me miss out on aspects of the Deming management system that would be helpful). I think Dr. Deming’s approach to software development would focuses on the system of profound knowledge (the 4 inter-related areas below):

  • Understanding variation – software development has quite a bit of variation, some probably innate [unique work] and some due to not having good procedures, batching work, not fixing problems right when they are seen, quick fixes that leave the system venerable in the long term (when you make one simple change to the code it has an unanticipated consequence due to poor practices that could have been eliminated), etc.. Many good coding practices are effective strategies to deal with this issue. And building an understanding of variation for managers (and business process owners/product owners) is very helpful to the software development process. The ideas in agile and kanban of focusing on smaller delivery units of work (one piece flow, just in time, cycle time…), customer value, maintainable code, sustainable work conditions, etc. are directly found in a Deming management system.
  • Appreciation for the system of software development. Don’t just complain about bugs. Examine the process of development and then put in place mistake proofing efforts (don’t duplicate code, use integrated regression tests, don’t put artificial constraints on that result in system distortions – unrealistic targets…). Use things like kanban, limited work in progress, delivering value to customers quickly, think of success in terms of getting working software to customers (not meeting internal delivery goals), etc. that take into account our experience with systemic software development problems over the decades.
  • Theory of knowledge – how do we know what we know? Are estimates reliable? Lets look at what users do, not just what they say (A/B testing…). Software developers often appreciate the value of usability testing, even though they rarely work for organizations willing to invest in usability testing. In my experience when software developers object to usability testing it is normally really an objection to overwork, and the usability testing is just going to give them more work or criticize things they were not allowed to spend the time they needed to do great work. That won’t always be the reason but it is the main one in my experience (I suppose their is also fear and just the psychology of not wanting to hear anything negative about what has been created – even if the usability testing shows tons of great results people will often focus on the negative).
  • psychology and respect for people – This pretty much seems like it is the same for software development as everywhere else.

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Kleptocrat CEOs and Their Apologists

I am disgusted by the lack of ethical and moral fiber of CEO’s (along with their cronies and apologists) in the USA. This lack comes out in many ways (see all the scandals at the too-big-to-fail banks etc.) but the problem I am upset about now is the increasingly commonplace kleptocrat behavior.

CEOs, and their cronies, were well paid decades ago. As their greed about their pay got to be unethical Peter Drucker started to speak out against their ethical failures. As those abuses became more extreme he increased his objections.

What Peter Drucker railed against was minor compared to the ethical meltdowns we allow in those serving in executive positions today.

Bloomberg study on What CEOs are Taking From Corporate Treasuries

Across the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index of companies, the average multiple of CEO compensation to that of rank-and-file workers is 204, up 20 percent since 2009

The average ratio for the S&P 500 companies is up from 170 in 2009, when the financial crisis reduced many compensation packages. Estimates by academics and trade-union groups put the number at 20-to-1 in the 1950s, rising to 42-to-1 in 1980 and 120-to-1 by 2000.

These CEOs act like kleptocrat dictators, taking what they can and challenging anyone to do anything about it. As with the kleptocrats they surround themselves with apologists and spread around the looting (from corporate treasuries for the CEO and the countries for the dictators) to those that support their kleptocrat ways.

Extremely Excessive Executive pay is so critical I classify it as a New Deadly Disease. I have discussed the problems created by allowing such morally and ethically bankrupt people in leadership positions: CEO’s Taking What They Don’t Deserve (2011)CEOs Plundering Corporate Coffers (2008)Tilting at Ludicrous CEO Pay (2007). In 2005 I spelled out some of the problems we face when we have kleptocrats running our companies:

The excesses are so great now they will either force companies to:

  1. take huge risks to justify such pay and then go bankrupt when such risks fail (and some will succeed making it appear, to some, that the pay was deserved rather than just the random chance of taking a large risk and getting lucky)
  2. make it impossible to compete with companies that don’t allow such excesses and slowly go out of business to those companies that don’t act so irresponsibly
  3. hope that competitors adopt your bad practice of excessive pay (this does have potential as most people are corrupted by power, even across cultural boundaries). However, my expectation is the competitive forces of capitalism going forward are going to make such a hope unrealistic. People will see the opportunity provided by such poor management and compete with them.

As long as the pay packages were merely large, and didn’t effect the ability of a company to prosper that could continue (slicing up the benefits between the stakeholders is not an exact science). The excesses recently have become so obscene as to become unsustainable.

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Managers Are Not Non-Leaders: Managers Need to Practice Things We Classify as Leadership Traits

Saying “Managers care about efficiency and leaders care about effectiveness” is like saying “Doctors care about theory and nurses care about patients.”

Managers that don’t care about effectiveness are lousy managers.
Leaders that don’t care about the gemba are lousy leaders.
Doctors that don’t care about patients are lousy doctors.
Nurses that don’t care about theory are lousy nurses.

Your role in the organization (and for the particular situation in question) and training and the situation will impact how you contribute. But the attitude that leaders are visionaries that think big thoughts, make decisions then tell everyone what to do (act as the brain for the organization) is outdated. Every list of what traits are for leaders that then contrasts them with managers that I have seen shows leadership traits managers need.

Seeking to separate leadership and management is a bad idea. If you want to have a few leadership traits that you want to focus on at various points (creating engagement, communicating a vision, building consensus, setting organizational direction) that is fine. But those things are traits managers need; they are not traits reserved for some separate leadership cadre.

And disconnected leaders that don’t understand the organization, the organizations customers etc. are not going to lead well (normally the contrast lists have the managers doing all the hands on stuff, at the gemba, with customers etc.). Nurses may not have as complete an understanding of the theories behind medical treatment decisions but they need to know a great deal of theory to do their jobs well. Everyone contributes and has different roles to play but I don’t see value in the contrast of leaders and managers mentality.

From what I have seen mainly the manager v. leader comparisons seem to be about belittling managers and elevating leaders; but leaders are this vague concept that isn’t well defined. Who are these leaders? Are they only senior executives? They can’t be managers because you are contrasting them with managers – by the contrasting model used they can’t be leaders and managers.

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Leadership and Management

I don’t think the attempts to separate leadership and management are useful. I read plenty of things that are variations on Peter Drucker’s:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

A manager that is not concerned about doing the right things is a lousy manager. And a leader that doesn’t care about doing things right is a lousy leader.

Another theme of this contrasting type quote says some version of:

“Managers care about efficiency and leaders care about effectiveness”

A manager who doesn’t strive to be effective is also a lousy manager. It is also odd to suppose the detached leader (the type that lets the manager deal with the mundane while they dream), one that doesn’t concern themselves with customer focus, value chains, going to the gemba really has a clue about effectiveness. The idea seems mainly to view a manager is a cog looking at some tiny process and making it efficient without understanding the organization as a system or value chains or customer focus.

I think, the main problem is all of the attempts to contrast leaders and managers. Much of the time people are saying managers don’t do things they certainly should be doing.

The desire to express how leadership traits can be used by those without organizational authority are useful. Discussion of how certain traits can be seen as within the domain of leadership I suppose may be useful (it can help our minds see how various traits and practices combine to help get results – and we can categorize these under “leadership”).

Leaders that are primarily “big thinkers” and motivators without a clue about how to actually do the things they advocate (the model of “managers” deal with the implementation with blinders to the system while “leaders” are “above the fray”) is not useful in my opinion. It does note a somewhat common practice (in organizations today) but not one that is wise. Separating leadership from the gemba is not wise. Separating leadership from a deep understanding of customers is not wise. Separating leadership from how the organization actually works is not wise.

Plenty of others seem to disagree with my opinion though, there are many articles, blog posts, podcasts, talks… on separating leadership from management.

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