Tag Archives: learning

Seek to Improve How You Learn, Don’t Just Accept That You Can’t Do Better

photo of several people around a table smiling with red plastic pieces on the table.

Red Squares exercize at the 2 1/2 Deming Seminar in Hong Kong (2014).

As a speaker or coach or teacher it is wise to learn what impacts how people absorb information and learn. Factoring those ideas into how you communicate (one on one, coaching, training, presenting…) is wise.

Learning about how people learn and remember is important to allow you to communite well. And most people seem to understand this. But they also seem to have no shame in not improving their performance in relation to these common weaknesses.

I have never understood why so many people talk about weaknesses in how people learn (people only remember “10% of what they hear, 20% of what they read, and 80% of what they see and do”; you must repeat something 7,9,12… times before most people will remember it; people will retain more if they are given concrete examples relevant to them; people will remember more if they speak or write than if they just passively listen; a good visual will make an idea presented much more likely to be remembered…) but never seem to seek to improve their weaknesses in these areas.

Yes, it is harder for us to retain new information when we just hear about it or if good information is presented poorly. But if you do a much better job of learning and succeed in retaining what you hear or see (even if often people fail to do this well) you will be better off.

Yet what I see is people spouting these statistics, not as a way of learning what they need to improve themselves but as a way of explaining that it is inevitable and they won’t do any better (or even bother to attempt to do so). It just isn’t true that you can’t do better. You can train yourself to learn more than most people when the material is presented in a less than perfect manner by learning how we commonly fail to learn and making efforts to do better yourself.

Sure, learn these common traits to know how you need to take them into account when communicating with others. But also examine yourself and see if you have the same weaknesses and improve in those areas you are weak. Also you can learn from them how to be more successful in retaining good ideas (write them down, think about applying them in your context, make a note to actually apply them at work tomorrow or next week…). You can blame whoever was communicating the ideas to you for failing to present it as well as they should but that won’t help you learn more.

Also companies would be wise to put more effort into helping people learn better. I see lots of focus on how presenters should do better, but very little on how people can improve their capacity to listen and learn. Yes, those presenting should continually seek to improve and be aware of their customers (those they are communicating with). Those that are learning should also seek to improve their ability to learn, even if the way material is presented isn’t optimal.

By the way, you might also want to question much of the claims of what people remember: Mythical Retention Data & The Corrupted Cone.

Related: Effective Communication is ExplicitCommunicating ChangeHow Could They Know? They could learn about the job they were paid to do.
A Powerful Tool for Learning: The Capacity Matrix

Using Technology to Improve The Sharing of Knowledge

This month the ASQ is asking Influential Voices to discuss methods to aid in sharing knowledge. Manu Vora kicked the discussion off with his post on The Gift of Knowledge Transfer Through Technology.

My career has been largely shaped by the pursuit of better ways to communicate. I grew up surrounded by those seeking to improve management (Bill Hunter, George Box, Brian Joiner, Peter Scholtes…). When I was in grade school that focus was largely on statistics and the value of multi-factor experiments (Dad was a statistician who wrote the “bible” on design of experiments, with George Box and Stu Hunter: Statistics for Experimenters). As I moved into high school Dad was doing much more direct management consulting (it was also a combination of statistics, engineering and management but the emphasis shifted over time) based on Deming’s ideas.

The knowledge of how to properly experiment on system with multiple important factors to experiment with (nearly all experiments) has been around for almost 100 years. Yet, even so, still many college level courses talk about the need to adjust one factor at a time (OFAT) and many businesses still experiment this way. The rate at which we incorporate new knowledge is still very poor.

Technology can help improve our adoption of better understanding. Creating a climate and expectation of continued learning is also important, but I won’t talk about that in this post.

I published and presented (I think at an ASQ conference though I can’t recall which one right now) a paper on Using Quality to Develop an Internet Resource in 1999. The purpose of that internet resource was to share knowledge about quality management and the article provides insight into both those ways of looking at what was done (using quality ideas to create a resource and using the internet to spread quality ideas).

A few years later I started this blog to help people find knowledge that would make them more likely to succeed with efforts to improve management. I believe deeply in the value of Deming’s ideas on management but see so many companies make poor attempts to improve management. There are many things needed to improve the success of organizations improvement efforts but I believe the right knowledge (the ideas talked about by Deming, Ackoff, Ohno, Scholtes, etc.) will help a great deal.

Intranets are great tools to share knowledge within your organization. They can also be powerful tools to connect people to internal resources within your organization.

Wikis are a great tool to share a knowledge base (and to maintain things like standardized work, visual job instructions etc.). Wikis are a wonderful technology because of how easy they make the management of shared knowledge. It may well be you print out various things to post and make more visible (depending on what makes sense for the work environment).

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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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George Box Webcast on Statistical Design in Quality Improvement

George Box lecture on Statistical Design in Quality Improvement at the Second International Tampere Conference in Statistics, University of Tampere, Finland (1987).

Early on he shows a graph showing the problems with American cars steady over a 10 years period. Then he overlays the results for Japanese cars which show a steady and significant decline of the same period.

Those who didn’t get to see presentations before power point also get a chance to see old school, hand drawn, overhead slides.

He discusses how to improve the pace of improvement. To start with informative events (events we can learn from) have to be brought to the attention of informed observers. Otherwise only when those events happen to catch the attention of the right observer will we capture knowledge we can use to improve. This results in slow improvement.

A control chart is an example of highlighting that something worth studying happened. The chart will indicate when to pay attention. And we can then improve the pace of improvement.

Next we want to encourage directed experimentation. We intentionally induce informative events and pay close attention while doing so in order to learn.

Every process generates information that can be used to improve it.

He emphasis the point that this isn’t about only manufacturing but it true of any process (drafting, invoicing, computer service, checking into a hospital, booking an airline ticket etc.).

He then discussed an example from a class my father taught and where the students all when to a TV plant outside Chicago to visit. The plant had been run by Motorola. It was sold to a Japanese company that found there was a 146% defect rate (which meant most TVs were taken off the line to be fixed at least once and many twice) – this is just the defect rate before then even get off the line. After 5 years the same plant, with the same American workers but a Japanese management system had reduced the defect rate to 2%. Everyone, including managers, were from the USA they were just using quality improvement methods. We may forget now, but one of the many objections managers gave for why quality improvement wouldn’t work in their company was due to their bad workers (it might work in Japan but not here).

He references how Deming’s 14 points will get management to allow quality improvement to be done by the workforce. Because without management support quality improvement processes can’t be used.

With experimentation we are looking to find clues for what to experiment with next. Experimentation is an iterative process. This is very much the mindset of fast iteration and minimal viable product (say minimal viable experimentation as voiced in 1987).

There is great value in creating iterative processes with fast feedback to those attempting to design and improve. Box and Deming (with rapid turns of the PDSA cycle) and others promoted this 20, 30 and 40 years ago and now we get the same ideas tweaked for startups. The lean startup stuff is as closely related to Box’s ideas of experimentation as an iterative process as it is to anything else.

Related: Ishikawa’s seven quality control tools

He also provided a bit of history that I was not aware of saying the first application of orthogonal arrays (fractional factorial designs) in industry was by Tippett in 1933. And he then mentioned work by Finney in 1945, Plackett and Burman in 1946 and Rao in 1947.

The Education System

The current topic for ASQ Influential Voices to address is the importance of the education system and the impact on the capability of employees.

The education system is important and not very good in my opinion. As a kid I found it boring and constraining and a system designed more to extinguish my quest for knowledge than increase my desire to learn. As a kid I was told by adults that adults knew better and I shouldn’t complain.

I was told “don’t you realize you are in one of the best school systems in the USA?” With a bit of data I was convinced that seemed likely. To me this seemed like an even more ominous sign. If the best was this bad what was everything else like?

The argument that made the most sense to me (for why I should be happy with, or at least accept, the lousy system I was stuck in) was that as a kid I probably just didn’t understand why this environment that seemed to bore not just me, but most all the kids around me and this system that crushed our desire to learn must somehow be working otherwise the adults would certainly fix it.

As an adult what I find is my thoughts as a kid were essentially completely correct (except that last one that adults wouldn’t stick with some pitiful system without good reason) and plenty of education experts had been saying the same things. Adults seem perfectly fine not adopting proven better education practices just as they are fine not adopting proven better management practices.

When Dr. Deming was asked what to do instead of performance appraisal, when he railed against performance appraisal, he said do “whatever Peter Scholtes says.” To the question of what we should we do about the education system I say do whatever David Langford and Alife Kohn say.

I know more about the specifics of what educational systems following David Langford’s idea are like, and all I can say is they are wonderful. If I had kids I would definitely consider moving somewhere that had such a system (like Leander, Texas where they have been moving down that path for 20 years). They focus on helping student learn in a way that is so much more sensible than the one I had to sit through and most everyone reading this had to sit through.

The percentage of students that graduate with a desire to keep learning from an educational system like Leander is much greater than the traditional path. My high school had more National merit scholars than any public high school in the USA the year I graduated (some prep schools beat us, but only a few – partially because we were so large and they are often small). We had many students that were smart, dedicated and capable of succeeding at prestigious universities. Of course with tons of University of Wisconsin faculty as parents this is not a very surprising result.

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Interview on PDSA, Deming, Strategy and More

Bill Fox interviewed me and has posted part one of the interview on his web site: Predicting Results in the Planning Stage (sorry, the link has been hijacked to forward to an unrelated page [so obviously I removed the link], I have posted the interview which can now be reached here):

Bill: John, what is your best process improvement strategy or tactic that has worked well for you or your clients?

John: I would say the PDSA improvement cycle and a few key practices in using the PDSA properly like predicting the results in the plan stage—something that a lot of the times people do not do—to determine what would be done based on the results of that prediction.

People discover, especially when they’re new to this stuff, regarding the data that they’re collecting, that maybe even if they got the results they are predicting, they still don’t have enough data to take action. So you figure that even if that number is 30, they would need to know three other things before they make the change. So then, in the plan stage, you can figure that you need to address these other issues, too. At any time that people are collecting data is useful to figure out, for instance: “What do we need to do if the result is 30 or if the result is 3?” And if you don’t have any difference, why are you collecting the data?

Another important piece is the D in Plan, Do, Study, Act. It means “do the experiment”. A lot of times, people get confused into thinking that D means deploy the results or something like that, but thinking of D as ‘doing the experiment’ can be helpful.

A really big key between people that use PDSA successfully and those who don’t is that the ones that do it successfully turn the cycle quickly.

Another response:

Bill: What is the biggest misunderstanding about the Deming Management System you think people have?

John: I would say that there are a couple. The followers that want to pin everything to Deming tend to overlook the complexities and nuances and other things.

The other problem is that some of the critics latch on to a specific quote from Deming, something like a one-sentence long quote, and then they extrapolate from that one sentence-long quote what that means. And the problem is that Deming has lots of these one-sentence quotes that are very memorable and meaningful and useful, but they don’t capture every nuance and they don’t alone capture what it really means (you need to have the background knowledge to understand it completely).

They are sort of trying to oversimplify the message into these sound bites, and I find that frustrating. Because those individual quotes are wonderful, but they are limited to one little quote out of hours of videotape, books, articles, and when you don’t understand the context in which that resides, that’s a problem.

See the full interview for more details and other topics. I think it is worth reading, of course I am a bit biased.

Related: more interviews with John HunterInterviews with John Hunter on his book: Management MattersDeming and Software DevelopmentLean Blog Podcast with John Hunter

Experience Teaches Nothing Without Theory

“Experience teaches nothing. In fact there is no experience to record without theory… Without theory there is no learning… And that is their downfall. People copy examples and then they wonder what is the trouble. They look at examples and without theory they learn nothing.”

W. Edwards Deming in The Deming of America

Our brains are good at creating theories, from our experiences, so that our brain can learn. However when this is done only subconsciously we can be led astray. And in complex situations where it is not easy to see the causal relationships (managing human systems for example) it easier for us to be led astray when we are not consciously thinking about the theory driving our thoughts and decisions.

When we are learning (as little kids) we don’t understand that are brain is creating theories to help us learn. But our brain is creating theories and testing them out. What happens when we push the spoon off our high chair? Lets try it 500 times and see. After repeated experiments, we learn a good deal about how gravity will affect objects no matter where you are, no matter if you are in a highchair, or a stroller or a slide or your mother’s lap… We also learn about how people will react (psychology).

Our brains are great at creating theories and testing them even without us understanding that is what is going on. But managers need to push past this subconscious learning to understand the theories behind their actions or they will spend lots of time on activities that are wasteful, similar to the bird in this webcast:

Worm charming is a behavior birds use to encourage worms to go to the surface so the birds can then eat them. The methods used vary, however tapping earth with feet to generate vibrations is widespread. One theory for why the worms go to the surface is the vibrations are similar to those produced by digging moles, which prey on earthworms.

This bird doesn’t understand the theory behind their instinct. Therefore the bird can’t understand that a worm is not likely to burst through the pavement. Too often managers are applying behaviors without understanding the theory (or without evidence showing that the practice based on the theory is effective – failing to practice evidence based management). And so the managers don’t understand that the behavior will not be successful given the conditions they find themselves in.

Related: We are Being Ruined by the Best Efforts of People Who are Doing the Wrong ThingHow We Know What We KnowThe Illusion of Knowledge

Peter Senge on Systems Thinking

People must be willing to challenge their mental models in order to find non-obvious areas of high leverage – which allow significant improvement.

System thinking is a term that is often confusing to people. From my perspective it is important to understand the importance of leverage. Understanding systems lets you find solutions that may not be direct, but provide powerful leverage. Another important point is looking at the organization as a system.

Understanding the interdependence of the aspects of the system/organization/process is also important (and part of seeing the organization as a system). We often don’t consider how changes will impact other areas of the system that are not immediately apparent. This weakness in how we often think today, results in great opportunities to improve by factoring in the impacts that are not as obvious.

As Peter Senge mentions in the video the concept of long term thinking plays a role. Often we are now neglecting or vastly under-appreciating long term impacts (focusing on only the results in the short term) and thus often their are opportunities to improve just by factoring in not just the short term impacts but also placing importance on longer term impacts.

Peter Senge: “Its not about the smartest guys in the room its about what we can do collectively. So the intelligence that matters is the concept of collective intelligence.”

Related: We are Being Ruined by the Best Efforts of People Who are Doing the Wrong ThingHow to Get a New Management Strategy, Tool or Concept AdoptedBuild an Environment Where Intrinsic Motivation Flourishes

The Art of Discovery

Quality and The Art of Discovery by Professor George Box (1990):


Quotes by George Box in the video:

“I think of statistical methods as the use of science to make sense of numbers”

“The scientific method is how we increase the rate at which we find things out.”

“I think the quality revolution is nothing more, or less, than the dramatic expansion of the of scientific problem solving using informed observation and directed experimentation to find out more about the process, the product and the customer.”

“It really amounts to this, if you know more about what it is you are doing then you can do it better and you can do it cheaper.”

“We are talking about involving the whole workforce in the use of the scientific method and retraining our engineers and scientists in a more efficient way to run experiments.”

“Tapping into resources:

  1. Every operating system generates information that can be used to improve it.
  2. Everyone has creativity.
  3. Designed experiments can greatly increase the efficiency of experimentation.

An informed observer and directed experimentation are necessary for the scientific method to be applied. He notes that the control chart is used to notify an informed observer to explain what is special about the conditions when a result falls outside the control limits. When the chart indicates a special cause is likely present (something not part of the normal system) an informed observer should think about what special cause could lead to the result that was measured. And it is important this is done quickly as the ability of the knowledgable observer to determine what is special is much greater the closer in time to the result was created.

The video was posted by Wiley (with the permission of George’s family), Wiley is the publisher of George’s recent autobiography, An Accidental Statistician: The Life and Memories of George E. P. Box, and many of his other books.

Related: Two resources, largely untapped in American organizations, are potential information and employee creativityStatistics for Experimenters (book on directed experimentation by Box, Hunter and Hunter)Highlights from 2009 George Box SpeechIntroductory Videos on Using Design of Experiments to Improve Results (with Stu Hunter)