Tag Archives: Creativity

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Wonderful advice and so poignant. But actually, if you read the whole poem, what we take from the quote isn’t what the poem was saying. Earlier in the poem it says

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same

view out windows of a temple

photo from a temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia by John Hunter

Robert Frost was poking fun at his friend who would obsess over what fork to take in the path as they walked when in reality the choice made no difference.

And “that has made all the difference” is poking fun at self justifications of our actions; congratulating ourselves for doing something not really worthy of accolades.

Still the top three lines do seem like insightful advice. Of course what is really needed is insight into when choosing the road less traveled is wise (or at least a sensible gamble) and when it is less traveled for very good reasons.

I do believe we far too easily slip into habits encouraged by the well worn path most people take. And therefore think balancing that tendency with at least considering the road less traveled more often is wise. But I actually like that when you read the full poem it really isn’t saying that.

Related: Chomphet Hike, Luang Prabang, LaosOlympic National Park PhotosThe Aim Should be the Best Life – Not Work v. Life BalanceMaking Better DecisionsRhinoceros Hornbills on Mount Santubong

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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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The Value of Professional Conferences. Also Why Has There Been So Little Innovation?

In the most recent ASQ Influential Voices post, Julia McIntosh takes a look at the costs and benefits of professionals attending conferences.

I still remember being in high school and George Box talking about the primary value of conferences was talking to colleagues in the hallway. This seemed very odd to me, as it seemed that the reason for going to a conference was to learn from the talks.

I also didn’t really understand the value in catching up with people in person. I could see it would be somewhat useful but I didn’t really understand the benefits of personal communication. Pretty much all of my communication at that point was person to person. So I didn’t really see the huge loss of fidelity of any other communication (phone, email…).

At early conferences that I attended my main benefit was still in sitting in sessions and learning what people had to say. I did also benefit from discussions with other attendees. And I started to form relationships with others which grew over the years. And over time the networking benefits did exceed the learning from sessions benefits.

Part of this also occurs as your knowledge increases and you have less to learn from the average speaker. George was obviously well past this stage when I was talking to him. For me I still learned a lot from some of the speakers but also found I was learning much less and skipping sessions to talk to people I could learn more from was an increasing benefit. Still I have difficulty doing that and would focus more on networking at lunch, between sessions and in the evening.

The costs of attending conferences are easy for companies to calculate. The benefits they bring are very hard to calculate. I can see why companies often are very tight with budgets for conferences.

Egyptian carving of figures into a stone sarcophagus

A stone sarcophagus from ancient Egypt. I took this photo after presenting a Deming 2 1/2 day seminar in Boston (at the Boston Fine Arts Museum – see more photos).

I think the benefits of getting people outside the building and letting them interact with others to learn and think about new ideas is very valuable. I do think it is much less valuable in most companies than is should be because they have bad management systems that are atrophied with poor practices that are going to be extremely difficult to improve even if people have good ideas to try.

The organization really should focus on improving the management system so it isn’t such a barrier to improvement. But I think most organizations instead find it easy to just estimate a poor return on investments in conferences because those returning don’t actually make any improvements. Again, I think the cause of the failure to improve is more about the bad management system than the benefit of the conferences.

Of course, to some extent, the conferences should be focusing on how to improve given so many attendees organizations are crippled with a poor management system. But often people seem reluctant to acknowledge or discuss that. And those that point out problems often are seen as the problem (based on their actions – I can only conclude blaming the messenger makes sense to some people). And these factors are often even more pronounced in those the organization is willing to invest in (they are often more focused on making the bosses happy rather than something like improvement and change which often rubs people the wrong way).

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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.

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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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Taking Risks Based on Evidence

My opinion has long been that football teams are too scared to take an action that is smart but opens the coach to criticism. So instead of attempting to make it on 4th down (if you don’t understand American football, just skip this post) they punt because that is the decision that is accepted as reasonable.

So instead of doing what is wise they do what avoids criticism. Fear drives them to take the less advantageous action. Now I have never looked hard at the numbers, but my impression is that it is well worth the risk to go for it on 4th down often. In a quick search I don’t see a paper by a Harvard professor (this article refers to it also – Fourth down: To punt or to go?) on going for it on 4th down but I found on by a University of California, Berkeley economist (David Romer wrote called “Do Firms Maximize? Evidence from Professional Football.”).

On the 1,604 fourth downs in the sample for which the analysis implies that teams are on average better off kicking, they went for it only nine times. But on the 1,068 fourth downs for which the analysis implies that teams are on average better off going for it, they kicked 959 times.

My guess is that the advantages to going for it on 4th down are greater for high school than college which is greater than the advantage for the pros (but I may be wrong). My guess is this difference is greater the more yardage is needed. Basically my feeling is the variation in high school is very high in high school and decreases with greater skill, experience and preparation. Also the kicking ability (punting and field goals) impacts the choices of going for it on 4th down and that dramatically increases in college. So if I am correct, I think pro coaches should be more aggressive on 4th down, but likely less aggressive than high school coaches should be.

But in any event the data should be explored and strategies should be tested.

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What is the Explanation Going to be if This Attempt Fails?

Occasionally during my career I have been surprised by new insights. One of the things I found remarkable was how quickly I thought up a new explanation for what could have caused a problem when the previously expressed explanation was proven wrong. After awhile I stopped finding it remarkable and found it remarkable how long it took me to figure out that this happened.

I discovered this as I programmed software applications. You constantly have code fail to run as you expect and so get plenty of instances to learn the behavior I described above. While I probably added to my opportunities to learn by being a less than stellar coder I also learned that even stellar coders constantly have to iterate through the process of creating code and seeing if it works, figuring out why it didn’t and trying again.

The remarkable thing is how easily I could come up with an new explanation. Often nearly immediately upon what I expected to work failing to do so. And one of the wonderful things about software code is often you can then make the change in 10 minutes and a few minutes later see if it worked (I am guessing my brain kept puzzling over the ideas involved and was ready with a new idea when I was surprised by failure).

When I struggled a bit to find an initial explanation I found myself thinking, “this has to be it” often because of two self reinforcing factors.

First, I couldn’t think of anything else that would explain it. Sometimes you will think right away of 4 possible issues that could cause this problem. But, when I struggled to find any and then finally came up with an idea it feels like if there was another possibility I should have thought of it while struggling to figure out what I finally settled on.

Second, the idea often seems to explain exactly what happened, and it often feels like “of course it didn’t work, what was I thinking I need to do x.” This often turns out to be true, doing x solves the problem and you move on. But a remarkable percentage of the time, say even just 10%, it doesn’t. And then I would find myself almost immediately thinking, of course I need to do y. Even when 10 seconds ago I was convinced there was no other possibility.

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Quality Processes in Unexpected Places

This month Paul Borawski asked ASQ’s Influential Voices to explore the use of quality tools in unexpected places.

The most surprising example of this practice that I recall is the Madison, Wisconsin police department surveying those they arrested to get customer feedback. It is obvious that such “customers” are going to be biased. Still the police department was able to get actionable information by seeking the voice of the customer.

photo of a red berry and leaves

Unrelated photo from Singapore Botanical Garden by John Hunter.

Certain of the police department’s aims are not going to match well with those they arrest (most obviously those arrested wish the police department didn’t arrest them). The police department sought the voice of the customer from all those they interacted with (which included those they arrested, but also included those reporting crimes, victims, relatives of those they arrested etc.).

The aim of the police department is not to arrest people. Doing so is necessary but doing so is most similar in the management context to catching an error to remove that bad result. It is better to improve processes so bad results are avoided. How the police interact with the public can improve the process to help steer people’s actions away from those that will require arrests.

The interaction police officers have with the public is a critical gemba for meeting the police department’s aim. Reducing crime and encouraging a peaceful society is aided by knowing the conditions of that gemba and knowing how attempts to improve are being felt at the gemba.

All customer feedback includes bias and personal preferences and potentially desires that are contrary to the aims for the organization (wanting services for free, for example). Understanding this and how important understanding customer/user feedback on the gemba is, it really shouldn’t be surprising that the police would want that data. But I think it may well be that process thinking, evidence based management and such ideas are still not widely practiced as so the Madison police department’s actions are still surprising to many.

Quality Leadership: The First Step Towards Quality Policing by David Couper and Sabine Lobitz

Our business is policing, our customers are the citizens within our jurisdictions, and our product is police service (everything from crime fighting and conflict management to safety and prevention programs.)

If we are to cure this we must start to pay attention to the new ideas and trends in the workplace mentioned earlier that are helping America’s businesses; a commitment to people, how people are treated — employees as well as citizens, the development of a people-oriented workplace, and leadership can and does make a difference.

If we change the way in which we lead the men and women in our police organizations, we can achieve quality in policing. However, wanting to change and changing are worlds apart. The road to change is littered by good intentions and short-term efforts.

This article, from 1987, illustrates the respect for people principle was alive and being practiced 25 years ago; most organizations need to do a great deal more work on applying practices that show respect for people.

Related: Quality Improvement and Government: Ten Hard Lessons From the Madison Experience by David C. Couper, Chief of Police, City of Madison, Wisconsin – SWAT Raids, Failure to Apply System Thinking in Law EnforcementMeasuring What Matters: Developing Measures of What the Police DoThe Public Sector and W. Edwards DemingDoing More with Less in the Public Sector – A Progress Report from Madison, Wisconsin

Using Incentives to Guide Social System Improvements

When confronted with the challenge of managing a social system (or market) I like to find ways to use a few simple rules that will guide the system to find improvements. I favor allowing participants in complex social system to determine how to adapt. So I support, for example, a carbon taxes where the market can decide where it is most effective to invest to reduce carbon use (both to reduce our depletion of the resource and to reduce pollution leading to climate change).

I like to try and keep prescription rules as limited as possible and instead set simple rules that will allow people to make choices. These rules will often allow for people to judge when they need to temper the extremes (in management examples) and in economic situations they often can have costs that escalate as the system is strained (so low pricing if the road is currently not heavily used and increasing the cost to users as congestion increases). The more prescriptive the rules the less ability people have to find creative solutions.

Traffic congestion is a perennial problem with high very costs to society. I very much like congestion pricing. You set a rule that puts increasing costs on those creating an overload on the system (which has costly negative externalities). Then allow people to figure out how to adapt.

The video also provides a very good example of why leadership is important. In Stockholm people were against congestion pricing (70% to 30%). This isn’t surprising they see a new tax that only is a cost. They don’t understand that the system performance is going to improve – the cost will provide a benefit. Leadership is required to push forward when the benefits are not obvious to everyone. Once people saw that congestion was greatly decreased 70% supported congestion pricing.

Jonas Eliasson: “Don’t tell people how to adapt. Nudge them. If you do it correctly – they’ll embrace the change”

Related: The Case for Physically Separated Bike LanesUrban Planning in Northern VirginiaDisregard for People by FedEX and UPS – Systems thinking allowed the engineers to design a solution that wasn’t about enforcing the existing rules more but changing the system so that the causes of the most serious problems are eliminated. – Using Outcome Measures for Prison Management