Posts about continual improvement

Don’t Ignore Customer Complaints

I find Paul Graham’s ideas very useful. I disagree with his recent tweet though.

tweets from Paul Graham

Update: See note at bottom of the post – Paul tweeted that his original tweet was wrong.

Base your assessment of the merit of an idea on the actual merit of the idea, not the category you place the person in that is expressing the idea.

His reply tweet addresses the problem with the first one in a very specific case. But you have “bugs” that are part of your management system, “policies,” products or services. Few customers will bother to voice those problems. Rather than ignoring some of what you hear, you should evaluate the merit of the complaint.

If the complaint is not something that should be addressed or explored fine. But that has nothing to do with the category of the person (“complainer” or not); it has to do with the merit of the complaint.

I understand some people are annoying because they make lots of meritless complaints. Ignoring the meritless complaints is fine with me. But just as I think ignoring advice because the person giving the advice doesn’t follow it is a bad practice I think having a policy of basing decisions on something other than the merit of the complaint/suggestion is unwise.

This is especially true since organizations on the whole do a lousy job of listening to customers and understanding customer desires. We need to greatly enhance the practice of customer focus not seek to reduce it. Every organization is unique, however, and if customer focus is exceptionally great, I can understand the idea of the tweet: that we are devoted to customer focus and each new insight, but we have taken it too far and need to discriminate better. I still think discriminating based on the merit of the complaint is a better than doing so based on our categorization of the complainer but in that case (which is very rare in organizations) the advice isn’t nearly as bad as it is for most organizations.

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Take Advantage of the Strengths Each Person Brings to Work

The players have weaknesses. But it is our job as coaches to find the strengths in what our guys do. They all have strengths, and that’s what we highlight. What really helps is having Russell. He is so committed to improving on the littlest things every day. I try to find a word for this sometimes, but I can’t … it’s his refusal to fail. No detail is too small, and he makes sure to stress that every day.”

Darrell Bevell, offensive coordinator of the world champion Seattle Seahawks and former quarterback of the Wisconsin Badgers provides a good guide for managers. “Russell” in the quote is Seattle’s quarterback Russel Wilson; also a UW-Madison alumni.

Street art in Singapore 4 people sitting and a kid

Street art in Singapore. Photo by John Hunter.

Managers should be setting up the organization to take maximum advantage of the strengths of the people in the organization while minimizing the impact of weaknesses.

“Refusing to fail” by saying you refuse and yelling and stomping around if you fail doesn’t work. But if you commit to improve, not just the exciting stuff but every important detail you can create a climate of success. You create a system that works and builds on the skills, ability and desire to do great work that your employees bring to work.

Sure you fix what is broken. But you also improve what is working well. You figure out where the system isn’t optimized for the abilities of the people and you address that by changing the system to take advantage of everyone’s capabilities while limiting the impact of people’s weaknesses.

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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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Root Cause, Interactions, Robustness and Design of Experiments

Eric Budd asked on The W. Edwards Deming Institute group on LinkedIn

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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A Good Management System is Robust and Continually Improving

imagine various people working within it, somehow swapping out gears and cogs without the clock stopping or slowing down even a little.

This is a fairly good quote on a good management system. Some people might not like the mechanistic model – comparing an organization to a clock, and I agree that isn’t the right model, but even so it is a good quote.

The quote, from a story about the San Antonio Spurs captures what should happen with a good management system. Things just keep running well as inevitable changes take place (and keep getting better in the case of a management system).

A good management system doesn’t rely on heroic efforts to save the day. The organization is designed to success. It is robust. It will succeed with all the variation thrown at it by the outside world. A good management system takes advantage of the contributions people offer, but it is not perform poorly when others are relied on.

A well run organization has graceful degradation (when one component fails or one person is missing the performance doesn’t suffer, bad results are avoided).

With software for example, a decently created web sites may use javascript to enhance the user experience but if javascript is unavailable the site works fine (just missing some neat features that are nice but don’t prevent users from getting what they need). Poorly designed software has critical dependencies on conditions that cannot be guaranteed to be present for end users and the software just fails to work when those conditions are not met. Ungraceful degradation is too common in software. It is also too common in our management systems.

An organization succeeds because of the efforts of many great people. But the management system has to be created for an organization to prosper as what we all know will happen, happens: people will leave and need to be replaced. And the people that stay will need to adjust to new conditions inside the organization and in response to external forces. A good management system is constantly improving performance, innovating, increasing the robustness of systems and increasing the capability of people.

Related: Bad Weather is Part of the Transportation SystemHow to Sustain Long Term Enterprise ExcellencePerformance dependent on specific individuals is not robust and not capable of continuous high quality performanceEuropean Blackout: Human Error-Not

Toyota Understands Robots are Best Used to Enhance the Value Employees Provide

Toyota has always seen robotics as a way to enhance what staff can do. Many USA executives think of robotics as a way to reduce personnel. Toyota wants to use the brainpower of employees to continually improve the organization. Toyota wants to free people for monotonous or dangerous work to let them use their minds.

Humans Steal Jobs From Robots at Toyota

Humans are taking the place of machines in plants across Japan so workers can develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and the car-building process.

“We cannot simply depend on the machines that only repeat the same task over and over again,” Kawai said. “To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine.”

Kawai, 65, started with Toyota during the era of Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System envied by the auto industry for decades with its combination of efficiency and quality. That means Kawai has been living most of his life adhering to principles of kaizen, or continuous improvement, and monozukuri, which translates to the art of making things.

“Fully automated machines don’t evolve on their own,” said Takahiro Fujimoto, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Manufacturing Management Research Center. “Mechanization itself doesn’t harm, but sticking to a specific mechanization may lead to omission of kaizen and improvement.”

We need more companies to learn from the executives at Toyota. They show real respect for people. They are not focused on how much they can extract from the corporate treasury to build themselves castles at the expense of other employees, customers and stockholders as far too many USA executives are.

Toyota has been extremely innovative in investing in robotics as human assistants (partially this is due to the extreme demographic problems Japan faces): Toyota Develops Thought-controlled WheelchairToyota’s Partner RobotToyota Winglet – Personal Transportation Assistance.

Related: Webcast on the Toyota Development ProcessDon’t Hide Problems in ComputersAkio Toyoda’s Message Shows Real Leadership

Steve Jobs on Quality, Business and Joseph Juran

This webcast shows an interesting interview with Steve Jobs when he was with NeXT computer. He discusses quality, business and the experience of working with Dr. Juran at NeXT computer. The video is likely from around 1991.

America’s in a tough spot right now, I think. I think we have forgotten the basics. We were so prosperous for so long that we took so many things for granted. And we forgot how much work it took to build and sustain those basic things that were supporting out prosperity. Things like a great education system. Things like great industry.

We are being out-planned, we are being out-strategized, we are being out-manufactured. It there is nothing that can’t be fixed but we are not going to fix it up here, we are going to fix it by getting back to the basics.

I agree with this thought, and while we have made some progress over the decades since this was recorded there is a long way to go (related: complacency about our contribution the USA has received from science and engineering excellencewhen you were as rich as the USA was in the 1950s and 1960s more and more people felt they deserved to be favored with economic gifts without effort (forgetting the basics as Jobs mentioned)Silicon Valley Shows Power of Global Science and Technology Workforce). After World War II the USA was able to coast on an economic bubble of extreme wealth compared to the rest of the world for several decades (and the economic success built during that period even still provides great advantages to the USA). That allowed wealthy living conditions even without very good management practices in our businesses.

Where we have to start is with our products and our services, not with our marketing department.

Quality isn’t just the product or service. Its having the right product. Knowing where the market is going and having the most innovative products is just as much a part of quality as the quality of the construction of the product. And I think what we are seeing the quality leaders of today have integrated that quality technology well beyond their manufacturing.

Now going well into their sales and marketing and out as far as they can to touch the customer. And trying to create super efficient processes back from the customer all the way through the delivery of the end product. So they can have the most innovative products, understand the customer needs fastest, etc..

The importance of customer focus is obvious at the companies Jobs led. It wasn’t a weak, mere claim of concern for the customer, it was a deep passionate drive to delight customers.

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Poor Results Should be Addressed by Improving the System Not Blaming Individuals

My response to: Where is the Deming study that asserts most errors are in organization or process?

There is no such study, it is based on Dr. Deming’s experience as I discuss in 94% Belongs to the System (improve the system, don’t blame the people in the system).

“I should estimate that in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to the proportions something like this: 94% belongs to the system (responsibility of management), 6% special.”

Page 315 of Out of the Crisis by W. Edwards Deming

Getting hung up on the figure 94% is a mistake. His point was that you improve performance going forward by improving the system not blaming people. His two books provide background and the thought process involved behind why we are failing to manage better. Changing the people, while leaving the system in place, most often doesn’t help.

Variation does confuse people sometimes. The same mistake as say yelling at someone any time results are really bad. Most likely results will get better. Not because yelling helps but essentially regression to the mean. So you can move people out after really bad results and things get better. Of course, most of the time they would have gotten better if you left the people there (and did nothing or yelled).

Even when the person did totally mess up, why did the system allow that? Why did the system put that person in a place where they were not qualified? Answering and fixing these types of questions would help improve the system and the results going forward.

Yes, occasionally the answer might be that Joel was hired sensibly, managed and coached sensibly but he just became a complete jerk and won’t respond to coaching and this is only his fault. But normally that won’t be the case, even when the person seems nearly totally to blame (and that isn’t even a very common situation – normally there are obvious weaknesses in the system that put them in the place to fail and will likely put anyone else in the same place in the future).

Related: Firing Workers Isn’t Fixing ProblemsPeople: Team Members or CostsCreate a System That Lets People Take Pride in Their WorkFind the Root Cause Instead of the Person to Blame

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary on a Japanese sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, that is full of great quotes for those interested in continual improvement. Throughout the film people discuss a never ending focus on doing better and better – never becoming complacent.

Quotes from Jiro Dreams of Sushi:

Jiro: “Once you decide on your occupation you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with what you do… You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That is the secret of success and the key to being regarded honorably.”

Jiro: “There is always room for improvement.”

Jiro: “I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit.”

Jiro: “I feel ecstasy every day. I love making sushi.”

Fish seller: “When you think you know it all, you then realize you are just fooling yourself.”

Food critic ~ “when you work for Jiro he teaches you for free. But you have to endure years of training.

​Apprentice: “But there is only so much you can learn from words. I have to keep practicing.”​

Jiro: ~ (paraphrased and changed a bit) “When the fish gets to me the sushi is 95% complete. I prepare it in front of the customer so get the credit but the truth is the person doing the least work gets most of the credit”

Jiro’s eldest son, Yoshikazu: “Always strive to elevate your craft.”

The focus is on the dining experience in total. The meal is composed of elements that are designed to work together with the focus on quality of the individual dishes but also on the interaction between the individual items and the complete experience.

The respect for suppliers is also seen in the film. Jiro’s eldest son says (approximately) “we are experts at sushi and we know a great deal but the tuna vendor we use knows more about tuna, the shrimp vendor knows more about shrimp… we trust them.” Later Jiro says (again from my memory), “we buy our rice from our vendor because Mr. ___ (I can’t remember the name) knows more about rice than anyone else, I trust him to provide what is best for us.”

They even touch on the bigger picture. Jiro’s son: “overfishing is the problem. Finding good fish is getting harder and harder… There should be regulations enforced on only catching bigger fish. Business should balance profit with preserving natural resources.”

As with any example there are particulars that you can learn from and specifics that don’t apply well to your situation. I know next to nothing about kitchens of world class restaurants but what I do know is they seem extremely dedicated to their work (much more so than many other organizations are interested in striving for). They also seem to be more autocratic than most other modern organizations. They also seem much more focused on perfecting the process to achieve the best result even if that requires a great deal more work than some alternative that produces very good results.

Related: You’ve Got to Find What You Love (Steve Jobs Stanford address)Respect People by Creating a Climate for Joy in WorkPositivity and Joy in WorkThe Customer is the Purpose of Our Work

Resources for Using the PDSA Cycle to Improve Results

graphic image showing the PDSA cycle

PDSA Improvement cycle graphic from my book – Management Matters

Using the PDSA cycle (plan-do-study-act) well is critical to building a effective management system. This post provides some resources to help use the improvement cycle well.

I have several posts on this blog about using the PDSA cycle to improve results including:

The authors and consultants with Associates for Process Improvement have the greatest collection of useful writing on the topic. They wrote two indispensable books on the process improvement through experimentation: The Improvement Guide and Quality Improvement Through Planned Experimentation. And they have written numerous excellent articles, including:

Related: Good Process Improvement PracticesThe Art of Discovery (George Box)Planning requires prediction. Prediction requires a theory. (Ron Moen)

How to Sustain Long Term Enterprise Excellence

This month Paul Borawski asked ASQ’s Influential Voices to explore sustaining excellence for the long term.

There are several keys to pulling sustained long term excellence. Unfortunately, experience shows that it is much easier to explain what is needed than to build a management system that delivers these practices over the long term. The forces pulling an organization off target often lead organization astray.

Each of these concepts have great deal more behind them than one post can explain. I provide some direct links below, and from those there are many more links to more valuable information on the topics. I also believe my book provides valuable additional material on the subject – Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability. Sustained long term excellence is the focus of the book. A system that consistently provides excellent performance is a result of building enterprise capability over the long term.

Related: Distorting the System, Distorting the Data or Improving the SystemSustaining and Growing the Adoption of Enterprise Excellence Ideas in Your OrganizationManaging to Test Result Instead of Customer ValueGood Process Improvement PracticesChange is not ImprovementManaging Our Way to Economic Success Two Untapped Resources by William G. HunterSoftware Process and Measurement Podcast With John HunterCustomer Focus by Everyone

You are a Fool if You Do What I Say

Guest post from Mark Graban

There’s an interesting quote from Taiichi Ohno in “Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management,” which I was re-reading today…

“You are a fool if you do what I say. You are a greater fool if you don’t do as I say. You should think for yourself and come up with better ideas than mine.”

The best examples of Lean in healthcare are examples where leaders and organizations learned, but did not blindly copy. Sami Bahri DDS (the “lean dentist”) read Deming, Shingo, Ohno, etc. and had to figure this out himself, rather than copying some other dentist.

ThedaCare is the first to say “don’t directly copy what we do.”

We can learn from others, run our own experiments to see what works, and keep improving to make it better than even Ohno or Shingo would have imagined.

Related: Two resources, largely untapped in American organizations, are potential information and employee creativityRespect People by Creating a Climate for Joy in Work

Build Systems That Allow Quick Action – Don’t Just Try and Run Faster

This month Paul Borawski (CEO of ASQ) has asked the ASQ Influential Voices to share their thoughts on the cries for “faster, faster, faster” that so often is a refrain heard today.

I have long said that the measure of management improvement isn’t only about improving. It is the speed at which the management system and internal processes are being improved. Improvement is a given. If an organization is not improving every year the odds of long term success is low.

One of the common objections to a need for improvement is that we are doing fine and we are improving (so leave us alone we are already improving). That is better than not doing fine and not improving but it isn’t a reason to be complacent. Managers should be continually pushing the improvement acceleration higher.

The biggest problems I see with a focus on being faster are attempting move faster than the capability of the organization and falling back on working harder as a method to achieve the faster action. Really these are the same issue – working harder is just a tactic to cope with attempting to achieve better results than the system is capable of.

Agile software development has a principle, sustainable development, which is a reaction to the far too common attitude of management to just have software developers work longer and longer hours to meet targets. Any attempt to be faster internally or respond to a faster marketplace should first put the principle of sustainable workload as a requirement. And next build the capability of the enterprise to respond quickly and keep increasing how quickly it can respond effectively.

The well know management improvement concepts, practices and tools will lead an organization to improve that capability reliably, sustainable and continuously.

My new book, Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability, delves into how to manage an enterprise based on the ideas needed to apply management improvement concepts, practices and tools to achieve results, including, but not limited to, faster.

Related: Process Improvement and InnovationFind the best methods to produce the best results over the long termThink Long Term Act Daily

Customer Focus

Customer Focus is at the core of a well managed company. Sadly many companies fail to serve their customers well. To serve customers, a thorough understanding of what problem you solve for customers is needed. The decisions at many companies, unfortunately, are far removed from this understanding.

It is hard to imagine, as you are forced to wind your way through the processes many companies squeeze you through that they have paid any attention to what it is like to be a customer of their processes. When you see companies that have put some effort into customer focus it is startling how refreshing it is (which is a sad statement for how poorly many companies are doing).

If the decision makers in a company are not experiencing the company’s products and services as a customer would that is a big weakness. You need to correct that or put a great amount of energy into overcoming that problems.

Another critical area of customer focus is to know how your customers use your products. It isn’t enough to know how you want your products to be used. Or to know the problems you intended people to use your products for. You need to know how people are actually using them. You need to know what they love, what they expect, what they hate, and what they wish for. This knowledge can help offset experiencing the products and services yourselves (in some cases getting that experience can be quite difficult – in which case you need to put extra effort into learning the actual experience of your customers).

You cannot rely on what people tell you in surveys. You need to have a deep understanding of customers use of the products. Innovation springs from this deep understanding and your expertise in the practice of delivering services and building products.

One of my favorite improvement tips is to: ask customers what 1 thing could we do better. It is very simple and gives you an easy way to capture what customers really care about. You shouldn’t rely only on this, but it is an extremely powerful tactic to use to aid continual improvement (with customer focus).

Related: Delighting CustomersThe Customer is the Purpose of Our WorkCustomer Focus and Internet Travel Search

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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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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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Psychology of Improvement

Even if ideas are good and have significant importance (high value to customers, reduce waste dramatically, improve safety…) implementing the ideas can be difficult. Getting people to make an effort to improve a situation by simply laying out the dry facts is not very effective. You need to engage in the management system to make your ideas something other people care about and want to do (you need to consider the psychology of getting things done in human systems).

Often a good way to do this is not to just think what is best for the performance of the system, but figure out what people want fixed/improved… and then figure out what I think could help. Then pick among various options to improve based upon the advantages to the performance of the organization, desires of decision makers and the ability of an improvement effort to build the capacity of the organization for customer focused continuous improvement.

Few places I have worked just want to adopt Deming’s ideas (which is my belief for what is the best way to improve performance). But they have things they care about – reducing the times people get mad at them, increasing cash flow… I find it much easier to help them with their desires and slowly get them to appreciate the benefit of Deming’s management ideas, lean thinking and quality tools. Though even this way it isn’t easy.

Even if the organization I am working with doesn’t think based on Deming’s ideas, I do. So I believe any effort to improve the management system must consider all 4 areas of Deming’s management system. In the beginning of an improvement effort psychology is very important for the change agent to consider and deal with. With an understanding of psychology and an understanding of the organization you can build appropriate strategies to improve and build the capacity of the organization to improve over the long term.

I also think about the long term as I am thinking of how to help. It is important to not just solve the current dilemma but to improve the organizational capacity to improve in the future. And for me that means increasing people’s understanding of the ideas I explore in the Curious Cat Management Improvement blog.

Related: Building the Adoption of Management Improvement Ideas in Your OrganizationStop Demotivating EmployeesHow to Improve

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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Management Blog Posts From October 2006

I have selected a few posts from the Curious Cat Management Blog back in October 2006 for those of you who were not reading this blog then.

  • Why Pay Taxes or be Honest – “I don’t think acting illegally, immorally, unethically is excusable just because lots of other people are… It is sad how bad the behavior is that is considered acceptable.”
  • Hiring the Right Workers – “The job market is an inefficient market. There are many reasons for this including relying on specifications… Hiring is one of the area I think we could use some real innovation. I think much more flexibility would help.” I don’t feel as though any real progress has been made on better hiring in the last 4 years.
  • Righter Performance Appraisal – I know it is a silly title, but it is still one of my favorite blog post titles :-)
  • photo of Longwood Gardens

    Longwood Gardens. Delaware by John Hunter.

  • Deming Institute Conference: Tom Nolan – there are many important elements to managing well. Turning the PDSA cycle quickly is close to the top of those elements.
  • Google Shifts Focus – “Now that they have a bunch of decent, but not really great products, adjusting and taking the opportunity to improve those product makes sense.” You might think this is about the new initiatives Google’s new CEO, Larry Page, has been discussing but it isn’t. It is about one of Google’s previous efforts to focus and eliminate less important “distractions.”
  • Simple Cell Phone – “I don’t think these features are only desired in poor countries, but I am not basing that on any market research just my opinion. Complex devices with many points of failure (both technical failure and user inability to figure it out) should not be the only option.

Engage in Improving the Management System

To actually improve management you need to engage in continual improvement of your management systems. This requires doing the hard work of challenging complacency. The job of those improving the practice of management is not to make everyone happy and just ignore that the words about improvement are not actually carrying through to changes in behavior.

Do Executives “Get It?”

So many times executives spout the importance of new initiatives like wellness programs, safety programs, or improvement projects like Lean, Six Sigma, etc. They talk about how great they are and how everyone should embrace them so the company can improve, but when push comes to shove, their actions indicate they really don’t believe in them.

If you are trying to bring about change you need in-process indications of actual success at improving the management system. Instead it seems to me, most of the time, the focus is on spinning what is being done to convince others that what is being done is good. This is not helpful and not useful.

Without in-process indications of how the movement to a better management system is performing the pattern is all too common. People want to show they are doing a good job (which often includes not being too negative – because if they criticize results they can be branded as negative). So instead we end up with actions that would be used if one assumed that while we had problems with the last 4 management fads we implemented, now we have this wonderful new idea it will avoid all the problems.

So we start our new process, and write up reports and presentations for meetings talking about our successes. We are careful to ignore any warning signs. Then, after 1, 2… years (in a good economy this can last quite a bit longer), the boss says the results are not improving, this isn’t working. Everyone quickly agrees and the improvement effort is dropped. Usually there will be a period of time taken until and a new fad is found that everyone agrees is wonderful for 2-5 years until they then all agree was a failure. Repeat for the rest of your career.

To break this cycle and actually continually improve we can’t go along with the in-process indications that the management improvement system is not really working. We need to seek out indications that it is not working and address those issues and build a strong continually improving management system.

Related: Management Advice Failuresflavors of management improvement effortsmanage what you can’t measureFederal Government Chief Performance Officer (a specific example of the repeated failure to improve), just pretending the failures in the past didn’t exist doesn’t help the current effort

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