Tag Archives: management history

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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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.

Getting Known Good Ideas Adopted

This month Paul Borawski asked ASQ’s Influential Voices to explore two questions; first, what is the most important challenge the quality community faces in ensuring that the value of quality is fully realized for the benefit of society?

I really think it is just getting the good ideas to improve management, that have been around for decades, adopted. This might not seem that important. But I hear almost no talk about this and tons of talk about all sorts of “new ideas” for management.

The “new ideas” that I look into don’t seem like very new ideas to me. The best of these ideas are usually well thought out tweaks and enhancements (along with a potentially better presentation of the core ideas) that are useful. But they are really just about getting old ideas adopted, it seems to me. Still this is good and useful work.

Unfortunately the vast majority seems to me to be overly simplistic ideas that involved more thought in creating something to market than in creating something to improve the practice of management.

We seem to spend all sorts of time and energy focused on new branding for management ideas when we would be better off focusing on how to get organizations to adopt good practices. I think the distraction with finding new ways of clothing the same old ideas is a distraction that prevents focus where it would be more worthwhile. This is especially true because those rebranding old ideas often don’t understand the old idea. They seem to see it would easier to sell if it were simplified so they do that and rebrand it but they don’t understand that they left of critical components and it won’t work – even if it is easier to sell.

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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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The Need to Improve Management While Building Organizations Fit For Human Beings

Gary Hamel: Reinventing the Technology of Human Accomplishment

I agree with Gary Hamel that we need to adopt new management strategies. I happen to believe most of new strategies we need to adopt have been known for decades, we just fail to implement many of them.

He argues it is hard to retain knowledge advantages (within companies). I agree. However execution advantages it seems to me are not that difficult to maintain. Few companies actually focus on the customer and continual improvement. Toyota can be incredibly open but still few others are not willing to actually put in the effort to execute fully.

The reverse accountability idea he discusses I don’t love as much as he does. I do believe it is good to value the entire workforce more and not base decisions on HiPPOs. Accountability is a loaded term, in my opinion. Even in he talk he focuses on the “fear” – if the supervisor doesn’t fix the issue to the reporters satisfaction in 24 hours it is escalated to the next level. The process could be better, without what seems like driving in fear, to me.

I agree that the best management strategy is to adopt the thinking he captures with “you cannot build a company that is fit for the future, without building one that is fit for human beings.” The part I don’t agree with is phrase he lead that quote with: “Because I think for the first time since the industrial revolution…” isn’t right. I think Dr. Deming taught that idea to Japan in the 1950’s and as we all know Toyota adopted as the core “Respect for People” principle. That concept was important in 1950. That management idea is needed. Adopting that principle would be new for many of our organizations. But it also is true that the idea has been known for decades.

I return to this theme frequently. We don’t need many new ideas. We just need to adopt the good ideas that have been proven for decades. The new ideas are mainly just a bit of flavoring to tweak the good ideas we have had available and just chosen to ignore.

Related: Respect People by Creating a Climate for Joy in WorkManagement Advice FailuresPositivity and Joy in Work

Problems with Management and Business Books

We really need to change how we improve the practice of management. Far too often management strategies are just the latest fad from some new book that successfully marketed an idea. The marketing effectiveness of a book, or consultant, has very limited correlation to their ability to improve management, in my experience. It is often true that they make very good keynote speakers, however. So if you want an entertaining keynote speaker looking at the authors of the best selling business books may make sense. But if you want to improve management, I don’t see much value in doing so.

Year after year we have the same basic business books repackaged and marketed. They present a magic bullet to solve all your problems. Except their bullet is far from magic. Usually it does more harm than good.

They amazingly oversimplify things to make their bullet seem magic. This also fails miserably in practice. There are usually not good management options that are simple and easy. Usually the answers for what should be done is a lot of “it depends,” which people don’t seem to like.

Authors fail to place their book (or their trademarked strategy they hope turns into a movement/fad) in the appropriate context. Most books just take a few good ideas from decades old practices add a new name and leave off all references to the deep meaning that originally was there. I guess quite often the authors don’t even know enough about management history to know this is the case; I guess they really think their minor tweak to a portion of business process re-engineering is actually new. This also would make it hard for them to place their ideas within a management philosophy.

On a related note, I find it interesting how different the lean manufacturing and six sigma communities are online (and this has been going on for more than a decade). One of the problems with six sigma is there is so little open, building on the practices of six sigma. Everyone is so concerned with their marketing gimmick for six sigma that that don’t move forward a common body of work. This is a serious problem for six sigma. Lean manufacturing benefits hugely from the huge community of those building openly on the body of knowledge and practice of lean. You can find 10 great lean manufacturing blogs without trouble. You will have difficulty finding 3 good six sigma blogs (and even those spend most of the time on other areas – often lean thinking).
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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

The role of leadership in software development

The webcast of Mary Poppendieck’s talk, The role of leadership in software development, at Google. As usual Mary does a very nice job of providing some good historical background while exploring wise management practices (tied to software development but plenty useful for any manager).

via: Sheep of a different fold

Related: Lean, Toyota and Deming for Software DevelopmentWebcast on the Toyota Development ProcessDon’t Use Performance AppraisalsLean Software DevelopmentThe Leader’s Handbook

Classic Management Theories Are Still Relevant

Good management is good management: it doesn’t matter if someone figured out the good idea 100 years ago or last week.

Are “Classic” Management Theories Still Relevant?

It did make me wonder about the staying power of management models, processes, skills, and conventional wisdom…

There are way too many people in our field that are not true professionals – they don’t do their homework, and rely too much on their own personal experience. They’re the ones who tend to jump from one fad to the next, enthusiastically promoting each one with an almost religious passion.

However, there’s also a danger of not keeping up with the times and sticking with models or skills that really have outlived their usefulness. At best, you run the risk of coming across as a dinosaur when you explain a management model that was developed in the 1920’s to a group of Millennials. Even worse, you may be relying on models that really don’t apply in today’s world.

Classic management ideas are definitely very valuable today. It is amazing how little use of long known good leadership lessons actually takes place in organizations. You don’t need to discover secrets to improve, just adopt ideas others ignore since they are not new (or whatever justification they use for ignoring them).

One of the main things I have been trying to do with my web sites is to get people to use the already well documented successful management practices.

Bad management ideas are bad: Regardless if they were good ideas 40 years ago, or not. I find bad management practices most often never were good practices so worrying about outdated good practices is not something that merits much time. Just avoid bad practices, don’t worry about when the practices were adopted.

As Dan McCarthy says in his post: “Read and respect the classics and keep up with the latest.”

And if you have to focus on one, focus on the classics. Most of what is new isn’t worthwhile so you will likely spend a lot of time reading about fads that die before you can even try to adopt the ideas into your organizational system. There are good new ideas – read Clayton Christensen, for some good new ideas (even many of those are nearly 10 years old now). Agile software development is another area where good tactics seem new. Mainly agile management offers good ideas on tactics for applying lots of good management ideas (often these ideas are not new), it seems to me.

Related: New or Different? Just Choose BetterManagement Advice FailuresNew Management Truths Sometimes Started as HeresiesNot New Rules for Management

Prophet Unheard: Dr. W. Edwards Deming – 1992

[embedded webcast links removed because they have been removed from YouTube. To see video with W. Edwards Deming see the Deming Institute YouTube channel.]

This is an interesting video on Deming and American management (by the BBC in 1992): Prophet Unheard. It includes some nice old footage of Deming in Japan. The importance of respect for people is clear and the video also touches on the idea the danger of relying on data (when you do not understand variation and that many important matters and unmeasurable). The video features many snippets of Dr. Deming speaking and includes Don Peterson, Ford CEO; Clare Crawford Mason, If Japan Can, Why Can’t We producer; and Myron Tribus.

Related: Dr. Deming Webcast on the 5 Deadly DiseasesRed Bead Experiment WebcastPerformance without Appraisalmanagement webcasts

Part two of the documentary explores the Deming Prize, understanding data and the PDSA cycle: [removed]

Part 3 explores the efforts at Florida Power and Light, the first USA Deming Prize winner: [removed]